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the Complete Review

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B. S. Johnson
at the
complete review:

     

biographical | bibliography | quotes | pros/cons | our opinion | links


Biographical

Name: Bryan Stanley JOHNSON
Nationality: English
Born: 5 February 1933
Died: 13 November 1973
Awards: Gregory Award (1962)
Somerset Maugham Award (1967)

  • B.A. from King's College, London
  • Was poetry editor of the Transatlantic Review
  • Also worked in film and TV
  • Committed suicide

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Bibliography

Highlighted titles are under review at the complete review

Please note that this bibliography is not necessarily complete.

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Quotes

What others have to
say about
B. S. Johnson:

  • "Johnson, at least, saw much of his work into print. He went through four publishers in six novels and even more if we throw in the collections of stories, poetry. If he were alive today he would be unpublished. I'd bet on it." - Thomas McGonigle, Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer, 1985)

  • "Johnson made experimental writing seem not only natural but inevitable." - James Marcus, The New York Times (29/6/1986)

  • "(I)nstead of being forgotten Johnson has been consigned to what some might regard as an even worse fate: that of being endlessly invoked as a reference point in a sporadic and none too fruitful argument about something called 'experimental' fiction. It is high time his other novels were made available again, so that we can all be reminded of what he was really up to. (...) What strikes me most forcibly now, looking back over his work as a whole, is its consistent accessibility." - Jonathan Coe, The Spectator (24/8/1991)

  • "When Malcolm Bradbury edited The Novel Today in 1977 B. S. Johnson's contribution rubbed shoulders with Philip Roth, John Fowles and Doris Lessing. Two decades on, his work is out of print, and his name means little to all but a few somewhat jealous admirers." - Henry Hitchings, New Statesman (11/8/1999)

  • "Back in his late Sixties heyday B. S. Johnson was, if not exactly a household name, then a figure of some consequence in any analysis of what were then called 'developments' in the novel. Of all that tribe of spiky experimentalists who clogged up space in the review pages of 30 years ago -- Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Ann Quin and others -- he was the spikiest of all." - D.J.Taylor, The Spectator (16/10/1999)

  • "While Calvino and Perec have had huge influence on the mainstream (...) their contemporary B. S. Johnson, the supreme British experimentalist of his day, has barely survived even as cult. Despite the fact that Anthony Burgess compared him to Sterne and Joyce, and Samuel Beckett declared himself a fan, the attitude of the literary establishment was best exemplified by Peter Ackroyd, who in 1975 wrote, in The Spectator, of Johnson's "lamentably archaic 'experimentation'...an anachronism masquerading as something different and new"." - Giles Coren, The Times (21/10/1999)

  • "Johnson ist keiner dieser Kandidaten, die das Experimentieren als mühsame Suche nach dem Originellen verstehen. Im Grunde ist seine antirealistische Schreibweise eine Art Realismus. Und das Wichtigste: Er langweilt uns nie weil er, uns zum Vergnügen, sich selbst aushebelt. (...) Verfremdungseffekte finden sich bei Johnson zuhauf, eigentlich tut er alles, um sein Publikum vor den Kopf zu stoßen, zieht es aber dadurch gerade an, wie in der modernen Werbung." - Peter Urban-Halle, Die Zeit (25/2002)

  • "Johnson saw each of his novels as a problem to be solved. The specific problem varied slightly with every book, but the deeper, underlying problem was always the same: how, using the poor, inadequate, blunt instrument of language, can you capture anything of the simultaneity and multiplicity of modern life ? " - Jonathan Coe, Prospect (2/2003)

  • "Rebelling against that cramped tradition, and embracing the implications of Joyce's epistemology, Johnson burst the seams of narrative convention; in seven novels, which he wrote between the ages of twenty-six and forty, he developed a uniquely engaging brand of estrangement, discursive but compact, formally challenging yet often viscerally funny and -- in his own words -- "desperate in its seriousness". " - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement (18/6/2004)

  • "Johnson's plan to revolutionise the novel came down to the use of 'devices' intended to disrupt ordinary forms of attention by involving the physical book itself, the material base of writing, in unusual ways, as if to take revenge on it for a long history of tyranny. (...) Johnson was very serious about these innovations, but they kidnap the notion of experiment or estrangement by making it appear that the violation of narrative order in the interests of what he thought of as truth must be blatant. In fact these tricks simply prompt one to ask what the point of this sort of innovation really is." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books (5/8/2004)

  • "B.S. Johnson brought to all his endeavors, in whatever medium, a personal zeal and forcefulness that sometimes crossed over into the boorish, and yet it's plain that he wasn't a writer because it was fun or would bring in buckets of cash, or somehow turn him into a celebrity. Worthwhile imaginative prose, he felt, needed to push hard against the limits, to extend and challenge the achievements of Joyce -- above all, to scorn the facile, commercial and false." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post (5/6/2005)

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Pros and Cons
of the author's work:

    Pros:
  • Experimental, in the best sense of the word, and willing to see what can be done with fiction, without ever becoming daunting
  • Varied output
  • Command over his material
  • Humour

    Cons:
  • Largely out of print
  • Some of the approaches and subjects are dated

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the complete review's Opinion

     B.S.Johnson's name still rings fairly familiar, but he is much less of a presence than he once was. His perhaps most famous book, The Unfortunates, which comes not bound neatly in one volume but in nearly thirty smaller booklets that can be read in any order, was recently republished, and an Omnibus of several of the novels seems close to publication, but generally his works are hard to come by. In 1985 American publisher New Directions initiated "its plan to bring the work of the late English author (...) to the attention of American readers over the next few years", but the project seems to have petered out by 1987, after only three volumes. Jonathan Coe, who has long maintained that it was important that Johnson's work should once again be made available, has written a biography, scheduled for publication in late-2001. Perhaps that will help stir interest.
     Johnson is too often seen as an experimentalist, and thus thought of as someone whose work is too hard to bother with (and, often, simply boring). But Johnson is a more complex case -- and a simpler one. Most of his work is readily approachable. Readers can put as much effort into it as they care. There are depths here too explore but they can also enjoy it with an absolute minimum of effort. The stories are fairly straightforward, and while the telling may be formally unusual at time, none of his experiments should scare off any but the laziest of readers. Other than the danger of literally losing a portion of The Unfortunates Johnson's work should pose few problems. But most readers never get that far, it seems, never becoming actual readers of Johnson's work. It's a vicious circle.
     Johnson is also a very funny writer -- and it is not the kind of humour where the reader feels that s/he is being laughed at. And there are stories here too, real stories, worth telling -- and worth telling the way Johnson chooses to tell them. Here is a man who understands how form and content must go together, a surprisingly rare gift. There are few authors since who have pulled it off with similar success.
     Certainly, Johnson is a writer's writer, carrying on about the art, popping up at the most unexpected places within the fictions, but these too should (or at least can) be seen as welcome asides and insights. There is social commentary too, and wondering about the world. Throughout there is novelty: Johnson doesn't get stuck in ruts, he constantly tries something new. So if one novel doesn't please, for whatever reason, turn to the next: it will, at the very least, hold something different.
     A complex man, and apparently not the nicest of people (at least in some circumstances), his personality does not seem to have helped his lasting image (though friends speak and write warmly of him). He published a solid shelf worth of books, despite a career cut very short: he was a young suicide. It is unfortunate: it would have been fascinating to see what else he might have done. It is unfortunate, too, that young writers are not familiar with his work, and not using it as a springboard for future fictions.
     An author who should be better known, better appreciated, and better understood. And an author that writers could learn from.

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Links

B.S.Johnson: B.S.Johnson's books at the complete review: Books about B.S.Johnson under review: See also:

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