Colin Wiles

B S Johnson

In a recent Times Literary Supplement interview, V S Naipaul makes the point that forms in literature can become redundant. He cites the travel book written by Chekhov after his journey to the prison island of Sakhalin. It is a book of facts and figures and tables, as was expected of travel writers at the time, but the real book is buried in the footnotes – the form was simply inappropriate for the material. ‘We lost a book because the writer didn’t rethink the form,’ says Naipaul. ‘We can be burdened by dead forms.’ He goes on to deride the artificiality of most modern literary novel writing as ‘…very theatrical, very operatic, with snatches of dialogue between paragraphs of description or dawdle…It has very little relation to reality. People don’t talk like that or see like that. It’s as stylised as eighteenth-century rhyming verse.’ The true novelists of today, he says, are people like Jeffrey Archer and Ken Follett, the writers of blockbusters, providing novelties for consumption on the underground.

In the enduring debate about the decline of the English novel these sentiments are not new. Thirty years ago one novelist above all others preoccupied himself with the state of the novel and its future prosperity. B S Johnson is rarely heard of today, but in the Sixties he was a hugely controversial figure. His experimental novels won a clutch of prizes and he was praised by, among others, Samuel Beckett and Anthony Burgess. Auberon Waugh even suggested that he deserved the Nobel prize. Yet today, Johnson is a pathetically isolated figure, consigned to a passing mention in textbooks on modern literature. His novels have been out of print for more than ten years and are virtually unobtainable, although they sell for huge amounts in the second-hand market.

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