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Anatomy of an Obsession: Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs

by B.S. Johnson
Anatomie de l’obsession: Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs
de B.S. Johnson.
Jean-Michel Ganteau


B.S. Johnson est connu pour ses romans expérimentaux, mais peut-être moins pour ses textes critiques qui révèlent une théorie idiosyncrasique du roman. C’est en effet dans l’introduction à Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs qu’il définit son art poétique en des termes qui fleurent le paradoxe, voire la contradiction. Pour Johnson en effet, le roman n’est pas le lieu de la fiction mais bien de la vérité, et sa fidélité à cette idée unique lui fait faire le choix d’une éthique de la vérité et non des vérités. Sa poursuite d’un idéal naturaliste, voire objectiviste, l’entraîne ainsi sur les sentiers d’une éthique de nature déontique qui contribue à mieux situer son œuvre dans une période de transition, où l’image de l’écrivain maudit moderniste l’emporte peut-être sur celle du proto-postmoderniste.

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—fuck all this lying look what im really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture trying to say something about writing about my writing im my hero though what a useless appellation my first character then im trying to say something about me through him albert an architect when whats the point in covering up covering up covering over pretending pretending i can say anything through him that is anything that i would be interested in saying (Johnson 1964, 167).

1These oft-quoted words are to be found in a famous passage excerpted from B.S. Johnson’s 1964 experimental novel Albert Angelo and they are symptomatic of his ceaseless desire to denounce the lie of realism and to formulate his plea in favour of what he calls ‘truth’ in narrative. More precisely, B.S. Johnson spent his short albeit prolific life as an artist (he committed suicide at the age of 40) living up to and performing his artistic ideal according to which a novel is supposed to speak the truth and should under no circumstances be applied the label of fiction. This implies that with Johnson, theoretical developments and manifestations of all types are not strictly confined to what critical convention has us identify as ‘non fictional’ works. Rather, they are scattered through his novels and short stories, categories generally grouped under the umbrella term ‘fiction’ that this enfant terrible of the ’60s and ’70s would have rejected with he utmost vehemence. For in fact, Johnson’s practice is one of the now more or less consensual—some would say ‘hackneyed—type, but which, in the late ‘60s and early ’70s, was considered highly experimental, tying in with similar movements and departures taking place in Continental Europe and in the Americas.

  • 1 This is what Ronald Shusterman writes about Johnson’s 1975 novel, See the Old Lady Decently: ‘On vo (...)

2Admittedly, Johnson’s œuvre and techniques are fairly well known, so much so that he exists at the back of the early twenty-first-century reader’s mind as a romantic, determined figure who practised and performed experimentation in a relentlessly obsessive way. He is also remembered as a promising prodigy of English letters cut in full bloom, Chatterton-like—and I find this analogy pregnant with meaning as it helps one return to the romanticism of the figure alluded to above. And in these lines, I am alluding to the figure of the author more than his work because in all of his writings B.S. Johnson rejected the modernist (and at times postmodern) tenet of impersonality, often adopting a resolutely confessional mode the better to voice (and vociferate) his conception of the novel. This confessional mode, which dominates some of his novels (like Trawl, Albert Angelo and House Mother Normal, published again by Picador in omnibus form, fairly recently) is hyperbolically made even more loudly subjective in the many asides and metaleptic short circuits that the narrator effects so as to address the narratee directly and indulge in brief expostulatory lectures on the art of the novel as the vehicle of truth, as opposed to the art of story telling so much tainted and entangled with lying. This is why, more often than not, it is Johnson the artist as proto-postmodernist more than his oeuvre that is remembered, as Ronald Shusterman is apt to remind us in a defence of the empirical author and of the notion of intention, so true it is that Johnson conceived of his work as forever fixed and intangible and of his intention as plainly expressed and brooking no ambiguity.1

3This is why everybody knows something about Johnson’s pranks and fairly little about his novels. True, he will figure in any survey of late twentieth-century literature. Alan Massie calls him ‘the most interesting of the British experimentalists’ (Massie 3), Malcolm Bradbury sees him as the arch practitioner of the anti-novel (Bradbury 344), David Lodge celebrates his methodical introduction of randomness into the narrative, alluding to his famous 1969 novel-in-the-box The Unfortunates (Lodge 235), and in a more recent study Patricia Waugh tracks down some Joycean and Sternian influences at work in Johnson’s oeuvre together with what she considers his cult of personality (Waugh 25, 131). More recently still, B.S. Johnson, the man and the artist, has attracted some measure of public attention owing to the publication of a monograph by Philip Tew and a biography by fellow novelist and putative literary heir Jonathan Coe. And needless to say, such outrageous experiments as cutting a hole into several pages to announce future developments as a radically economic visual equivalent of a prolepsis (Albert Angelo), the resort to blank grey pages to figure the various degrees of a character’s unconsciousness (Travelling People), the use of unbound leaflets to be assembled and reassembled into a volume and delivered in a box (The Unfortunates) have allowed Johnson to occupy a lingering place in the field of post-war, early-postmodern British Fiction. In all such occurrences of his experimental, metaleptic practice, what transpires is Johnson’s attachment to the double metafictional desire to perform both a practice and elaborate a theory of fiction, which warrants a fair degree of distribution of theoretical commentaries and authorial bulls throughout his novelistic corpus.

  • 2 I am using here categories honed out by Andrew Gibson in his Postmodernity, Ethics and the Novel 16

4However, I should specify that Johnson’s aesthetic creed and ars poetica are also synthesised in one single non fictional text, i.e.: the introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, a collection of nine short stories (for lack of a better label, as Johnson would have hated this term being applied to his work). It is this text which criticises the British tradition of the realistic novel and theorises an alternative way for the practice of the novel that will be concentrated on here, one of the reasons for this choice being its synthetic, emblematic nature, another incentive being that this volume is nowadays unavailable. The thread that I would like to draw on will be that of contradiction, in the shape of an unending tension between the two conflicting paradigms of fiction and truth.2

5It would be useful to start with a few terminological considerations. The introduction to the volume starts with a commentary on Joyce’s opening the first Dublin cinema, back in 1909. Now, Johnson takes this as an example of Joyce’s instinct for novelty, and his recognition that film would be the best fitted medium to tell stories in modern times, thus implying that the novel had to adapt so as not to be left behind as a purely obsolete form. Carrying this demonstration one step further, Johnson addresses the function of television in the 1970s along similar lines and in so doing presents the reader with a vision of genres and media that is explicitly informed by some inescapable Darwinian projection. In their struggle for life, genres have to adapt and develop capacities for what they can do best: ‘the novel may not only survive but evolve to greater achievements by concentrating on those things it can still do best: the precise use of language, exploitation of the technological fact of the book, the explication of thought’ (Johnson 1973, 12). Reverting to Joyce under whose aegis he situates himself quite unmistakably, Johnson then moves on to the Joycean revolution, to the great master’s knack for tapping and refining what is best in the novel, and comes up with a time-honoured distinction between form and content that he expresses through an unfeigned enthusiasm for style. About Ulysses, Johnson gives the following indications: ‘[. . .] by means of form, style and technique in language he made it into something very much more [than ‘the events of one day in one place’], a novel, not a story about anything. What happens is nothing like as important as how it is written, as the medium of the words and form through which it is made to happen to the reader. And for style alone Ulysses would have been a revolution. Or, rather, styles’ (Johnson 1973, 12). Admittedly, there is nothing highly original in this pronouncement, but it helps introduce a fundamental opposition between ‘story’ and ‘novel’—fundamental, that is, in Johnson’s conception of his own art.

6Interestingly, this conception is of quite a Manichaean, prescriptive type, as suggested by the phrase ‘a novel, not a story about anything’, and the paradigm that it builds up and that informs the whole introduction smacks of a strongly moral orientation. This is subordinated to the agenda that the author forcibly expresses in the following terms: ‘Novelists must evolve (by inventing, borrowing, stealing or cobbling from other media) forms which will more or less satisfactorily contain an ever-changing reality, their own reality and not Dickens’ reality of Hardy’s reality or even James Joyce’s reality’ (Johnson 1973, 16–17). Through this prescription in favour of relevance and novelty, what appears is Johnson’s major aesthetic obsession, that which crops up everywhere in his œuvre and in various and sundry pronouncements, i.e.: his relentless quest for truth. For in fact, turning his back on Aristotle’s distinction between the poet and the historian, Johnson militates in favour of a novel whose relation to or rendition of reality is not based on a criterion of plausibility and verisimilitude (the poet’s province being traditionally that of expressing things as they might happen, not as they did happen). Quite on the contrary, it relies on truth as its touchstone, thus collapsing one of the founding distinctions on which the history of criticism, the theory of genres, and poetics in general are based. For Johnson the time has come to stick to life, and to life as experienced in the contemporary world so as to serve it truthfully: ‘I am not interested in telling lies in my own novels. A useful distinction between literature and other writing for me is that the former teaches one something true about life: how can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction? The two terms truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically be impossible’ (Johnson 1973, 14).

7Once again, there may not be anything highly original in the preceding statement, but Johnson’s way of conceiving of literature is further specified as he goes on, introducing yet another opposition: ‘Life does not tell stories. [. . .] Telling stories really is telling lies’ (Johnson 1973, 14). From which it emerges that the only solution to achieve truth is to eschew the writing of stories in favour of the writing of novels, an opinion forcibly encapsulated in the following formula: ‘I choose to write truth in the form of a novel’ (Johnson 1973, 14). Johnson’s ars poetica is thus couched in moral terms which lend it the tone and pragmatic force of a manifesto. His preoccupation is with rejecting the old and conventional, which he associates with fiction, stories, lies, imitation, the imagination (and the attendant suspension of disbelief), indirection and distance. This meretricious paradigm he opposes to the concretely ideal one of a literature that is true to life and can be expressed in a novel, that relies on form and style to do so, that espouses the methods of directness and closeness to the evoked subject.

8Of course, this might be somewhat hard to gobble up for the modern learned reader or specialist of literary criticism or theory. One of his first doubts might concern the compatibility of style and truth that is espoused by the artist. But Johnson, even if he rejects any suspension of disbelief as an effect of his creative works, wants the reader of his critical texts to suspend all disbelief. Suffice it to bear in mind at this stage that Johnson’s vision of literature seems to postulate an ideal horizon of verisimilitude that is truth, and that he simply chooses to omit the bulk of the spectrum that runs from the pole of total falsification to that of the ideal vision of perfect truth. His art is an art of the extreme. His practice is a practice of the limit. And truth is stretched on the Procrustean bed of the novel the better to formulate a radical conception of literature. But after dealing with those terminological paradoxes, perhaps it is high time to move on to one of the deeper tensions at work within Johnson’s text.

9In the terminological battle that Johnson wields against the public and the world of publishers, he is at pains to make it clear that he is not ready to let himself be reduced to any label, which would transform him into a pure experimentalist. This is one of the main elements underpinning his view of the literature that he deems to be worthy of his age and the reasons for such a rejection seem at first sight to be of the mercenary type: ‘ “Experimental” to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful”. I object to the word experimental being applied to my work. [. . .] Where I depart from convention, it is because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to say’ (Johnson 1973, 19). In those lines is explicitly penned the author’s pragmatic concern that the whole literary enterprise that he is painstakingly putting together should go across to the reader. Said differently, Johnson’s experimental moves are rarely of that playful type that some critics have seen as the hallmark of a certain brand of postmodernism. Quite on the contrary, they are comprised of an involvement with content and subject matter, a ceaseless respect of reference (truth will come back with a vengeance) that ties in with a rejection of formalism, as is made clear here: ‘Form is not the aim, but the result. If form were the aim then one would have formalism; and I reject formalism’ (Johnson 1973, 16). In fact, what the author is concerned with is the presentation of some truth in some ways opposed to the consensual opinion of reviewers and publishers, of the British reading public and literary world that he ceaselessly castigates for their lack of vision and their gross obsession with the literary and aesthetic past.

10In this respect, one might be tempted to say that Johnson’s manifesto is informed by the expression of and faithfulness to one idea of truth that breaks away from the doxa of literary opinion. Such a view owes a lot to the literary self-portrait that we are presented with, that of a romantic artist at odds with the universe in which he is confined and walking the traditional path of solitary hubris. And in many respects Johnson strikes the pose of the doomed romantic artist, of the exile pitted against the official republic of letters. His purpose, as encapsulated in his manifesto, then becomes a didactic one in that he professes an extreme vision of the novel that is quite at odds with what he considers the humdrum practice of his insular contemporaries. His motto, once again, is ‘I choose to write truth in the form of a novel’ (Johnson 1973, 14). And the truth content that underpins this idea to which he is steadily faithful all through his production is that the novel can be a vehicle for untainted truth. For Johnson, then, ethics come high on the literary agenda. By breaking the doxa of opinion through the assertion of a single truth, it is less an ethics of truths in the plural than an ethics of truth that is promoted. Johnson, from this point of view, through his obsessive fidelity to one idea and through his forcible expression of one and a single truth, is representative of an earlier era of experimental, radical literary production corresponding to a period when commitment could go hand in hand with a fair measure of certainty that left but very little room for relativism. In this sense Johnson is less of a Postmodernist than a Modernist, as he seems to live in some prelapsarian sphere that is not yet cognizant with the menace of suspicion and that still retains some trust in grand or meta-narratives. By thus contextualising Johnson’s production, my aim is to account for the reason why the ethics that seem to underpin his creation are of a more deontic type than those that we tend to privilege in our post-Levinasian age. For in fact, even if some of the stable categories of post-deontic ethical thinking underlie this manifesto (I am thinking of Johnson’s sense of vulnerability, despite his bravura, as expressed in his exposure of and accountability for relentless change [Johnson 1973, 17–18]), his is an ethics of the problematic type that has to accommodate militancy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his dealings with the reader’s role: ‘Indeed I would go further and say that to the extent that a reader can impose his own imagination on my words, then that piece of writing is a failure. I want him to see my (vision), not something conjured out of his own imagination. How is he supposed to grow unless he admits others’ ideas?’ (Johnson 1973, 28) What is broached here is an ethics of alterity based on the author’s desire to get the reader to open himself or herself to something else, to the new. And this of course bears upon the general commitment to make it new that informs Johnson’s manifesto, a commitment relying on the practice of defamiliarisation, among other devices. But interestingly, it is formulated in terms that leave little room for reciprocity, so much so that Johnson’s position is that of prescription as he gets the other to accommodate him-/herself unilaterally, in breach of what is considered the main tenet of post-Levinasian, neo-humanist ethics, i.e. the ethical relation as non violent encounter with the other. Any contemporary reading of Johnson’s introduction may thus come to terms with a striking contradiction between the call for an ethical ideal of openness phrased in a anti-ethical idiom. Clearly, Johnson’s obsession is not with the figure of the other but with the expression of truth that he sees as accessible and transmissible. His remains essentially an ethics of the cognitive, foundational, deontici type that helps situate his production in a transitional, critical stage of the Darwinian evolution of artistic and literary forms preceding that of total fragmentation that is in many respects characteristic of today’s artistic scene.

11If he is not committed to experiment for experiment’s sake, if he rejects pure formalism, if his purpose is didactic and ethical in the sense underlined above, then, B.S. Johnson, the great experimentalist, may also be said to set great store by reference and to appear retrospectively as a committed realist, which raises the problem of his conception of mimesis. Now, in his manifesto, he is quite discreet about the practise of imitation, the latter being understood as the imitation of other texts and not as the imitation of reality. In this respect, he anticipates structuralist developments (one recalls Gérard Genette specifying that words can only imitate words, and a literary text another text, and certainly not ‘life’ [Genette 186]). As expected, the condemnation of imitation is framed in radical terms: ‘I can only assume that just as there seem to be so many writers imitating the act of being nineteenth-century novelists, so there must be large numbers imitating the act of being nineteenth-century readers’ (Johnson 1973, 15). Such a rejection clearly places Johnson on the side of the Moderns, in the time-honoured battle of the Ancients and the Moderns which he is reviving in his manifesto, dressing it in contemporary robes. It is thus clearly the paradigm of modernity, of the Poundian injunction to make it new, of the responsibility for opening oneself to the ever-changing process of novelty that crops up, once again.

12However, apart from the desire to tell the truth in the form of the novel, little is said about the way in which such truth should be told. The only indications that the reader is given is that the contemporary novelist should turn his/her back on convention so as to render the complexity and the ever-changing nature of life through the most appropriate form and style. Now, the complexity of life is a concern that recurs in Johnson’s writings, in so far as it introduces a serious impediment to the presence of truth in literature. This is certainly the reason why, to speak the truth, Johnson chose to go on a sea voyage on board a trawler, in the Sea of Barents, as a prelude to writing a confessional account, in the shape of a long monologue, concentrating on the minutiae of life on board the ship and inside the mind of the narrator. Thanks to this device, Trawl may be said to approach the truth as closely as possible, in Johnson’s experimental oeuvre. This is done at the price of drastic selection (the complexity of a very much reduced portion of life is the subject matter here) and of a documentary temptation that blurs the dividing line between fiction and non fiction. In such extreme experiments, what is achieved is certainly no pure expression of truth—that of course remains an ideal—but a minimum level of falsification. Overall, it may be said that Johnson’s artistic creation is dominated by an anti-representational temptation in which the documentary mode, irrespective of stylistic opaqueness, comes to contaminate the fictional one, which, admittedly, is one of the basic devices on which realism depends. In other terms, Johnson rejects realistic conventions as no longer adapted while discreetly and necessarily resorting to them, a confession that he half-heartedly makes in his manifesto: ‘Where I depart from convention, it is because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to say’ (Johnson 1973, 19). This is certainly a way of admitting to the necessity of relativism in novelistic practice and, one step further, of recognising that convention is inescapable, which in turn leaves room for mimesis and the practice of mimetic literature, hence realism.

13When all is said and done, then, Johnson’s uncompromising harping on the notion of truth may well disguise a terminological displacement since the truth that he is aiming at and which he is approaching without ever being able to reach it is in fact some degree of heightened verisimilitude, as suggested by Philip Tew for whom ‘[t]he experimental nature of Johnson’s fiction is its most obvious feature, but this is directed specifically towards and idea of greater verisimilitude’ (Tew 11). In this respect, I find Jonathan Coe’s commentary, in an essay trying to address the question ‘Is a true literary Naturalism possible or even desirable?’, quite relevant to the fundamentals of Johnson’s art, when he evokes ‘his insatiable craving for naturalism’ (Coe 2003, 76). Paradoxical as it may seem, Johnson seems to adapt the modern novel to the needs of his times, which implies renewing the conventions of the classic realist text so as to promote a new form of naturalism adapted to the post-war age. In this respect, Johnson’s brand of naturalism would be of an original type that concentrates less on the outward appearances of things, disagreeable as they are, than on the protagonist’s interior life and perceptions, in novels that at times seem to veer towards expressionism.

14Ultimately, then, B.S. Johnson appears as an arch naturalist in the guise of an experimentalist, but this apparent paradox vanishes as soon as one takes into account his magical vision of metafiction in general and metaleptic devices (asides and direct addresses to the narrate/ideal reader) in particular. Those are meant to promote an effect of hyperbolical sincerity and authenticity that is meant as an antidote to any use of or partial resort to an earlier convention. It is thus from the point of view of compensation, accommodation or compromise that this seemingly radical aesthetic must be envisaged and re-considered. For in fact, what happens with Johnson’s manifestoes (this introduction together with the many passages in his novels where he indulges in teachings about the art of the novel) is that they seem to consider that saying (that the novels are vehicles of truth) is tantamount to performing (that truth content). Despite his professions of authenticity, Johnson has to come to terms with the limits of the prison-house of language.

15The lingering appeal of B.S. Johnson’s oeuvre is not only to be tracked in our memory of a tragic destiny and in the romantic figure of the young artist as poète maudit. It is also certainly to be hunted down in the multiple tensions that render his novels and other non fictional writings compelling pieces. For in fact, Johnson’s work is dominated by an impression of ceaseless paradox at times radicalising into contradiction: he is in many respects a moralist and a realist striking a radically experimentalist pose, and for all his protestations of truthfulness he is at heart a naturalist, albeit of a new, radical type. Interestingly, such naturalism is certainly due to an objectivist temptation that runs through his oeuvre and that is translated in his permanent dream to objectively record subjectivity (Tew 75), i.e.: that portion of life that he could best master because he knew it most closely, it being delimited most forcefully, within the endless flux of life.

16This is why, when trying to contextualise Johnson’s production from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, one has to recognise that it is characterised by a certain sense of belatedness. On account of his confessional fascination, of his obsession with objectivism, and of his objectivist attempt at rendering subjectivity, the introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? helps have a sharper view of a Modernist stranded on the inimical shores of the late twentieth century, a portrait that certainly complements that of B.S. Johnson as the postmodernist pioneer peddled by the bulk of critical studies.

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Badiou, Alain, L’Éthique: essai sur la connaissance du mal, Paris: Hatier, 1993.

Bradbury, Malcolm, The Modern British Novel (1993), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

Coe, Jonathan, and Will Self, Un véritable naturalisme littéraire est-il possible ou même souhaitable ?, Nantes: Pleins Feux, 2003.

Coe, Jonathan, Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, London: Picador, 2004.

Genette, Gérard, Figures III, Paris: Seuil, 1972.

Gibson, Andrew, Postmodernity, Ethics and the Novel, London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Johnson, Bryan Stanley, Omnibus: Trawl (1966), Albert Angelo (1964), House Mother Normal (1971), London: Picador, 2004.

Johnson, Bryan Stanley, Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, London: Hutchinson, 1973.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques and Ronald Shusterman, L’Emprise des signes : débat sur l’expérience littéraire, Paris: Seuil, 2002.

Lodge, David, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern English Literature (1977), London: Arnold, 1986.

Massie, Alan, The Novel Today, London: Longman, 1990.

Tew, Philip, B.S. Johnson: A Critical Reading, Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2001.

Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction. The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984), London: Routledge, 1986.

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1 This is what Ronald Shusterman writes about Johnson’s 1975 novel, See the Old Lady Decently: ‘On voit là, en termes goodmaniens, le désir de transformer l’art littéraire en art autographique; mais cela va de pair avec une volonté de tout transmettre, de réaliser et de partager pleinement ses intentions’ (Shusterman 130).

2 I am using here categories honed out by Andrew Gibson in his Postmodernity, Ethics and the Novel 16.

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Jean-Michel Ganteau, « Anatomy of an Obsession: Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 33 | 2008, mis en ligne le 21 juillet 2020, consulté le 25 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3

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