Writing Week 4: The Rulebreakers

Reading & Writing


In uncertain times we demand more rules, not fewer

The history of fiction, by which I mean all fiction – I’m not interested in separating ‘literature’ from ‘genre’ – follows the growth pattern of all the arts; rules are established, traditional forms are developed, rules are broken.

But something odd happened in fiction that did not happen in art or music.

In the early 20th century technology forced changes on both art and music. Photography reduced the interest in representational painting and hastened the development of abstractism, and the phonograph encouraged exploration into new forms of sound. Writing is linear and doesn’t conform to technological advances – yet it was very nearly changed for good.

The Victorians had pushed development of the dramatic novel into melodrama, and it started to collapse under the weight of its own baroque over-plotted mannerisms until a handful of ‘aesthetic’ authors wrestled these excessive, endless stories to the ground and replaced them with a new form, one that started to explore sensations and emotional states. 

Which is where Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank comes in. Born in 1886, his eccentric narrative style wbecame an extension of his personality. For a man who wrote so much about society he was never comfortable in it, being too alcoholic, inarticulate and downright strange. Nevertheless, he provided the link between Oscar Wilde and T S Eliot and became a cult figure, which by his reckoning meant that he was read by a dozen clever people. His work faded from even this attention and he died very young.

But he could have changed the literature forever.

This argument is put forward by Brigid Brophy in ‘Prancing Novelist’, her 600-page volume on Firbank (longer than all his books together). In Firbank’s world conversations are partially overheard, settings are vague and no single scene creates a complete picture. Artifice becomes heightened reality. His books are like cloyingly incomplete impressionist paintings. Had this abstract style found a way of connecting more surely with readers, we would not now be reading what we read.

Novelists and playwrights like Charles Wood, Ann Quin, Joe Orton, BS Johnson and Caryl Churchill followed in Firbank’s wake, creating scenes of intensified theatrical language. The rulebreakers dumped the prosaic post-Victorian plot-heavy novel and replaced it with something more personal and honest; their work was colourful, emotional, surreal, extravagant. But the times were turbulent and the bemused public fell back on traditional stories. Intellectual exercises were the province of the leisured class.

Our novels are now more ploddingly literal than at any time in the last 50 years. Experimentalism and artifice have been shelved or transmogrified into juvenilia. The literary clock has not just been turned back but left perpetually stuck in the late Victorian era. A few iconoclasts remain but in uncertain times we demand more rules, not fewer. And that means returning to traditional forms that make us feel warm and safe.

10 comments on “Writing Week 4: The Rulebreakers”

  1. Brooke says:

    Lots of assertions..as though Joyce, Calvino, Borges, Sebald, etc. etc. did not exist. Perhaps new forms have over taken and expanded experimental writing–autofiction, Instagram writing and so forth.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    The Beat Generation? Experimental, rule breaking, influential up to a point, but as to any good?

  3. Roger says:

    Firbank influenced Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Anthony Powell, so he had a pretty heavy influence on later writers.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There it is, Peter, “any good?” There are more readers now than ever, people who have been introduced to all sorts of possibilities in fiction and these people are willing to try anything provided the writing stimulates their interest. I believe in bell curves and the central bulge is probably plot driven easily understood narrative so that would be the return to Victorian novels but it certainly doesn’t eliminate experimental fiction.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    Helen, years ago, I read a lot of it. I thought that I understood what Kerouac was trying to do. It’s interesting because spontaneous prose follows a stream of consciousness. Chris mentioned the difference between conversation and dialogue a week ago. A natural stream of consciousness falls as far short of logical argument as conversation of dialogue. I read to learn, to be entertained and see something beautiful. Mental rambling doesn’t amuse for long.

  6. Allan Lloyd says:

    I grew up reading the Beats and then the whole New Worlds crowd. I remember taking Kerouac books from the library and rarely getting past the first ten pages. Similarly with New Wave science fiction. I loved the idea of breaking all the rules, but so much of it was just self-indulgent and unreadable. There was much good stuff produced, but more hangers-on just going with the trend. It was very much of its time, and the references would probably baffle modern readers.

    Similarly with Firbank. I enjoy reading his work, but so much slang and contemporary idiom has changed that I am not sure when he is saying things that are shocking and funny, or if I am just interpreting it that way. It is fun trying to tease out the meaning, and I would agree with his influence on Waugh, Powell and Henry Green.

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Firbank. Grrrrrr yet another one I’ve never read for the list…. I should stop dropping by here, it often costs me money.

  8. Martin Tolley says:

    Belay that previous comment, Guttenberg has a freebie

  9. admin says:

    Thumb through a copy first Martin – he’s really not for everyone, or possibly anyone!

  10. Helen Martin says:

    In any era the geniuses will introduce something which readers will find “difficult, but rewarding” and then there will be some that just about hit the mark and then there is “not worth bothering with”. The “difficult but rewarding” becomes more familiar, writers learn how it works, and the “something” becomes mainstream and finally – unfortunately – a cliche.

Comments are closed.