Writing Week 4: The Rulebreakers
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.