B S Johnson, Authentic Writing

Almost oxymoronically, BS Johnson (1933-73) is well-known for being an experimental writer. There is normally the view the more you experiment the more you alienate readers, and the less well-known you will be. During his lifetime this was the case, but following Johnson committing suicide by cutting his wrists he now possesses a cult status, another example of the archetypal hard drinking writer outsider, and is part of the canon. His ‘novel in a box’ is the primary example of experimental writing, used on most creative writing courses in the UK. Was he personally unconventional? Difficult to say: he went to King’s College, University of London, as a slightly mature student, aged 23. He managed to write 7 novels in his short lifetime, as well as much else. He rejected mainstream styles, but deep down always wanted to be accepted. Who doesn’t? It can be argued that his work is autobiographical, but even for writers like Will Self all writing, including all fiction, is autobiographical. This is nothing to be ashamed of, unless human nature itself repulses you. Academia believes in the primacy of objectivity, which is just another myth. Some attack Jeremy Corbyn for being authentic, as if no such thing exists, but even if Johnson’s working class credentials are real his creativity slips through into his utilitarian work. In his 1963 report on the Kettering v Millwall match he gets the goal scorers wrong. Whether this was a trick played by his editors, or by his own creativity, his unconscious, who knows, but he had a habit of attacking sub-editors. Maybe he felt the need to play a trick on all his readers, to make them think. He also had a disdain for other match reporters, and the clichés they used, which far from being snobbery is the norm for all good writers. In this way his experimental creative writing fed into his sports writing, because other writers would use the clichés found in popular novels, such as red hair means fiery temperament, or focusing on characterisation of players. Johnson was concerned with fate and randomness, which for some is the beauty of football, and our best writers, such as David Peace, are fully aware of this. Football is a metaphor for life. As Margaret Atwood put it, there is no garden without a fence. There are the rules and the boundaries, but what happens we cannot really predict which might be true for a good novel. It is this unpredictability that is central to Johnson’s belief in authenticity, which sets his work at a different level. Think of all the people who wrote novels that sold during the time Johnson was writing. How many of these have we heard of now? He experimented with form and language. So Johnson expanded not just what the novel means, but also what it means to be human. After all, to rephrase Samuel Beckett, language is all we have.

Thanks to Dilwyn Porter, Professor of Sports History and Culture, and Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History, from the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, for inspiring the above.

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