Reviewed: Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B S Johnson

A new volume remembers "experimental" author B S Johnson as far more than a novelist.

B S Johnson bristled at being called “experimental”. In his introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, a collection of short prose published shortly before Johnson’s death in 1973, he wrote that: “’Experimental’ to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for ‘unsuccessful’ … for every device I have used there is a literary rationale and a technical justification; anyone who cannot accept this has simply not understood the [textual] problem which had to be solved.”

This collection is reprinted in full in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B S Johnson , newly issued by Picador to commemorate the 80th  anniversary of Johnson’s birth, edited by Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe and academics Philip Tew and Julia Jordan . Split into three parts, Jordan says that the volume aims to represent the “enormous totality” of Johnson’s work, representing him not just as a novelist, but also as a writer of plays for radio, TV and theatre, and as an incisive journalist who covered literature, film, politics, architecture and football, his work unified by the exploration of several key themes: the conservatism of British culture; the dishonesty of narrative fiction, and the difficulty that authors have in communicating with their readers; and the inescapability of death.

The introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young is a good place to start, falling between a manifesto and a justification for Johnson’s relentless opposition to formal convention, which formed a strong counterpoint to the “neo-Dickensian” styles favoured by post-war novelists and critics. Well known for works such as The Unfortunates , with its chapters presented unbound to be read in random order, Johnson insisted that “Life does not tell stories … Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification”. His assertion that literary writing should tell “the truth” of its author’s life is repeated several times throughout Well Done God! : even if the dramatic texts included contradict it through their invention of characters and scenarios

Johnson agreed with Nathalie Sarraute that the development of literature was a relay race in which the “baton of innovation” passed from one generation to the next, attempting to posit himself within a list of those “writing as though it mattered”, ranging from neglected contemporaries such as Christine Brooke-Rose , Rayner Heppenstall and Ann Quin to Angela Carter and Samuel Beckett , who remain widely read.

After several campaigns to rescue him from obscurity, and with most of his novels reissued in conjunction with this volume, Johnson falls between these two camps. Well Done God! shows a far wider range of influences upon Johnson’s writing than the well-known effects of Joyce, Beckett and Sterne, and that Johnson’s prose amounted to far more than a synthesis of their inventions: it was only his first novel, Travelling People which Johnson did not want reprinted) that borrowed techniques such as the black pages to indicate death in Tristram Shandy, or the construction of chapters in differing styles that characterised Ulysses .

That said, the most enjoyable entry in Aren’t You Rather Young is “Broad Thoughts from a Home”, a chapter excised from Travelling People. (Johnson’s re-writing of the novel after advice from agents and publishers is documented here, challenging the received wisdom that Johnson was inflexible in dealing with them.) Like Quin, Heppenstall and Beckett, Johnson was often dryly funny, his humour often deriving from his exposure of the artifice of fiction writing by inviting readers to invent their own endings, or by making explicit the subtexts of his characters’ dialogues.

This device worked well in Johnson’s literary prose but would not, he understood, translate well to the stage or screen. The second section of this volume, covering Johnson’s dramatic work, provides an intriguing insight into how Johnson transposed his preoccupations to another form, is only intermittently successful: one reason that Johnson’s plays are less renowned is that they frequently went unperformed, with Compressor, Woyzeck adaptation One Sodding Thing after Another and What is the Right Thing and Am I Doing It? appearing here in print for the first time. The strongest text, Down Red Lane, was a darkly amusing dialogue building tension between a diner who cannot stop eating and his belly, who feels that he really should – the inevitability of decay, hastened by an inability to resist harmful desires, is spelled out here with more economy and levity than in any other of Johnson’s dramas.

The “Short Prose” section that closes Well Done God! is particularly fascinating for anyone interested in Johnson. Offering plenty of information about his travails with the literary industry and his efforts to unionise its producers, his willingness to expose the poor conditions under which he worked is laudable: in “Writing and Publishing: or, Wickedness Reveal’d”, Johnson describes the pyramid of earnings from Travelling People in which he, the only indispensable participant in its publication, made the least, and not even a living wage: ‘Some publishers even trot out that old myth about people writing best whilst starving in garrets, too: and they believe it, despite never having heard an author agree.’

Elsewhere, a selection of reviews of Beckett’s texts shows Johnson unafraid to criticise one of his idols, whilst maintaining that Beckett’s investigations into literary minimalism are thoroughly necessary even when unsuccessful. Johnson’s indictment of British film, looking at the financial structures that mitigate against formal risk, is broadly fair but he knows the terrain less well than literature – his reduction of British cinema to “ Oh! Mr Porter and Carry On Puking” ignores the Ealing films , Powell and Pressburger and the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative , with only passing reference to Britain’s strong documentary tradition.

Both the selection of short journalistic prose and the volume as a whole offer plenty to excite Johnson fans, but may not convert the uninitiated – his short novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry remains the best place to start. However, Well Done God! and the forthcoming BFI collection of his films, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them , may finally allow Johnson’s idiosyncratic talent to be appraised and enjoyed in something approaching its entirety.

 

B S Johnson.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black female self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.