British and Irish Literature B. S. Johnson
Julia Jordan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0095


B. S. Johnson (b 1933–d. 1973) is an increasingly significant figure in the ongoing reassessment of the British literary scene of the 1960s and 1970s, and the most prominent of a loose grouping of writers including Alan Burns, Christine Brooke-Rose, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, and Ann Quin. However, Johnson is singularly resistant to any attempts to impose order upon him. He was skeptical of appeals to history and all efforts to order and make sense of the past, and his work consistently seeks to represent the randomness of life with a degree of mimetic honesty. As such it perhaps sits uneasily with the scholarly urge to ratify and categorize the wide range of his writing, which uses a wide array of different techniques, styles, and genres. Recent scholarship has sought nevertheless to place him in his literary, cultural, and political contexts, and his growing profile indicates the resurgence of interest in the avant-garde writing of the period. He rejected the label “experimental,” believing it to be an inadequate response to the formal and technical innovations of his writing, and insisted on a conception of “truth” that he set in dialectical relation with what he saw as the dishonest and consolatory mechanisms of fiction or story-telling, fed to a largely soporific and complacent reading public. Johnson’s work is marked by twin preoccupations with authenticity and representation, and is constant in its attention to the possibility or otherwise of the existence of any authentic truth at all––be it mimetic, memorial, or experiential. This bibliography seeks specifically to chart the evolution of the critical reception of Johnson’s work, to articulate the main debates and critical approaches that have emerged, and to outline the most important, influential, or useful critical works that deal with Johnson, his complex legacy, and his place in the wider context of the avant-garde of the 1960s. His writing reaches back to Beckett and Joyce; it provides us with perhaps the exemplar of the mid-century aleatory novel; it transcends national boundaries in its kinship with avant-garde and experimental continental and global literatures, including the nouveau roman; and it gestures forward to a strain of contemporary literature that is similarly preoccupied with form, constraint, difficulty, and truth. His inclusion in this bibliography is largely due to his growing status as a mid-20th-century novelist, but it is also important to articulate a sense of the whole of his output, engaged as he was, and often in mold-breaking ways, in the fields of poetry, film, and drama.

General Overviews

Unusually for a writer of such pivotal significance, it is still possible to read everything that has been written about B. S. Johnson since his death in 1973 in a reasonably short space of time. Much early criticism of Johnson’s writing concentrates on the perceived tension between his theoretical and critical statements and his literary works. Mackrell 1985 (cited under Peers, Literary Context, and Influences) and Parrinder 1977 suggest that his work is in some way at odds with or stymied by his principles. Eva Figes (in Review of Contemporary Fiction 1985) typically condemns him to an experimental cul-de-sac of his own making. However, this line has been comprehensively debunked since 2000, and significant moments in the recent history of the critical reception of Johnson’s oeuvre include the publication of monographs on Johnson such as Tredell 2000 and Tew 2001; a seminal biography, Coe 2004 (cited under Biography, Memoir, Autobiography); Tew and Glyn White 2007, an important edited collection of essays; and a further edited collection of essays, Jordan and Ryle 2014. Vital to the reassessment of Johnson, Coe’s biography is inescapable in Johnson studies. There is a clear paradox present in the fact of the centrality of a biography among Johnson scholarship: Johnson’s claims to “truth” over “fiction” invite biographical readings, and yet the best criticism on Johnson usually tends to avoid any easy conflations of Johnson-as-writer and Johnson-as-man. Tredell 2000 is a key text, and argues for Johnson’s importance as a counterbalance to postmodern self-consciousness. Tew 2001 provides the most theoretically engaged substantial study to date, and this monograph is of a piece with Tew’s oeuvre of work on Johnson in claiming the importance of his ideological influences. Tew has consistently sought to uncover Johnson’s experiential core, charting his ontological and political commitments. White 2005 (see Form and Experiment) provides the most substantial and systematic analysis of Johnson’s typographical disruption and the other forms of subversion of the book’s physical format that he deployed. White constructs a compelling argument about how a large proportion of Johnson criticism has taken its cue from the introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young (see Shorter Prose), a piece whose belligerence, he suggests, has been allowed to influence too many readings of the texts. Some of the earlier overviews perhaps exemplify some of these problems (for instance Parrinder 1977) but nevertheless give a good sense of the evolution of the debate on Johnson’s experimentalism, as does Gasiorek 2009.

  • Gasiorek, Andrzej. “Postmodernisms of English Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel. Edited by Robert L. Caserio, 192–209. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521884167

    Gives an excellent overview of the milieu in which Johnson worked, reaching forward to later writers to argue that the narrative of marginalization was always a simplification. Describing Johnson as an “overtly anti-realist novelis[t]”, Gasiorek links Johnson to a brand of radical postmodern metafiction.

  • Jordan, Julia, and Martin Ryle, eds. B. S. Johnson and Post-war Literature: Possibilities of the Avant Garde. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    Wide-ranging collection of essays with an emphasis on Johnson’s recontextualization among his generation of experimentalist writers.

  • Parrinder, Patrick. “Pilgrim’s Progress: The Novels of B. S. Johnson (1933–73).” Critical Quarterley 19.2 (1977): 45–59.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8705.1977.tb01611.x

    Early but influential interpretation of Johnson’s oeuvre. Parrinder denigrates some of the works and elevates others (those with strong claims to fictionality, usually), and is typical of the early tendency to see Johnson’s theoretical pronouncements as limiting. Interestingly argues that his failures marked a deeper, continuous structure of moral puritanism.

  • Special Issue: B. S Johnson/Jean Rhys. Review of Contemporary Fiction 5.2 (1985).

    For a long time this was the most substantial collection of criticism on Johnson, and is marked by its diverse critical approaches. It contains some idiosyncratic and personal reflections, and important pieces by Judith Mackrell and Eva Figes, among others.

  • Special Issue: B. S. Johnson. Critical Engagements 4.1 (2010).

    Contains essays on a wide range of topics, from reflections from Johnson’s friend and collaborator Zulfikar Ghose, based on their extensive correspondence, to David James’s important essay on Johnson’s relation to modernism.

  • Tew, Philip. B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001.

    Major study of Johnson’s work, which explores his social, political and cultural contexts, maps Johnson’s critical project, and seeks to reconfigure the critical reception and analysis.

  • Tew, Philip, and Glyn White, eds. Re-Reading B. S. Johnson. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230286122

    This collection of essays is a recommended starting point for scholars of Johnson, along with Coe 2004. The individual essays deal with varied topics, and give a sense of the growing diversity of approaches to Johnson, including his relationship with Wales, postcolonialism, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as well as in-depth assessments of his formal techniques.

  • Tredell, Nicholas. Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B. S. Johnson. Nottingham, UK: Pauper’s Press, 2000.

    Still one of the few book-length studies of Johnson, this important turning-point in Johnson studies builds on earlier essays for Review of Contemporary Fiction 1985 on The Unfortunates and Albert Angelo, and argues for Johnson’s devices and techniques as enhancements of mimesis, rather than mere postmodern self-conscious markers of fictionality.

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