Why we need a new movement

The timid world of BritLit needs to be shaken up by a mutinous new clique of writers


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When the Secret Author first wandered impressionably along Grub Street, the world was full of literary groupings. He was too young to remember the Movement (early 1950s) or the Angry Young Men (later 1950s), and the Sixties Experimentalists (Ann Quin, Alan Burns, B.S. Johnson) which by this time rated only the odd disapproving footnote in quasi-academic symposia.

On the other hand, he is old enough to recall the Dirty Realists, coaxed into life by a 1983 Granta anthology, and to smile over the memory of the New Puritans, who advertised a somewhat elusive brand of “minimalism” and “authenticity” and after producing a solitary anthology of their work (All Hail the New Puritans, edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne, 2000) were pretty much never heard of again.

At least three of these literary groupings were entirely fictitious

It should immediately be said that, literary alliances being what they are, at least three out of the groupings listed above were entirely fictitious. The Angry Young Men were an invention of journalists and, in the person of a bewildered Iris Murdoch, included one not in the least angry young woman.

The Dirty Realists had a place in their ranks for Annie Proulx — one of the most tricksy and “literary” stylists on the planet. The Sixties experimentalists always denied that anything bound them together bar a contempt for the mainstream, and the raison d’etre of Blincoe and Thorne’s spiky contributors was largely generational: for all the stark prescriptions of their manifesto, the main point in their favour always seemed to be that they weren’t Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Nonetheless, the media always loves these comings-together of literary talent, however artificial. The Angry Young Men took up residence in every newspaper in Fleet Street; the Dirty Realists anthology sold in truck-loads; while the mythologising process that swept over the mad lads (and lasses) from the Age of Aquarius means that even now, in obscure university English departments and the catalogues of indefatigable small presses, a flame is kept burning for works like Quin’s Berg (1964) or Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), a pile of discrete chapters that could be read in any order you fancied and were brought to the purchaser in a cardboard box.

From the angle of the writer, “movements” worked in both ways. There was the pleasure (or the annoyance) of being thought to belong to one. There was the satisfaction of seeing bitter rivals denied an invite to the party. There was the compulsion to read your fellow-members’ works and see if you could find any kindred spirits.

The attendant publicity was not to be sniffed at. Should your career have temporarily stalled, then there was an invaluable opportunity of reinventing yourself and turning one decade’s neo-apocalyptic romantic poet (a school briefly fashionable in the later 1940s) into this one’s Movement classicist.

Most modern fiction, it has to be said, is deadly dull

Sadly, recent decades have been a thin time for movements. The Ulster academic Richard Bradford once came up with a category called the “domesticated post-modernists”, but there was little to relate the novelists (Ali Smith, David Mitchell etc) who featured in it. And yet it might be argued that what our literature needs above all right now is some tough- minded collection of youngish writers (“movements” are nearly always for the under-50s) who think, or affect to think, that the way they write is better than the way others write and who are, either singly or collectively, snooty, exclusive and Olympian in their judgments.

Why is this? Well, whenever literary people lament the longueurs of current English fiction, their complaints usually turn on its lack of differentiation. It is not that novels have similar plots or near-identical characters, merely that the worldview that underlies them — bien-pensant, earnest, anti-bourgeois — is nearly always exactly the same.

Most modern fiction, it has to be said, is deadly dull, and the dullness usually comes from a fear of giving offence, a determination not to say what you really think about the way in which relationships or belief systems actually work in case some phantom reader, or real-life editor, should be upset.

But movements traditionally confer a certain amount of courage on their adherents. If there are a dozen of you assembled in some anthology, it is much more difficult for you to be silenced, much easier to say the things you really believe. So the Secret Author’s most fervent wish is that somewhere in the UK some mutinous clique of twenty- or thirty-somethings is preparing to publish a collection entitled The New Constructivists or Angry for Now!

Its contents will undoubtedly be slightly incoherent. It will almost certainly have scorn poured on it by senior figures in the trade. Half the contributors will probably recant in the week after publication. But it will cause a stir, and that is what the timid little world of Britlit needs just at the moment, believe you me.

The Secret Author is a former Professor of English and Creative Writing at a leading British university.

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