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This article is taken from PN Review 57, Volume 14 Number 1, September - October 1987.

See B. S. Johnson Decently Nicolas Tredell

Part I

B. S. Johnson was not, in his lifetime, neglected. His work was widely reviewed and discussed: he had received high praise from, among others, Samuel Beckett: 'I regard him as a most gifted writer.'1 But attention was not acceptance. The stock response of most reviewers to his novels was to praise their conventionally realistic features but to deprecate their other aspects as 'experimental' and, often, 'derivative' of Sterne, Joyce, Beckett. After his death, Johnson fell into neglect: but the stock response lived on. For example in 1980, Novels and Novelists, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith, said in its entry for Johnson: 'his novels were very self-consciously experimental, although it is now clear that his slight gift was for conventional realism'2 while in 1983, in A Guide to Twentieth Century Literature in English, Harry Blamires wrote: 'Johnson's heavy reliance on devices and ideas from Beckett and Joyce is too little supported by verbal precision and imaginative insight for his work to be other than emptily derivative.'3

Johnson's novels have started to appear again in print; both House Mother Normal and Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry have been republished in paperback. This makes it a good moment to challenge the clichés that have come to stand as assessments of his achievement. It seems likely that Johnson could, in terms of technical competence, have stayed within the safe confines of conventional realism, for which his 'gift' was more than slight; he could have joined those whose 'emptily derivative' ...


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