No Dancing, No Music

Alex Clark

  • All Hail the New Puritans edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne
    Fourth Estate, 204 pp, £10.00, September 2000, ISBN 1 84115 345 1

The New Puritans are not, one of their founder members assures us, ‘a religious movement’. Phew. It is unwise for novelists to become too involved in formulating creeds, and very few of them are good at evangelism, mass worship or group suicides. We don’t look to writers to tell us how to behave or what to believe. New Puritanism is not a religion, then, but it might, according to Nicholas Blincoe, be ‘the beginning of a new wave’ and present its adherents with ‘a chance to blow the dinosaurs out of the water’. This tongue-in-cheekiness, which from time to time comes across as a swaggering disrespect for all other contemporary writers, infects and distorts the editors’ ‘Pledge’, or manifesto, which opens the book and frames its 15 specially commissioned stories. The Pledge consists of 10 rules and is loosely modelled on the manifesto of Dogme 95, the collective of film-makers headed by Lars von Trier who took on the excesses of Hollywood with a ‘vow of chastity’ that included the use of hand-held cameras and the rejection of elaborate costumes, lighting and music. The rules contain nothing especially outlandish; nor do they seem likely to act as a blue touchpaper that will light the firework of new, radical fiction. Essentially a guide to writing blank, uninflected prose, they urge writers to ‘shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms’, argue for ‘textual simplicity’ – this encompasses the strict avoidance of flashbacks and tricksy time schemes, ‘elaborate punctuation’ and ‘unknowable speculation about the past or future’ – and demand that stories be located in a ‘recognisable ethical reality’. This anthology, one quickly realises, will not boast the jokey, fantastical contortions of the Oulipo collective, with its lipograms and combinatorics, nor the politicised austerity of Dogme: rather it aims to dismantle the scaffolding of literary fiction in order to see what the building underneath looks like.

Put that way, and understood as an experiment with the aim of discouraging writerly pretension or self-indulgence, the Pledge doesn’t sound so bad. Indeed, when one gets to the stories themselves, it is not the restrictions of the manifesto that are the problem: any of these pieces could find its way into any number of anthologies and not excite particular notice, certainly not on the grounds of being artificially limited. None of them is especially good, and none, bar a couple, especially bad. It is, however, difficult, verging on the impossible, to see any of them as the beginning of a new wave.

If one is looking for amusement, though, the editors’ introductory dialogue, in which they elaborate on the rules, might be the place to start (though the potted biographies at the end of the book are quite good, too.) The publisher – or, come to think of it, a friend, relative or passerby – would have done Blincoe and Thorne a great service by discouraging them from setting down what read like unstructured musings in which each tries to outdo the other in sounding at once authoritative and portentous. Here, for example, is Thorne on the primacy of the narrative form:

Whenever people have tried to defend storytelling in the past, they have turned to ‘supposed traditions’. Parables and folktales; fables, jokes and moral instruction. But we aren’t using history as a justification. Storytelling does not need the validation of tradition. New Puritanism is about looking to the future.

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