“Settle For Nothing Less”: On Ann Quin By The Authors She Has Influenced

Contemporary authors Stewart Home, Isabel Waidner, Lee Rourke, Juliette Jacques, Stuart Evers, China Miéville, and Lara Pawson reflect on the work of English experimental novelist Ann Quin, whose collection The Unmapped Country has recently been published by And Other Stories

Ann Quin, Credit: Oswald Jones’ Estate

"A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.." With this taut, elliptical sentence, the career of one of Britain’s most extraordinary and at times under-appreciated writers was launched. During her short life (she died in 1973, just 37 years-old), Ann Quin published only four books, but her contemporary influence extends to some of today’s most innovative and exciting writers. We asked just a small selection of Quin’s fans to talk about her enduring legacy, what drew them to her writing, and her significance for writers today.

Juliette Jacques

I discovered Ann Quin in 2004, when I was doing a Masters in Literature & Visual Culture at the University of Sussex. I was taking a module on Modernism and Postmodernism in Britain, and was reading that circle of post-war British authors who reacted against the parochial conservatism of the ‘Angry Young Men’ and the Movement poets. I’d also been reading the French nouveau roman – Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, and antecedents like Raymond Roussel – and Rayner Heppenstall (1911-81), an English writer who was a spiritual forefather to the post-war writers, amongst whom Quin stood out for several reasons.

Unlike Heppenstall and BS Johnson, Quin had a sharp eye for trends in Anglo-American pop culture as well as European literature; her evisceration of masculinity and her interest in alternative sexual practices as a weapon against bourgeois morality also appealed to me. I’d grown up halfway between London and Brighton, and chosen Brighton as ‘my’ town: her representation of it in Berg was bleak, brutal and hilarious, attacking British holiday culture and patriarchal society as much as it opposed social realism.

With a range of contemporary British writers asking if the wrong side won the post-war literary battle, it seems appropriate to look at avenues that weren’t fully explored; Quin, with her fragmentary, razor-sharp style and thoroughly modern takes on gender and sexuality, seems more than most like a voice worth revisiting.

Juliet Jacques is the author of Trans: A Memoirr. Her short film, You Will Be Free (2017), will screen as part of the Wysing Arts Centre’s exhibition, more of an avalanche, from 11 February until 8 April

Lee Rourke

I remember buying a Calder edition of Berg from a bookshop in Brighton just because I loved the cover. This was back in 1999–2000. I put it aside and didn’t pick it back up until a year or so later when I read Stewart Home’s 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess (in which he purposely appropriates Berg). I remember picking Berg back up and reading it alongside Stewart’s novel.

The beauty of Ann Quin’s writing is its refusal to conform to what I call ‘Bourgeoisie Expectations’ – a flagrant disregard for the type of novels that (as Alain Robbe-Grillet once said) do the reading for you, in a nice, common-sense way. Her writing is poetic and thoughtful, full of menace, and essentially modern in tone. Each of her four novels could have been written today.

Quin’s writing has taught me not to think about what people may, or may not, think about my own writing. It doesn’t matter. Her way forward is to explore with intuition and an untamed vigour. Which to me is the true expression of an ‘experimental’ writer (as she’s been labelled by those that don’t read her). She also taught me that a working-class novelist should never pander to the common expectations of readers and publishers alike, and write the gritty, Realist fictions that working-class authors are expected to churn out for entertainment.

Quin’s voice is fractured, spiky, there’s a machine-like patter to it. It starts and stops irregularly like a constant paroxysm of words, images, and sounds that swirls around each page forming meaning and associations. It’s charged with violence and fear and tenderness and beauty. It fluctuates. It’s never fixed. Which, to me at least, perfectly reflects these disjointed times.

Lee Rourke is the author of The Canal, Vulgar Things, and the short story collection, Everyday. His website can be found here

Isabel Waidner

I read all of Ann Quin’s published works as a twenty-odd year old in Camden Public Libraries. She really came into her own in her third novel Tripticks in my view. Fair to say that the formally innovative and irreverent approach to literary writing practiced by Quin and others considered to be part of the British avant-garde in the 60s (including Christine Brooke-Rose, BS Johnson and Brigid Brophy) has profoundly influenced my own writing. But 60s British avant-garde literatures are pervaded by the same inequalities and presumptions in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness that pervaded wider society at the time and today.

The project of contemporary avant-garde writers like myself has to be this: to combine literary experimentation with progressive politics. I have argued elsewhere that if there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left). In other words, readers of experimental literature – start with Ann Quin but don’t stop there! There’s a new intersectional avant-garde of British writers in 2018 – get with it don’t miss it.

Isabel Waidner is the author of Gaudy Bauble and the editor of Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, both published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

Lara Pawson

I’m ashamed that I only learned of Ann Quin’s work in the last ten years. I think I heard Lee Rourke talking about her at a reading somewhere, or I may have read something he’d written. But whenever I think of Ann Quin, Lee Rourke’s name pops into my head and I remember that I still haven’t thanked him for sharing the knowledge. Thank you Lee.

It is the freedom of her writing, of course, that most appeals to me. And the energy. She writes what and how she wants — and must and can only — write. She is not trying to be anything other than who she is. Her force of courage and determination punches its way out of every sentence. Reading Quin is like being sucked under the sea by a rip tide. You fear you might drown, and when you are released you feel more alive than ever before. She didn’t bend to the market. She did her work. That’s what we must all do. With ever more force and courage. Without question. That is her legacy, and her influence on my own writing consists in a like message: Keep the courage, the determination to be that free. Settle for nothing less.

Lara Pawson is the author of This is the Place to Be, a fragmentary & experimental memoir that started life as a sound installation

Stewart Home

I read Quin’s novel Berg when I was eighteen. It was 1980 and I was playing guitar in a post-punk band, Basic Essentials. Our manager Dave Tiffen – who was about thirty – was a huge fan of modernist literature and would give me books he thought I should know, mostly picked up from charity shops. The best novel he passed on to me was a Quartet edition of Ann Quin’s Berg. I was totally thrilled by Berg then and every time I reread it, and over the years I also read Quin’s other novels and many of her stories.

I riffed on the beginning of Berg to create a new work of my own – a novel that was eventually issued as 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess (2002). I’d read all her full-length books before I wrote Dead Princess but Berg was the most influential of them because it had such a big impact on me when I was eighteen.

The shortness and simplicity of Quin’s sentences is pleasingly American and breaks with the British literary habit of being unnecessarily long-winded and boring. She anticipates the full-blown postmodernism of contemporary writers like Lynne Tillman. Although there is a sixties vibe in much of her prose, when she really lets go in her later work it becomes completely contemporary and is of the highest quality.

Stuart Evers

I first discovered Ann Quin in one of two ways: either I saw her name in the biography of BS Johnson

by Jonathan Coe, or I got her name confused with Anna Kavan. In this regard, Quin is unlike my other

writerly heroes: with all others I can recall when and where I heard of them, how I came to read

them, the bookshop where I first bought one of their books. But for Ann Quin, nothing. No memory.

Which is probably apt. It at least feels Quin-ian.

What I do recall is reading Berg for the first time and being sure within a page that I’d found a writer who spoke directly to me. A writer who fused together all the books I loved, lashed them into a

totality, and filtered them through her own singular lens. It was thrilling. Thrilling in a way that made

me cautious. I didn’t finished Berg the first time I read it. I didn’t dare. I was worried it would peter out, would let me down. I didn’t finish it several times. When eventually I did, it felt like the end of a long and protracted courtship.

Ann Quin – and her similarly, and criminally under-read, contemporary Eva Figes – pointed to a

different path, provided a blueprint for another way; but much of what I love about her work is her

subverting, re-rendering, repurposing of the literary familiar. In essence, most of her books start

from a conventional story trope – in Berg, we have a classic revenge crime story, blended with the last kickings of kitchen-sink realism and the boarding-house blues of Patrick Hamilton; in Three, an unconventional love triangle; in Tripticks an oddball family melodrama – but these are then turned inside out and mangled into something singular, unusual and always thrilling. That word again, thrilling. It is the best I have.

China Miéville

Ann Quin gives the lie – should it still need to be given, and it’s ridiculous that it does, but it apparently does – to the idea that any kind of avant-garde fiction is going to be bloodless, dull and tediously cerebral. The passion of her work makes a mockery of that. The prejudice is absurd and bespeaks a terrible literary parochialism, but it still has traction. Which is what makes Quin’s sublation of experimentation and sheer verve – not ‘effortless’ but energetic, enthusiastic, and urgent – not just exciting, but genuinely moving.

Ann Quin: The Unmapped Country is available now from And Other Stories

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