Man, oh manifesto!

A brash band of young writers issues a screed against "dinosaur" authors and calls for a return to storytelling.

Published November 2, 2000 8:47AM (EST)

Old "Doonesbury" cartoon. Bernie (the chemistry geek) comes up with a magic formula that whisks Mike back in time to his favorite historical literary milieu: a cafe on the French Riviera of the '20s. Dos Passos, the Fitzgeralds, Valentino. The punch line is that Fitzgerald sticks Mike with the tab, but what it makes me think of is the fact that nobody in the future, given the opportunity, would ever want themselves whisked back to our particular moment in literary history.

Literature has hit a dull patch. You'd think the turn of the millennium would have lit a fire under us, prompting a slew of gorgeously decadent works of louche brilliance -- but no. Literary fiction would be in crisis if we only had the energy to manage a proper crisis. Either it has lost the ability to excite us or we've lost the ability to be excited by it, either of which pretty much comes to the same thing, and all of which accounts for the sense of relief I felt when I heard that there was a literary manifesto afoot.

A bunch of young English writers, led by the novelists Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe (whose name sounds like it should belong to a scary clown), have banded together under the name the New Puritans and produced both a manifesto and an anthology of short stories to back it up.

Blincoe, born in 1965, is the author of four novels, most recently "The Dope Priest." Thorne, who's only 26, terrifyingly enough, has written three; his latest, "Dreaming of Strangers," was published this year. Together they've issued a 10-point manifesto, and they've gotten 15 writers to contribute to a book entitled "All Hail the New Puritans" (a reference to a song by the Fall; I guess it's a British thing), which came out in England a couple of weeks ago. The youngest contributor is 20, the oldest in his early 40s. Some of them are famous (Alex Garland, author of "The Beach," is part of the club), some not so much, but as the glittering author bios in the back indicate, they're not exactly a salon des refusis; of the 15 contributors, 12 already have two or more published novels under their belts. "It could be the beginning of a new wave," the book's introduction thunders. "A chance to blow the dinosaurs out of the water."

As Thorne tells it, the idea came about after Blincoe went to see a film by one of the Dogme 95 filmmakers -- the group of directors, including Lars von Trier and Harmony Korine, famous for forgoing such technical frippery as artificial lighting and non-handheld cameras. Blincoe had the idea of "doing something similar for writers," says Thorne. Fair enough. After all, one misses them, manifestoes, in the current apathetic literary climate. What manifestoes has Updike signed? Or Joyce Carol Oates? They'd never have the moxie! Of course, it's desperately out of fashion, in this gloriously polymorphous day and age, to tell other people how they should write, but it's refreshing that somebody cares enough about fiction to try it.

So what are these New Puritans pushing? At first glance they seem to know more about what they aren't than what they are. The introduction to "All Hail the New Puritans" calls upon writers everywhere to "strip their fiction down to the basics, and see if something exciting emerges." According to the manifesto's 10 rules, New Puritans "shun poetry," "avoid all devices of voice," including "rhetoric" and "authorial asides," "eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing," and "avoid any elaborate punctuation" (?!) and "all improbable or unknowable speculation about the past or the future."

So what do New Puritans like? Narrative, "the life force of fiction" is high on the list, as are "textual simplicity," "clarity," "grammatical purity" and "integrity of expression." All New Puritan works are set in the present day because they're "fragments of our time," and they feature only "real" (scare quotes mine) products, places and objects -- nothing made up. "We are all moralists," the manifesto adds ominously, "so all texts feature a recognizable ethical reality."

The 10 tenets of the New Puritans can be sorted into two general categories, the plausible and the just plain silly. Into the latter category goes some pointless chest-beating directed at poetry ("Rule 2: We are prose writers and recognize that prose is the dominant form of expression"); Thorne himself, when I spoke with him on the telephone, shrugged this one off as "provocative -- deliberately so." Also file under silly Rule 7, which specifies that all stories must be dated as to the time of their composition, and Rule 5, the renunciation of the flashback, which is justified in the manifesto by some freshman-dorm musings on the nature of memory ("Memory is an activity and memories cannot exist independently from the process of remembering," and so on).

But the manifesto is also not without some substance. Its brief in favor of plot is welcome: "Rule 1: Primarily Storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form." For all the ink that's been spilled about postmodern fiction and its indifference to distinctions between "high" and "low," plot is still tainted by an association with the baser genres, with action movies and soap operas, and it's nice to see somebody speak up for it.

In its emphasis on "simplicity," "purity" and "faithful representations," there's a sense that the New Puritans are trying to do away with what they see as cheap lyricism and pretentious, self-important literary special effects. (Thorne mentions Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Jeanette Winterson as prime targets.) They're trying to see their way past the flash and craft of the workshop to something more urgent.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and in fact "All Hail the New Puritans" is quite a good read, all things considered. The stories are brisk, a little lightweight, in places amusing, mostly bittersweet in flavor the way short stories are. They offer virtually no resistance to the reader: no long words, no tricky structural conceits, no difficult chronologies to be puzzled out, nothing too "literary." They aspire to the limpid beauty of a well-turned detective story, minus the crime and minus the detective.

Reading as a reviewer, one looks for key passages to excerpt, but these stories are almost unquotable: There's no voice-over, no lyricism, no load-bearing authorial pronouncements (see Rule 4: "we ... vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides"). No one's talking over the action, telling you what's what and who's who. The English press has accused the New Puritans of being overly influenced by film (James Wood's review in the Guardian ran under the headline "Celluloid Junkies"), and in fact most of these stories could be remade as movies without losing much.

At their best the stories achieve a vital, vivid immediacy. "Skunk," by Geoffrey Dyer ("Paris Trance"), is a gem, a seriocomic account of a guy trying to baby-sit a woman he barely knows, a friend of a friend, through a marijuana freakout on the banks of the Seine. The events acquire the tint of melancholy as the reader realizes that the narrator is in love with the friend in question, who's taken. Blincoe's "Short Guide to Game Theory" is another success, a story about a guy whose job it is to evaluate new ideas for board games for a toy company. When his childhood friend shows up trying to sell him SWING™, a hopelessly bad Monopoly rip-off the object of which is to create and market a pop band, they both learn a thing or two about cheating.

The best thing about these stories might be that they're so palpably happening now: They get the slang, the profanity, the brands, the computers and the TV just right. (The delightful Briticism "mong," as in "to mong out in front of the TV," occurs more than once.) Much of the action of Tony White's "Poet" occurs within the confines of an Excel document, and Matthew Branton's "Monkey See" gets some zing from its intimate familiarity with the mechanics of downloading digital porn. Scarlett Thomas' "Mind Control" may contain the first literary use of the word "Dreamcast" in history. If your Dreamcast is as important to you as mine is to me, that's a landmark right there.

At their worst, they devolve into cheap, hard-boiled Hemingwayisms -- the absence of rhetoric itself becomes the hokiest kind of rhetorical ploy. Candida Clark's entry, for example, is an account of a chance encounter in a pub between the narrator and an acquaintance, right before the latter kills himself. "Fuck it all," growls the narrator, in closing. "He was right about that much. Always the same old shit."

Garland's effort, easily the most forgettable of the bunch, concerns a photographer at the Monaco speedway who watches a girl bare her tits and masturbate in public; the plot, such as it is, hangs on whether she'll come at just the right moment for him to snap her with a car in the background. "In France they call it petit mort," he muses. "Little death -- everyone knows that. Eskimos have an infinite number of words for snow ..." It's enough to make you beg for some elaborate punctuation.

A mixed bag, all in all, but that's not to say that it wasn't worth bagging. If there's anything more one really wants from the New Puritans, it's that they'd be a little more puritanical about it all -- that they'd have the courage of their convictions, which they clearly don't. They're just in it for a lark. Blincoe and Thorne themselves describe the manifesto as "partly playful." Most of the contributors didn't even actually sign the thing, and have no intention of abiding by its rules after the party's over. Like all manifestoes, this one is, au fond, a marketing gimmick, and an effective one -- no fewer than seven publishers were willing to take on the project.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. God knows, anybody who can sell literary fiction to a wider audience deserves a fucking medal. Where would we be if Pound hadn't been willing to pimp Eliot and Joyce to wealthy patrons? Even the saintly Bloomsburys knew how to milk their brand of intellectual chic for all it was worth. Still, they could at least have done a better job of pretending to believe in it. A little more fire and brimstone, people! Rail against those dinosaurs! "We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness," wrote the Futurists. Fascists they may have been, but that's a spicy meatball! One wants a manifesto nailed to the door of Norman Mailer's summer house with a big hot pointy stick, suitable for jabbing into big daddy Polyphemus' nearsighted eye, not one printed on thermal paper still warm from having scrolled out of the fax machine onto the floor of some literary agent's solarium. It'll take more than that to do away with the dinosaurs. When it's my turn on the Wayback Machine, I'll still be setting the controls for the Riviera.

By Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman is a novelist and journalist who lives in New York.

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