The Cult Writer You Haven’t Heard Of — Yet
The Cult Writer You Haven’t Heard Of—YetThe editor of the new Ann Quin collection, ‘The Unmapped Country,’ talks about a writer whose moment is long overdue
M y first exposure to the works of Ann Quin, if memory serves, came via a list of recommendations by Blake Butler of notable books published by Dalkey Archive Press. This led me to Quin’s 1972 Tripticks, a formally bold and deeply unsettling work–the sort of experimental fiction that reconfigures how you process text, feels ahead of its time. Tripticks was the fourth and final novel that Quin published in her lifetime; she died the following year. In the ensuing years, Quin’s work has gained a cult following for its innovation, its tactile sense of place, and its unique ability to capture a feeling of desperate unease.
The new collection The Unmapped Country brings together Quin’s shorter works, from stories and some autobiographical pieces to writings that were unfinished at the time of her death. Jennifer Hodgson edited the book and contributed its introduction. Over email, we discussed the process of assembling The Unmapped Country, how the collection speaks to her legacy, and the works and movements that helped shape Quin’s own work.
Tobias Carroll: We’ll start with the basics: where did you first encounter Ann Quin’s writings? Did you find yourself drawn to them from the first read, or did they grow on you more slowly?
Jennifer Hodgson: I first encountered Quin in that way books have of opening into one another. As a student, I was very much taken with those weird, wonky writers of the mid-twentieth century who don’t quite fit anywhere. Elizabeth Bowen led to Muriel Spark who led to Johnson and then I alighted on Quin. I was in a mildew-y, Patrick Hamilton-y sort of phase at the time, so I guess I was ripe for a claggy book like Berg. For as long as I’d been interested in books and in writing, I’d also frequently felt that this culture, this thing called “The Novel” wasn’t really for me, that I was a kind of interloper in a tradition where I didn’t really belong. Discovering Quin and her contemporaries, like Johnson, Brigid Brophy, Christine Brooke Rose, and the rest, was like opening up a door. It felt galvanizing to me as a reader (and as a human) in that sense of, oh, I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that.
TC: Contemporary writers who have championed Quin’s work include Juliet Jacques, Lee Rourke, Blake Butler, Tom McCarthy, and Deborah Levy—a wide-ranging group, though I’d argue all of them fall under the “experimental” heading. Have you noticed any common elements among the writers who have enjoyed her writings?
JH: Perhaps given that I’ve been immersed in Quin’s writing of late, it’s not surprising that I hear her echoes everywhere, but I do — amongst the writers you mention and also in the work of people like Claire-Louise Bennett, Eimear McBride, and others. With Quin it’s easy to see a kinship, but quite difficult to pinpoint a legacy. There are writers who I’m convinced must have read Quin, but you find they’re not aware of her and then they’ll read her voraciously with this incredible sense of recognition, like an influence that’s always been there without them realizing.
I’m going to leave aside debates about the appropriateness of the term “experimental”—they often feel a bit like a Sealed Knot re-enactment. Nevertheless, what the writers you mention here share with Quin, and what they have in common, is a curiosity — perhaps even a conviction — about the possibilities of fictional narrative (whatever that is, they generally insist on asking), coupled with a sense of dissatisfaction about the narrower interests of mainstream literary culture. They also share a declared interest in fiction not for its capacity to reflect and to make sense of experience, but to render the expressive distortion of reality. By that I mean how the world gets filtered through subjectivity and is then somehow presented, all at once, as a completely imaginary yet substantive universe.
TC: Is there one particular work that you’ve found to be the best starting point for someone looking to read Quin’s bibliography? Would you say that The Unmapped Country could fill this role?
JH: It’s a tricky one, this, given that her now five-book body of work covers such a lot of ground. Take your pick: Berg tends to be the “gateway” Quin, the one people chance across first; then there’s her nouveau roman-esque mid-period, with Three; Passages is a dark take on all those sixties myths about “finding yourself”; and finally there’s Tripticks, her bizarre Burroughsian road novel. For my money, I think Quin really suits the closer, headier confines of the short story. If you want to read her at her filthiest, at her strangest, then start here — but then I would say that.
What these writers share with Quin is a curiosity — perhaps even a conviction — about the possibilities of fictional narrative coupled with a sense of dissatisfaction about the narrower interests of mainstream literary culture.
TC: Why do you think Quin’s work isn’t as widely read as some of the writers to whom her work has been compared?
JH: Up to now, Quin’s always been a not-quite-cult writer. And she’s not alone in that. Her loosely-agglomerated peer group of innovative writers from the sixties — people like Brooke Rose, Johnson, Brophy, and Burns — have also remained out on a limb for many years, although, Johnson enjoyed a rehabilitation of his own some years back. And I think the reasons for that probably exceed the space we have for this interview, but I’ll give it a go. I think all these writers, to a greater or lesser extent, have fallen down the back of the sofa of literary history. During their time they tended to be dismissed as superannuated modernists, or as the victims of some sort of ghastly French flu. And then subsequently, their achievements have often been overshadowed by an idea we have of that period in British literature as mired in old-fashioned realism. If pressed, I’d say that Quin’s moment has come now (at long last!) thanks to the recognition of readers’ appetites for new and interesting forms of writing — an appetite which has been consistently underestimated by a jittery and overly-cautious book industry.
TC: What was the process of assembling The Unmapped Country like?
JH: Quin isn’t (yet?) judged important enough to have an archive of her own, so since her death in 1973, her papers have remained scattered across various archives, private collections, cupboards, drawers, and boxes in the loft. I spent the last seven years or so collecting them back together again. And it’s a pretty strange and uncomfortable thing to do, to go riffling around in the dusty papers of someone else’s past. All the paper trails, all the needling emails to octogenarian ex-boyfriends asking if they maybe, just maybe, have a story or two that’s been sitting in a box in their back bedrooms these past fifty years. But in the end it was the kind of wild goose chase I couldn’t resist.
All the paper trails, all the needling emails to octogenarian ex-boyfriends asking if they maybe, just maybe, have a story or two that’s been sitting in a box.
TC: In “Leaving School — XI,” Quin makes a passing allusion to joining “the Young Conservatives’ Association.” I don’t find a lot of overtly political aspects to her writing — do you know if this reference points to something greater in her work, or was evidence of an ideological period that she left behind?
JH: Are you asking whether Quin was a Tory [a member or supporter of the British Conservative party]? I’d say that what this reference really points to is the paucity of social life for teenagers in England in the fifties! You’re right, I think, to identify that Quin isn’t as explicitly politically engaged as some of her contemporaries and peers like, say, Doris Lessing or Alan Burns or Johnson — and she wasn’t an activist in the sense that someone like Brigid Brophy was. In one of the few lengthy interviews she gave during her lifetime (with Nell Dunn, for her 1965 book Talking to Women), she claimed not to be “political,” that class “never bothered [her]” and that it was “overdone,” that she was “sick to death” of it being the focus of the social realist novels of the fifties. But I think she’s being a little disingenuous, or perhaps provocative, here. The political aspect of Quin’s writing appears in more implicit, diffuse ways, very often as an almost hidden but very insistent undertow to the close, hothouse world of her characters.
To a greater or lesser extent, all her writing centers on a dissatisfaction with quotidian life, coupled with the compulsion to dig around underneath and find out what’s really going on underneath the furniture and the flummery. She’s also concerned with questions of human freedom, possibility, and alternative means of human connectedness. I guess in that sense she’s absolutely a writer of the sixties. But what’s always interested me about Quin is that, for her, liberation is never a benign thing. We have these characters going on wild quests, or attempting to impose their will on the world, or get out of their own minds through self-exile, or sex, or drugs, but they only ever arrive at disillusion or disappointment or frustration — or worse, out-and-out brutality.
Her writing centres on a dissatisfaction with quotidian life, and the compulsion to dig around underneath, find out what’s going on underneath the furniture.
TC: Several of the stories found in The Unmapped Country were first published in the journal Ambit, which also published early work from J.G. Ballard. Did you get the sense that Ambit had any influence on Quin’s development as a writer?
JH: Certainly, in the latter part of her writing life she began experimenting in earnest with the visual-textual style that had found a home at Ambit, particularly seen in Eduardo Paolozzi’s work for the magazine. One reviewer not-too-kindly called it “Ambit-dextrous sub-Burrovian cut-uppery.” But beyond this particular magazine, other British writers were making forays into the similar styles — I’m thinking in particular of those especially out-there, middle-period Brooke Rose novels (Out, Such, Between and Thru), Brophy’s In Transit, Burn’s Babel and Dreamerika!, as well as, of course, The Atrocity Exhibition. And something that hasn’t been much talked in relation to Quin’s work is the influence of British Pop art. She’d been a secretary at the Royal College of Art during the early sixties, where she had come into contact with the scene incubating there amongst artists like David Hockney, Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Patrick Caulfield, and others. Some of her earliest writings are texts ghost-written on behalf of a student at the RCA, the New Zealand artist, Billy Apple. I think Quin, her peers, British pop art, and Ambit were part of the same moment of cross pollination, all drawing upon a lurid fascination with “Amerika” and the ideas about language that were emanating from French critical theory to create this new, texty, pulp-y, modernist-inflected mode.