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  • "Unconsciously Influenced":Alan Burns, Ian McEwan, and the Lasting Legacies of Postwar British Experimental Fiction
  • Chris Clarke (bio)

While Alan Burns, as Jeannette Baxter suggests, has appeared to historians of the novel to have "fallen off the literary map" since the 1960s, Burns and his contemporary experimental writers have resurfaced in recent discussions of postwar British fiction (55).1 For a brief moment in the late 1960s, Burns was at the heart of a constellation of experimental writers, including Eva Figes, B. S. Johnson, and Ann Quin, whose works revived literary modernism in an attempt to bring an alternative imaginary community into being. Burns's fiction won him the recognition of an influential cultural institution, the Arts Council of Great Britain, and its literary chair Angus Wilson. Burns subsequently became the inaugural Henfield Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia in 1970, where he would advise Ian McEwan, the first student in its now-prestigious creative writing program. In his refracted autobiography, Sweet Tooth, McEwan evokes the strong supportive ties between postwar British experimental writing, the Arts [End Page 104] Council, and his early work, thus raising the question of why the legacies of Burns and his contemporaries have gone unacknowledged for so long. Sweet Tooth's Tom Haley, a budding writer, receives unconditional financial support from "a clandestine Arts Council" (140) and refers to Burns as "the best experimentalist in the country" (185). If Sweet Tooth insinuates that the Arts Council and British experimental fiction writing were catalysts to McEwan's early career, why was it the case that Burns and his contemporaries struggled to foster a readership for their work in a similarly supportive cultural climate?

This essay explores the lasting imprint of postwar British experimental writing on contemporary fiction by tracing the ways in which the Arts Council contributed to the conditions for Burns and McEwan's divergent literary careers. Burns's experimental texts Europe After the Rain (1965), Celebrations (1967), Babel (1969), and Dreamerika (1972) present alternatives to institutionalized forms of power through the use of artistic practices associated with Dada and surrealism: parataxis, disjunction, visual and textual collages, and automatic and fold-in writing. Paradoxically, Burns emerged as an anti-institutional experimental writer backed by a significant cultural institution after the Arts Council awarded him a substantial grant following the publication of Celebrations. One can read this paradox as a repercussion of the cultural climate instantiated by the Arts Council, an institution set up by the modernist and economist John Maynard Keynes in 1945. Having supported the "fine arts exclusively" for the first twenty years of its existence, the Arts Council democratized its subsidy of the arts in the mid-1960s (Great Britain 3). In addition to increasing its support of institutions, such as the National Theatre and the Poetry Society, the body's expansion of its funding also had the effect of stimulating alternative and experimental arts.2 The Arts Council thereby reanimated, as Peter Barry argues, "a kind of dialectical confrontation between the thesis of the old and the antithesis of the new" (14). It encouraged cultural organizations to maintain existing and canonical arts, while at the same time giving writers, performers, and artists the opportunity to revive modernist artistic practices. I will argue that the relationship between the Arts Council and experimental writers such as Burns represents an instance of this dialectic between postwar modernist legacies, which provides a way to map how these innovators' attempts to create an alternative literary community continue to influence the work of celebrated contemporary authors.

In order to explore how Burns's relationship with the Arts Council can shed new light on the lasting legacies of postwar British [End Page 105] experimental fiction, this essay draws on Michael Warner's analysis of the public. Reflecting in 1970 on his work's "limited readership" despite its backing by the Arts Council, Burns compares himself to "a shoemaker creating an exotic boot that I know will not be popular for another fifty years" (qtd. in Kitchen 21). Burns thus hints at how his work negotiates, as Warner puts it, the challenge of "bring[ing] a public into being when extant modes of address and intelligibility seem themselves...


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