Analysis of All Hail the New Puritans

According to their introduction, the editors of this collection of 15 short stories sought to bring together a group of “like-minded writers and set them a challenge.” These contributors are Matthew Branton, Candida Clark, Anna Davis, Geoff Dyer, Bo Fowler, Alex Garland, Daren King, Simon Lewis, Toby Litt, Rebecca Ray, Ben Richards, Scarlett Thomas, Tony White, and the two editors. The challenge comes in the form of a 10-point “pledge” or manifesto, devised by the editors and outlined in their introduction. The contributors— entirely made up of published, British writers, nearly all of them, at the time, in their late 20s or 30s and living in the southeast of England—were chosen by the editors beforehand, and each story was written specifically for the anthology. They were all completed between November 1999 and April 2000, thereby creating a focused cross section of a generational movement at a specific time. The only criterion for inclusion was that the candidate “would be responsive to the New Puritan challenge” and follow the manifesto; in the editors’ view this form of “pre-editing” was sufficient, and the resulting stories, predictably, are somewhat uneven and resemble each other only in sharing a rather dark tone (with two exceptions) and having been written under the same restrictions.

According to Blincoe and Thorne, the 10-point pledge was created both as a challenge to the contributors and as a reflection of what was already “so original and challenging” about recent fiction (ii). To a certain extent, the pledge was meant to advance a “new wave” in fiction—stressing simplicity, purity, clarity, and integrity—and simultaneously aiming “to blow the dinosaurs out of the water”(vii)—a reference presumably to the previous generation of British writers not considered to adhere to these qualities. They specifically mention the work of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. “The New Puritan Manifesto” comprises the following 10 rules:

1. Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form. 2. We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms. 3. While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations. 4. We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides. 5. In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing. 6. We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation. 7. We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. 8. As faithful representations of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculation about the past or the future. 9. We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality. 10. Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form. (vii)

While the title of the collection is taken from a song by the British rock group The Fall, the concept itself probably owes more to film than it does to music. The Dogme 95 movement, for instance, is an obvious inspiration for the New Puritans, in that the filmmakers’ manifesto bans the use of light or sound sources not naturally appearing in the scene and essentially intends to proclaim a new and purer alternative to Hollywood studio productions. Having drawn the connection, though, it must be noted that the New Puritans were faced with no true equivalent to the highly powerful Hollywood system to define themselves against, and the manifesto struggles to come up with a full 10 commands. Some of the rules, the editors later admitted, were included simply to challenge their contributors (e.g., point 5) and not as part of the New Puritan aesthetic. Such restrictions, perhaps more than anything else, led some of the early reviewers to label the collection a mere publicity stunt.

This assessment is not entirely fair. It is still very early to gauge accurately the influence of the anthology, but it has been a success in terms of publicity and sales. Croatian, German, and French editions all appeared within the first few years, and groups allying themselves to the New Puritans include the Crack group in Mexico and the Fak in Croatia. There is something refreshing in the New Puritan desire to find middle ground between simple genre fiction on the one hand and playful postmodernist stylization or pure artiness on the other hand. The stories share a rewarding context of contemporary moral questioning within a focused sense of faithfully rendered time and place, and they seem to define successfully the New Puritan aesthetic as well as any manifesto, whether the anthology is considered a mere stunt, a needless attempt at revolution, or a breakthrough in early 21st-century literature.

Blincoe, Nicholas, and Matt Thorne, eds. All Hail the New Puritans. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: