As I was browsing my local bookstore, ostensibly looking for a Christmas present for my Grandma, I came across a book called all hail the new puritans. It was a collection of short stories from young British writers circa 2000. So it was a few years old and probably collecting dust on the shelf. But the book intrigued me. It seemed to be promoting a manifesto and further it looked like it was relevant to something I blogged about last week: moral aesthetics. And when I saw the word “puritan”, I thought of Glenn Gould – who used to refer to himself playfully as “the last puritan”. So I bought the book and tonight I have been perusing websites about it.
The New Puritan Manifesto caused a fuss in literary circles during 2000/2001, and a good thing too because all good manifestos must stir the pot. Manifestos were all the rage in the first few decades of the 20th century. I remember reading and getting all excited about the Surrealist and Dada manifestos while I was at Varsity…as you do. Admittedly I’m very late to the party in respect of the New Puritan Manifesto. But I think that’s a good thing, because now I can explore it without all the hype fogging my view.
So what is the manifesto about? The only place I could find a soft copy of the New Puritan Manifesto was at the bottom of this page:
The New Puritan Manifesto. 1. Primarily story-tellers, 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 We recognise that published works are also historical documents.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. All products, places, artists and objects named are real. 8. As faithful representations of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable og 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 beoynd any commitment to form. (Nicholas Blincoe & Matt Thorne (eds): All Hail The New Puritans, Fourth Estate, London 2000).
Number 9 appeals to me, given my current interests. Some of the other rules sound a bit restrictive and even nonsensical – e.g. what’s their beef with poetry? But taken as a whole (and with a grain of salt) they are very sound principles. Novelist Zadie Smith took some potshots at it, but to me this only proves what a good manifesto it is because it is rarking people up. And look at it from the perspective of who ruled the literary roost at that time – Phillip Roth, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and others of that ilk. They are all celebrated writers, but personally I don’t enjoy their writing. I find their books to be pompous, self-absorbed, overly elaborate and not grounded in any reality I’m familiar with. The New Puritans are in some ways a reaction to this. They celebrate contemporary culture – movies, technology, music, real life in the 21st century. In other ways, the New Puritans are simply trying to promote things like narrative story-telling and Hemingway-like textual simplicity.
Sounds pretty similar to one of my favourite authors, Tom Wolfe, who could perhaps be given the moniker Godfather of the New Puritans – at least in terms of his novels. Wolfe coined the term new journalism back in the 70’s. He wrote about real life using narrative techniques usually associated with novel-writing. In 1987 he released the supurb and very New Puritan-like novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. The story was very much of its time – some say it defines the 80’s – and it’s written with a simple yet also lyrical narrative. I studied this novel at Varsity and it was one of my favourites at the time. In spirit Tom Wolfe is a New Puritan, even though he doesn’t follow all the rules of the manifesto.
p.s. you may be wondering where the name “New Puritans” comes from. It’s from a song by British band The Fall (who as far as I know were one of those 80’s leftie english bands that went on about Thatcherism most of the time). The lyrics are fascinating reading. They even mention BigCo’s (hee hee)! Here’s the start of it:
(New Puritan. Uncommon eyes.)
The grotesque peasants stalk the land
And deep down inside you know
Everybody wants to like big companies.
Bands send tapes to famous apes
Male slags, male slates, famous apes.
K Walter Keaton, now grey thoughts.
The whole country is post-gramme
Hail the new puritan!
How’s that for nice poetry 😉 I’ll continue to explore ‘morality in art’ and the New Puritan manifesto in future articles. In the meantime, here are some nice links for you:
– World Wide Words: Definition of New Puritans
– Salon / CNN: Man, oh manifesto! Brash band of young writers calls for a return to storytelling
– Guardian newspaper: Matt Thorne’s favourite New Puritan novels
– East of the Web: The New Puritans Interview