B. S. Johnson bigraphy, stories - British writer

B. S. Johnson : biography

5 February 1933 - 13 November 1973

Bryan Stanley Johnson (5 February 1933 – 13 November 1973) was an English experimental novelist, poet, literary critic, producer of television programmes and filmmaker.

Early life

Born into a working class family, Johnson was evacuated from London during World War II and left school at sixteen to work variously as an accounting clerk, bank junior and clerk at Standard Oil Company. However, he taught himself Latin in the evenings, attended a year's pre-university course at Birkbeck College and, with this preparation, managed to pass the university entrance exam for King's College London.


After he graduated with a 2:2, Johnson wrote a series of increasingly experimental and often acutely personal novels that would now be considered visual writing. In his early years he collaborated on several projects with a close friend and fellow writer, Zulfikar Ghose, with whom he produced a joint collection of stories, Statement Against Corpses. Like Johnson's early stories (at least superficially) his first two novels, Travelling People (1963) and Albert Angelo (1964), at first appear relatively conventional in plot terms. However, the first novel uses several innovative devices and includes a section set out as a filmscript. The second includes famously cut-through pages to enable the reader to skip forward. His work became progressively even more experimental. The Unfortunates (1969) was published in a box with no binding (readers could assemble the book any way they liked, apart from the chapters marked 'First' and 'Last' which did indicate preferred terminal points) and House Mother Normal (1971) was written in purely chronological order such that the various characters' thoughts and experiences would cross each other and become intertwined, not just page by page, but sentence by sentence.

Johnson led and associated with a loosely-constituted circle of 'experimental' authors in Sixties Britain, which included Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, Ann Quin, Stefan Themerson, and Wilson Harris among others. Many of these figures contributed to London Consequences, a novel consisting of a palimpsest of chapters passed between a range of participating authors and set in London, edited by Margaret Drabble and Johnson. Johnson also made numerous experimental films, published poetry, and wrote reviews, short stories and plays. For many years he was the poetry editor of Transatlantic Review.

He is mentioned several times in Paul Theroux's account of his friendship with V S Naipaul, .

Death and legacy

At the age of 40, increasingly depressed by his failure to succeed commercially, and beset by family problems, Johnson committed suicide by slitting his wrists.

Johnson was largely unknown to the wider reading public at the time of his death, but has a growing cult following. A critically acclaimed film adaptation of the last of the novels published while he was alive, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973), was released in 2000. Singer-songwriter Joe Pernice paid tribute to Johnson on the 2006 Pernice Brothers album Live a Little. Jonathan Coe's 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant (winner of the 2005 Samuel Johnson prize) has already led to a renewal of interest in Johnson's work.

In April 2013 the British Film Institute released You're Human Like the Rest of Them, a collection of Johnson's films, as part of the BFI Flipside DVD series.Citation required

Selected filmography

  • You're Human Like the Rest of Them (1967)
  • The Unfortunates (1969)
  • The Smithsons on Housing (1970)Sukhdev Sandhu , telegraph.co.uk, 16 June 2009
  • Paradigm (1969)
  • B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1971)
  • Unfair! (1970)
  • Fat Man On A Beach (1973)


  • Jonathan Coe. (2004) Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. Picador

Academic studies

  • Philip Tew. (2001) B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester University Press, ISBN 978-0719056260
  • Philip Tew, Glyn White. (2007) Re-reading B.S. Johnson. Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0230524927
  • Nicolas Tredell, (2010) Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B.S.Johnson. Paupers' Press, ISBN 978-0946650996
  • Vanessa Guignery. (2009) Ceci n’est pas une fiction. Les romans vrais de B.S. Johnson. Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, ISBN 978-2840506430
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Living octopus

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