Writing during the 1960s and early 1970s until her death by drowning in 1973 at the age of 37, Ann Quin’s highly innovative writing was of her time, but not in it.
Her writing has had little critical attention as it was difficult to categorise. Nonetheless, Quin cites Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf (specifically Woolf’s The Waves) as influences on her style of writing, and her impact on contemporary writers, such as Kathy Acker and Eimear McBride, is apparent. At times lumped with experimental writers, like B.S. Johnson and Robert Creely, what makes Quin stand out is that, as Giles Gordon writes, her voice was ‘quite unlike any other’. Passages, in particular, is described by Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard in the Review of Contemporary Fiction as ‘[u]ltimately unlike any other work’. Unique, subversive, and mesmerising.
Quin would forego conventions, be it narrative or societal, and her prose reflects both the intricacies of the human mind and psyche. As a woman writer, Quin did not adhere to the rules of the masculine plot-driven linear narrative; her writing is associative, circular, and layered. As an experimentalist, she sought to break the conventions of traditional narrative, foregoing the use of punctuation, adopting an impressionistic and fragmentary style at times, and giving voice to marginalised perspectives. But most of all, Quin is a brave writer, who wrote for the sake of writing, because, in the words of Robert Buckeye, ‘writing is her means of resistance against a world which holds a gun to her head’.
In approaching Quin’s texts, a willingness to surrender to the text is needed. As readers, our minds typically search for meaning, try to ‘make sense’ of the narrative, and piece it together. Yet Quin’s power is in circumventing typical notions of understanding. What is unsaid is as important as what is said. The silences and ellipses are emphatic. The landscape and inanimate objects awaken and recoil the inner worlds of the characters. Her narrators do not tell a story because there is no story to be told in the conventional sense. Quin’s characters perpetually move towards something, but do not get there.
There also seems to be an existential engagement with the world in Quin’s writing, but at the same time a sense of detachment permeates the lives of her characters. Uncertainty is a predominant theme. Haziness and confusion are reflected by the play of light, shadows, and mirrors in Quin’s texts. We, as readers, may attempt to look for a way out of what may be, erroneously, described as the vagueness or formlessness of Quin’s writing, but it is part of the experience.
Guest blogger Arwa F. Al-Mubaddel will be one of our panelists guiding us through Ann Quin’s Passages next week.
She is a PhD researcher in Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University, where she is exploring metamodernism, metafeminism, and feminine subjectivity in British women’s writing. Arwa obtained her MA degree in English Literature with a concentration in Women & Gender studies from Rutgers University, where she also received the department’s Highest Distinction in Literary Studies Award. She has also written a chapter on the role of Vivienne Eliot in the shaping of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in Thanks for Typing: Remembering Forgotten Women in History, published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2021. Additionally, she is the co-chair of the Modern and Contemporary (MoCo) Postgraduate Research Network based at the School of English, Communication, and Philosophy at Cardiff University.