Monday, June 17, 2019

Guest Post - Outsider Literature, Part 1, by R B Russell

A few years ago any use of the term Outsider with reference to literature would probably have been an allusion to Albert Camus and his 1942 novel L’Étranger, often translated as The Outsider, or to Colin Wilson’s 1956 study of existentialist literature of the same title which explored the idea of outsiders and their place in society. Of course, definitions vary widely, and outsiders have featured in all forms of writing down the ages, but Outsider Literature has recently become a term that some have applied not to characters or themes in books, but to certain authors.

One blog online has a post about Outsider fiction that describes it as: ‘. . . a cool new genre that we’re hoping will take the world by storm' (, 12th August 2014). Lyndall Gordon’s book Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (2017), was widely reviewed and has led to some discussion of what really constitutes Outsiders. (After all, three of the writers—Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf—were well-published in their time.)

Of more interest to readers and collectors of genre or non-mainstream writing is the use of the term Outsider with reference to curious books from the past that have gone unappreciated, especially when their authors have often lived non-conventional lives. Wormwood contributor Adam Daly has recently published two volumes of The Outsider-writer with The Paupers' Press, containing essays about authors whose obvious similarity is simply that they are not well-known in the mainstream. The term Outsider Writer is applied on Wikipedia to Jean-Pierre Brisset, although it does not yet hyper-link to a dedicated entry on the subject. However, an Outsider Literature/Writer page is inevitably on its way . . .

These different applications of the terms Outsider Literature or Outsider Writer appears to have been inspired, in part, by the Outsider Art movement, which has become a successful marketing tool promoted by specialist galleries, art fairs and magazines, and while it is still contentious, it has become widely accepted. It would appear to be a good model for assessing what constitutes an Outsider in literature, and it is worth offering a little background.

Outsider Art was a term first used by the critic Roger Cardinal (Outsider Art, Praeger Publishers, 1972) when searching for a synonym for Art Brut (itself coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet (‘Place à l’incivisme’, Art and Text, No. 27, December 1987–February 1988, p. 36), referring to art undertaken outside the purview of the art establishment. Dubuffet provided a definition of ‘art brut’ that is instructive, recognising only:

‘Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.’

Dubuffet argued that true art brut was ‘more precious than the productions of professionals,’ and the idea was taken up by the Outsider Art movement. However, appreciation of all art is to some degree subjective and the movement claims to be at pains to keep itself free of artists who have simply failed to make the grade. In the tradition of the established art world, certain respected galleries and critics have become gatekeepers, but that is itself problematic: it can be argued that the very term Outsider Art when conferred by this new establishment offers recognition to favoured artists and must therefore mean they have been gathered ‘inside’.

Outsider Literature does not yet have its gatekeepers, although there are some commentators, collectors, and book dealers who are beginning to recognise the classification. There is, as yet, no manifesto or definition, but, perhaps Outsider Literature can take its cues from Outsider Art (while recognising that they are not completely analogous—for example, the long tradition of Art Schools is not replicated in contemporary creative writing classes.)

One celebrated Outsider Artist who should be able to help us define the Outsider Writer is Henry Darger (1892-1973), because his drawings and watercolour paintings illustrate his posthumously discovered fantasy manuscript The Story of the Vivian Girls . . . —if he was an Outsider Artist, then he must also have been an Outsider Writer. Another recognised Outsider Artist who also wrote is Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), and the examples of Darger and Wölfli suggests that the Outsider Writer should be defined by work that is self-taught (naïve), driven by a deep-seated need to write rather than publish, and it should not have been recognised by the literary establishment at the time of composition.

In addition to these considerations, to be taken at all seriously as a classification, Outsider Writing should be at pains to be like the Outsider Art movement and keep itself free from writers who simply fail to make the grade.

(Part Two of this blog post will consider a number of writers who might be considered Outsiders.)

R B Russell


  1. An obvious candidate as an Outsider Artist and Painter is Henri Rousseau, "Le Douanier", who was a playwright as well as a painter.

    Your definition "the Outsider Writer should be defined by work that is self-taught (naïve), driven by a deep-seated need to write rather than publish, and it should not have been recognised by the literary establishment at the time of composition." raises some interesting questions> Was William Blake an Outsider Artist and Writer? Emily Dickinson has gone from Outsider Artist to someone thought the greatest American poet in 150 years -an astonishing apotheosis.

  2. Hmmm. I think a lot of us love writers who fail to make the grade, whatever that really means.

  3. It will be interesting to see which writers Ray discusses in part 2. William Black was well known in his time, regularly employed as a draughtsman, and toward the end of his life even gathered disciples. His greatest art was outside the canons of neo-classical taste, and little appreciated, but he himself wasn't ignored or obscure. The same could be said for Le Douanier, who was a naive painter but still appreciated by members of the French avant-garde. Emily Dickinson, however, really was virtually unpublished and unrecognized during her lifetime and her poetry, when finally printed posthumously, initially had to be fixed up a bit since it was so unlike anything people were used to.
    I tend to be leery of the term "Outsider" since--as Ray says--it sounds cool and who doesn't want to be thought a rebel or noncomformist, a cat who walks by himself? Would Van Gogh be considered an Outsider Artist since nobody bought his pictures until he was dead? Yet so many creative people start off being ignored or misunderstood before their work is discovered and appreciated. You could argue that Picasso was an Outsider Artist all his life, largely misunderstood by the public, constantly ignoring received artistic convention and even breaking with his own previous styles. I suspect the true Outsider Writers and Artists are like Gray's "flowers born to blush unseen/ And waste their sweetness on the desert air." Once they're in a gallery or a bookstore, they aren't Outsiders any longer. --md

  4. Amos Tutuola is one of the best examples of 'Outsider' writer in the past century. Not only was his work very idiosyncratic to the tastes of Western readers but he lacked clear and obvious opportunities for his work to be published and read. These logistical difficulties, for want of a better term, still exist in many parts of the world. On social media I often encounter Western writers who complain about the difficulties of 'breaking into the market' because there is so much competition. In Africa I frequently meet writers who lack not only the opportunity to submit their work to editors but even the basic equipment (including pens and paper) to set it down in anything resembling a permanent form. The difficulties they face make them true Outsiders in the business and it's a shame because many of them have superb imaginations. But they have been obstructed by practicalities before they have even begun.

  5. The gap between being well-known as an artist in his own right and being regularly employed as an engraver was, in Blake’s case, quite significant; his own work was about as unknown as the testimony in his letters, of only the very occasional sale of his Prophetic books, would suggest. He was really not acknowledged by the wider culture in that regard at all, or so the biographies i’ve read all seem to posit. But he did care about this lack of success, and resented it, so that would probably disqualify him from Outsidership. He saw himself belonging squarely in the Canon, and as it turns out, he was right.

  6. For some reason, Ray's Outsider Post reappeared today--some sort of computer glitch, I suppose. Still, the mention of Henry Darger leads me to recommend Elizabeth Hand's latest novel, "Curious Toys," in which the young Darger teams up with a girl (who dresses as a boy) to solve a murder at a Chicago amusement park.

  7. The main book missing here is André Blavier's Les fous littéraires (1982; revised and extended 2000), a huge encyclopedic work of Francophone, mainly self-published 'outsider' writers:

    As for individual writers, there's the disturbed American Louis Wolfson's Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit [...] (1984; rev. 2012), who taught himself a number of languages to by-pass using his mother tongue as he hated his mother:

    Babouillec published another book a few months ago, in which she describes the pain of being a brilliant autistic young woman unable to speak a word:

    Finally, there's the almost forgotten Jean-Pierre Martinet who is scarcely remembered in his own country for his wonderful and terrifying novel Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche) (1978; repr. with slight amplification 2008). A failure, he drank himself to death at 48.

    My reviews may be in English, but unfortunately not one of these works has been translated.

  8. I have to add that anyone seriously interested in 'outsider writers' must to have some knowledge of Blavier's lifetime work of love.

    1. I read your interesting links and posts last October. I share your dismay that the works you discussed haven't been translated.

    2. Interesting topic. In Belgium, in 2020, an academic literary study by Arnout de Cleene was published, called 'Outsiderliteratuur,' which ofcourse translates as 'Outsider literature.'

      In 2021, Belgian literary magazine DW B (Dietsche, Warande en Belfort), devoted an edition to outsider literature as well. I know, because I'm proudly featured in it with two poems. Never thought of myself as an outsider in literature before thát happened.