In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary British Novel

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Critical Studies
  • Reference Works and Textbooks

British and Irish Literature Contemporary British Novel
Julia Jordan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0096


There is, of course, no single tendency embodied by the contemporary British novel, and the breadth and diversity of the critical field around it reflects this. Indeed, the period has been marked by a desire to expand the range of writing deemed worthy of serious critical attention. The novel as a genre is itself in rude critical health, invigorated by this very sense of its own vitality and diversity, and the critical handwringing about its demise that dominated discussion from the 1960s to the 1980s is long gone. Elsewhere, this gives way to an equally questionable narrative that credits the reinvigoration of the novel to a particular generation of novelists—Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, et al. The major critical studies since the millennium are split between using the 1970s and 1980s as the beginning of the contemporary period, a distinction perhaps shaped by the frequency with which the contemporary has been conflated with the postmodern—a characteristic of scholarship in this field that has only recently met with sustained resistance. “British,” too, is an unstable and shifting category, especially considering that literary studies since the early 1970s has seen a growing emphasis on cultural hybridity and regional identity. This brings into focus the problem of classifying many of these novels as British when they are engaged in self-conscious dialogue with fiction from different countries and are written by authors who may not define themselves as narrowly or primarily “British.” Nevertheless, there are clearly broad collective impulses and tendencies to be identified in this field of study, and many of the most important critical studies in this article share a desire to do justice to the breadth of the contemporary British novel while being careful not to neuter its diversity. The scholarly world has been slow in recognizing the cultural value of middlebrow and populist fiction, but these categories, and the other popular genres that fall under the rubric “contemporary British novel”—including romantic fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and emergent forms from ladlit to cyberpunk—not only merit their own articles but are beginning to radically change the study of contemporary literature. Though necessarily selective, and itself inevitably subject to the sorts of critical shifts and evolutions outlined above, this article is intended to provide an outline of the way that the study of the contemporary British novel has developed from the 1980s to the present.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

What does it mean to be contemporary? Contemporaneity is clearly hard to pin down; many of the earliest and most influential studies of the contemporary to have emerged since the turn of the 21st century or so cast their net to include the early 1970s. These studies tend to focus on a particular set of major authors that typically features Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis but also regularly includes Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Perhaps the most interesting overviews are those that are open to a widening canon of authors and a broadening of critical paradigms with which to view them. English 2006 takes stock of the canonization of emerging fields in the contemporary, especially race, postcolonialism, and queer studies. David James’s twin studies (James 2011 and James 2012, cited under the Novel, Modernism, and Postmodernism) have begun to explore the legacies and reimaginings of the modernist project in the contemporary novel. The contemporary novel has a complex relationship to inheritance that itself questions the determinism of being “postmodernist,” often choosing instead to see modernist techniques as something inherent and possible in all literature; early-21st-century works by Will Self and Tom McCarthy are examples of this particular reanimation. According to this dominant narrative, the experimental novels of the 1950s and 1960s had failed, being comprehensively beaten by a cozy, parochial neorealism whose insularity was subsequently reinvigorated by magical realism, the postcolonial reimaginings of Britishness, and the postmodern metafiction of the 1980s and beyond. Gąsiorek 1995 was one of the earliest monographs to substantially challenge this view, defending realism as more complex than this binary allowed but also demolishing the idea that the situation had ever been this simple; Caserio 2009 is also useful on the realist inheritance. What follows is a list of the most-important interventions in this constant process of reevaluation. Head 2008 refutes critical complicity in literary studies and looks forward to a more conscious approach to the contemporary novel, and Stevenson 2004 provides a rigorous and authoritative account of various contexts. Lane, et al. 2003 demonstrates that the contemporary novel’s preoccupation with the past is symptomatic of nostalgia and a commodification of “retro” that seeks to render history as style. Leader 2002 provides an overview of the forces at play in this literary marketplace, and Morrison 2003 shows how the contemporary itself continually resists categorization.

  • Boxall, Peter, ed. Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511902727

    A very good full-length work on the novel in the 21st century.

  • Caserio, Robert L., ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel. Cambridge Companions to Topics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521884167

    Despite its scope, which is limited to the 20th century, this is an important guide to the development of the English novel and demonstrates lucidly the various directions it took in the postwar period. Particularly good on the relationship between realism and other fictional modes. Ideal for all levels.

  • English, James F., ed. A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction. Blackwell Concise Companions to Literature and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470757673

    Indispensible overview of the field. English’s emphasis is on positioning British fiction in terms of its relation to other cultures, and its participation in commercial systems of exchange—that is, relations among retailers, publishers, agents, and the literary marketplace. It also considers the notion of literary celebrity.

  • Gąsiorek, Andrzej. Post-war British Fiction: Realism and After. London: Edward Arnold, 1995.

    One of the earliest serious monographs of its kind, both formally and theoretically, on British fiction from the 1950s to the 1990s. Gąsiorek explores the dichotomy between realism and experimentalism, arguing compellingly that any such characterization of realism is reductive.

  • Head, Dominic. The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond. Blackwell Manifestos. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444304718

    Head’s book proceeds from an understanding of critical and reading practices as fundamental to cultural identity, taking into account a globalized literary culture that constructs our reading of texts.

  • Lane, Richard J., Rod Mengham, and Philip Tew, eds. Contemporary British Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003.

    Very useful and wide ranging, containing material on postcolonial hybridity, regionalism and the urban, and an array of major early-21st-century novelists. Emphasizes the late-20th- and early-21st-century revitalization of the historical novel and explores contemporary fiction’s paradoxical concern with other times and places.

  • Leader, Zachary, ed. On Modern British Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    An idiosyncratic and inventive contribution to the field, which analyzes the contemporary in terms of tradition, nationality, genre, the market, and literary reviewing.

  • Morrison, Jago. Contemporary Fiction. London: Routledge, 2003.

    Shows how the contemporary exists in the interstices among national cultures, genders, and histories. Accessible and useful, containing discussions of Angela Carter, McEwan, and Rushdie, among others.

  • Stevenson, Randall. The Oxford English Literary History. Vol. 12, 1960–2000: The Last of England? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Indispensible guide for students and scholars of the field. Traces the novel’s development and analyzes its social, political, and cultural contexts with rigor and lucidity.

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