British and Irish Literature Julian Barnes
Vanessa Guignery
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0168


Julian Barnes (b. 1946) is an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist who received considerable praise in 1984 with the publication of Flaubert’s Parrot, a book that, together with A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), defies categorization. Barnes belongs to a generation of British writers (including Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Graham Swift) who came to prominence in the 1980s at a time when suspicion toward the main tenets of realism, foundational grand narratives‚ and the figure of the stable and reliable narrator led many authors to disrupt and subvert conventional modes, favor historiographical metafiction and postmodernist skepticism‚ and experiment with narrative strategies. Thus, a number of scholars have examined Barnes’s work through the prism of postmodernism on the grounds of the metafictional dimension of some of his books, his transgression of realist strategies and reliance on various forms of intertextuality, and his mistrust of truth claims and fondness for fragmentation, polyphony‚ and generic hybridity. Several of his books (fictional and nonfictional) have been analyzed for the way in which they challenge the borders that separate existing genres, texts, arts‚ and languages and, thereby, oscillate among novel, essay, biography‚ and meditation. However‚ the restrictive label of postmodernism can apply to only part of Barnes’s production‚ as other novels published throughout his career are inscribed within a more conventional and realistic framework—in particular, such early books as Metroland (1980), Before She Met Me (1981), and Staring at the Sun (1986)—and his most recent production is marked by a less ironic and subversive mood and a more personal, subdued‚ and melancholy tone, for example in The Sense of an Ending (2011), which won the Man Booker Prize; The Noise of Time (2016); and The Only Story (2018). Barnes has also been praised for his art as an essayist and a short-story writer. Drawing from a variety of critical and theoretical approaches, scholars have examined such recurrent themes and concerns in Barnes’s work as memory, art, love, longing, death, or Englishness. They have also probed his self-reflexive questioning relating to the evasiveness of truth, the irretrievability of the past, the construction of national identity‚ and the relationship between fact and fiction.

General Overviews

The first monograph devoted to Barnes’s fiction was published in the United States (Moseley 1997) and offers a useful introduction to his seven novels from Metroland (1980) to The Porcupine (1992), his detective novels published under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh (1980–1987), the short stories in Cross Channel (1996), and the essays collected in Letters from London, 1990–1995 (1995). Four monographs published in the United Kingdom followed, mostly taking a chronological approach and providing a wide range of perspectives and critical approaches. Pateman 2002 and Childs 2011 offer close textual readings of each publication in turn while also pointing to key recurring thematic preoccupations, such as love, death, memory, truth, politics, art, history, and religion. Guignery 2006 is a guide to essential criticism of the novels, detective fiction, short stories, and essays up to Barnes’s second collection of short stories The Lemon Table (2004). Holmes 2009 also proposes an overview of the critical responses to Barnes’s work after offering extensive readings of all novels until Arthur & George (2005). Guignery 2009 includes ten essays by various scholars who mainly focus on Barnes’s books published between 1998 (England, England) and 2008 (Nothing to Be Frightened Of). Groes and Matthews 2011 presents nine essays by established scholars of British contemporary literature, while Tory and Vesztergom 2014 includes pieces by doctoral students from Hungary and a guest contributor from Poland. Guignery 2020 charts the genesis of all of Barnes’s major novels and Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008) through an examination of his archives preserved at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin.

  • Childs, Peter. Julian Barnes. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2011.

    One of the most insightful and comprehensive examinations of Barnes’s novels from Metroland to Arthur & George and of the short stories in Cross Channel and The Lemon Table. Childs proposes a chronological approach, examining each book in turn, but he also points to recurrent thematic concerns, such as memory, history, representation, belief, truth, identity, love, and death.

  • Groes, Sebastian, and Sean Matthews, eds. Julian Barnes. New York: Continuum, 2011.

    This rich collection includes nine contributions by renowned scholars of contemporary British literature, including several (Childs, Guignery, Moseley) who published monographs on Barnes; his webmaster (Ryan Roberts), who did archival research on Flaubert’s Parrot; and his Bulgarian translator (Dimitrina Kondeva), who shares some of Barnes’s correspondence with her about the writing process of The Porcupine.

  • Guignery, Vanessa. The Fiction of Julian Barnes. A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    A comprehensive overview of the essential criticism on Barnes’s work, drawing from a selection of reviews, interviews, essays, and books. Covers the novels, short stories, detective fiction, and essays in a chronological order (up to The Lemon Table published in 2004), presenting and assessing key critical interpretations and considering such aspects as Barnes’s use of language, treatment of history, obsession, love, and the relationship between fact and fiction.

  • Guignery, Vanessa. Julian Barnes from the Margins: Exploring the Writer’s Archives. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

    An analysis of Barnes’s archives (notebooks, drafts, miscellaneous notes, manuscripts, typescripts, and correspondence) to chart his creative process in eight novels from Metroland to The Sense of an Ending and in his memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of. The book also examines the unpublished material (especially A Literary Guide to Oxford dating from the 1970s) and offers interludes in the form of an unconventional chronology and a dictionary.

  • Guignery, Vanessa, ed. Special Issue: Worlds within Words: Twenty-First Century Visions on the Work of Julian Barnes. American, British and Canadian Studies 13 (December 2009).

    A collection of ten essays on Barnes, including texts by Childs and Holmes. The essays explore the issue of Englishness and the definition of national identity in England, England and Arthur & George, as well as the themes of ageing, death, and religion in The Lemon Table and Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Available online.

  • Holmes, Frederick M. Julian Barnes. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    An insightful and accessible examination of Barnes’s ten novels from Metroland to Arthur & George. The book includes a timeline of key dates, biographical information, extensive readings of the novels, and an overview of critical responses. It places Barnes’s work in historical and theoretical context and examines his literary techniques, representation of history, and treatment of love.

  • Moseley, Merritt. Understanding Julian Barnes. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

    The first monograph devoted to Barnes’s work, pursuing a chronological line from Metroland to The Porcupine with chapters on the detective fiction, the short stories, and nonfiction. The book offers an accessible introduction to Barnes’s main themes and narrative techniques.

  • Pateman, Matthew. Julian Barnes. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2002.

    A short but thorough chronological examination of Barnes’s nine novels up to Love, etc (2000). The book shows how Barnes pushes the limits of the novel form through narrative inventiveness and explores such themes as love and friendship, faith, truth, justice, politics, and art.

  • Tory, E., and J. Vesztergom, eds. Stunned into Uncertainty: Essays on Julian Barnes’s Fiction. Budapest: Eötvös Loránd University, 2014.

    A collection of eight essays by doctoral students from Hungary on seven different novels, including The Sense of an Ending, and one contribution by Polish scholar Wojciech Drąg on “Religion, Art and Love in the Early Novels of Julian Barnes.”

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