Postwar fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s was characterized by novels of class mobility, sexual adventure and realist aesthetics. Women were still under-represented in publishers’ prestigious fiction lists, but influential texts appeared from writers as culturally varied as Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, George Lamming, Colin MacInnes, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and David Storey. Their novels displayed a greater interest in culture and society, and concentrated on such issues as class, education, the north/south divide, politics and race. To this extent, in contrast to the prewar modernist writers, they were less concerned with pushing at the boundaries of art and the medium of prose than with exploring the material relations of contemporary social experience. This emphasis is consonant with a social and formal shift in the concerns of the theatre (the kitchen sink dramas of John Osborne or Shelagh Delaney), poetry (Philip Larkin and ‘the Movement’), and cinema (the ‘gritty northern realism’ films of English workingclass life, such as Billy Liar, Room at the Top and A Kind of Loving, all based on recent novels). The 1950s also saw a notable rash of fantasy novels, with the completion of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, the start of C.S.Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, and the appearance of Tolkein’s epic The Lord of the Rings: these novels, which were in many ways Christian parables, and their popularity have been seen as a response to and retreat from the war, a subject which has been said to have produced no great British novel (unlike Catch-22 or The Naked and the Dead in the USA).
   In the 1960s, experimentalist writers such as Lawrence Durrell were still preoccupied with form (the composition of The Alexandria Quartet is based on the four dimensions of space/time) while realist novelists such as Margaret Drabble wrote variously about the ‘promiscuous generation’ or the national malaise. Other writers such as Anthony Burgess and Iris Murdoch sit between these two trends: Burgess because a novel such as A Clockwork Orange experiments in a radical way with both language and social trends, and Murdoch because her novels, in their plots and characterizations, contain both a concern with (at first existentialist) philosophy and a strong narrative drive. Murdoch, the first widely and consistently lauded postwar British woman writer, was at first placed by critics with the ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s, an indication of how a dominant trend can assimilate other voices. The 1960s also saw the first examples of postmodernist British novels, by John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Christine Brooke-Rose (Such), B.S.Johnson (Alberto Angelo), Eva Figes (Winter Journey), Andrew Sinclair (Gog) and Muriel Spark (The Driver’s Seat): self-conscious fictions which experiment with previous genres, toy with literary theory, question traditional character representations of a stable personal identity, and complicate organizations of narrative space and time, expressing the liberatory impulse of the decade in prose techniques. A different group of writers emerged in the 1970s, many of whom now constitute the established names of the 1990s. These were novelists who had not experienced the war, the eclipse of the British Empire or the struggles for teenage identity in the mid-1950s, but had grown up instead with high and popular culture, with the literary tradition and television, rock music, the welfare state and the Cold War. Martin Amis’s early novels, such as Dead Babies, marked a new ethos for a younger generation: drugs, parties, money, hedonism, consumer culture and a sometimes morbid treatment of sexuality, which was even more apparent in the first short fictions of Ian McEwan. An alternative fantastic, ornate and erotic prose became the recognizable style of Angela Carter in novels such as The Passion of New Eve, an allegory of the rebirth and self-fashioning of the women’s movement in the 1970s, and The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, a series of macabre, lush, sexualized versions of traditional fairy tales. Carter combined writing fiction with university teaching and critical writing. This is also the case with David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, who produced different varieties of the ‘campus novel’ in the 1970s. Bradbury’s The History Man satirized the sexual politics of redbrick universities, while Lodge’s Small World and Changing Places poked fun at literary theory, the international conference scene and transatlantic differences between the glamorous academic world of Euphoria State, California and the low-budget drabness of Rum-midge, England. The dominant themes of novels in the decade reflected in alternative ways the postwar shift in social attitudes, sexual mores, religious consciousness and youth movements, together with the growing Americanization of British culture. Politically, these novels sprang out of the collapse of the liberal consensus in the 1960s. Also from this perspective, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Children of Violence quintet combined an intense interest in socialist politics with an investigation into the forces that shaped women’s emotional and social lives since the war, while others of her novels appraised her own and South Africa’s post-colonial predicament. Also trying to assess the failure of liberalism, Paul Scott dissected the end of Empire in the Raj Quartet, a sustained attempt to deal with the colonial legacy that most writers, with the exception of Lessing, J.G.Farrell and Anthony Burgess seemed to want to ignore. Lessing also published allegorical fantasy and science fiction in the 1970s, from Briefing on a Descent into Hell to her Canopus in Argus: Archives series. Since then, other more popular science fiction writers (such as Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, and J.G.Ballard) and fantasy writers (such as Iain Banks, Douglas Adams, Clive Barker and Terry Pratchett) have pushed their genres into different realms of philosophical and psychological extremity, while retaining undercurrents of social comment, and gained cult status alongside the growth of horror movies and science fiction television series, products of the mainstream mass consumer culture which was widely and wrongly anticipated to bring about the commercial failure of the novel. Fiction in the 1980s, including Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, showed a postmodernist concern with history and its narrative construction (discussed as historiographic metafiction) which suggested that analysts of historiography needed to pay attention to the same prose effects as literary critics. Discourse, metaphor, fantasy, narration (different but related explorations in chronology, history and loss came in Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, Marina Warner’s The Lost Father and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time). Barnes’s earlier novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, described by John Fowles as ‘too good to win the Booker Prize’, played similar tricks with biography, as did D.M.Thomas’s The White Hotel and Peter Ack-royd’s The Last Will and Testament of Oscar Wilde. Ackroyd has gone on in the 1990s, with his studies of Charles Dickens and William Blake, to contest the boundary between biography and fiction from the other side, introducing overt rhetorical or literary techniques into his life stories. The comic social novel, along the lines of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, continues in the work of writers as varied as William Boyd, Beryl Bainbridge and Tom Sharpe. A.S.Byatt, in her tour de force Possession, brought together satirical slants on post-structuralist theory, the academic novel, detective fiction, the late Victorian romance and biography. Most significantly, Byatt succeeded in blending the social perspective of the liberal realist novel with a dissection of history, identity, and language more typical of postmodernist writing. The explicit treatment of heterosexual sex had ceased to be taboo following the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960. Also, from the momentum gained by an increasingly militant movement in the 1970s, gay and lesbian writing broke into the mainstream in the 1980s with such authors as Jeanette Winterson, Alan Hollinghurst and Maureen Duffy. Gender theory, body politics, queer theory and media interest in ‘hysterical illnesses’ all led to increased emphasis on sexuality and identity. Also, a number of new women’s presses (see women’s press) were founded in the 1970s and 1980s after the success of Virago in 1973. Emma Tennant, Fay Weldon and Pat Barker produced assertive but questioning novels that confronted chauvinism, patriarchy and male violence, while a lighter and more lyrical and romantic style of writing was admired in the work of Anita Brookner, Barbara Pym and Penelope Lively. More recent feminist novelists like Zoe Fairbairns and Sarah Dunant have remodelled masculinist genres such as the science fiction novel, detective fiction and crime thrillers. Fairbairns also founded the very productive Feminist Writers group with Sara Maitland, Michelene Wandor and Michèle Roberts. Britain’s only Nobel Prize-winning novelist since the war is William Golding (1983), whose continued concern with the interlocking of the material and spiritual planes was apparent in his trilogy To the Ends of the Earth, which began with Rites of Passage in 1980. Echoes of this sea-tale are found in Barry Unsworth’s Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger, a powerful condemnation of the eighteenth-century slave trade that exemplified the recent shift to a concern with reclaimed histories, colonialism, the black Atlantic, and racial, ethnic and religious differences. The most controversial work of fiction in the 1980s was Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, which brought book-burning to Britain’s streets and the fatwa from Iran. Rushdie’s earlier excoria-tion of Pakistan’s history since independence, Shame, had been banned in several countries and brought him many enemies, but The Satanic Verses, a novel of migrants and post-colonial reinscripitions mainly set in Ellowen Deeowen (London), provoked greater controversy on religious rather than political grounds. A defining moment in itself, the Rushdie Affair became the backdrop to Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 novel of racial tension and multicultural failure, The Black Album. Kureishi also, like Rushdie, considered the meeting of East and West in The Buddha of Suburbia, a portmanteau of trends of the 1970s that explored sexuality and politics, glam and punk rock, and suburban and metropolitan attitudes against a hybrid background of ambition and mysticism in Britain’s appropriation of India’s ‘spirituality’ but rejection of the transnational it had actively recruited from the Commonwealth since the 1950s. Kazuo Ishiguro also provided an understated but probing examination of British values in The Remains of the Day, a novel which took the formality and traditional hierarchies of his earlier stories set in Japan and transferred them to an analysis of class and nostalgia in England, where repression and master-slave relationships were shown to have infected and stultified both emotional and political action.
   Alasdair Gray, Scotland’s most experimental contemporary novelist, has been followed by such writers as James Kelman, Janice Galloway, William McIlvanney and Agnes Owen. The most well-known recent Anglo-Welsh novelists are Alice Thomas Ellis and Bernice Rubens, while Northern Ireland has produced one of the most consistently excellent British writers in Brian Moore, whose novel Black Robe approaches the Troubles imaginatively and tangentially through a story of settlers and natives in seventeenthcentury Canada.
   However, the contemporary period is most readily characterized in terms of decolonization and diaspora. For example, Indian fiction in English, concerned with migrant identity and colonial relationships, has revealed some of the most exciting writers of the last fifteen years: Vikram Seth, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kamala Markandaya, Amit Chaudhuri, Shashi Tharoor and Sunetra Gupta. While Steven Connor argues that amid these cultural cross-currents, transnational tensions and international writings, ‘it is now hard to be sure of what “the British novel” may be said to consist’ (Connor 1996:27), its examples are constantly being promoted and good fiction is appearing from the likes of Jane Gardam, Adam Thorpe, Jane Rogers, David Wilson, Jane Smiley, Sebastian Faulks and Joan Riley.
   See also: popular fiction; readership
   Further reading
    Connor, S. (1996) The English Novel in History 1950-95, London: Routledge (an incisive and wideranging appraisal with some excellent short analyses).
    Stevenson, R. (1986) The British Novel Since the Thirties, London: Batsford (now a little dated, but an immensely readable introduction all the same).
    Taylor, D.J. (1993) After the War: The Novel and England Since 1945, London: Chatto & Windus (a highly selective account, from an author with an axe to grind about the state of the novel, in the tradition of liberal criticism).
    Waugh, P. (1995) Harvest of the Sixties, Oxford: Opus (a comprehensive and authoritative review of literature since the 1960s).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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