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20th Century British Novel

In the twentieth century, prose fiction circulated in a highly stratified literary marketplace. To grapple with “the novel” in this century, therefore, is to come to grips with the form’s plurality. Publishers and critics sorted an ever-greater quantity of novels into ever-proliferating categories of genre and aesthetic type for an ever-more diverse readership. Such differentiation was well underway in the Victorian era, which was already busily generating reproducible modes, including the detective novel and the imperial romance. In the twentieth century, however, the production and reproduction of genres became subject to new institutional forces as publishers and periodicals competed and collaborated with new university programs in literature to codify, contest, and disseminate literary tastes. If London remained the organizational hub for an increasingly global book trade, the British university was responsible for formulating and then exporting a discipline organized around a canon of English literature. That canon’s exact parameters were frequently disputed, however, depending on who was speaking and from where.

A substantial amount of what London published and Cambridge privileged was fiction that promised to explain how cosmopolitan institutions including the book trade were altering language and culture within Britain and around the world. This was not the only change that the novel confronted, for new media ranging from film to the internet threatened to make print fiction a thing of the past. As it turned out, the novel’s highly segmented market proved remarkably resilient. While certain sorts of novels acquired newly privileged cultural status thanks to English department curricula, others benefited from the publicity of international literary competitions including the headline-grabbing Booker Prize, and still others thrived thanks to one-click ordering from online retailers such as Amazon.

The Modernist Market for Novels

In its very form, Lord Jim (1900) by Joseph Conrad presents the increasing segmentation of the literary marketplace. The book’s first half is a dense study in professional responsibility and imperial politics. Character motivation and descriptive language alike share a “magnificent vagueness,” to quote the narrator, Marlow, “a glorious indefiniteness” that readers have learned to recognize not only as particularly Conradian but also as more generally indicating the pleasures of modernist textual difficulty (chap. 11). The novel’s second half promises starkly contrasting pleasures: it features pirates in search of buried treasure, a white man’s love affair with a tropical maiden, and a heroic stand-off. This is the stuff of what Fredric Jameson calls “the various ‘degraded’ subgenres into which mass culture” is carved up (1981, Political Unconscious, 207). Conrad’s fiction binds even as it differentiates high literary and popular forms. The Secret Agent (1907), with its story of anarchists attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, is as much a modernist classic as a thriller akin to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy (1938), and John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), all of which proved eminently adaptable to film. As Padmini Mongia reminds us, Conrad is thought of as a British novelist “associated with the ‘third world’” precisely because he lends ambiguity to the imperial adventure tales of the Victorian age (2005, “Between Men,” in Conrad in the Twenty-First Century, ed. P. Mallios, et al., 98). As foils or forerunners, his novels are a presence in postcolonial fictions by writers from Chinua Achebe to Arundhati Roy. Lord Jim not only signals the fragmenting of British fiction in the twentieth century, but also its globalization.

British Literature EssayBoth of these tendencies were surely aided by turn-of-the-twentieth-century overhauling of the book business. Publishers turned away from expensive three volume “triple-deckers” priced for lending libraries in favor of cheaper single-volume novels priced for individual readers. Both Peter Keating and Thomas Strychacz recount how publishers negotiated this transition and focused on more neatly specified audiences. The result, Henry James observes, was a marketplace “subdivided as a chess-board, with each little square confessing only to its own kind of accessibility” (1898, “American Letters,” in Literary Criticism, ed. L. Edel, 653). Consuming fiction in this environment is not only early twentieth-century literature’s precondition, but also one of its themes. Jennifer Wicke identifies reflexivity in the bookstall scenes of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), whose signature opening description of a high street in London is a “prism to point to the multiple strands of the market” (14).

This market thrived in part because of Victorian educational reform. According to Alexis Weedon, the reading public in England and Wales more than tripled between 1841 and 1901, and the imperial audience for fiction grew rapidly too (2003, Victorian Publishing, 51). Ann Ardis notes that women writers and readers were widely perceived as the biggest winners of mass literacy: “New publishing houses, new audiences for fiction, new publication formats: all were seen to give women writers . . . a distinct advantage in the literary marketplace” (43). One result was New Woman fiction, a turn-of-the-century mode whose experimental styles and scandalous representations of sexually active working women excited readers and prepared them for the politics and prose of modernism. The New Woman and her novels circulated globally: novels by authors from the British Isles such as Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893), H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909), and Dorothy Richardson’s multi-volume Pilgrimage (1915–38) belong on shelves alongside fictions by South Asian writers including Krupabai Satthianadhan’s Kamala (1894), G. Ishvani’s Girl in Bombay (1947), and works by writers from China such as Eileen Chang’s novella The Golden Cangue (1943).

Cosmopolitan British Fiction

The New Woman novel helped establish an expectation that revised styles of writing would make visible revised social relations. Urban tomes such as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses exemplify this rule by describing the nitty-gritty of city life in a manner that focuses attention on literary technique. Mrs. Dalloway gives one corner of London a neighborhood feel by intertwining observations attributed to multiple characters. Ulysses anchors its fragmented narrative in place with references of varying obscurity to locations within Dublin. At the same time, the novel plugs Dublin into a world of letters by referring to written works from an engagingly heterogeneous archive. What Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway do for the city, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) do for the self. In Erich Auerbach’s account of Woolf’s “stylistic peculiarity,” To the Lighthouse synthesizes “intricacies of life,” manifests “the dream-like wealth of a process of consciousness,” and so completely dethrones “exterior events” that their only remaining service is “to release and interpret inner events” (1953, Mimesis, 537–38).

Emphasis on inner lives is not necessarily incommensurate with innovative depiction of the larger world. Jameson shows how E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) employs synecdoche to situate its renovation of the self in an expansively global setting (1990, “Modernism and Imperialism,” in Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature). One character’s musing about the Great North Road calls up a network of roadways whose links to London and the world of commerce are “suggestive of infinity” (chap. 3). Experiment in synecdochic depiction and narrative focalization enabled such diversely set novels as Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Frederick Rolfe’s The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1934) to turn a provincial South Asian city, a transatlantic crossing, and Venice’s waterways into milieus equally well-suited for representing consciousness and invoking global connectivity.

The diversity of setting that marked early twentieth-century fiction was itself a sign of the times: the British novel was in thrall to the cosmopolitan. Novels documented the amplification of commercial tendencies from the nineteenth century, including a heightened interconnection among various parts of the British Empire and beyond, as well as increased traffic in imported goods and ideas that affected life in even the most rural of regions. Such incursions took many forms, from the importation of American techniques of scientific management in the Midlands industrial town of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) to the eclecticism of the country estate with its Egyptian obelisk and fountain uprooted from “a piazza of southern Italy” of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945, chap. 4).

Paradoxical though it may sound, emphasizing the cosmopolitan was British fiction’s way of defining locality. When novels attempted, as Jed Esty puts it, to recover “an old insular culture from within the bloated, multicultural empire,” they confirmed how significantly that empire was reshaping national, regional, and local ways of life around the world (9). Nostalgia for the native was but the flip side of affection for the exotic. Early twentieth-century fiction habituated its readers to the discovery of discordant alien stuff in every sort of locale. Fiction was especially invested in revealing the linguistic traces of imperial traffic. Ulysses depicts the city of Dublin as defined by commerce with Scotland, England, Europe, and the larger world, which the novel evokes in the disparate languages that compose its “Oxen of the Sun” chapter (chap. 14). This chapter incorporates everything from Anglo-Saxon to what Joyce described as “a frightful jumble of pidgin English,” as it leads readers through a polyvocal assemblage of almost, but not quite, English sentences, testimony to lexical cross-pollination altering English language and literature not only in Ireland but everywhere else in the age of empire (qtd. in D. Gifford and R. J. Seidman, 1988, “Ulysses” Annotated, 441).

Literary Networking

If empire provided raw material for novelistic contemplation of cosmopolitanism, it also engendered new mobility for writers, readers, and their work. This in turn invigorated what Raymond Williams calls “communities of the medium” in universities and cities worldwide (1989, Politics of Modernism, 45). The Bloomsbury Group, which spun out of Cambridge but settled in London, epitomized such a collective. The group included both Woolf and Forster and supplemented its Anglo membership with South Asian and West Indian affiliates. Networks also formed in London and Paris around editors and artists such as Wyndham Lewis and Ford Madox Ford. Lewis edited the short-lived but influential magazines Blast (1914–15) and The Enemy (1927–29), while writing novels that included Tarr (1918) and the satire of literary hobnobbing The Apes of God (1930). Ford edited the equally influential English Review (1908–1909) and The Transatlantic Review(1924–25), in which a host of familiar modernists found publication, while his own literary reputation hangs largely on The Good Soldier (1915) and Parade’s End (1924–28). The map in the preface to Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank reveals at a glance how Paris became a hotspot for English language writers in the interwar period (xii–xiii). As Lawrence Rainey shows, networking among these groups emphasized business as well as art, incorporating “strands of patronage, consumption, collecting, and speculation,” an “intricately interwoven” fabric of literary investment, production, and circulation (65).

The appearance of novels by West Indian migrants, including C. L. R. James’s Minty Alley (1936), presaged the wider integration of British literary circles. C. L. Innes observes that the “1930s and 1940s saw an increasing presence in the major British cities, and especially London, of intellectuals from the colonies, and many of them played a key part in British intellectual and cultural life” (179). Association rarely meant assimilation. Susheila Nasta observes that Mulk Raj Anand was enough of an outsider to Bloomsbury that Untouchable (1935) was read by some as commentary on the isolation of an Indian intellectual living in London (30). It bears pointing out, however, that an outsider’s stance was precisely what white British modernists themselves aspired to provide. When Forster praised Anand as “an Indian who observed from the outside,” he described a stance that mirrored his own in A Passage to India (Preface, Untouchable, vi). Moreover, from the perspective of a publisher’s accountant, there might have appeared little difference among the now celebrated modernist classics and such books as the Indian novelist R. K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends (1935), which received warm reviews but seemed unlikely to sell better in Britain than the likes of the equally well-regarded Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, which appeared the same year. Furthermore, when Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud (1937) was banned for obscenity in its portrayal of a British official who kills a tea-plantation worker and attempts to rape his daughter, it joined a long list of censored modernist tomes that includes Ulysses and Women in Love. To make such comparisons is not to argue that the unique potential of South Asian fiction was lost on publishers such as Stanley Unwin and editors like Aubrey Menon, who eyed a bilingual Indian as well as domestic British market. Ruvani Ranasinha recounts Raja Rao’s debate with his publisher over which preface- writer would better boost Asian sales of his novel Kanthapura (1938), E. M. Forster or the Oxford University philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975; 26).

Developments in the global novel trade depended upon technological advances that were also grist for the mill of fictional representation. Stephen Kern observes that the “telephone, wireless telegraph, X-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane” all came into general use during the early decades of the twentieth century (1). Their appearance facilitated the breaking down of barriers “horizontally across the face of the land and vertically across social strata” (316). Novels presented technological change as altering the lived experience of time and space. Although it has been conventional to understand such change as creating a sense of crisis, David Trotter argues that novels by the likes of Joyce, Lawrence, Lewis, Wells, and Woolf actually tended to consider technological innovations like the cinema with curiosity: “apprehensive, perhaps, and often scornful, but also convinced that the camera’s-eye view” might be appropriated as a novelistic device (2007, Cinema and Modernism, 10).

The Novel in the “English School”

The novel’s relationship with the mass media evolved as the novel was elevated into an object of university study. Few figures deserve greater credit for facilitating its rise than F. R. Leavis, whose The Great Tradition (1948) established a preliminary canon running from George Eliot to Joseph Conrad. As numerous commentators have observed, Conrad the Polish immigrant is joined in Leavis’s tradition by the American Henry James, a paradoxical formulation that made Leavis’s model of English literature highly flexible. Leavis treats the novel as a universal medium that could nevertheless become rooted to local particularity. As Francis Mulhern puts it, Leavis treats novelists such as James and Conrad as successful in crafting a recognizably English, i.e., British, idiom and literature because they relieve themselves of “circumstantial [i.e., not British] beginnings” (260). Even as Leavis emphasized imports, Simon Gikandi shows that his model became exportable: “Debates about literature in Africa throughout the 1960s and 1970s were . . . attempts to show that African literature in English could make the same exclusive claims that F. R. Leavis had made for English literature in England” (649).

At Cambridge’s Downing College, Leavis lobbied on behalf of literature among the disciplines. In “A Sketch for an “English School”” (1943), he argues that English literature “trains, in a way no other discipline can, intelligence and sensibility together” (34). This argument was symptomatic of a drive to present English as “the humane discipline, the modern substitute for philosophy and theology,” notes the historian Harold Perkin (1989, Rise of Professional Society, 395). It is “perhaps the best example,” he continues, of a field that successfully professionalized work on “subject matter [previously] accessible to the laity” (395–96). Although their work was obviously crucial to this process, novelists themselves were unevenly professionalized. They relied on campaigns like Conrad’s extended efforts to persuade editors, agents, and critics to treat his labor as expert in transforming adventure plots into art. Conrad’s attempt may appear less eccentric if we remember that many of the disciplines we now recognize as such were only just beginning to form. Ethnographers like Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), now widely credited as a founder of British anthropology, needed to do as much persuading as any novelist to earn recognition for his specialized method of study and writing. Louis Menand argues, further, that radical differences in techniques for securing disciplinary distinction ought not keep us from recognizing a certain commonality among even the most antipathetic of experts: “the manner in which the modern artist tried to keep his ideological distance from the businessman, to guard the autonomy of his work, was also one of the ways in which the artist and the businessman were both, in spite of their self-conceptions, bound together” (1987, Discovering Modernism, 100–101).

Literary London after WWII

Substantial geopolitical and economic changes in the 1940s and 1950s set the stage for allegiances among new migrants and old modernists in the reconstruction of London’s cosmopolitan literary scene after WWII. Austerity measures were severe. Bread was rationed, though it had not been during the war itself, and paper was rationed through 1948. The governmental bureaucracy was transformed as the welfare state emerged. The 1947 independence of India and Pakistan combined with the Suez Crisis of 1956 to confirm the end of Britain’s status as a singular world power. And the SS Empire Windrush’s docking at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 with hundreds of Jamaican immigrants on board signaled a new era in the long history of immigration to Britain. Such was the backdrop for the collaboration described by Peter Kalliney, as “members of London’s interwar modernist scene—including T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Roy Fuller, Louis MacNeice, and John Lehmann—took an active interest in Caribbean literature. Just as important, Caribbean writers reciprocated by accepting this patronage and developing modernist techniques in new directions” (91). At the same time as newly emigrated novelists from the once and former colonies found the support of modernist patrons, some also found an institutional home at the British Broadcasting Corporation. V. S. Naipaul, whose A House for Mr. Biswas appeared in 1961, oversaw the BBC’s literary review Caribbean Voices, which brought attention to such works as George Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954) and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956). G. V. Desani, the Indian author of All About H. Hatterr (1948), worked for the BBC as well, much to the chagrin of Anthony Burgess, who bemoaned the fact that Desani and Ireland’s Flann O’Brien, author of At Swim-Two- Birds (1939), had to subsidize their experimental prose with journalistic labor.

All About H. Hatterr indicated anew the extent to which the British book market was defined by its niches. Desani’s novel sold well in the British Isles, but as a “coterie pleasure,” Burgess noted, “being taken very seriously indeed by the brighter academic critics” (1970, All About H. Hatterr, 9–11). Those same critics took seriously a range of now canonical mid-century fictions such as Malcolm Lowry’s love triangle and political allegory Under the Volcano (1947), William Golding’s desert-island tale of savage schoolboys Lord of the Flies (1954), Samuel Beckett’s rebarbative modernist trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (1951–53), as well as Burgess’s dystopian A Clockwork Orange (1962). Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75) takes on the challenge of narrating the history of the generation that came of age in the 1920s by tracing changing associations among a group of friends and relations over the course of twelve volumes.

In the same era, second-wave feminism heralded novels whose visibility rivaled those of the fin-de-siecle New Woman novels. These included such formally and thematically disparate works as Doris Lessing’s influential presentation of personal and political collapse, The Golden Notebook (1962), Angela Carter’s first in a series of wildly experimental novels, Shadow Dance (1966), and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), with its narration of a colonial back story to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). Kingsley Amis and the writers known as the Angry Young Men carried the flag for an antagonistically muscular English realism opposed equally to the formal experimentation of modernism and to an effeminate sensibility they associated with the Leavisite approach to literary study. Detective novels by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh continued to appear steadily into the 1960s, although their most celebrated books may have been behind them. Spy and suspense fiction acquired new life in the Cold War (ca. 1945–91), with the appearance of James Bond in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953) and the upmarket fare of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The Third Man (1949). In the realm of fantasy, meanwhile, J. R. R. Tolkien followed up his 1937 The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings (1954–55).

The Decolonization of British Fiction

The centripetal force London exerted on writers, publishers, and critics was balanced and arguably overwhelmed by centrifugal tendencies that exacerbated the novel’s generic as well as geographic fragmentation. Paradoxically, by the end of the century this made it increasingly difficult to understand “The British Isles,” as naming a unity even as “British fiction” remained a relevant category. The breakup of British fiction was funded in part by the Arts Council of Great Britain, which, true to the precedent of Leavisite education, was committed in its very “structure . . . to supporting the diversity of regional culture,” Morag Shiach points out (2004, “Nation, Region, Place,” in Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature, ed. L. Marcus and P. Nicholls, 530). The critical connection between culture and fiction was provided by Ned Thomas’s The Welsh Extremist (1971), Francis Russell Hart’s The Scottish Novel (1978), and Robert Crawford’s Devolving English Literature (1992). Readers were presented with a tradition that, in Scottish fiction, includes Compton Mackenzie’s popular tale of a ship full of alcoholic liquor wrecked off the Outer Hebrides, Whisky Galore (1947), Muriel Spark’s novel of mentoring and betrayal, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), as well as late century contributions including Alasdair Gray’s simultaneously bleak and fantastical Lanark (1981); Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), with its jubilantly demotic rendering of the junkie lifestyle; and James Kelman’s Booker Prize winner How Late it Was, How Late (1994), a story of state administration, bureaucratic complexity, and police brutality in the highly stylized vernacular of its newly blind protagonist Sammy. Welsh novels in the second half of the century include Raymond Williams’s historical novel Border Country (1960); Alun Richards’s Home to an Empty House (1973), the story of a troubled marriage; and Stevie Davis’s World War II drama The Element of Water (2001). Among these Trainspotting and How Late stand out not only for thematizing the London/region dynamic but also for marginalizing “standard” English in their language.

The elaboration of parallel traditions of English-language fiction within Britain complemented the codification of regional and national novelistic traditions in the former empire. Although English study in the colonies was intended as a tool for disciplining elites, as Salman Rushdie observes, “those peoples who were . . . colonized by the language [were also] rapidly remaking it, domesticating it” (1990, Imaginary Homelands, 64). English language, literature, and culture were effectively Indianized and Africanized, in a process that simultaneously granted new specificity to what Rushdie calls the “English language . . . of England” (64–65). London publishers facilitated postcolonial canonization: Heinemann launched its African Writers Series in 1958 with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Although West Indian, South Asian, and Irish writers had long been active in British literary circles, the consolidation of parallel traditions fundamentally altered how the British novel was thought of and how it was taught. Postcolonial fiction’s rise made it difficult for even the most recalcitrant critics to ignore imperialism when teaching literary history and encouraged others to question the canon’s putative status as a record of Matthew Arnold”s “best that is known and thought in the world” (1864, “Function of Criticismat the Present Time”) or as the necessary foundation for a humane professional discipline a la Leavis. Instead, postcolonial criticism and fiction prodded educators and their students to reexamine the interaction between the novel and history as well as to redefine the meaning of cultural literacy and literary culture.

Within Britain, that reexamination and redefinition was part and parcel of domestic unrest. The 1958 Notting Hill and Nottingham attacks on West Indian immigrants found their legislative ally in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 and their rhetorical call to arms in Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. The 1970s and 1980s saw riot and legislation contribute in equal measure to the everpressing debate about what it meant to be British. The Race Relations Act of 1976 ensured that curricular reform would be a major venue for that debate. As Hazel Carby observes, position papers and education policy statements circulating in the act’s wake treated fiction as a device for teaching students to acknowledge and appreciate British multiculturalism. The Brixton riots of 1981 confirmed that multicultural Britain remained a work in progress. In a style that reminds some readers of magical realism and others of British modernism, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1989) provides a provocative account of ongoing tension by staging a riot in its pages, “rejoic[ing] in mongrelisation,” as the author puts it, while making the case against “the absolutism of the Pure” (394). Among the most evocative vehicles of impurity in the novel is the character Gibreel Farishta, who transforms into the Archangel and declares to the city spread out before him, “I am going to tropicalize you” (chap. 5).

Returning the ambivalent tropics of Lord Jim to the metropolis, The Satanic Verses became a comparable force in British letters. Subsequent fictions including Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album (1995) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) restage the burning of Rushdie’s novel in Bolton and Bradford, taking Rushdie’s tome as an occasion to incorporate arguments about the politics of representation into their narrative histories of British social life. These works assume that novels explain contemporary Britain to itself, just as the Arts Council said they should. A slew of late-century historical novels had much the same goal, although they often explain Britain differently. J. G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978) presaged a 1980s burst of renewed interest in the Raj and British imperial history, which more often took after the idealized portraits of Merchant—Ivory film productions than Farrell’s satire. The domestic heritage industry rejuvenated cultural investment in the English country house, a predilection captured by Prince Charles’s 1988 lament that “we allowed a terrible damage to be inflicted on parts of this country’s unique landscape and townscape” (1989, A Vision of Britain, 21). Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987) provides a counterpoint while contemplating empire’s traces on England’s picturesque countryside. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) complicates the notion of heritage further as its characters speculate about “how sexy the past must have been,” and its “queer peer” Lord Nantwich provides through his memoirs a highly personal colonial history of homoerotic desire (chap. 11).

Paul Gilroy lays out two competing problems that might be said to unite an otherwise diverse lot of British fictions at century’s end. “First is the idea of ‘conviviality,’” he submits, “the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities elsewhere” (2005, Postcolonial Melancholia, xv). The second is “post-imperial melancholia,” an ailment whose symptoms include selective memory about British Empire and its lingering effects (90). The cause of this ailment, Gilroy argues, is the same as that of conviviality: both originated “as soon as the natives and savages began to appear and make demands for recognition in the empire’s metropolitan core” (91). Accordingly, Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island (2004) finds as much evidence of conviviality as British racism in London during the Blitz (1940-41); Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) forges imaginative links between the imperial cities of Shanghai and London; and James Kelman’s Translated Accounts (2001) simultaneously solicits and evades questions about the status of English in the contemporary global order by rendering events in an unnamed “occupied territory or land” in the form of fifty-four narrative fragments “translated” for an English-reading audience (ix). If these novels offer compatible takes on matters historical and geopolitical, they also indicate the stylistic diversity of contemporary British fiction, from the realism of Levy to the formal abstraction of Kelman.

The Globalization of British Fiction

These novels circulated in a book market that changed every bit as substantially at the end of the twentieth century as at the beginning. Even before the online juggernaut Amazon entered the fray, chain bookstores Waterstone’s and Dillon’s were tilting the market’s balance of power away from publishers, agents, and authors, toward ever-larger retailers. In 1995, the repeal of the Net Book Agreement, which guaranteed set retail prices, ensured that steep discounting of novels would become the norm. Richard Todd’s Consuming Fictions describes these changes, which appeared amid a general climate of trade deregulation beginning in the 1970s, and benefited substantially from contemporaneous upgrades in communication technology. The internet has had contradictory effects: it is as conventional to note the book trade’s online successes as it is to claim that new media are driving the novel out of business.

A host of vehicles for promoting novels appeared in this same era. Among them the most significant is the well-funded and expertly advertised Booker Prize, first awarded in 1968. The early Booker pushed aside intriguingly morbid expressions of 1970s malaise such as The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) by Angela Carter, Birchwood (1973) by John Banville, and Crash (1973) by J. G. Ballard, in favor of a measured diversity: V. S. Naipaul won for In a Free State (1971), J. G. Farrell for The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and Iris Murdoch for The Sea, The Sea (1978). By the 1980s, the announcement of the Booker had become a mass media spectacle that guaranteed sales for shortlisted books by writers from diverse nations of origin, from South Africa’s J. M. Coetzee to Sri Lanka’s Michael Ondaatje, and India’s Arundhati Roy to Ireland’s Anne Enright. Other vehicles of novelistic excitement joined the Booker including the quarterly Granta, which promised “the end of the English novel” in 1980, the year after its inaugural issue, and the “Best of Young British Novelists” in a 1983 collaboration with the Book Marketing Council. In addition to Rushdie and Ishiguro, Granta’s list included Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Buchi Emecheta, and Ian McEwan. The Richard and Judy Book Club gave book promotion the polish of daytime TV: Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2004) was its first selection, while Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) won the “Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year” at the 2004 British Book Awards.

There has been a lively debate among journalists, reviewers, and scholars about the impact of such promotions on contemporary British fiction. The new visibility they bring to the processes whereby cultural value gets converted into economic worth leads Graham Huggan to consider the “global commodification” of novels like Smith’s White Teeth, and to investigate how publishers managed to “turn marginality . . . into a valuable cultural commodity” (vii–viii). Sarah Brouillette describes a new publishing imperialism in which “global market expansion” remains organized “in a few key cities” such as London (56). For James F. English, the current reign of prize culture means the era of ascribing an oppositional stance to the most elevated, perhaps difficult or experimental forms of fiction is over. “One can still refuse a prize,” he writes, “but the refusal can no longer be counted upon to reinforce one’s artistic legitimacy. . . . On the contrary . . . the scandal of refusal has become a recognized device for raising visibility and leveraging success” (221–22). “Commercial literature has not just come into existence recently,” Pierre Bourdieu observes, but the “boundary has never been as blurred between the experimental work and the bestseller” (1996, The Rules of Art, trans. S. Emanuel, 347). The example of Iain M. Banks, author of both bestselling “quality fiction” and science fiction, suggests that the opposition between high and low styles persists, even as particular authors and genres cross over that great divide. Banks’s The Wasp Factory (1984) is one of the Independent’s top 100 books of the twentieth century, while his science fiction series “the Culture” began with Consider Phlebas (1987).

By way of conclusion, it is worth remembering that modernist fiction and its boosters also stoked fear of a homogenizing market even as they labored to demarcate a niche within it. As Nicholas Daly pithily observes, we have become rightly skeptical of modernist fiction’s reputation as “poor but honest,” triumphing over “the shoddy cultural goods” that surrounded it: “modernism ambivalently courted the market; if it appeared bashful about commercial success, this sometimes worked all the better to attract it” (2007, “Colonialism and Popular Literature at the Fin de Si ecle,” in Modernism and Colonialism, ed. R. Begam and M. V. Moses, 19), As the range of styles, genres, themes, and countries of origin comprising “the British novel” ramified exponentially over the course of the twentieth century, the necessity of carving out a distinctive niche in an increasingly crowded market has remained as constant as the claim that any really important novel, whether widely read or not, will explain society to itself.

Bibliography:

  1. Ardis, A. (1990), New Women, New Novels.
  2. Benstock, S. (1986), Women of the Left Bank.
  3. Brouiellette, S. (2007), Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace.
  4. Carby, H. (1979), “Multicultural Fictions,” Stencilled Occasional Papers 58.
  5. Crawford, R. (1992), Devolving English Literature.
  6. English, J.F. (2005), Economy of Prestige.
  7. Esty, J. (2004), Shrinking Island.
  8. Gikandi, S. (2001), “Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality,” South Atlantic Quarterly 100: 627–58.
  9. Huggan, G. (2001), Postcolonial Exotic.
  10. Innes, C.L. (2002), History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain.
  11. Kalliney, P. (2007), “Metropolitan Modernism and its West Indian Interlocutors,” PMLA 122: 89–104.
  12. Keating, P. (1989), Haunted Study.
  13. Kern, S. (1983), Culture of Time and Space.
  14. Mulhern, F. (1990), “English Reading,” in Nation and Narration, ed. H. K. Bhabha.
  15. Nasta, S. (2002), Home Truths.
  16. Rainey, L. (1998), Institutions of Modernism.
  17. Ranasinha, R. (2007), South Asian Writers in Twentieth-Century Britain.
  18. Todd, R. (1996), Consuming Fictions.
  19. Wicke, J. (1994), “Mrs. Dalloway Goes to Market,” Novel 28:5–24.

See also:

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