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About this book

Nick Bentley provides a comprehensive survey of the most important debates in the criticism and research of contemporary British fiction. Vibrant and approachable, this authoritative guide:

analyses the criticism surrounding a range of British novelists including Monica Ali, Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Alan Hollinghurst, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson

explores experiments with literary form

examines current issues in the cultural politics of class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality

considers cutting-edge concerns relating to the neo-historical novel, the relationship between literature and science, literary geographies, and trauma narratives.

Engaging with key literary theories, and identifying present trends and future directions in the literary criticism of contemporary British fiction, this is an invaluable resource for students, teachers, researchers and scholars alike.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Studying and writing about contemporary fiction can be an intimidating experience as the object of study is constantly growing in a critical landscape that is developing and moving. Fortunately, several literary critics have tried to map this shifting terrain, and this book attempts to offer an examination of some of the key criticism of British fiction during the period from the mid-1970s to the present through a triangulation of the subject of study that constitutes British fiction in the contemporary period, the literary critics’ response to the fiction, and my own readings of both the novels and the critics. This can only ever be a partial account and much has had to be left out. Given the nature of the contemporary, the object of study is ever expanding both in terms of the production of fiction and the criticism that pertains to it, and this book can only offer a snapshot of this growing field.
Nick Bentley

Studying Form: Realism, Modernism, Postmodernism and After

Abstract
Several critical works concerned with identifying the predominant forms and modes taken in British fiction in the contemporary period offer as a starting point David Lodge’s famous image of the novelist standing at a formal crossroads at the end of the 1960s. According to Lodge, in one direction lay a continued engagement with realism as the true path of English (British) fiction. In the other direction was more and more innovative experimentation. The binary opposition of this image indicates some of the heated debates about the future of the novel in the preceding decades, which tended to centre on the response by postwar novelists to the modernists of the previous generation. Whereas writers such as William Cooper, Kingsley Amis, John Wain and, to a certain extent, the Angry Young Men championed a return to realism in the 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of experimental writers such as Christine Brooke-Rose, B.S. Johnson, Eva Figes and John Berger continued the experimental exploration of the modernists, often being influenced by literature outside of Britain such as the Beat generation writers in the United States and the nouveau roman in France.
Nick Bentley

Politics and Contemporary Fiction

Abstract
The period from the 1970s to the first two decades of the twentieth century has seen prominent changes in the political climate in Britain, distinguished perhaps by three distinct phases. The first of these was marked by end of consensus and return to confrontational politics where clear identification between left- and right-wing elements mapped relatively clearly onto the two major political parties of Labour and the Conservatives. This is perhaps identified most clearly in the election to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher in 1975, whose monetarist policies, attacks on the Trade Union movement, and the aim to push back public spending on the welfare state set the tone for much of the political climate for the next 20 years, especially after the Conservatives gained power in 1979. Thatcher is a figure that looms over the 1980s and beyond and clearly has had a profound impact on all aspects of cultural life in Britain, including the novel. She remains a controversial figure and, as Joseph Brooker has noted, she represents several contradictions in terms of conservatism and radicalism
Nick Bentley

Class

Abstract
The concept of social class is one that has attended the understanding of human social organization for at least the last three centuries and has been projected further back even than that. Perhaps the key thinker in this context is Karl Marx, and Marxism, or rather Marxisms, have been an important component of literary theory across the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Marx identified capitalist society as divided into two broad classes that are placed in continual struggle due to the exploitative nature of the system: the bourgeoisie are defined as those who own the means of production (factory owners, bosses, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers), while the proletariat are those who provide their labour in order to produce goods (the workers). Marxism argues that this system is inevitably exploitative, as in order for the bourgeoisie to make a profit they have to pay the workers less than the final value of the product they produce, the difference being what Marx calls the surplus value. In a competitive capitalist system, therefore, the bourgeoisie attempt to drive down wages to maximise their profits, while the workers (usually when organized into collective movements) attempt to force the employers to pay them more. For Marx, this system is not sustainable and eventually the proletariat will rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a system run on first socialist and then communist principles. Why is all this of importance to literary studies? One reason is that literature has been variously identified by Marxist critics as either being implicated in the promotion of dominant ideological beliefs or as offering a critical position, in the hands of certain writers, from which to interrogate and critique those dominant ideologies.
Nick Bentley

Black and Asian British Fiction

Abstract
One of the most important facets of contemporary British fiction is the impact of writers whose backgrounds can be traced to parts of the world that were former colonies of Britain. In the late 1940s and 1950s the necessity to provide labour for a country recovering from war meant that many people from Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia were encouraged to move to the United Kingdom to work and settle. This group came to be known as the Windrush generation, due to the ship the Empire Windrush that brought some of the first of this new group of people to Britain when it landed at Tilbury Docks in 1948. Alongside many types of skilled and unskilled labour arriving at this time were a number of already published and budding writers who, because of the cultural mechanics of colonialism, saw Britain (and London in particular) as the place in which to pursue their literary careers. Writers such as E.R. Braithwaite, Kamau Brathwaite, Beryl Gilroy, George Lamming, Doris Lessing, V.S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Samuel Selvon came to Britain during this period, many of whom recorded their experiences in fiction and memoirs that spoke both to the newly arrived immigrants and to the communities they had left behind, as well as to the established fiction-reading public in Britain.
Nick Bentley

Gender and Sexuality

Abstract
To attempt to trace the impact of feminism and gender studies on contemporary British fiction is a difficult task. The focus on gender is one of the most important ways in which literary studies has developed in the last 50 years or so and its influence on reading practices, the publishing world and literary criticism is immense. It is difficult to imagine any novel that does not in some way involve issues of gender; any novel that has characters is inevitably open to gendered readings even in genres such as fantasy and science fiction which might not necessarily include human subjects. What follows, therefore, can only be a cursory introduction to this core area of contemporary literary studies and it should be taken as read that any of the writers or novels discussed in the other chapters of this book could very easily have been included in this chapter. Having said that, it is possible to identify writers and novels that push issues of gender and sexuality to the forefront of their concerns and it is in this spirit of emphasis that this chapter will discuss Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) and a number of novels by Alan Hollinghurst and Ali Smith. The first section will also refer to other important writers of the postwar and contemporary period whose work has been closely linked with discourses of feminism, gender and sexuality, including Doris Lessing, Angela Carter and Nick Hornby.
Nick Bentley

Contemporary Historical Fiction

Abstract
One of the most important trends in contemporary British fiction is the attempt to address and re-write narratives of the past, and historical fiction has become both a source for best-seller status as well as, for certain works, much academic literary criticism. Of course, nearly all novels are historical in one sense in that they account for events that have happened in the past, often in the past tense, and the relationship between story-telling and time is one of the fundamental concerns in considering the way in which narratives are put together. As a genre, however, the historical novel suffered a certain decline in the first half of the twentieth century as it tended to be associated with either the classic romantic novel of writers such as Walter Scott or Victorian realist novels set in the past such as George Eliot’s Romola (1863) and Middlemarch (1872). There was, however, a resurgence in the critical attention paid to the history novel in the latter third of the twentieth century, often with a fresh interrogation of what it means to produce fiction about the past, and often with awareness of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories about the relationship between history and narrative fiction
Nick Bentley

Geographic Space and National Identity

Abstract
Alongside the return to history in much contemporary British fiction, there has also been a new set of critical concerns related to the way in which narrative fiction conveys and renders geographical space. Much of this has been fuelled by what has come to be known as the spatial turn in critical theory. This development occurs roughly concomitant to the rise of postmodernism as a set of cultural parameters and aesthetic characteristics, and several key theorists have discussed how fiction responded to this new understanding of space in the 1960s,1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, George Simmel, Edward Soja, David Harvey and Charles Jencks. A significant aspect of this spatial turn was related to the way in which theories about urban architecture began to move away from the modernist paradigms of Le Corbusier as set out in his Radiant City of 1935. By the 1960s, much of the modernist experimentation in terms of clean lines and a rationalized essentialist approach to city space was seen to have failed in practice. In the case of Britain, this became increasingly manifest in the decline of the high-rise architecture that more and more was associated with run-down council estates.
Nick Bentley

Literature and Science (Fiction)

Abstract
In a Rede Lecture of 1959, the novelist and scientist C.P. Snow spoke of what he saw as the increasing divide between the humanities and the sciences in the academies and in British culture generally. According to Snow, the ‘two cultures’ had been pursuing separate paths over the past half-century or more to the extent that they no longer entered into fruitful dialogue. In the years following this assessment, there has been the attempt, at least in some quarters, to link advances and research into the two fields and the novel has been a cultural site where a particularly fruitful dialogue between the sciences and the arts has developed. One genre that foregrounds the links between the sciences and literature is, of course, science fiction, which has a long tradition in Britain with writers such as Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and many others. This genre, however, has too often been looked down upon in twentieth-century criticism, rather than being given the serious critical attention it deserves. Arguably, this has changed in the last 30 years or so with a number of key debates in literary and cultural studies that have helped to re-evaluate the place of science fiction (and fiction that addresses issues of science) in literary studies more broadly. In this chapter I will look at a range of important critical, political and philosophical texts that have worked to close the gap identified by Snow and will go on to discuss two novels in detail that have garnered much critical attention in this area: Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Nick Bentley

Contemporary Trauma Narratives

Abstract
An important area of contemporary British fiction that has come to the fore over the last 30 years relates to trauma and traumatic experience. This follows the development of trauma theory with writers such as Cathy Caruth, Dominic LaCapra, Anne Whitehead, Roger Luckhurst, Mark Seltzer and Philip Tew engaging in the debates. Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that trauma is in fact one of the dominating conditions of the twentieth century, referring specifically to the two world wars, the Holocaust, and other examples of social relationships in which violence has been an integral part of maintaining power over groups or individuals. In this context, narrative fiction has played an important role in recording or coming to terms with these traumatic events and processes. Laurie Vickroy, for example, has claimed that Trauma narratives are personalized responses to this century’s emerging awareness of the catastrophic effects of war, poverty, colonization, and domestic abuse on the individual subject’. This has continued into the twenty-first century and much interest in this field has coalesced around the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, to the extent that the post-9/11 novel has become a category not only of American literature but also of British fiction. In addition to discussion of fiction that addresses trauma in relation to specific collective and individual experiences, and the focus on 9/11 fiction and criticism, this chapter will survey some important theories of trauma narratives (Caruth, LaCapra, Derrida) and explore the concepts of trauma culture (Luckhurst) and the traumatological (Tew) as they relate to contemporary British fiction.
Nick Bentley

Conclusion

Abstract
Literary criticism is always chasing its object of study. It follows in the wake of the primary texts themselves, and in that sense has a complex relationship with the contemporary, even more so perhaps than the fiction upon which it comments. In this book we have looked at the essential criticism of novelists and their work produced over the last 40 years or so, as well as the important theoretical conversations that have influenced and inflected that criticism. The division of this book into themed chapters represents the main categories in which the analysis of the fiction has been organized. This is not to say, of course, that there could not have been other themes that would have identified a different set of fictional works and a different range of critical work about them, and indeed the development of different angles of criticism in the future may offer a very different reading and understanding of the fiction that has been produced in our period. It may be that some of the writers and novels that have been prominent in the contemporaneous criticism will drop into obscurity, while others will emerge as indicative of some thematic or theoretical focus as yet unspecified.
Nick Bentley
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