Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

A collection of interviews with leading writers such as Julian Barnes, Jonathan Coe, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, Arundhati Roy and Will Self. Through these interviews the book explores and introduces a range of key themes in contemporary literature, raising questions about genre, history, postmodernism, celebrity culture and form.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
In the last decades of the twentieth century, celebrity authorship and the interview genre have become a central feature of contemporary writing. The concept of the ‘death of the author’ as delineated by Roland Barthes in the 1960s has progressively crumbled and been replaced by a greater visibility of the writer both in the work itself, through the insertion of metafictional comments and a growing tendency towards autobiographical writing, and outside the work, with authors taking part in public appearances at literary festivals, giving readings and engaging with the media. At the time of deconstructionism and formalist criticism, thinkers such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva argued against the concept of authorship or authority and prioritised words and language, which were to develop freely without being constrained by the iron hand of the writer. In ‘Death of the Author’, Barthes remarked: ‘To assign an Author to a text is to impose a brake on it, to furnish it with a final signified, to close writing’ (1968, p. 53). Barthes was not denying the existence of a producer of the text but was fighting against the divinisation and glorification of the author as the unique guardian of the definite meaning of the text: ‘As institution, the author is dead: his civil status, his biographical person have disappeared; dispossessed, they no longer exercise over his work the formidable paternity whose account literary history, teaching and public opinion had the responsibility of establishing and renewing’ (1973, p. 27).
Vanessa Guignery

1. Julian Barnes

Abstract
In 1983, after having published two fairly conventional novels, Julian Barnes (born in 1946) was selected by the Book Marketing Council as one of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ in a list which included Martin Amis, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Graham Swift. The next year, the outstanding Flaubert’s Parrot met with huge success, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and went on to win the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award and the Prix Médicis in the non-fiction category in France. To this date, the novel remains Barnes’s most celebrated book worldwide and, together with his fifth novel, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), the book has been hailed as an exemplary postmodernist text for its generic instability, its self-reflexive features, its epistemological concerns over the irretrievability of the past and its blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction. More than 15 years after its publication, the following interview focuses on this hybrid book which has become part of the contemporary literary canon, traces its genesis and addresses some of its most important issues which can be related to other works by Barnes but also to specific trends in twentieth-century literature.
Vanessa Guignery

2. Jonathan Coe

Abstract
In the mid-1980s, Jonathan Coe (born in 1961), just out of Cambridge, was working on his doctoral thesis on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones at Warwick University while at the same time writing his first novel, a fairly conventional Bildungsroman about a student in Cambridge. When he chanced upon the original and challenging work of B. S. Johnson, an experimental novelist of the 1960s–1970s, he fell so powerfully under his spell that he gave up the novel he was currently writing and started a new one, The Accidental Woman (1987), whose metafictional devices and narratorial interventions are very much indebted to B. S. Johnson. Twenty years later, in 2007, Coe published his eighth novel, The Rain Before It Falls, which once again centred on a female character and was written as a homage to Rosamond Lehmann (1901–90) and the female novelists of the early twentieth century published under the Virago Modern Classics imprint (Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Antonia White). Taking advantage of the 20-year span to have a retrospective look at Coe’s oeuvre, the following interview focuses more particularly on this recent novel and sheds light on the ways in which it differs from Coe’s previous work — that is, both from his relatively experimental first novels (The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love [1989], The Dwarves of Death [1990]), and from his great achievements in comic and political satire (What a Carve Up! [1994], The Rotters’ Club [2001], The Closed Circle [2004]). Coe also discusses his fascination for B. S. Johnson that led him to write a monumental biography, Like a Fiery Elephant. The Story of B. S. Johnson (2004), which won the Samuel Johnson Prize.
Vanessa Guignery

3. Kazuo Ishiguro

Abstract
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan but has lived in England since the age of five. The Japanese history and culture are particularly present in his first two novels, but Ishiguro has been mostly praised for his outstanding portrayal of a mythical England in The Remains of the Day (1989), which does not bear much resemblance to the England in which he himself grew up. After spending his childhood in the affluent, middle-class town of Guildford, Ishiguro read philosophy and English at Kent University and did a Master’s degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. He published his first short stories in 1981 and his first novel in 1982. The next year Ishiguro was selected by the literary magazine Granta as one of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ along with Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and others. Ten years later, in 1993, four judges — A. S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, bookseller John Mitchinson and Granta editor Bill Buford — identified the most talented writers of the new generation and Ishiguro was again included in the list together with, among others, Louis de Bernières, Alan Hollinghurst, Hanif Kureishi, Caryl Phillips, Will Self and Jeanette Winterson.
Vanessa Guignery

4. Hanif Kureishi

Abstract
Hanif Kureishi (born 1954) started his career as a playwright and in 1981 was voted Most Promising Playwright of the Year by the London Theatre Critics for his plays Borderline (1981) and Outskirts (1981). His early plays explored topics such as marginality and poverty, immigration and racism, gender differences as well as tensions between the community and the individual, which would later surface again in his novels. Many people discovered Kureishi’s world through the film directed by Stephen Frears and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), for which he wrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award). Kureishi viewed the two characters (a Pakistani boy and an English boy) as parts of himself, as he was born in England to a Pakistani father and an English mother. The film was both praised and criticised for its uncompromising depiction of Asian immigrants and its treatment of the gay relationship. It was followed by Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988), also directed by Stephen Frears and dealing with issues of interraciality and nationalism, unemployment and alienation, and London Kills Me (1991), directed by Kureishi himself and reflecting his fascination with London and pop culture, recurrent features in his work as a whole.
Vanessa Guignery

5. David Lodge

Abstract
Together with Malcolm Bradbury, Kingsley Amis and A. S. Byatt, David Lodge (born in 1935) is often described as being one of the most distinguished representatives of campus fiction, a subject which became particularly popular in the second half of the twentieth century in Britain. However, Lodge’s prolific production cannot be limited to that niche, as it is marked by a great versatility in terms of literary genres, narrative modes, stylistic features and thematic concerns. An accomplished novelist, playwright, screenplay writer and literary critic, Lodge started his career by publishing realistic novels such as The Picturegoers (1960), Ginger, You’re Barmy (1962) and Out of the Shelter (1970), and then moved on to what critics called ‘Catholic novels’. The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) was particularly challenging and examined the effects of the Catholic church’s teaching about birth control on the lives of married Catholics;it was followed by How Far Can You Go? (1980), which won the Whitbread Prize, and Paradise News (1991). Lodge, who was a Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Birmingham where he had worked since 1960, then became a very successful novelist with the publication of the Rummidge trilogy — Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988) — campus novels full of satire, comedy and parody, the latter two having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Published a few years later, Therapy (1995) moved away from academic romps and addressed the modern issue of depression.
Vanessa Guignery

6. Arundhati Roy

Abstract
So far, Indian writer Arundhati Roy (born in 1961) has been the author of many political essays but only one novel, The God of Small Things, published to great acclaim in 1997 — the year of the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence — translated in a multitude of languages and the recipient of the Booker Prize. Over the years, the novel has probably garnered as much interest as controversy from readers, critics and scholars throughout the world. In the West, it was praised by some for its depiction of the political, social, religious and caste systems in South India, the virtuosity of its multilayered plot and its linguistic inventiveness, but criticised by others for its supposed regionalism and its verbosity. In India, and more particularly in Kerala where the novel is set, it was blamed for its attack against local politics and specifically its representation of the Communist Party. It was also the object of a lawsuit on charges of obscenity and was accused of not being Indian enough. Such diverse reactions confirm that the novel tackles sensitive issues and, to a certain extent, rekindles divisions between the East and the West, those ‘Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits’ (3) which Roy is constantly questioning in the book. The God of Small Things is a novel which eschews traditional structural straitjackets, blurs generic lines, deconstructs chronology, mixes literary and cultural traditions, lets the written and the oral, the poetic and the trivial coexist, but also presents an Indian society in which classification, and the exclusion which derives from it, hold centre stage through the hierarchy of castes and gender, the categorisation of religions and social classes, and the strict respect of diverse divisions.
Vanessa Guignery

7. Will Self

Abstract
Will Self (born in 1961) is a prolific writer, journalist and columnist with a very high public profile, partly because of his reputation for being the enfant terrible of the London literary scene. The flamboyant persona he has created for himself should not, however, overshadow the fact that he is probably one of the most inventive and radical writers of his generation in Britain. To date, Self is the author of eight novels or novellas, six collections of short stories — all marked by a grotesque, macabre, surreal and often absurd dimension — and six volumes of non-fiction. His latest production, Walking to Hollywood (2010), a fictionalised memoir in three linked pieces, is difficult to situate in terms of genre. Critics and reviewers have often pointed to Self’s Janus-like ambivalence. On the one hand, the writer posits himself against the literary and political establishment and does not hesitate to shock readers by writing crudely about sex, drugs, perversity, psychosis and violence in his novels, and by being blunt and provocative in the media. On the other hand, one should not forget that he comes from a middle-class, highly literate background: his father was a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, his mother a publisher, and his elder brother Jonathan is a writer. Self himself was a committed and precocious reader who studied at Oxford University and said the prevailing ethos in his family was suffocating bookishness. This duality is marked in his novels by the use of sometimes abstruse vocabulary combined with a mastery of demotic speech and slang.
Vanessa Guignery

8. Graham Swift

Abstract
Over a period of 30 years, Graham Swift (born in 1949) has published eight novels that have all received significant critical praise, but the writer himself has preferred to stay away from the media and refuses to indulge in literary celebrity. In 1983, after having published two novels and one collection of short stories, Swift appeared in Granta’s selection of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ together with Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. That same year, he published his third novel to great acclaim: Waterland, which is discussed at length in the following interview, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won several awards and in 1992 was turned into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Ethan Hawke, directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. In 1996, Last Orders won the Booker Prize as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and in 2001 was adapted for the cinema by Fred Schepisi and starred Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Waterland and Last Orders are probably Swift s most celebrated novels and the ones that attracted most critical attention. Both reveal his great interest in history and the past, his close attention to the details of ordinary life, as well as his elaborate handling of narrative voice and his subtle exploration of family secrets, disorders and traumas.
Vanessa Guignery
Additional information