M. Keith Booker

University of Arkansas

Postwar British literature got off to a fast start with the publication of George Orwell’s (1903–1950) Animal Farm on August 17, 1945 (just months after the surrender of Nazi Germany and two weeks before the surrender of Japan in the Pacific). Animal Farm is an allegorical commentary on the tendency of revolutions to lead not to utopian reform, but to dystopian oppression. As such, it resembles a number of dystopian works, particularly We (which first appeared as an English translation, in 1924), by the Russian writer Evgeny Zamyatin (1884–1937).  Indeed, the most direct target of Orwell’s satire is the descent of the utopian hopes of the Bolshevik Revolution into the tyranny of Stalinism, making the book a sort of look back at the events warned against in Zamyatin’s dystopian classic. But Orwell’s most important contribution to dystopian fiction came four years later, with the publication of Nineteen Eighty-four, which would go on to be one of the most widely read books of the twentieth century. One of the central works of modern dystopian fiction, Nineteen Eighty-four details a grim dystopian future society in which most people live in gray, lifeless poverty with no hope of improving their conditions. All political power resides in the hands of a totalitarian Party that employs extensive programs of surveillance and propaganda to control the minds of individuals but has no qualms about using more brutal and violent means as well. This novel was again widely interpreted as a critique of the Stalinist Soviet Union and was extensively employed in the West as a tool of anti-Soviet propaganda, even though Orwell himself insisted that the book was aimed equally at the Soviet Union and at postwar conditions in the West, especially his own Britain.

Conditions in Britain certainly came under considerable criticism in British literature moving into the 1950s, a time of considerable crisis for British society. For example, in the midst of all of the political troubles of the postwar years, in the realm of culture the British had to come to terms with the fact that Hollywood film had already outstripped the British film industry in terms of its global popularity even before World War II. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, British colonial subjects all over the world were watching the glossy products of American cinema, the impressive nature of which made it all the harder for the British to maintain the aura of cultural superiority in which they had long attempted to wrap their colonial power. Indeed, by the 1950s, American cinema was becoming increasingly dominant even in Britain itself, where the popular music scene also came more and more to be dominated by the imported products of America’s new rock ‘n’ roll culture.[1]

Perhaps it is no surprise that British literature in the 1950s often took a dark turn. For example, one of the best-known and most widely-read British novels of the 1950s is William Golding’s (1911–1993) Lord of the Flies (1954) deals with a group of British boys who, stranded on a deserted island, revert to primitive savagery. It has universal implications about human nature vs. human societies and has been widely read in both Britain and the U.S. It stands as a modern classic. Golding would later explore some of the same themes in his Booker Prize–winning Rites of Passage (1980), the first entry in his To the Ends of the Earth trilogy.

Golding sought for universality in his work, but there was at least one important movement in British literature in the 1950s that was more specifically British and that had virtually no counterpart (and little readership) in the United States, where the level of anti-communist hysteria was such that there was little place for the working-class-oriented kind of literature produced by Britain’s “Angry Young Men,” a group of young British writers who took their name from promotions for John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger. Osborne’s play expressed strong dissatisfaction with the British status quo and outrage toward the tendency of British society to ignore the problems of its neediest citizens. Its success helped to inspire a new wave of writing by working-class writers who, in subsequent years, produced a string of important works that made a lasting impact on British culture.

In addition to Osborne, several other Angry Young Men worked largely in drama, the most important of whom was Harold Pinter (1930–2008). Pinter’s second play, The Birthday Party (1958) was not successful upon its initial stage presentation but went on to become one of the most important works of British drama in the second half of the twentieth century. It was a central work among his earlier “comedies of menace,” which also included the more complex and ambiguous The Homecoming (1965), another classic. These early plays have an absurdist tinge and show the influence of such literary predecessors as Franz Kafka (1883–1924) and Samuel Beckett (1906–1989). In his middle period, Pinter wrote important “memory plays,” such as No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978), forerunners of such later memory plays as Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). In his later years as a playwright, Pinter concentrated on more political plays that often focused on critiques of human rights abuses by those in power in the contemporary world.

Pinter was also one of the most important British screenwriters of the second half of the twentieth century, beginning with a series of collaborations with the American director Joseph Losey, driven to work in Britain because of the repressive political climate in the U.S. Pinter’s screenplays for Losey include The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1971), all of which were adapted from novels. Pinter also wrote screenplays for film adaptations of a number of his own stage plays, including The Caretaker (1963), directed by Clive Donner; The Birthday Party (1968), directed by William Friedkin; The Homecoming (1973), directed by Peter Hall; and Betrayal (1983), directed by David Jones. One of Pinter’s most important screenplays was the highly clever and complex screen adaptation of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), directed by Karel Reisz. That screenplay, as was the one for Betrayal, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, though Pinter never won that award. Pinter also worked extensively as a director and actor. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005 and remains, as of this writing, the only English-born writer to have won that award since Golding won it in 1983. On the other hand, in a marker of the increasingly international flavor of English writing, three foreign-born English writers have won the Nobel in the twenty-first century, including V. S. Naipaul (2001, born in Trinidad and Tobago), Doris Lessing (2007, born in Iran and raised in what is now Zimbabwe), and Kazuo Ishiguro (2017, born in Japan).

Pinter was the foremost among a gifted group of British playwrights who produced work in the latter part of the twentieth century, including the Czech-born Tom Stoppard (1937– ), whose 1966 absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a modern classic. An existentialist riff on Hamlet, this play was adapted to film in 1990, with Stoppard as the writer and director.[2] Stoppard’s plays often have a strongly political edge, focusing on themes of human rights, censorship, and abuse of power. He is also an important screenwriter, having written or co-written a number of important films, including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), the latter of which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Also of special note among British playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century are Edward Bond (1934– ), a politically-committed leftist dramatist (also associated with the Angry Young Men) whose 1965 play Saved was a landmark in the battle against theater censorship in Britain. Bond’s Lear (1971), a socialist update of Shakespeare’s King Lear,is also of particular importance. Caryl Churchill (1938– ), whose often experimental plays focus on feminist issues, is the most important woman playwright of this generation. Her best-known plays are Cloud Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982).

The Angry Young Men were never a particularly unified movement with a coherent set of ideas but instead expressed a range of perspectives that were united by an often bitter resentment over what they saw as Britain’s failed promise, as well as the hypocritical arrogance of the British upper-classes. Many of the leading works produced by this group were sympathetic portrayals of the hardships faced by the working class, often by writers who had experienced those hardships themselves. Many of these novels were also later adapted to film, forming a key element of the British New Wave in cinema. Key novelists in the group included Alan Sillitoe (1928–2010), whose novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) was adapted to film by Karel Reisz in 1960 and whose short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959) was adapted to film by Tony Richardson in 1962. David Storey (1933–2017) produced important work as a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, including the script for Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film adaptation of his 1960s novel This Sporting Life. Storey later won the Booker Prize in 1976 for his novel Saville, thus becoming the first working-class writer to win that prestigious honor. Saville essentially deals with the growth and maturation of protagonist Colin Saville, a bright young working-class man who uses his intelligence and education to escape the pits in which his miner father works. As David Craig describes it, the book is “something like the complete history of the working-class child who changes class via schooling, told with the detailed lifelike fullness of classic naturalism” (134). As such, it participates in a long tradition of British working-class fiction that goes back at least to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. However, Storey shows more respect for working-class life than does Lawrence, and it is clear that for him Saville’s escape from the working-class is far from an unequivocal blessing. Indeed, Saville experiences a radical alienation that can be attributed largely to his estrangement from his family and their working-class culture, leaving him a man without a class.  Or, as another character in the book puts it, he is “alienated from his class, and with nowhere to go” (439).

This tradition of working-class writing continued with the work of Barry Hines (1939–2016), whose 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave was made into a highly successful film (entitled Kes, co-written by Hines) by Ken Loach one year later. Hines also wrote the script for Loach’s 1981 film Looks and Smiles, based on the novel by Hines. That film won the Best Contemporary Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival. Hines was also a noted author of television scripts, including the script for the noted postapocalyptic TV drama Threads (1984), which explored the stark horrors that might be brought about by a nuclear war.

Not all members of the Angry Young Men were strictly working class; some, in fact, occupied positions of considerable privilege. Perhaps the leading novelist among the Angry Young Men of the 1950s was Kingsley Amis (1922–1995), who came from a relatively modest middle-class background but was able, through a series of scholarships, to complete an Oxford education and to begin a career as a university lecturer in English. That work no doubt helped to inspire Amis’s first novel, the hugely successful Lucky Jim (1954), which features a university lecturer but also manages, in a comic mode, to capture much of the spirit of Britain in the 1950s. Known for both the discipline of his work regime and the indiscipline of his personal life, Amis produced a number of works in a number of genres. As a critic, for example, he was a champion of the James Bond phenomenon. As a novelist, Amis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for the novels Ending Up (1974) and Jake’s Thing (1978); he won the prize for The Old Devils in 1986. Though once a member of the Communist Party, Amis turned more and more to the Right after the mid-1960s and was often accused of misogyny and anti-Semitism in his writing.

Prior to Lucky Jim, Amis had worked primarily as a poet, and it is also clear that the title character of his first novel is at least partly based on Amis’s close friend, the poet Philip Larkin (1922–1985). Amis and Larkin were key members of the group of 1950s English poets collectively known as The Movement. Writing anti-romantic verse that was simple and straightforward, but controlled, the Movement poets reflected a sense of Britain’s diminished status as a global power. Of these poets, Larkin is the one whose reputation has best survived. He had already published one book of poetry and two novels when he came to prominence in 1955 with the publication of his second collection of poems, The Less Deceived. This volume was followed by additional important collections, including The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), the latter of which contains what is perhaps Larkin’s best-known poem, “This Be the Verse,” the full text of which can be found at Here, Larkin employs his characteristically nasty wit to decry the damage parents do to their children (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”), but then reminds his readers that these parents’ parents also damaged them in turn, and so on. His final advice? “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself.”

In 2008, The Times ranked Larkin first on its list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945, just ahead of Orwell and Golding. In fourth place was a slightly younger poet, Ted Hughes (1930–1948), who also came to be known as a member of the Movement. In America, Hughes is also particularly well known as the husband of American poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), whom he married on June 16, 1956. The couple chose the date in honor of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is set on June 16 (otherwise known as Bloomsday). The marriage was a rocky one, though, and ended, first in their separation, then with Plath’s suicide. Hughes became the British Poet Laureate in 1984, after the position was declined by Larkin. Hughes remained in that capacity until his death in 1998. He left behind a large volume of poetry, including the 1998 collection Birthday Letters, much of which deals with his relationship with Plath. His Collected Poems, published in 2003, run more than 1,300 pages. He was also well-known as an author of children’s books. His children’s science fiction novel The Iron Man (1968), originally written to comfort his children in the wake of Plath’s suicide, is itself a classic of children’s literature, as well as the basis for the highly successful American film adaptation, The Iron Giant (1999, directed by Brad Bird).

Science fiction in general played a key role in British literature in the 1960s. Amis, for example, not only wrote science fiction but also authored an important early critical study of the genre, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), based on lectures he gave at Princeton University and emphasizing the dystopian aspects of the genre. Still, after the foundational work of H. G. Welles in the 1890s, that genre had come to be dominated by American writers, with the only truly major British science fiction author of the immediate postwar years being Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008), who stands with Americans Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein as the three leading figures of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Clarke got his start immediately after the war, when his first professional science fiction stories were published in the American pulp magazine Astounding Science-Fiction in 1946. In 1948, he wrote the story “The Sentinel,” which would later inspire the 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the screenplay for which was written by Clarke in collaboration with American director Stanley Kubrick, though the film was made almost entirely in England, where Kubrick lived at the time. Clarke also wrote a novelization of the story in parallel with the production of the film, which would grow into the series 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), 2061: Odyssey Three (1987), and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997). This series is typical of Clarke’s fiction, much of which involves encounters between humans and more technologically-advanced aliens, often in ways that trigger a transformative evolutionary leap in the human species. The early novels Childhood’s End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956) address this theme as well. Important later novels by Clarke include Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and The Fountains of Paradise (1979).

Moving into the 1960s, however, both British and American science fiction, in tune with the social upheavals of the decade, were seeking a way to become more relevant to the real world around them and more respectable in a literary sense. These twin goals led to revolutionary changes in science fiction writing, collectively known as science fiction’s New Wave, taking the genre in important new directions in the 1960s and 1970s. New Wave science fiction is characterized by an attempt both to explore more complex and mature subject matter (including sexuality and drug use, as well as social issues such as racism) and to convey that subject matter in a more sophisticated literary style. It was also characterized by a return to prominence of British sf writers, and one could argue that the leading force behind the movement was the British magazine New Worlds, edited by British science fiction and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock(1939– ) from 1964 until 1971, and then from 1976 to 1996. In New Worlds, young British sf writers such as Brian Aldiss (1925–2017), J. G. Ballard (1930–2009), John Brunner (1934–1995), and M. John Harrison (1945– ) found a place to publish sophisticated sf stories that would never have been welcome in the earlier pulps. All also subsequently became important novelists, with Ballard’s strange, postmodern visions of postapocalyptic landscapes and Brunner’s dystopian tales being particularly important.

New Worlds also published rising American sf authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, and Norman Spinrad, indicating the increasingly transatlantic nature of sf in English. Indeed, one American counterpart to New Worlds, edited by Judith Merril, was a New Wave anthology entitled England Swings SF (1968), which acknowledged a British influence, much as American rock music was being influenced by the “British invasion” of the time.[3]

Harrison, who served as the editor of New Worlds during Moorcock’s hiatus, rose to prominence as an author with the “Viriconium”sequence of fantasy novels and stories, published between 1971 and 1984. This sequence presents a new form of fantasy that is very much opposed to the dominant Tolkien-Lewis tradition. Harrison’s complex, intellectual, and highly literary fictions are primarily set, not in an idealized rural past, but in a teeming and decaying city of the far future. They set the stage for important new anti-Tolkien trends in British fantasy that would eventually come to full fruition in works such as Philip Pullman’s (1946– ) His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000) and in the novels of China Miéville (1972– ), especially beginning with Perdido Street Station (2000), the first volume in his “Bas-Lag” trilogy, all three volumes of which were nominated for the Hugo Award[4]. Miéville, whose works straddle the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, has become one of the most awarded authors of the twenty-first century. For example, his novels The City & The City (2009) and Embassytown (2011) both won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Miéville was the key figure in the so-called British Boom, a wave of impressive new British writers in fantasy and science fiction that began at the end of the twentieth century and is still going strong after two decades.

Finally, it should be noted that Ishiguro, whose highly regarded novel The Remains of the Day (1989), another Booker Prize winner, is written in a largely realist mode, has also moved into science fiction in recent years. His dystopian novel Never Let Me Go (2005) and his artificial intelligence novel Klara and the Sun (2021) are among the more literary science fiction novels of the twenty-first century, demonstrating that the line between literary fiction and popular genre fiction has become quite permeable in recent decades. The work of the Japan-born Ishiguro also demonstrates the growing multiculturalism of British literature in recent years.

Postmodernism, Multiculturalism, and British Literature

Much of the mainstream literary production in Britain in the years since World War II falls in the category of postmodernism, which we will discuss later. One can detect many of the formal characteristics of postmodernism in British literature as early as something like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), with its disavowal of realism and historical logic. One could, however, argue that the challenges to gender conventions within Orlando place it more within the orbit of modernism—or at least within one of those localized pockets of resistance to late capitalism described by Fredric Jameson. Meanwhile, a great deal of the literature produced in Britain since the 1960s matches Jameson’s descriptions of postmodernism quite well, though often with particularly British intonations, as when Jean Rhys’s[5] (1890–1979) The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) engages in a complex intertextual dialogue with Charlotte Brontë’s (1816–1855) Jane Eyre (1847). Indeed, while Wide Sargasso Sea employs a relatively straightforward mode of narration, it is clearly set in a world that represents, not the real world, but the fictional world of Jane Eyre, aligning it with postmodernism.

Transgressions of the boundary between fiction and reality also occur in such texts as The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), by John Fowles (1926–2005), which, on one level, is an historical novel set during the Victorian period; on another level, however, it is a complex metafictional[6] construct that comments on the ways in which texts (especially Victorian novels) are constructed. Fowles would also go on to produce other works of postmodernist fiction, including The Magus (1973) and A Maggot (1985). Ultimately, however, The French Lietenant’s Woman is his most important work. As I myself have noted elsewhere, this novel “provides striking demonstrations of how both sexuality and textuality lead to irreducible ambiguities in interpretation” (Techniques 102). And it achieves these effects largely by setting the two genres that inform it—realistic fiction and metafiction—against one another:

As a Victorian novel, the book demands that the reader suspend disbelief and agree to pretend that the words in the text represent real events. As a metafictional novel, the book demands that the reader suspend belief and participate in the rhetorical games involved in producing the text, agreeing not to be taken in by the seductive lure of the narrative. (Techniques 123).

The Victorian period has, in fact, often been mined for material by contemporary British writers. For example, A. S. Byatt’s (1936– ) Booker Prize–winning Possession (1990) cleverly blends stories concerning two contemporary scholars of Victorian literature with another plot line set in the Victorian period itself. And Alan Moore’s (1953) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series (1999–2007), which features heroes drawn from well-known works of Victorian fiction (such as Allan Quatermain and Sherlock Holmes) was one of the highlights of graphic fiction around the turn of the twenty-first century.

Often working in a similar mode of updating materials from the past is Angela Carter (1940–1992), who has produced works clearly informed by postmodernist textual strategies but that, like the work of Woolf, have feminist energies that set them apart from much postmodernist fiction. She is perhaps best known for The Bloody Chamber (1979), a series of modern retellings of classic fairy tales and folk tales, with a strong feminist message. Perhaps her most clearly postmodernist text is the novel Nights at the Circus (1984), co-winner (along with Ballard’s Empire of the Sun)of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, one of Britain’s oldest literary awards. Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nights at the Circus employs a number of strategies to undermine any attempt at a final, authoritative interpretation of the text, while challenging conventional gender roles along the way—though Carter’s novel has a much more powerful feminist slant than does Fowles’.

The work of Salman Rushdie announced the full-blown amalgamation of postmodernist technique with British multiculturalism. The combination, of course, is not surprising: one of the key characteristics of postmodernism, according to Jameson, is its tendency toward globalization, in keeping with the increasingly global nature of late capitalism itself. Indeed, though it deals explicitly with Indian history, including the experience of colonization and decolonization, Midnight’s Children (1981) is an almost paradigmatic postmodernist text. I have, in fact, argued elsewhere that it is far better considered a postmodernist novel than a postcolonial one, largely because of its almost total lack of any genuine subversive challenge to capitalism (and because it even includes thinly veiled assaults on socialism).[7] Whatever its political charge, though, Rushdie has proved an important influence on the British writers who came after him and has definitely contributed to making contemporary British literature more multicultural.

Hanif Kureishi (1954– ), an English-born writer of mixed English and Pakistani descent, has been particularly influential in the growth of multicultural British literature as well. The son of a Pakistani father who went to the same exclusive prep school in India as did Rushdie, Kureishi is also a writer whose work sometimes resembles Rushdie’s, especially in its creative and often amusing use of images from popular culture. His highly successful first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990, winner of the Whitbread Award for best first novel), is a highly postmodern evocation of contemporary multicultural London, infused with elements of contemporary popular culture. This novel was adapted to television in a BBC series for which David Bowie provided the soundtrack. Kureishi’s novel Intimacy (1998) was adapted to film by Patrice Chéreau in 2001. Kureishi himself is as well known as a screenwriter as he is as a novelist. His scripts for My Beautiful Laundrette (1985, directed by Stephen Frears) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987, also directed by Frears) were both highly successful. In addition, Kureishi both wrote and directed the 1991 feature film London Kills Me, a dark-but-comic story about homeless drug addicts that is a clear forerunner to Trainspotting (1996), one of the central British films of the 1990s.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, British fiction received another infusion of multicultural energy in the early work of Zadie Smith (1975– ), the London-born daughter of an English father and a Jamaican mother. Smith burst on the scene with the publication of the much-heralded novel White Teeth (2000), a vivid evocation of multicultural London that features characters from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. A best-seller that was also a hit with critics, it won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and the Whitbread Award for best first novel. Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man (2002), sold well, but was less well received by critics than White Teeth had been. Smith then made something of a critical comeback with her novel On Beauty (2005), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. NW (2012), Smith’s most formally complex and experimental novel, and Swing Time (2016), which draws heavily upon classical Hollywood musicals, also met with extensive critical approval, and Smith remains a major voice in British fiction, though she spends much of her time in New York, where she has been a tenured faculty member at New York University since 2010.

The Bangladesh-born Monica Ali (1967– ) also received critical acclaim with the publication of her first novel, Brick Lane (2003), which focuses on the Bangladeshi immigrant community in London. Some in that community (and some outsiders) criticized the description of the Bangladeshi immigrant community in the book as inauthentic and stereotypical, noting that Ali, the daughter of a Bangladeshi father and an English mother, had lived in England since the age of three and did not live in the kind of immigrant enclave described in the novel. Others, including Rushdie, defended Ali, and the novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; a 2016 poll by the BBC of critics outside the United Kingdom ranked it the 29th greatest British novel of all time, thus placing it seventeen slots ahead of Midnight’s Children and only four slots behind White Teeth. Brick Lane was also successfully adapted to film by Sarah Gavron in 2007. Ali has since authored three additional novels, showing considerable versatility. These include Alentejo Blue (2006), set in a small village in Portugal that finds itself a part of an increasingly global world; In the Kitchen (2009), which follows the multi-ethnic kitchen staff of a large hotel in the midst of sweeping social changes; and Untold Story (2011), which imagines the life of Princess Diana had she not been killed in a car crash in 1997.

Finally, no survey of recent fiction from the United Kingdom would be complete without a mention of the important work that has come out of Scotland in recent years, especially beginning with the publication of Alasdair Gray’s (1934– ) Lanark in 1981. A complex combination of realism, fantasy, and science fiction, Lanark also employs a number of classic examples of postmodernist textual play. It mixes a variety of genres, modes, and styles, and is composed of four books, in the order 3, 1, 2, 4, indicating the fragmentation of its narrative. Also a painter, poet, and playwright, Gray has authored a number of additional novels as well, including Poor Things (1992), which won both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

Among other things, Gray’s work has exercised an important influence on his fellow Glasgow writer James Kelman (1946– ), who has extended Gray’s sometime use of working-class Glaswegian dialect into an artform of its own. In so doing, Kelman has established a reputation throughout his career for representation of the experience of working-class Scotsmen with energy, humor, and humanity. This is particularly the case in the Booker Prize–winning How Late It Was, How Late, an outburst of profane working-class energy that is narrated through a mixture of internal monologue and indirect free style, presenting all of the events from the perspective of the protagonist, thirty-eight-year-old Sammy Samuels. In that sense, it does not seem very different from any number of modern novels, beginning with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. However, the downtrodden, working-class Sammy differs dramatically from the tormented artists and intellectuals typical of the modernist novel. While he has some skill and experience in the construction trade, he spends most of his time unemployed within the context of the depressed economy of contemporary Glasgow. Moreover, he has spent eleven of the past eighteen years in prison for crimes committed in an attempt simply to get by. To make matters worse, as the book begins, Sammy awakes from a weekend binge immediately to become involved in an altercation with the police that leaves him not only badly beaten but entirely blind.

Sammy’s blindness only furthers his alienation from the world around him, creating an estranged perspective that has been compared with the perspectives of characters from modern absurdist writers such as Beckett and Kafka. However, Sammy’s resolutely working-class perspective and (especially) his language set him strongly apart from such characters—too strongly for some critics (including Kingsley Amis), who found the language of the novel excessively obscene. As one character in the book itself tells Sammy, cautioning him about his language and exaggerating very little, “every second word’s fuck” (238). Indeed, the “obscenity” of the book’s earthy language was the center of considerable controversy when How Late It Was, How Late was awarded the Booker Prize, though it is hard to see how the book could have represented Sammy’s perspective so convincingly without employing the language he would be likely to use.

Kelman’s earlier novel, A Disaffection (1989), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Among his other novels, Kieron Smith, Boy (2008), a story of growing up in urban Glasgow, won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, the two biggest literary awards in Scotland. His 2012 novel Mo Said She Was Quirky is his first to be set in London and also his first to feature a female protagonist. Kelman is also noted for his political activism in support of working-class causes. Numerous book-length academic studies of his work have now been published.

Kelman’s use of dialect has been cited by the Edinburgh-based Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (1958– ) as an important influence. Welsh burst on the British literary scene in 1993 with the publication of his first novel, Trainspotting. A seriocomic tale of the misadventures of a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, Trainspotting has since achieved cult status for both its style and its content. It was adapted to a highly successful film in 1996 by Danny Boyle. Among Welsh’s numerous other novels are Porno (2002), a sequel to Trainspotting, and Skagboys (2012), a prequel.

These Scottish novelists—along with such writers as Ishiguro, Smith, and Ali—demonstrate the intensely multicultural nature of British fiction in the past three decades. Writers from more conventionally central cultural positions continue to thrive as well, including Martin Amis (1949– ), the son of Kingsley Amis, whose work has been a particularly strong influence on Smith. Amis’s opinions have often been controversial, but his fiction—in such novels as Money (1984) and London Fields (1989)—has provided some of the leading examples of British postmodernist fiction. Amis’s close contemporary Julian Barnes (1946– ) has also been particularly successful (and particularly postmodern) in such works as the Booker Prize–winning The Sense of an Ending (2011) and three novels that were shortlisted for the Booker— Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005). All in all, British fiction seems to be in good hands as we move forward into the third decade of the twenty-first century.


Booker, M. Keith. “Midnight’s Children, History, and Complexity: Reading Rushdie after the Cold War.” Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. Ed. M. Keith Booker, G. K. Hall, 1999. 283–313.

Booker, M. Keith. Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature: Transgression, Abjection, and the Carnivalesque. University of Florida Press, 1991.

Craig, David. “David Storey’s Vision of the Working Class.” The Uses of Fiction: Essays on the Modern Novel in Honour of Arnold Kettle. Ed. Douglas Jefferson and Graham Martin.  Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1982. 125–38.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Kelman, James. How Late It Was, How Late. Secker & Warburg, 1994.

Storey, David Saville. Jonathan Cape, 1976.


[1] For an excellent dramatization of the growing power of American music in Britain in the 1950s, see the BBC miniseries Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), written by Dennis Potter, one of the most creative voices in British television in the last decades of the twentieth century. Tellingly set in the time of the Suez Crisis of 1956, this miniseries—in its title and in its content—shows a Britain that is not only beginning to take a back seat to America in terms of global economic and military power but is also increasingly finding the texture of its daily life infiltrated by the sounds of American music.

[2] See also the 2009 American vampire-film version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead. Hamlet is a very rich source of material.

[3] Merril’s anthology actually takes its title from a 1965 American pop song entitled “England Swings,’ by Roger Miller, which was a riff on the notion of “Swinging London,” a term popularly applied to the hip, youth-oriented English culture of the time.

[4] First given in 1953, the Hugo Awards are the most coveted awards given for science fiction writing. Named for pioneering sf editor Hugo Gernsback and administered by the World Science Fiction Society, the Hugo Awards are given at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). Voted on by registrants at that convention, the Hugos thus are essentially a fan-based award, though many attendees at the convention are themselves science fiction professionals.

[5] Rhys was born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, but lived mostly in England from age 16 onward.

[6] The concept of metafiction is crucial to many accounts of the postmodern. Metafiction is fiction that not only calls attention to its fictional status but also to the literary techniques through which it was produced. Metafiction can be used to challenges the conventions of traditional fiction, though postmodernist metafiction is typically playful, employing its self-consciousness more for comic than for critical value.

[7] See my essay “Midnight’s Children, History, and Complexity: Reading Rushdie after the Cold War.”