The Decline of British Fiction

In this podcast, Professor Patricia Waugh and Jennifer Hodgson discuss the alleged decline of British fiction.

Patricia and Jennifer have recently co-authored an article “On the Exaggerated Decline of British Fiction” in the arts journal, The White ReviewHere, they argue that critics who have bemoaned the demise of the innovative British novel have missed the point, and that British literary culture in fact remains buoyant.

In this podcast, Patricia and Jennifer explain that literary critics think about the history of fiction in the twentieth century in the wrong kind of way. According to the prevailing view, British writing was at its zenith in modernism in the early twentieth century, but by the second half of the century it was overtaken by the global movements of postmodernism. British writers could no longer compete in the world market of fiction, which displayed a spirit of experiment and adventure of which the British public were allegedly suspicious.

However, Jennifer and Patricia argue that the problem is one of perspective. Instead of dividing writing according to generic or historical movements, if we think about the various forms that innovation might take we can discover radical British writing preceding modernism, in writers such as George Eliot; outlasting modernism, in writers such as Iris Murdoch; and still visible in the present, in writers such as Tom McCarthy. This podcast and the review stake a claim for the evolving existence of literary experimentation in Britain.

The podcast concludes with a discussion of the role of arts journals such as The White Review, which offer an alternative and open-minded space for literary criticism outside of mainstream publishing. The editors of The White Review featured in another podcast, recorded as part of the exhibition Outrageously Modern! Avant-garde Magazines 1884 – 1922, held at Palace Green Library in 2012.

Patricia and Jennifer’s work can also be found in a special issue of the journal Review of Contemporary British Fiction, which they have co-edited. Often focused on innovative American writers, for the first time this issue is dedicated solely to the work of British authors. Contributors such as Stewart Home, China Miéville, Jim Crace, Maureen Freely and Vic Sage have been brought together to comment on their role in shaping “The Future of British Fiction.”

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