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The 2000s. A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, eds. Nick Bentley, Nick Hubble, Leigh Wilson

London: Bloomsbury, The Decade Series, 2015 (297 pages), ISBN: 978-1-4411-1215-6
Catherine Bernard
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The 2000s. A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, eds. Nick Bentley, Nick Hubble, Leigh Wilson, London: Bloomsbury, The Decade Series, 2015 (297 pages), ISBN: 978-1-4411-1215-6

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1With The Decades Series, starting with The 1970s: A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Nick Hubble, John McLeod and Philip Tew (2014), Bloomsbury has provided a running commentary of the fiction published in Britain since the 1970s. From the first installment in the series to the latest one, the editing team has undergone only marginal changes, which makes for a lasting sense of perspective and offers that rare thing in our world of short attention spans and quick phasing out: a sense of long-term coherence.

2The 2000s. A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction (2015) brings the reader up to date before the next installment is published and no doubt the editors are already hard at work trying to map out the fictional territories of the 2010s. The series is a unique endeavour and the latest volume yet again offers ample material to reflect not only on a canon in the making, but, even more broadly, on fiction’s relevance to our troubled times. Structured in eight chapters, to which one must add the editors’ introduction, the volume adopts reading angles similar to those chosen in the previous volumes. The emphasis remains on the novel’s historical and political import and on its capacity to address our contemporary situation. Returning once more to one of the issues that has been central to the series—that of the future of formal experimentation and its interaction with the realist legacy—, the authors encompass a decade of novel-writing in Britain from a stereoscopic perspective bringing history and form into conjoined focus. Such a lasting concern with the historical agenda of fiction is no doubt one of the striking features of the series and the present collection once more offers enlightening views on this often debated feature of fiction. Elaborating on the image of a broken-up Britain popularised by Tom Nairn’s 1977 essay, The Break-Up of Britain, the authors all expand on what may seem today a critical topos, in order to show how fiction may provide productive means of thinking such a sense of crisis through. Unlike what such an emphasis on the political purchase of writing may imply, foregrounding the historicity of fiction does not result in the instrumentalization of form, but, on the contrary, on a revitalizing of form.

3Just as importantly, such a reading of form necessarily brings the authors to reflect frontally on the cultural specificity of ‘British fiction’. The category is more than ever an entangled one, so fraught British identity has become. Far from glossing over the ideological implication of choosing still to speak of ‘British fictions’, several chapters delineate the changing configuration of Britishness and how such reconfigurations impact fiction. In the inaugural chapter—‘Literary History of the Decade: Fictions from the Borderlands’, Martyn Colebrook highlights what novels written from the frontiers of Britain reveal about the un-making of a nation. As sociologist Saskia Sassen has also argued elsewhere, contemporary frontiers cut across our sense of cultural and national belonging. Reading side by side Patrick McCabe’s Call Me the Breeze (2003), Niall Griffiths’ Sheepshagger (2001) and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006), three novels tracing the cultural fractures opening at the heart of British culture, Colebrook insists on how ‘the contributing factor that informs the production of these fictions is globalization and the processes of performance and performativity through the process of transnational exchange’ (29). Globalization is one of the structuring paradigms of the volume. As Lucienne Loh also insists in her chapter—‘Postcolonial and Diasporic Voices. Contemporary British Fiction in an Age of Transnational Terror’ ,its effects must be read in the specific light of ‘those imperial legacies that continue to complicate national identity, belonging and the cultural and linguistic stakes constitutive of nation formation and national transformation’ (116). As expected, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Gautam Malkani, or Hari Kunzru are prominent voices in the globalization of Britishness from within. Quite tellingly, the volume concludes on a chapter by Ulricke Tancke who turns to ‘British multi-ethnic fiction’ and reads British multiculturalism in ‘an international frame’. The frame is itself a complex one, distorted as it is by the collateral effects of the ‘war on terror’ and the shock waves of the 7/7 bomb attacks in London. Beyond Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, Tancke sees a new generation of writers emerge who, like Zahid Hussain or Sunjeev Sahota, stand ‘in the vanguard of a nuanced and critically aware contemporary understanding of the complexities of the European multicultural reality’ (236).

4Trying to invent a form that may adequately address such a layered and entangled sense of belonging implies novelists reinvent the mimetic contract. Several chapters explore anew what, in the wake of David Shields 2010 manifesto, may be defined as a form of ‘reality hunger’. In the Special topic 1 of the volume, Nick Bentley thus takes a welcome interest in ‘Subculture Fictions’ and ‘Youth Subcultures in Twenty-first-century British Fiction’ and the way identity formation, in such a context, is subject ‘to media construction and performance’ (64). Beyond the sociological determinisms of language and culture, fiction is seen to push back its own metaphorical limits to understand self-reflexively how fiction mediates experience. In one of the most powerful contributions to this volume—‘Translating Neuroscience: Fictions of the Brain in the 2000s’—, Laura Salisbury explores the ‘neuro-novel’ and what this turn to neurosciences tells us about fiction’s yearning to come as close as possible to a form of truth to life. Focusing on 2005, the ‘peculiar annus mirabilis for British literary fictions of the brain’, she highlights the phenomenological turn of novels that ‘remain interested in a self that transcends the neurological by showing how brains, as they emerge into subjective selves, are enmeshed in history, in society, in culture’ (104). Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder or Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) all testify to fiction’s desire to fashion a metaphorical language that may express how our selves are shaped and reshaped.

5The balance between realism and experimentation is here endlessly redefined. This, for Leigh Wilson, in chapter 5—‘Historical Representations: Reality Effects: The Historical Novel and the Crisis of Fictionality in the First Decade of the Twenty-first Century’—, explains why historical fiction has featured so prominently in the 2000s. For Wilson, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2010) or Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) revisit the laws of historical fiction with a metafictional intent to give us to see their conflicted relation to truth and reality: ‘The novel of the first decade of the twenty-first century has become historical because realism is no longer possible and yet realism appears to offer the only guarantee for fiction’s continuing relevance’ (149). The documentary agenda of novels such as David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet novels (1999 – 2002) has also radically shifted the logic of the ‘reality effect’; history writing aims rather at implicating the reader in an experience that is also self-reflexive. We read to ‘experience the way that fiction both deadens the past and imposes order on it . . . , but also to experience the truth that fiction is the only place for imagining the world other than it is’ (169).

6The volume thus comes to make a strong case for British fiction’s specific position on the map of the contemporary novel. As Ann Marie Adams shows in chapter 7—‘The American Reception of British Fiction in the 2000s’—, American critics and readers still hold British contemporary fiction to be unable to confront the present and prefer to turn to it for the solace of nostalgia at the risk, for instance, of misunderstanding the critical irony of a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (213). But both the introduction co-signed by the three editors and Daniel Weston’s chapter 6—‘Generic Discontinuities and Variations’—show how British fiction has in the 2000s relentlessly reappropriated the lessons of both modernism and tradition to move still further and beyond. Other critics have already pointed to the conflicted and yet fruitful synthesis between experimentation and tradition produced by contemporaary British fiction. In the wake of Andrzej Gasiorek’s analyses, Weston concludes his chapter on a plea for a reading of fiction that would accomodate discontinuities and inner contradictions: ‘The calibration of realism and experimentalism has not been resolved but this is perhaps the point: novelistic variation is now dependent on the accomodation of discontinuities’ (195). In their introduction, the editors point to the resultant ethical shift inherent in such a capacity to move beyond aesthetic dichotomies. Novelists as diverse as Toby Litt, Will Self, Ali Smith or David Mitchell have, according to them, ‘all continued to use the self-reflexive and metafictive complexities associated with postmodernism in their fiction, but have also tried to come out of the other side of the relativism this implies with an alternative set of ethical positions appropriate to the new millenium’ (17).

7As one might expect, a new generation of novelists has come to the fore, with David Peace, Niall Griffiths or Tom McCarthy featuring among the most inventive and compelling voices of their generation. Two writers hold here a strategic position by achieving the ethical and critical synthesis defined as characteristic of British fiction in the new millenium: Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith who, each in their own, specific way, strive to peer into the ‘darkness’ (11) of the present. While their prominence may not come as a surprise, reading them against the vibrant background conjured by this volume will offer fresh insights into their works. Both convincing in the argument it makes for a new, self-reflexive form of fiction that may be able to address our unstable present, and resonating with impressive new voices, The 2000s. A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction testifies to the exhilarating capacity of the British novel to make us see, as fully sentient beings, what it means to read and exist as readers in/of the present. It will remain as a lasting work of reference to understand the task and the possibilities of the British novel at the turn of the millenium and provides compelling readings of a vast and inspiring corpus of texts.

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Catherine Bernard, « The 2000s. A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, eds. Nick Bentley, Nick Hubble, Leigh Wilson »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 52 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Université Paris Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité, – UMR 8225 LARCA

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