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This issue gathers a series of articles which explore the validity of the concept of ‘narrative democracy’ when trying to unveil the narrative, aesthetic and ethical specificities of 20th- and 21st-century British literature and visual arts. These articles show how the concept may lead to a new critical perspective on the way these works are premised on a particular apprehension of individual experience and of its narrative, turning the latter and the work itself into forms producing commonality.

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1Art has always been believed to have specific functions in or thanks to democracy. According to Malcolm Bradbury: ‘[A] democratic society. . . feels that it needs its intellectuals and artists precisely for the dissident functions they are often apt to pursue’ (119). Building up on the findings of several recent issues of the journal, such as ‘Revolutions’ (56), ‘L’Engagement’ (50) or ‘State of Britain’ (49), the articles gathered here turn to the no less recent concept of ‘narrative democracy’ and explore its critical and theoretical significance when working on 20th- and 21st-century British literature.

2Many recent works have examined the interactions between art and democracy, be it the way the latter sheds light on the fictitious component of politics (Badiou 1985, 17), or its pivotal role in Jacques Rancière’s régime esthétique (Rancière 2000, 15) and the structural similarities between its littérarité and the disruptive agenda of democracy (Rancière 1998, 126). In Modernism and Democracy, Rachel Potter looks at the cultural context of democracy so as to suggest innovative critical frameworks to assess the ideological and political links between democracy and literature. Nelly Wolf’s seminal work in Le Roman de la démocratie distinguishes between ‘la démocratie du roman’ and ‘la démocratie de roman’ (42), and argues that the links between democracy and the novel form pertain to modernity: the novel, as the ‘egalitarian genre’ (23), reorders the world and language itself (47), reinvents realism and the meanings of both individual and collective events, and becomes democratic when blurring the lines between autonomous and social choices (75). Wolf analyses Flaubert’s writing but also Virginia Woolf’s (154), and concludes: ‘Or un livre est voué au malentendu, puisqu’il est voué à l’interprétation. Ce retour du malentendu, c’est le retour d’une certaine démocratie interne au roman. C’est la littérature qui insiste, contre l’idéologie’ (195). The 2016 issue of Communications, entitled ‘Démocratie et littérature’, is another invaluable source when looking at narrative democracy, particularly when the authors view ‘l’individualisation de la parole et du discours littéraires comme symbole de l’autonomie de l’individu démocratique’ (7).

3This issue of Études britanniques contemporaines considers the aesthetic and literary significance of one of the most recent and challenging concepts that have emerged in this theoretical frame: narrative democracy. Rancière paved the way with his work on Flaubert’s obliteration of any literary message and opening onto democratic equality (Rancière 2000, 16). In Le Spectateur émancipé, he writes: ‘Le roman moderne a ainsi pratiqué une certaine démocratisation de l’expérience’, and goes on to connect this to his redefinition of fiction (Rancière 2008, 72). In the wake of Paul Ricœur’s notion of ‘narrative identity’, and Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s arguments in Multitude, Pierre Rosanvallon has coined the phrase ‘narrative democracy’ in order to better understand the political and sociological contradiction of democracy as ‘a society of individuals’ (Rosanvallon 26; Boxall 2013, 191). Such is the third form of democracy for Rosanvallon, after participatory democracy and deliberative democracy. In our era based on ‘an individualism of singularity’ (Rosanvallon 21), individual experiences matter more than ever and lead to new ‘democratic expectations’ (22). This is when narration comes forth so as to validate individual experiences and build up new forms of commonality thereon. Narrating one’s singularity renews democracy. In the last pages of Le Parlement des invisibles, Rosanvallon explores the democratic function of literature, as one individual medium among others, in reinventing a plurality of voices and experiences (50). To Guillaume Le Blanc, even though there must be such a democracy of voices (Le Blanc 2011, 206), it should be supplemented by what he calls the ‘democratic hypothesis’ ‘that asserts the common in spite of all’ (Le Blanc 2014, 8; translation mine): ‘Je nomme hypothèse démocratique l’idée que la contestation des normes du commun est justement ce qui rend le monde encore plus commun’ (27). Le Blanc advocates a democratic practice of conflict so as to make hitherto meaningless voices, gestures and bodies mean and matter much more (115)—a conflict which both cinema and the novel must perform in their respective forms of narrative democracy (22).

4The authors of the articles published in this issue analyse the concept of narrative democracy around three main axes: what are its formal and aesthetic potentialities and meanings? Can it turn into an innovative critical tool? (How) Is it tailored for the study of 20th- and 21st-century British literature and visual arts? Though Le Blanc reminds us of the American origin (among others) of narrative democracy (Le Blanc 2014, 23), are there specific forms of British narrative democracy? To further define the concept when discussing British works, it is worth returning to the initial meanings and aesthetic implications of democracy. In Styles, Marielle Macé offers a fresh perspective on the semantic but also theoretical connections of the word with the ideas of conflict, contact, visibility, uncertainty, anxiety and plurality. Thomas Docherty’s Aesthetic Democracy analyses how democracy is both founded and conditioned by aesthetics: ‘it is in art and in aesthetics that we find a privileged site or a paradigm of the very potentiality of selfhood that establishes this democratic condition’ (xviii). How does individualism collide with the democratic challenges but also limitations? How does the literary form perform these ambiguities of democracy? Other recent theoretical concepts may be investigated, such as Anthony Giddens’s ‘pure relationship’ as ‘the promise of democracy’ (Giddens 188), Judith Butler’s ethics of cohabitation and coalition, Cynthia Fleury’s emphasis on subjectivation (Fleury 13), Michaël Fœssel’s philosophical interrogation of contemporary democracy, and Pierre Zaoui’s work on discretion as ‘the most accomplished form of democracy’ (Zaoui 30): ‘Une société vivante et démocratique est une société où chacun peut devenir visible, être reconnu dans ses droits et sa dignité, et où chacun doit se garder régulièrement de l’être pour laisser un peu de place aux autres et au monde’ (119). Rancière’s writings on democracy as both politics and aesthetics is another fruitful starting point. For instance, he sheds light on the power of words to reconfigure existing political and democratic structures: ‘La démocratie est d’abord l’invention de mots par lesquels ceux qui ne comptent pas se font compter et brouillent ainsi le partage ordonné de la parole et du mutisme qui faisait de la communauté politique un “bel animal”, une totalité organique’ (Rancière 2007, 51). Rancière asserts that such democratic words should be uttered or used by those who will thereby be empowered: ‘La démocratie n’est pas le choix des représentants, elle est le pouvoir de ceux qui ne sont pas qualifiés pour exercer le pouvoir’ (Rancière 2017a, 16). To him, this is how narrative, syntactic or aesthetic democracy reinvents fiction and its political interpretation: ‘La démocratie fictionnelle met alors en œuvre une forme bien spécifique d’égalité : l’égalité des phrases dont chacune porte le pouvoir de liaison du tout, le pouvoir égalitaire de la respiration commune qui anime la multitude des événements sensibles’ (Rancière 2014, 34).

5To study ‘democracy as an essentially textual and symbolic creation’ (Gustafson 604) in a British context, we may return to the seminal works by Richard Dellamora. In the wake of his study of democracy in the Victorian novel, Janice Ho’s work in Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel offers many insightful such examples (particularly on Forster, Woolf and Bowen) which can help us problematise narrative democracy. Others can be found in Against Democracy, in which Simon During writes that democracy in Howards End emerges through its formal and narrative ‘resistance to interpretation’ (120). In Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story, Christine Reynier investigates the democratic quality of the short story in its conversation with other narrative forms (133). Her claim that ‘conversation is a democratic form, a political as well as an ethical and aesthetic space’ (89) can help us analyse the short story as a specific form of narrative democracy. For those working on photography, film or TV series, it will be worth remembering Auden’s assertion that ‘[photography] is the democratic art’ (Auden 135), as well as Badiou’s conviction that cinema is the most democratic form of art, allowing for a popularisation of all arts: ‘la popularisation de tous les arts [. . .] la démocratisation en acte des six autres’ (Badiou 2010, 383). One could also heed Rancière’s words: ‘[le cinéma] s’est voulu l’art vivant de l’âge démocratique, l’art qui s’est constitué entièrement dans le contexte de la démocratie du xxe siècle, donc la nouvelle forme esthético/politique par excellence’ (Rancière 2009, 104).

6With a view to unveiling the critical significance of narrative democracy, the authors of the articles published in this issue endeavour to further Derrida’s famous assumption: ‘[p]as de démocratie sans littérature, pas de littérature sans démocratie’ (Derrida 1993, 65). For Derrida, democracy is yet to come (‘[L]a démocratie reste à venir’ (1994, 339)), and the role of literature is central to his philosophy (Derrida 1972, 166; Communications 129), but also to Rancière’s latest work on democratic aesthetics and its implied redefinition of narrative democracy, precisely as a critical tool:

La révolution démocratique de la fiction n’est pas le grand surgissement des masses sur la scène de l’Histoire. Elle n’en est pas moins fidèle à la définition moderne de la révolution : celle-ci est le processus par lequel ceux qui n’étaient rien deviennent tout. Mais devenir tout, dans l’ordre fictionnel, ce n’est pas devenir le personnage principal de l’histoire. C’est devenir le tissu même au sein duquel—par les mailles duquel—des événements tiennent les uns aux autres. (Rancière 2017b, 152)

7The first section, ‘Theorising Democracy in Fiction’, addresses the way the ethical and political agenda of British fiction may be read as a forceful example of narrative democracy, particularly in the way it helps conceptualising and furthering its definition. Catherine Bernard’s exploration of the representation of the British people as reshuffled and redefined by Brexit in contemporary fiction exemplifies this need for the novel to invent a new ‘democracy of voice’ and another ‘grammar of the collective’. Frédéric Regard engages in a democratic conversation with Jacques Rancière’s politics of the aesthetics in order to rethink the notion of democratic art and suggest that it is in the detective novel that narrative democracy may be best apprehended as a cogent textual practice of political aesthetics. In her article on Herbert Read, Silvia Pireddu looks at the way his work may help us understand how the philosophy of art engages with conflictual modernity by yet another reimagining of the democratic politics of literature.

8The second section, ‘Modernist Narrative Democracy’, opens with Catherine Lanone’s article on relationality as a form of narrative democracy in Forster’s fiction. She shows that Forster’s Howards End testifies to the novelist’s own beliefs in and doubts about democracy, the novel becoming a laboratory of sorts to experiment with the promises and deceptions of narrative democracy. Florence Marie looks at John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance as an egalitarian narrative and a modernist democratic romance that questions how fiction may grapple with the common and its narrative representation. In the last article, Leila Haghshenas argues that Leonard Woolf’s The Wise Virgins provides another telling example of the way novels resort to narrative democracy with a view to narrating democracy and reinventing the common.

9In the final section, ‘Democratising Contemporary Fiction’, Pascale Tollance first analyses Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday as grounded on ‘politics of nakedness’ in a way that relates to Rancière’s take on narrative democracy and its necessary emptying process of both narrative space and time. Christian Moraru then examines the spatial politics in Joseph O’Neill’s fiction, arguing that the relational articulation of space in the contemporary novel reactivates many fundamental ambiguities of democracy. Imad Zrari studies the novels of Jonathan Coe and Hanif Kureishi as politically narrative connections of the democratic and the intimate, and shows that the new representation of the sexually invisible this leads to may be read in metamodernist terms. Finally, James Dalrymple contends that Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park offers a convincing example of the way the cinematic medium may be equally based on narrative democracy, with its playful revisiting of genres, its thematic questioning of class and democracy, or its surprisingly ambiguous and many-sided characterisation.

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Zaoui, Pierre, La Discrétion: Ou l’art de disparaître, Paris: Autrement, 2013.

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Electronic reference

Laurent Mellet, “Introduction”Études britanniques contemporaines [Online], 57 | 2019, Online since 01 December 2019, connection on 22 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Laurent Mellet

Laurent Mellet is Professor of British literature and film at the University Toulouse Jean Jaurès (CAS–EA 801). His research fields are modernist and contemporary British fiction, film studies and adaptation. His work focuses on the ethics of form and partakes of a political criticism of aesthetics. He is the co-author with Shannon Wells-Lassagne of Étudier l’adaptation filmique. Cinéma anglais - cinéma américain (PUR, 2010), the author of L’Œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (PULM, 2012), of Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime (PUPS, 2015), and of Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright): ‘The attempt was all’ (Belin, 2017). He is the co-editor with Sophie Aymes of In and Out. Eccentricity in Britain (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) and with Elsa Cavalié of Only Connect. E. M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017). He is the head of the research group ARTLab and co-director of the research programme ‘Constructing the individual and the collective’ (CAS).

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