Looking back to the critical overviews of English fiction at the end of the 1960s, there is a shared sense of pessimism about contemporary writing on the English novel; ranging from David Lodge’s The Novelist at the Crossroads (1969) to Bernard Bergonzi’s The Situation of the Novel (1970). Lodge’s measured dissection of the tensions between realism and fabulation accepted the vague intuition that the novel stands to post-Renaissance civilisation as the epic did to ancient civilisation. Bergonzi’s more dismissive analysis criticised the English distrust of experiments with form and focus on the local and parochial, as failing to address the complexities of the human condition. Both influential critics read the English novel as more parochial and less experimental in comparison with its American counterpart. While the arguments of both critics are much more nuanced than depicted here, the basic distinction between these two poles of fiction – realism and fabulation – is helpful in thinking about the profound changes in the English novel that emerged between 1970 and 1990.
Critical appraisals of the 1970s share a sense that the period marks the collapse of the post-war consensus, and the dismantling of white male dominance of the literary form – the so-called tyranny of the Dead White European Males (DWEMS). The two major developments of interest in this period were the emergence and consolidation of ‘minority’ voices in the English novel between 1970 and 1990. These are the fictions influenced by the last stages of the lengthy break up of the Imperial Project (post-colonial), and those shaped by the emergence of a more assertive and democratic feminism. Both trends of course have much earlier ancestry; Lynn Reid Banks’ The L Shaped Room (1960), Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1966) and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) are key documents in articulating a feminist critique of contemporary society. As for the colonial/post-colonial and immigrant experience, influential key fictions are Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956), and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).
Dissect the female experience
The work of Fay Weldon (summarised by one critic as ‘survival manuals for women’) has significantly and eloquently challenged the gender-based oppression that feminism emerged to counter. Beginning notably with Down Amongst the Women (1971), it is an evocative present tense dramatisation of the lives of those women who have ‘cooked a hundred thousand meals, swept a million floors, washed a billion dishes’. Weldon’s work, along with that of her contemporaries Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble, has broadly continued to follow in the realist vein of contemporary fiction to document, satirise or dissect the female experience. Such realist fictions are played out against the backdrop of the equality legislation passed by the Labour Government from the early 1970s onwards.
The other major body of work has been more overtly experimental with an emphasis on the exploration of the non-realist possibilities offered by fiction. The works of Angela Carter (The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972), Fireworks (1974), The Bloody Chamber (1979)) and Jeanette Winterson (Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985), Sexing the Cherry (1989)) exemplify this trend away from realism. Both writers are noted for their interest in experimenting with narrative form, blurring the (artificial) boundary between fantasy and reality (marked by the use of fable and fairy tale), and with a general (but ideologically serious) playfulness that allow the novel, as Ian McEwan has described, to ‘open out relatively unexplored areas of individual and social experience’.
The historical break up of the British Empire, which at one time ruled a quarter of the world's inhabitants and controlled a quarter of the planet’s land mass, began with the partition of India in 1947 and continued until 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong. The literary significance of this has been immense, even if contested; as Whisky Sisodia in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) puts it: ‘The trouble with the English is that their history happened overseas, and they don’t know what it means’.
At that time, much of the undoubted vigour of the English novel emerged from fictional attempts to understand that troubled legacy of colonialism. Paul Scott’s work has directly addressed the largest British colony, India, and his work has both tapped into a profound nostalgia for the certainties of Empire (The Raj Quartet 1966–1975) and its aftermath (Staying On (1977)). J.G.Farrell’s brilliant reimagining of The Indian Rebellion of 1857, one of the defining moments of the Raj in The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and Farrell’s earlier Troubles (1970), has been described by Bergonzi as amounting to a ‘reflective realism’, which interrogates the ideological fictions of the past without abandoning narrative structures (and pleasures).
Whereas these novels directly address the wider implications of the question of white English identity as exposed by the workings of Empire, many of the best fictions of the period came from the writers whose origins lay in the former colonies. Arguably the most significant figure is Rushdie himself; his Midnight’s Children (1981) is an extraordinary, picaresque, linguistically playful examination of the Indian identity that emerged with independence. Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul, who won the Booker Prize in 1971 for In a Free State, has used fiction to cast light on his subject – what he calls the ‘areas of darkness’, and his complex ethnicity as an Indian immigrant to the Caribbean island of Trinidad, writing in English has helped shape his work.