Brexlit and the decline of the English novel

Literature’s outraged elitists chose smug contempt over real insight

Books Features

After the june 2016 referendum, novels about what had happened began to appear on bestseller lists and the shelves of British bookshops. Brexlit addressed “the mind-bending horror of Brexit”, as Ali Smith described it in Autumn (Penguin, 2016). It explored not only the polarising political cleavage between Remain and Leave voters but “deep cultural and attitudinal divisions” that will, the Guardian argued, “animate British politics for decades to come”. Given the British preference for social analysis in novel form, how might Brexlit help us understand what James Graham, discussing his referendum docudrama The Uncivil War, terms a “national trauma”?

English fiction, from Charles Dickens to George Orwell, has frequently provided a more compelling insight into the condition of England question than the long, polysyllabic howl of sociologists. In a recent edited volume, Brexit and Literature: Critical and Cultural Responses (Routledge, 2018), Robert Eaglestone, professor of contemporary literature at the University of London, observes that literature broadens our ability “to think, feel and argue”. Consequently, fiction might afford “an especially useful and appropriate way to address political arguments about national identity which lie at the heart of Brexit”.

So far so good. When, however, Eaglestone pronounces that Brexit “is no friend to creative cosmopolitan literature or to attentive and responsive literary scholarship” things take a distinctly Orwellian turn. It has “stirred up a terrifying political discourse” where “opponents of Brexit are described as saboteurs or enemies of the people”, Eaglestone confides. His fellow professors of contemporary literature and European thought at the universities inter alia of East Anglia, Kent, Dublin, Warwick and the LSE agree.

Thomas Docherty, of University College Dublin and Kent, considers Brexit “an assault upon the intellect”. Michael Gardiner, of Warwick, asserts that Brexiteers use “anachronism as a weapon” to disrupt our “neo-liberal present”. More specifically, Lyndsey Stonebridge, of East Anglia, considers Brexit “Stupid. Men too stupid to think about the consequences of their action tricked the British into making a fatally stupid decision.” In Stonebridge’s judicious assessment, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage “took evident pleasure in performing their twitfuckery” upon the unsuspecting British people.

The Brexlit novelists want to elect a new people. The current population, racist, homophobic, dumb and illiberal, is not fit for purpose

Summing up the views of the professoriate, Baroness Young of Hornsey finds Brexit an “existential mire” that the “creative mind” must work through via “the insightful and valiant efforts” of novelists such as Ali Smith, Andrew Cartwright, Jonathan Coe, Rachel Cusk, Ian McEwan, Olivia Laing, Sam Byers and Douglas Board, all of whom discuss the consequences of Brexit in a variety of genres, ranging from auto fiction to social novels and political satire.

Ali Mmith’s Autumn was “the first significant post Brexit novel”. Longlisted for the Booker prize, it opens in sub-Dickensian mode: “It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.” Through the not very compelling relationship between Elisabeth, a young lecturer in art history, and her ageing, dementia-ridden mentor Daniel, Smith reflects upon the recent past and the disturbing present condition of England. A week after the 2016 referendum, Elisabeth finds her mother’s village in “a sullen state”. “Go Home” in black capitals adorns the local bus shelter. Her mother is tired of “the vitriol, the anger, the meanness”, as well as the “violence”, which somewhat inconveniently, “hasn’t happened yet”.

Post Brexit, the UK has disintegrated:

All across the country people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing … All across the country people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. All across the country people felt unsafe … All across the country people drew swastika graffiti … All across the country racist bile was general … All across the country, everything changed overnight.

A few months later, “a bunch of thugs” in the street outside Elisabeth’s London flat chant:

Britannia rules the waves. First, we’ll get the Poles. And then we’ll get the Muslims. Then we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays. You lot are on the run and we’re coming after you, a right-wing spokesman had shouted at a female MP on a panel on Radio 4 earlier that same Saturday. The chair of the panel didn’t … even acknowledge the threat.

Such an unlikely response from the national broadcaster suggests the author herself might inhabit a parallel reality that all the Brexit novelists share. Anger at the “no” vote and the threat it presents to their borderless worldview pervades Brexlit. Indignation comes naturally to the self-indulgent contemporary genre of autofiction practised by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk. Thus, best-selling author and Guardian columnist Olivia Laing’s Crudo (Picador, 2018) introduces the reader to her alter ego Kathy engaging in an apocalyptic rant about the state of the post-Brexit world. Laing’s Kathy is a fictionalised, Anglicised version of the 1980s New York punk author Kathy Acker, who lived fast and died youngish. Acker wrote largely-forgotten paeans to masturbation, body piercing, and S&M in Blood and Guts in High School (1984). Even the New York Times considered that she “raised literary masturbation to an anti-art form”. Laing’s reborn Kathy offers her millennial readership sanitised, snowflake-sensitive, literary masturbation.

Kathy is “avant-garde, middle-class-in-flight”, but she “did not like the bourgeoisie”. Now a fortysomething, successful but impeccably progressive writer, she commutes between London, Rome and New York, attending literary conferences.

Although living the literary high life, Kathy hates “living at the end of the world”. Anticipating the coming apocalypse, “she was fairly certain that by the time she was an old lady they’d be eating out of rubbish dumps, sheltering from a broiling impossible sun. It was all done, it was over, there wasn’t any hope.” Like liberals everywhere, “she missed Obama… She didn’t like living in the permanent present of the id,” despite the fact that Kathy serves up nothing but the angry id of liberal narcissism.

Analysing the referendum, she finds: “People were told Brexit would be good, so they voted for Brexit and now all the EU citizens would be sent home.” She assumes that “Jacob Rees-Mogg would be the next Prime Minister, he went on Good Morning Britain and explained pleasantly that he thought abortion should be illegal even for rape and that he would like to ban gay marriage.”

In alt-paranoid style, Kathy contemplates a bleak future:

Run by strongmen, she saw the poorer nations of the world obliterated by climate change, she saw the liberal democracy in which she had grown up revealed as fragile beyond measure, a brief experiment in the bloody history of man … she knew she shouldn’t read the paper, but she snuck looks from the minute she woke up … How’s the car-crash of Brexit proceeding, how are they getting along with changing all the country’s laws in secret, how much do we hate foreigners today, who’s winning? Kathy … was riven by despair.

Whilst Olivia Laing’s Kathy surfs a wave of liberal dread, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (Faber & Faber, 2018) explores her fictional alter ego, the successful feminist writer Faye’s encounters with fellow writers at a conference in an unnamed European country. She records random conversations. One is with a “Welsh writer” who observes patronisingly that “the people who lived in the most helpless poverty and ugliness were those who had voted most overwhelmingly for Brexit, and nowhere was that truer than his own small country”. It was, he states, “an act of collective self-harm, a case of turkeys voting for Christmas”. The Welsh proles are stupid, living in

housing estates down south in the post-industrial wastelands, where the men still rode ponies and shot at one another with guns and the women brewed up cauldrons of magic mushrooms in their kitchens: he didn’t imagine they spent much of their time discussing their membership of the EU even if they knew what it was.

At a motorway service station, the Welsh writer sits near “a great pockmarked tattooed creature tucking into a huge plate of fried food and announcing that at last he could be an Englishman eating a full English breakfast in his own country”. It makes you think, the writer concludes, that “democracy wasn’t such a good idea after all”.

The Brexlit novelists want to elect a new people. The current population, racist, homophobic, dumb and illiberal, is not fit for purpose. White, middle-class liberals Sam Byers, Jonathan Coe and Douglas Board, who satirise Brexit’s dystopic aftermath, exemplify this tendency. In Board’s Time of Lies (Lightning Books, 2017) the Leave vote presages the rise of an English fascist movement.

The financial crisis that followed Brexit sees the “wreckage” of Corbyn’s leadership split Labour in two. The Conservative government clings to power while the Supreme Court rules its Brexit negotiation was so stupid it “was null and void”. A populist party, Britain’s Great (BG), with a paramilitary youth wing The Vigilance, overtakes both the Conservatives and Labour in the polls. Bob Grant, a more attractive but unstable version of Donald Trump, leads BG. He’s “a piece of off-white trash. Someone who left school with a knife more times than with homework.” The right-wing media, of course, love him; sluttish journalists promote his Britain-first nationalism.

A self-made millionaire, Grant expresses himself in a limited but comminatory South London patois: “Britain’s Great”, he intones, “cos we are. You want to know why? Then fuck off. Britain’s Great. End of.” BG’s preferred rallying ground is the Den, home to Millwall, an unfashionable football club known for past links to the National Front. BG adopts the club supporters’ chant: “No one likes us. We don’t care.”

The heady cocktail of British identity politics combined with an assault on financial capital proves irresistible. Elected to government in May 2020, BG requires all bankers and former bankers to wear a large letter “B” on their clothes in a laboured Third Reich analogy. Zack, Grant’s liberal brother, finds it “scary how hope has been sucked out of our national life. It’s never been more important to read about how the world should be rather than how it is.” He finds solace in the Guardian’s “refreshing” wit and reason.

English politics has descended to “the kindergarten”. BG’s controversial manifesto commitment to “strong, borders, controlled migration, and safe streets” had unleashed a “mindless politics which had weakened every democracy in the world” whilst unravelling the “rule of law tweet by tweet”. Within weeks, the BG government is at odds with the European Commission and threatens to explode a nuclear bomb over Brussels until a civil service-engineered coup ends the brief populist experiment.

A similar populist contempt informs Sam Byers’s Perfidious Albion (Faber & Faber, 2018). It is set in Edmundsbury, a small town on the outskirts of London that serves as a microcosm for post-Brexit Britain. It hosts the anonymous multinational Green, a company that follows “the disruptive logic of the Silicon Valley”.

Green harvests personal information and runs social experiments to build an algorithmically ordered digital dystopia. The plot involves Downton, a housing trust with close links to Green, “decanting” residents from a decaying Sixties council estate in order to transform it into an upmarket gated community. One of the estate’s old white residents, Alfred Darkin, stubbornly refuses to move and becomes the focus for the populist party England Always and Ronnie Childs’s fascist militia Brute Force, while the novel’s feminist heroines Jess, Deepa and Trina seek to discover Green’s sinister social plans.

Progressive or reactionary, gay or straight, the white English male in Perfidious Albion are either hypocrites or racists. Hugo Bennington, a sleazy right-wing journalist with political ambitions, influences Darkin and England Always, offering only a bleak portrait of England as “overrun, under threat, increasingly incapable. Hordes of immigrants massed at its borders. Its infrastructure frayed at the seams.” Meanwhile, “British television had … given itself over to a comforting nostalgia, a “tsunami of whitewashed and chocolate box history” distasteful to multicultural millennials such as Trina and Deepa.
England Always seeks to turn back the tide of “political correctness gone mad”. Byers’s satire reduces populism to a mixture of mindless thuggery, racism and cynical manipulation. The Guardian found the novel “furiously smart … and madly funny”.

The Observer, similarly, welcomed Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (Penguin, 2018) — a novel that “tells us something about the temper of our times”. The country is “in a wretched state … fractured, groaning under the pressure of an austerity programme”. Coe’s social satire traces the period from the electoral defeat of Gordon Brown in 2010 until 2017 through the experience of three generations of the middle-English Trotter family from Birmingham. Brexit exposes the fault lines between town and country, young and old, contrasting the mindful cosmopolitanism of tertiary-educated young Londoners with the mindlessness of old provincial racists.

The novel’s main character, Benjamin Trotter, is a fifty-something divorcé who sells up in London so he can write a novel in a converted mill house on the Welsh border. Benjamin is a working-class product of an independent boys’ school and a scholarship to Oxford. His father, Colin, worked at the now defunct Longbridge motor plant that once provided employment for much of the postwar Midlands working class.

It is the Referendum and its aftermath, however, that cements the differences bubbling beneath the surface of not so cool Britannia. Benjamin is horrified to read Boris Johnson comparing the European Union to Nazi Germany because both strove to create “a German-dominated European superstate”. He considers the referendum “duplicitous”. Colin’s friend Doug thinks it showed David Cameron “to be a weak, cowardly, malignant, narcissistic fool”.

Benjamin has a niece, Sophie, whose mother Lois has never recovered from the IRA bombing of a Birmingham pub in 1974, and finds her trauma rudely revived when she hears the news of Remainer MP Jo Cox’s murder by a man shouting “Britain First”.

She has a fit, beats the wall with her fists and screams, in terms Professor Stonebridge would approve, “You stupid people, letting this happen.” Curiously, the Islamic State-inspired murder of Lee Rigby, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s office and the Bataclan theatre in Paris, and in Nice and Brussels, evoke no such traumatic response in Lois or disturb the progressive verities of Brexlit more generally. Benjamin’s father Colin has a stroke and dies after voting Leave, while Sophie splits from her Leaver husband Ian, a middle-class white male who is frustrated by his failure to get promoted in the diversity-sensitive public sector where he works.

They reconcile only when Ian awakens to his mother’s racism and the error of his ways. Sophie feels that Brexit had stripped her of “a small but important part of her own identity — her modern, layered, multiple identity”.

Meanwhile Benjamin’s old schoolfriend Doug, a left-wing investigative journalist, shows that the ignorant masses who voted Leave have been duped by dark forces. The emergence of a no-deal agenda in 2017, stoked by “a disparate, amorphous coalition of vested interests” organised by the sinister Sir Ronald Culpepper and his free-market Imperium Foundation think tank, compounds the fears of Doug and the Trotter family. Brexit had been “the wet dream” of conservatives like Culpepper “for years”. Charlie, another old schoolfriend, reinforces the point. The postwar social contract “has been unravelling since 1979 … that’s the real story … the process is pretty much complete now”. Ultimately, the social divisions Brexit crystallised are Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.

Disillusioned by Brexit, Lois and Benjamin sell their respective properties and open a creative writing school in Provence. Sophie, a cosmopolitan anywhere, joins them. She now feels more at home “on the Boulevard Saint-Michel” than in Northern England. An old friend, Claire, visiting Benjamin, asks, “What the hell is going on in Britain at the moment? All the Italians think the Brits have gone completely crazy.” Claire and her wealthy Italian husband evidently hadn’t heard of Matteo Salvini and the League.

Postwar writers such as Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and John Braine would surely have dealt with Brexit in a more provocative manner

No Brexlit character pauses to consider that the conduct of the European Commission might explain Brexit’s popular appeal. Instead, Brexlit saves its self-righteous indignation for the old, the white and the working class who spoilt their cosmopolitan dream. In their version of Brexitland, all Europeans and migrants receive bouquets; the brickbats are reserved for the dull, racist, nostalgia-obsessed provincial Brits.

Brexlit nowhere tackles the impact of mass migration, facilitated by a Europe sans frontières, on wages and public services or how this might induce popular resentment. At the 2011 census the UK’s second city Birmingham, the setting for several Brexit novels, approached majority minority population status. Nearly 40 per cent of the population identified as South Asian, more than 20 per cent practised Islam. This remarkable urban transformation and its cultural impact pass unseen. The only intimation that Birmingham now hosts a Muslim population that has altered the city’s character occurs when Benjamin Trotter remarks that his old school now had a prayer centre to cater for the school’s 30 per cent of boys “who practised the Islamic faith”.

The viewpoint of a cosmopolitan Remainer elite is thus Brexlit’s default mode. Brexit is an unmitigated disaster. It exemplifies “the English disease”— nostalgia. The English are “obsessed with their bloody past … and look where that’s got us.” This vision is most evidently the case with Ian McEwan’s mercifully brief but laboured satire The Cockroach (Vintage, 2019, reviewed by Lionel Shriver in our November issue). The eponymous roach has possessed prime minister Jim Sams, reinforcing his determination to fulfil a referendum mandate committing the UK to economic reversalism, a policy that requires workers to pay employers and businesses to pay their consumers.

McEwan purports to discover elements of this theory in the obscure writings of seventeenth-century East India Company representatives, Joseph Mun [sic] and Josiah Childs. The fact that Mun and Childs outlined a theory of mercantilism not dissimilar to the EU’s common agricultural policy seemingly escapes McEwan’s attention. The cockroach-infested cabinet, however, envisages “the peculiar madness” of reversalism creating the conditions for “poverty, filth and squalor” in which the verminous will, once more, thrive.

Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut (Pierene Press, 2018) is the only Brexit novel to express any sympathy for the white working-class predicament. Meike Zeirvogel, Cartwright’s German publisher, is “shocked” to find herself living in a “divided country” and commissioned him “to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains”.

Cartwright represents this division through the contrasting characters of Cairo Jukes, an ageing ex-boxer, also from Birmingham, working as a zero-hours contract labourer cleaning up industrial sites, and Grace, a worldly, cosmopolitan, Hampstead-based documentary filmmaker.

Grace arrives in Birmingham to canvass opinion on the referendum. She finds an “invisible veil between her and these people … This is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on the scale of a whole country.” Cairo is the only local who speaks to her. He tells her, “We’ve had enough.” The short interview is a social media sensation even though Cairo’s thick Birmingham dialect requires subtitles. Cairo’s odd speech reveals that “all you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that.”

The interview with Grace leads to a documentary film commission and their unlikely relationship blossoms. Grace discovers that the white working class have lost “jobs, houses, security”. “There is a culture that has been neglected here,” she opines, fatuously. Cairo’s father tells her there used to be “man’s work” at the furnaces “not like now”. The Black Country town Dudley is “a hole” worse than the “border camps, Serbia … Syria”. A drunken brawl in a local curry house run by Cairo’s friend Jamie Iqbal, where Ukip activists hold regular Friday meetings, symbolises Leave voters’ hypocrisy on the subject of immigration.

Cartwright demonstrates how “this carrying on about foreigners”, as Cairo’s daughter puts it, and a working-class aversion to a metropolitan elite, obscured debate. The novel ends when Grace tells Cairo she is having his child. Cairo finds the situation intolerable and immolates himself outside a local mosque. This melodramatic conclusion leaves fictional bridges burnt rather than built.

Analysing social divisions in these simplistic terms fails to explain why so many voted for Leave, which was neither just a provincial nor a predominantly working-class phenomenon. Consequently no novel makes a serious effort to explore the wider cultural dimensions of Brexit. Brexlit ignores the Islamically-inspired terror attacks across Europe after 2014 and the impact they may have had upon the popular perception of immigration, especially in the wake of Angela Merkel’s arbitrary decision to open Europe’s borders to refugees in 2015.

Coe’s clumsy attempt in Middle England to integrate recent history into the lives of its fictional characters never considers the impact that the 2016 attacks on Westminster Bridge, Borough Market or the Manchester Arena might have had on social attitudes. The autofiction of Cusk and Laing, the predictable satires of Board and Byers, and Cartwright’s laboured attempt at kitchen sink realism, studiously avoid the cultural issues raised by religious terror, mass migration, the financial crisis and globalisation.

Brexlit instead reinforces the smug, self-referential worldview found in English literature departments, literary reviews and progressive publishing houses. Characters are one-dimensional, the plots soap operatic. It’s hard to think of a time when the English novel would not have made more of the ironic possibilities that the chaos of Brexit affords. Postwar English writers as various as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, George Orwell and John Braine would surely have dealt with Brexit in a more controversial and provocative manner.

They would certainly have done some research, as Orwell did when he took The Road to Wigan Pier, and would never have expressed such contempt for the working classes or shown the unqualified respect for Labour politicians, liberal journalists, the progressive European establishment or Remainer civil servants that Brexlit does. Powell would have found in Olly Robbins a fine example of the civil service’s Widmerpool tendency. Waugh’s Lord Copper would have enjoyed the Conservative and Labour parties’ shambolic reaction to the “no” vote. Braine’s Joe Lampton would have shown far more resilience than Cairo Jukes as well as contempt for the patronising, progressive views of women such as Grace or Sophie Trotter.

The progressive London literary establishment, its academic book reviewers, and Remainer publishing houses such as Faber & Faber and Penguin have turned the English novel not into a mirror to investigate the condition of England but into a form of ideological groupthink that Soviet-era dissidents such as Czeslaw Milosz would recognise.

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