Waugh and The Brexlit Novel

The Australian literary journal Quadrant has posted an article entitled “Brexit and the Decline of the English Novel” in which a new genre of novel is described. This is the “Brexlit” novel and has already chalked up a number of examples to its credit (or discredit, as the case may be). The article by David Martin Jones notes seven full-length novels devoted to the subject of Britain’s departure from the European Union, or not as the case may yet be. The first off the press was Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016). This was followed by two others which reflected :

…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 auto fiction practiced by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk.[…] The Brexit novelists want to elect a new people. The current white male population—racist, homophobic, dumb and illiberal—is not fit for purpose.

Laing’s novel is entitled Crudo and Cusk’s Kudos, both published in 2018.

Martin Jones then takes up three examples by male novelists.  The first two are Time of Lies (2017) by Douglas Board and Perfidious Albion (2019) by Sam Byers. Both of these are satires that posit dystopian futures where the Brexiteers have won and eliminated the old two party system. In Time of Lies there a new party called Britain’s Great or “BG”, consisting of thuggish Fascists. They win the election and

Within weeks, the new populist government is at odds with the European Commission and threatening to explode a nuclear bomb over its Brussels headquarters. A Civil Service-engineered coup, however, ends BG’s brief populist experiment.

In Perfidious Albion, there is:

…the anonymous, multinational Green, a company that follows “the disruptive logic of the Silicon Valley”. Moving fast and breaking things, Green harvests personal information and runs social experiments to build an algorithmically-ordered digital dystopia.[…] 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”.

Perhaps the most ambitious and thoughtful contribution to the genre comes from Jonathan Coe’s 2018 novel. This is called Middle England. It involves characters called back from his earlier State of Britain novels The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. There is also at least one novel that offers sympathetic consideration to the working class losers who came out on the winning side. This is Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut (2017).

Martin Jones then addresses previous generations of British writers facing momentous issues of the day in the 20th and 19th centuries:

Analysing social divisions in these simplistic terms [reflected in Brexlit novels] fails to explain why so many voted for Leave, which was neither just a provincial nor a 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 on the popular perception of immigration, especially in the wake of Angela Merkel’s arbitrary decision to open Europe’s borders to refugees in 2015. […]

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. Post-war 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 as Brexlit does. Anthony Powell would have found in [the real life] 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. John Braine’s Joe Lampton would have shown far more resilience than Cairo Jukes [in The Cut] as well as contempt for the patronising, progressive views of women like Grace [in that same novel] or Sophie Trotter [in Middle England]. But we need only consider briefly how the modern condition-of-England genre first emerged to see the depths to which it has now fallen.

Among 19th century writers Martin Jones gives pride of place to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times as offering more balanced and thoughtful views of the chaotic times facing their characters, particularly the working classes. The article concludes:

The progressive London literary establishment, its academic book reviewers and Remainer publishing houses like 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 group-think that Soviet-era dissidents like Czeslaw Milosz would recognise.




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