Contemporary British literature offers readers some of the most vitally original voices working today. From established prose stylists Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan to the evocative historical novels of Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker, each of the ten British authors selected for this list has maintained a consistent output of inventive and emotionally-compelling work.
Notable books: White Teeth (2000), On Beauty (2005), Swing Time (2016), Grand Union, (2019), NW (2012).
Zadie Smith was only twenty-four when she made a huge splash in the literary world with her debut novel White Teeth, an ambitious and thoughtful novel about race and the immigrant experience in postcolonial Britain. In her subsequent novels and essays (frequently published in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker), Smith has returned to the themes she explored in her debut novel, creating a compelling and socially observant tapestry of modern diversity in Britain.
Notable books: Autumn (2016), How to Be Both (2014), The Accidental (2005), Hotel World (2001), Winter (2017), Spring (2019)
A brilliantly playful and sharply original writer, Ali Smith’s fast-moving and genre-bending novels have, for over two decades, been one of Scotland’s premier literary exports. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize four times, Smith’s passionate and vitally inventive novels–particularly her seasonal quartet of novels–have gained a legion of fans both in Britain and across the pond.
Notable books: Out of Sheer Rage (1997), But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991), Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2005), Zona (2012), Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003), Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011).
One of Britain’s most wildly original and funny voices, Geoff Dyer’s idiosyncratic meditations on love and art, life and death, never cease to surprise, engage, and delight. Chronically over-looked by critics, Dyer’s prose is equal to anyone writing in English. He is perhaps best-known for his raucous and stimulating explorations of jazz (But Beautiful), his hilarious narration of procrastinating writing a book on D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), and an engrossing and ruminative minute-by-minute analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic arthouse film Stalker (Zona). Described by Steve Martin as one of the funniest writers in contemporary literature, Dryer is also an accomplished novelist (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), a respected art critic (Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger; The Ongoing Moment), and a go-to for entertaining and intellectually stimulating travel essays (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It).
Notable books: Outline (2014), Transit (2016), Kudos (2018), Coventry (2019), A Life’s Work (2001), Aftermath (2012).
Following two decades of well-received novels, the author Rachel Cusk revolutionized the narrative form of the novel with her Outline Trilogy, a series of three spare and penetrating books detailing other people’s conversations with a nearly-nameless narrator. Deftly forgoing many of the traditional conventions of the modern novel–interior subjectivity, intimate emotional connections, cathartic plot resolutions–Cusk creates an utterly unique and thought-provoking reading experience that masterfully melds form and content and explores the messy ways we tell and reconstruct our stories.
Notable books: The Sense of an Ending (2011), Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), The Only Story (2018), The Noise of Time (2016), Arthur & George (2005), A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989).
One of Britains most-accomplished writers, Julian Barnes’ prolific career includes award-winning novels, collections of essays and short stories, and crime fiction authored under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Before winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending, Barnes had previously been shortlisted for the prestigious prize three times: Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England , England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005). A wickedly intelligent writer known for his elegant prose, Barnes’ novels explore themes of memory, identity, and choice.
Notable books: Regeneration (1991), The Silence of the Girls (2018), The Ghost Road (1995), The Eye in the Door (1993), Life Class (2007), Double Vision (2003).
An award-winning novelist known for her powerful, humane, and historically-authentic depictions of war and the aftermath, Pat Barker is best-known for her Regeneration Trilogy. Regarded as a triumph of late 20th century British fiction, the Regeneration Trilogy is an award-winning series of intense and closely-observed novels about the aftermath of WWI on the personal lives of British citizens. Masterfully using spare and evocative prose, Barker’s quietly epic historical novels create a moving and harrowing depiction of memory, trauma, and the journey of recovery.
Notable books: Fingersmith (2002), Tipping Velet (1998), The Night Watch (2006), The Paying Guests (2014), The Little Stranger (2009).
Known for gripping novels set in Victorian society and the early 20th century, Waters’ fiction usually features lesbian protagonists. Frequently short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, her novels are characterized by moving and authentic depictions of intimacy between people set against the backdrop of historical, political, and social forces.
Notable books: Cloud Atlas (2004), The Bone Clocks (2014), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010), Black Swan Green (2006), Number9Dream (2001).
Best known for ambitious and intricately plotted novels that experiment with narrative form and genre, the English novelist David Mitchell fearlessly waltzes from one genre to the next, typically within the span of the same novel. His best-known work, the novel Cloud Atlas, is made up of six interconnected stories; while his debut, Ghostwritten, is comprised of nine narrators. In spite of these narrative hijinks, Mitchell has enjoyed both mainstream and critical success, creating diverse narrative tableaus that he peoples with thrilling character studies.
Notable books: Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), Enduring Love (1997), Amsterdam (1998), On Chesil Beach (2007), The Innocent (1990).
One of the most prolific and accomplished British authors, Ian McEwan’s richly detailed character studies are often set against the backdrop of social and political forces that irrevocably challenge the personal lives of his characters. Best-known for his award-winning novel Atonement, McEwan is regarded by his peers as one of his generations great prose stylists.
Notable books: Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), The Mirror and the Light (2020), A Place of Greater Safety (1992), The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014).
An English writer of historical fiction, personal memoir, and short stories, two-time Man Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel is best known for her dazzling and best-selling trilogy of historical novels centered on Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power within the court of Henry VIII: Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020). Successful both among readers and critics, Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is regarded as one of the great literary accomplishments of the early 21st century.