Volume 15, 2010

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Katharine Cockin and Jago Morrison, eds., The Post-War British Literature Handbook (London and New York: Continuum, 2010. $120 hardcover). Pp. 272. ISBN: 9780826495013

Published right on the cusp of the 2010s, Katharine Cockin and Jago Morrison’s book, The Post-War British Literature Handbook ushered in the new decade, with a timely and astute assessment of the popularity and relevance of contemporary British literature to the curriculum. This book should be of considerable interest to academics, scholars, research and undergraduate students working in this field. Post-war British literature is a vibrant area of scholarship and research, and recent years have seen the publication of a range of books, either on individual authors, topics/issues, or subgroupings, such as black British writing and women’s writing. The editors of The Post-War British Literature Handbook are respected scholars within their respective fields; Cockin is a women’s writing specialist whose expertise spans across the 19th and 20th century, and Morrison’s is in contemporary British and postcolonial writing. Their engagement and experience is evident in the thoughtful structure and contributions, both their own and those by other academics featured in this book.

The word ‘handbook’ did trigger a mixed response in me, I must admit. Ensuring that the book is not perceived as speaking only to a select ‘niche’ market, the title attempts to tick all the marketing boxes, in targeting a teaching and learning readership. Yet the reader should not be deceived by the rather modest-sounding word ‘handbook’. The lack of a showier, flashier title should not detract from its scholarly approach as it provides both survey-like features and in-depth sections of arguably the major developments within Second World War British literature. Pragmatic yet elegant and questioning, Cockin and Morrison’s The Post-War British Literature Handbook offers a series of well-researched and wide-ranging chapters of historical and cultural contextualisation, as well as sections on specific issues or trends within contemporary British literature.

An admirable aspect of Cockin and Morrison’s The Post-War British Literature Handbook is its determination to foreground critical theory, and its centrality to literature research, teaching and learning. Critical theory is embedded in this book’s very structure and approach in an organic way that reinforces the relationship between theory and literature. From having been an area of division and contention, even strife, Cockin and Morrison’s book showcases the riches in, and the possibilities of, literary and critical theory, and their continued relevance to literary engagement. The individual chapters are written in a clear, accessible language mindful of complexities yet avoiding needless use of jargon. On the whole, The Post-War British Literature Handbook succeeds in presenting this material in an organic attractive reader-friendly manner that appeals to both professionals and students. The Introduction sets this up well, with its problematisation of all things ‘post’.

The Post-War British Literature Handbook contains four main sections: the opening section, ‘contexts’, provides a helpful outline of significant literary movements within post-war British literature. ‘Contexts’ describes the social, cultural, and political background to literary developments, and offers summary overviews of literary groupings and institutions etc specific to British culture, from the BBC, Open University, through to censorship, cyberpunk, and regional novel. The ext section, on ‘case studies’, gives illustrative readings of selected literary and critical texts, such as Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004) and Andrzej Gasiorek, Post-War British Fiction: Realism and After (1995). Both the literary and theoretical parts are framed by short introductions by Michael Greaney. This section is clearly signposted as providing supporting material for teaching and learning, one of the facets which give this book its edge over others with a perhaps more abstract and therefore less user-friendly approach. The third Section, on ‘critical approaches’, offers overviews of ‘key critics, concepts and topics’. Written by selected UK scholars within the field of contemporary literature, this section attempts to provide breadth of coverage in relative bite-size format; a user-friendly strategy which, however, does at times sit uneasily with the complexity of the theoretical positions and the literary and critical texts under consideration. Invariably, perhaps, overviews of critical positions and debates may leave the advanced scholar wanting; for undergraduate students, however, finding themselves struggling to navigate the critical morass in a jungle of theory, this section is particularly helpful. I particularly enjoyed the book’s final section, ‘Mapping the field’, as it explores two areas close to my own interest, namely women’s writing and issues of gender and sexuality in literature; and postcolonial and black British perspectives, and the topics are intelligently evaluated by respected scholars.

Inevitably, of course, when a text aims for inclusivity and coverage of authors and names, there will be omissions. Disappointingly, there is no mention of for example David Mitchell whose novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, has won him such recognition, but who already has an impressive body of work behind him, or the slightly lesser known but equally interesting Matthew Kneale. Furthermore, although these areas are discussed, there is no sustained engagement in the book with the impact of popular genre writing, such as crime fiction or travel writing. Furthermore, it could be argued that such genre-based writings are catered for by more specialist publications elsewhere – as is children’s literature which is treated with similar brevity, although J.K. Rowling’s work is emphasised. Recent Asian-British writings are explored, as is the influence on the contemporary literary scene of recent migrant writers from Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. Understandably, however, the editors have had to compromise depth and complexity of treatment, in order to achieve coverage. And of course the benefits of these ‘tasters’, or overviews, are that interested readers are at liberty to explore and do further research in specialist publications and sources, on the basis of the information and knowledge they have acquired.

I have to admit to not having perused the Appendix with its accompanying teaching plans – this is available only as a separate purchase, a fact which one could gripe about. That aside, however, based on what I have read, I have no doubt as to the merit and quality of this additional material. It is indicative of the book’s determination to position itself as a teaching and learning tool that it should signal its suitability for teaching uses in this way. Cockin and Morrison’s The Post-War British Literature Handbook provides an excellent read for advanced level undergraduate students engaging in research activity, and is a useful source for literature lecturers looking for contextualizing material about post-war Britain and its complex, exciting literary riches.


University of Gloucestershire



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