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  • Putting Class Back in the Picture
  • Louisa Hadley (bio)
Lawrence Driscoll , Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature. New York and Basingstoke, Eng.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 243 pp. $90.00.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher's notorious declaration in 1987 that "there is no such thing as society," the language of class has been increasingly removed from the discourses of the state and the media in Britain. 1 Indeed, under Tony Blair, class politics were supposedly entirely replaced by lifestyle politics. In his provocative study Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature, Lawrence Driscoll examines "the extent to which, since 1979, collective concerns and the issues of class and society, have been ideologically transformed into poststructuralist abstractions of 'identity' and the fulfillment of 'personal desire'" (170). Reading against the grain of postmodern and poststructuralist theory, however, Driscoll excavates the concern with class that he claims remains as "a troubling subterranean and repressed element in contemporary literature, theory, and culture" (1). This list more accurately captures the range of Driscoll's book than its title; complementing his analysis of contemporary literature, Driscoll incorporates a chapter that considers how class is inscribed in contemporary film and television. This chapter, the most engaging in the book, brings a unique interdisciplinary approach to Driscoll's analysis of the [End Page 384] position of class in contemporary British literature and culture. In discussing contemporary fiction, Driscoll focuses on the key texts of eleven major contemporary writers: Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, Will Self, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Hanif Kureishi, Alan Hollinghurst, Graham Swift, and Jonathan Coe. Through his analysis, Driscoll challenges the now-standard critical responses to these authors and successfully demonstrates the need to put class back into the picture in discussions of contemporary British fiction and culture. Although Driscoll's study focuses on the depiction of class in literary and visual texts, he is equally concerned with the ways in which critical theory, particularly postmodernism, seeks to erase class. This analysis of the critical accounts of contemporary fiction provides an important corrective to the usual focus of postmodern/poststructuralist theory, but it does, at times, overshadow his equally interesting analysis of the texts themselves.

Driscoll's engagement with contemporary British fiction and critical theory is grounded in his distinction between ideological and political readings of literature. He claims that contemporary theory, particularly postmodern theory, reinforces the dominant ideology of the ruling culture, which focuses on the individual "fluid, flexible decentred subject" (1), at the expense of what Terry Eagleton terms "collective, and effective, political action" (qtd. in Driscoll 3). Consequently, postmodern readings of contemporary fiction present "ideologically complicit readings" which merely confirm the ideology of the novels themselves (18). Thus rather than critiquing the class-based ideology of contemporary fiction, postmodern readings collude with the erasure of class from the discussion. Such an approach seems predicated on the belief that literature transcends ideology to present universal experiences. By contrast, Driscoll argues that "literature is not so much what enables us to see through ideology . . . but that instead it is thoroughly ideological and may actually stop us from seeing certain things" (38). For Driscoll, what ideological readings prevent us from seeing is the persistence of class concerns in contemporary literature and culture. Following Raymond Williams, Driscoll proposes that we need to read "against literature," and indeed against postmodern theory, in order to [End Page 385] create a criticism that is truly critical (18). For Driscoll, a truly critical approach to contemporary literature is one that resists its absorption into postmodern theory and uncovers how postmodern identity politics have not replaced or resolved class issues but merely translated them into new terms. Driscoll recognizes the difficulties that beset such a critical approach to contemporary fiction. He notes that while "it is possible to seek out the bourgeois ideology that sneakily lies buried within Evelyn Waugh, or Virginia Woolf or Ezra Pound," critics seem to have a blind spot when it comes to tracing "the bourgeois ideology of our own moment" in the work of contemporary authors (38). Similarly, he claims that the current climate of political correctness hampers criticism. Thus he claims that reading the work of gay writer Alan Hollinghurst against the grain "is...


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pp. 384-393
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