More often than not, literature responds to and comments on the cultural climates of its time. From Richard II’s critique of the monarchy to Great Expectations’ illustration of poverty to The Waste Land’s disillusionment in the aftermath of WWI to Neuromancer’s anxieties about automation to White Teeth’s consideration of 21st-century identity; the stories we know and love can often be viewed through the lenses of their authors’ realities. Literature responding to Brexit is no exception.
On 23 June, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Regardless of personal opinions on that, there was an undeniable effect on, among many other things, books.
The referendum known as Brexit paved the way for what has come to be known as “Brexlit,” a genre defined not by form, but by subject matter.
Today, we’re going to explore Brexlit’s rise and its features in case you are interested in reading it or, if you are so inclined, trying your hand at writing it.
What Is Brexlit?
The Financial Times, which coined the term in the summer of 2017, presents two types of Brexlit to us:
The first falls into the speculative genre, presenting us with dystopian and utopian visions of a post-Brexit Britain.
Dystopian fiction, in general, saw a dramatic rise in popularity in the wake of the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election. 1984 was Amazon’s #1 bestseller in January 2017. Other dystopian classics like Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 followed suit. The Handmaid’s Tale morphed from dystopian novel into Hulu series. The British Netflix show Black Mirror gave us visions of futures with currency in the form of “likes,” deadly virtual reality game implants, and cartoons as viable political candidates.
But the dystopian worldbuilding of Brexlit is only one side of the generic coin.
The other type of Brexlit is reflective. It delves into the nuances of the divides that led to the vote in the first place.
Fiction and nonfiction fall under this umbrella. It is less about envisioning the future and more about exploring the past and the present, real and imagined. It is about escaping echo chambers and examining not just the opinions of each side but the lived experiences that formed those opinions. These books, at the risk of being reductive, trace the tensions between the rural and the metropolitan, the conservative and the liberal, the everyman and the elite.
These two types of literature give us Brexlit. If you’re interested in reading some popular examples of the genre, click here.
Maybe you even want to take it a step farther…
So You Want to Write Some Brexlit?
If you’re thinking about writing a Brexlit novel, you probably already have some kind of idea floating around in your head. Now comes the hard part: getting it down on paper (or, you know, in a Word document).
Odds are your novel falls into one of the two categories of Brexlit described above. Each one of these has different focuses, just as dystopian and reflective books, in general, have different focuses.
In a broad sense, the main focuses of any dystopian novel are worldbuilding, background, and the central anxiety. Let’s pick those apart a bit further.
It’s important to have a detailed, post-Brexit world fleshed out before your characters even step foot in it. When it comes to worldbuilding, I sometimes like to use a handy-dandy checklist. Other times, this can be overwhelming and distracting.
The focus of your worldbuilding is going to depend heavily on plot. In Oryx and Crake, climate and nature were the most important parts of the world because the dystopia was set in the aftermath of ecological collapse.
In a post-Brexit dystopia, it might make more sense to focus on, say, the design of the government over the ecology of Britain. Then again, it might not, depending on your story.
It is also important to think about how far in the future your story is set, the extent of societal decay, and anything else that is necessary to the setting of your story but isn’t in the forefront of your characters’ minds day-to-day. Orient your readers in your novel’s world without lecturing at them.
You should immerse your readers in your world. This doesn’t mean getting hung-up on the intricacies of your dystopia’s tax system or the line of succession for the new head-of-state.
If you’ve already sorted all that out, good for you! Knowing the ins-and-outs of your world will help with your story’s continuity. But don’t bog down your reader with the details unless they are truly crucial to your plot. This is a story, not an encyclopedia.
For Brexlit, the general background is predetermined: the Brexit vote. But how far in the past you want to reach in order to contextualize your dystopia is up to you. At what point your background ends is determined by how far in the future you set your novel.
The important thing is to give the background without slowing the pace of your novel. You don’t want your story to read like a history textbook or a litany of events.
An effective way to avoid this is to begin your novel in the present day. Then you can intersperse the background throughout the actual plot.
Of course, that isn’t a rule. You are welcome to insert your plot’s background however and wherever you like, but don’t overwhelm or bore your readers with it. Don’t insult their intelligence; they are most likely bringing at least cursory knowledge of Brexit to your story.
What powers-that-be brought your dystopia into being? The “Leaves” or the “Remains”? What is the central threat to the population and what do they fear?
A dystopia is the inversion of a utopia or a utopia gone awry; its emergence happens slowly… and then suddenly. On the one hand, there is a sense of inevitability. On the other hand, there is the shock of it actually happening. It’s important to play off the tension between a build-up long enough to create apathy in the general population and the moment at which they realize it is too late to take any preventative measures.
Most dystopian novels examine what happens when something we fear is taken to a logical extreme: climate collapse, overthrow by a religious coup, surveillance, technology indistinguishable from humans, etc.
In this case, this has broadly been decided for you. People are anxious about the Brexit vote. What happens when you take one of its potential fallouts as far as you can possibly imagine? In the case of your novel, a dystopia happens. But the type of dystopia and the aspect of Brexit on which it comments is totally up to you. Freedom!
Unlike its pessimistic counterpart, reflective writing focuses more on the past and present, and the future it offers is not necessarily as grim as a dystopia. The main things to consider with this type of story are the protagonist, his or her conditions, and tensions at play. I recommend research for a novel of any genre that incorporates or stems from real-world events. And it is even compulsory if you go the nonfiction route here.
Protagonists (main characters) are crucial in most narratives, but in this case, I’m talking specifically about a character that represents the group of people on which the novel focuses.
Your main character humanizes the context through which this group of people sees the world, which is much more effective and compelling than using exposition to explain this. Whether or not you agree with the worldview is beside the point, especially considering you have chosen to write about this group.
Your protagonist is a means of understanding, but this isn’t necessarily the equivalent of an endorsement on your part. You want to create nuance, and building a character is the perfect way to do this because, well, humans are complex.
You don’t always need to give your readers a character they can root for, but you still need to give them a character that is believable.
To expand on that, it is also crucial to detail your characters’ living conditions. This is where research comes in handy. You definitely want to give your reader something objective to use when considering your protagonist and his or her peers’ point-of-view.
Economic and geographic conditions are good places to start. What are the measurable aspects of these people’s lives? Are they farmers who feel neglected by politicians, people of color increasingly affected by gentrification, refugees, immigrants, the working poor, etc.? What about these conditions shapes the way your protagonist views his or her situation? What about these conditions, essentially, led to his or her vote – if they even voted at all?
You need to effectively place your readers in a world with which they aren’t familiar. Outlining the living conditions of your protagonist will give them context for your protagonist’s subjective take on the events leading up to the vote.
While the goal isn’t always to justify your characters’ thoughts and actions, you still want to cultivate empathy.
Ultimately, the central focus is the dividing line between one group of people in question and another. If this divide was nonexistent, the vote wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it is time to use your characters and plot to outline how the divide came into being. How did the tension between, say, metropolitan and rural areas develop into something as explosive as Brexit?
What do your protagonist and his peers hope to accomplish with their votes? What aspects of their living conditions do they hope to alleviate?
Again, this isn’t a textbook, so plot and character are going to do a lot of work here. You also want to ensure the pace of your novel doesn’t slow in the midst of trying to cover the timeline of the division. You’re here to use narrative to illustrate the growth of tension, not necessarily offer a resolution or solution, but this type of Brexlit may still prove to be more empathetic and less fatalistic than its dystopian counterpart.
This doesn’t mean that one type is better than the other. You have a solid potential reader-base either way. After all, you know what they say: it’s not what you write; it’s how you write it.
Brexlit on Lulu
Now we have a good handle on what Brexlit is and how to write it. Let’s check out some Lulu authors who have successfully published some Brexlit:
Artistic Directors of the Future…Talks Brexit
ARTISTIC DIRECTORS OF THE FUTURE…TALKS BREXIT. Selected and Edited by Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway. A provocative, urgent, necessary collection of work featuring essays by Tutku Barbaros, Javaad Alipoor, Charleen Parkes and plays by Firdos Ali, Sian Davila, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Hannah Khalil, Vinay Patel, Milli Bhatia, Kelechi Iwumene, Bisola E. Alabi and Daniel York. This publication is made in collaboration with NoPassport Press.
50 years since the Brexit referendum, 100 years since World Cup victory, 1000 years since the Battle of Hastings – and once again England is an offshore province of a continental power. A corrupt political / business class has entrenched itself in power within the Democratic Union of Europe, feasting itself on the labours of the working people. Mired in poverty and powerlessness and overwhelmed by economic depression and immigration the various peoples of Europe have retreated into their ghettoes. In one part of a small offshore island a conspiracy emerges to challenge the status quo. Democracies die with a whimper, tyrannies with a bang; this is the story of the coming revolution.
Good luck, and happy self-publishing!