“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published in June 1997, launching its author, J.K. Rowling, to worldwide success. As with many British authors before her, Rowling’s name and the characters she created will live on for generations. But Rowling is only one of a host of internationally acclaimed modern British authors. The last 15 years or so have seen many writers from the UK skyrocket to fame, and the well of award winning, best-selling and respected British novelists is in no danger of running dry.
Around the time Rowling was making a name for herself in children’s literature, authors Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding were becoming household names as well. The authors of the Shopaholic and the Bridget Jones series, respectively, they heralded the start of a boom in female-centric British writing. Both women have had their wildly popular “chick-lit” novels turned into major motion pictures, giving other chick-lit specialists like the Irish author Cecilia Ahern a leg up.
More recently, British adult romance writer E L James of “Fifty Shades of Grey” fame has profited from this shift towards popular female writing. From novice writer in January 2009 to fastest selling paperback author ever, James is carving out a name for herself as the modern-day Jackie Collins (a fellow Brit with a penchant for letting her hair down in print).
Of course Fielding, Kinsella and James aren’t the only British authors achieving success today. Zadie Smith stands out among her peers for an immense talent that was obvious at a young age. The same year Rowling published the first Harry Potter book, Smith started shopping her novel, “White Teeth,” around to publishers. She was 22 at the time. When it was published three years later, Smith became a best-selling and multiple-award-winning author. Unlike many of her female peers in the UK writing world, Smith is known for critical acclaim as well as her ability to construct a bestseller.
Women aren't the only ones making names for themselves these days. As has been the case for hundreds of years, British men are some of the most respected authors the world over. David Mitchell, Ian Rankin, and Ian McEwan are all following in the footsteps of those who came before them, from William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens to Philip Pullman.
Ian Rankin may not have as many of the top literary prizes on his shelf as some of the others, but he has been one of the most popular writers to come from the UK for the past two decades. His Inspector Rebus series is set mainly in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, and have achieved the same kind of success among crime fiction fanatics as chick-lit books have achieved among hopeless romantics. With no signs of slowing, Rankin is sure to remain a household name.
His fellow Ian, author Ian McEwan, works on the other end of the literary spectrum. Earning himself the nickname “Ian Macabre,” McEwan is known for his melodramatic and often sad, though beautifully written, novels. His best known, “Atonement,” was turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Lauded as one of the great writers of his generation, McEwan falls in line with the rich history of British authorship that lies in challenging and thought-provoking works.
One of the more recent names making a splash is David Mitchell, author of the hit novel “Cloud Atlas.” Turned into a major motion picture last year, “Cloud Atlas” is a work of sweeping ambition that points to a bright future for the gifted novelist. On top of novel writing, Mitchell also writes operas and will have a piece premiering this year with the English National Opera.
With Great Britain’s long and rich history of great authorship, it can be easy to forget that some of the best British authors aren’t from antiquity. Take a break from the classics and enjoy the work of authors who are living, breathing and — best of all — writing today.
by Leigh Bryant