Today is National Fish and Chips Day, which is all about celebrating this iconic British dish, as well as everyone who works hard to get it from the sea to the table. Fish and chips is a staple takeaway food in my house (I’ll certainly be having it tonight!) and I started thinking of what other British greats make my life as enjoyable as my delicious battered cod. As always, my thoughts turn to books. This post was initially going to be my Top 5 British authors but I simply couldn’t whittle it down to that small number. So, here are my Top 15 British Authors instead…
15. David Solomons
Born in Glasgow, Solomons is a screenwriter-come-author, with his film credits starting from the adaptation of children’s classic ‘Five Children and It’ and book credits finishing (at the moment) with the My Brother is a Superhero series.
He makes the top 15 because of this series – it celebrates the power of the underdog against all odds, with a warmth and self-deprecating humour that I like to think all Brits have (or should have) when the going gets tough.
14. Frances Hardinge
Brighton-born Hardinge has a turn of phrase you’ve never seen before. Immensely lyrical in her work, she has the awards to prove her worth: her debut novel Fly By Night garnered two awards and her novel The Lie Tree won the 2015 Costa Book Award; the first children’s novel to achieve it since Philip Pullman’s Amber Spyglasss way back in 2001. Her work
The interesting, and perhaps the best, thing about Hardinge is that, although she writes for children, her books aren’t stereotypically ‘light’ in either narrative or content. Her book The Lie Tree is a gothic period fantasy with undertones of religion and overtones of feminism and social commentary. Hardinge clearly believes that children are capable of understanding more than most traditionally give them credit for and that, combined with her utterly beautifully crafted prose, is what makes her one of Britain’s best up-and-coming authors.
13. Louise Rennison
A Leeds lady, born and raised, Louise Rennison was an author and comedian, most famous for The Confession of Georgia Nicholson, a hugely popular contemporary teen comedy series that detailed the misadventures of a British teenage girl. These hilarious books beautifully capture the woes and questionable wisdom of adolescence and, at a time when most teens are focused on the dismal troubles of puberty, provide a lighthearted way of looking at your problems.
There are clear feminist influences at work in the series; proof that a woman need not be perfect to be good. In Rennison’s own words, the vibrant Georgia is “someone who is a bit stupid and self-obsessed and difficult and funny and rude, and a bit jealous and all those other things. But I wanted her to have a good heart.”
Her inspiration for Confessions came from a somewhat insulting response to her London newspaper column from Picadilly Press: We’d like you to write a teenage girl’s diary… we read your article and we thought that it was so self-obsessed and so childish that you could really do a good job.” So Rennison did, and it became an instant best-seller.
12. Joe Abercrombie
For those of you unfamiliar with Abercrombie, he is the author of the First Law trilogy, which is inventive, non-traditional, gritty and heartbreaking fantasy. He makes the Top 15 particularly because of his approach to writing and his talent. Fantasy is a genre rife with cliches and traditions and Abercrombie takes great pleasure in taking those traditions and turning them on their head. The result is a powerful and sharp host of characters who are unflatteringly honest depictions of human nature, against a backdrop of a psuedo-typical fantasy world.
I have been delighted, horrified and most certainly aggrieved by Abercrombie’s work and urge all who have not yet had the experience of the First Law to give it a try. If his goal was indeed to “single-handedly [redefine] the fantasy genre,” he may not have succeeded yet, but he has certainly made a good start.
11. JRR Tolkien
Now here is a man that needs no introduction: the Father of Modern Fantasy. With The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created a legacy of imagination that has spread worldwide and through generations, and is an unquestionable influence on many fantasy writers today. His unique voice and take on loyalty, friendship, bravery, endurance and achieving your aims against all odds provides readers with role models they can truly aspire to.
A veteran of World War I, Tolkien was present at the Battle of the Somme and suffered great personal losses: by 1918, all but one of his close friends were killed in action.
The Lord of the Rings may not have been, in Tolkien’s own opinion, directly inspired by the war, but certain themes of the story prevail in a familiar fashion: the camaraderie found in a group of wildly different people brought together for a single, all-important purpose; the unique and particular strength of women left at home while the men are sent to fight a battle so much greater than they can understand; a darkness that touches the hearts of men, that all are susceptible to; and a steadfast love that never wavers through distance, time or adversity. Tolkien, through his imagination and words, uniquely represented the best and worst of human nature and taught us that every man, woman and child – even the unlikeliest among us – can be heroes when we need to be. And that’s a pretty great message.
10. Salman Rushdie
Rushdie is most famously known for his books Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, the latter of which caused violent controversy and led to the then-Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issuing a fatwa (calling for his death). Rushdie has said himself that the book was not “an anti-religious novel. It is, however, an attempt to write about migration, its stresses and transformations.”
He makes this list because – whether or not you agree with the interpretation of that particular text – his use of magical realism and evocative prose have earned him world renown; he was actually considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature but didn’t win because he was “too popular”.
His books mainly deal with the connections and differences between Eastern and Western countries, sometimes drawn from his own experience, with the fantastical elements having a base in historical fiction. Rushdie has continued to quietly mentored others Indo-Anglican writers and remains one of the most influential writers in postcolonial literature. He was knighted by the Queen for services to literature in 2007.
9. Roald Dahl
If there’s a British child who isn’t familiar with at least one of Dahl’s stories, I will be utterly stunned. A veteran of World War II where he served in the Royal Air Force, Dahl is credited as being “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century”.
His trademark macabre humour remains popular to present day but, despite it, his stories are perhaps better known for celebrating the kind hearted and generous. The children in his stories are often downtrodden unfortunates who find their own power and eventually defeat their enemies, who are nearly always largely unpleasant and cruel adults. He teaches generation after generation that there is great value in being good-hearted, and those who aren’t will invariably get just what they deserve.
Enjoyable fantasy with a darkly comic slant, Dahl’s books tell us that anything is possible if we try hard enough, that we should stand up for ourselves when we can, and stand up for others when they cannot.
8. J M Barrie
Scottish born Barrie is very much a half-forgotten hero these days; everyone knows the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, but – as unbelievable as it may be – surprisingly few identify Barrie as the author or know the history behind the tale.
Barrie was a writer before and after he came up with the fairy story of Kensington Gardens, but the world of Neverland overshadowed his other work. Peter Pan continues to enjoy worldwide popularity today: as spin-off books, inspiration for films, tv shows and a classic pantomime script enjoyed every year at Christmas.
The reason I’ve included Barrie in this list goes beyond this undeniable popularity, however; upon his death, Barrie bequeathed the rights and royalties to his work to Great Ormond Street Hospital, which is one of world’s leading children’s hospitals. I was a patient of GOSH and can speak from personal experience of the great and difficult work the hospital continues to do, with the significant aid of funding from that bequeathal. Barrie’s generosity has already and will continue to save millions of lives.
7. Malorie Blackman
I first discovered Malorie Blackman when I was thirteen, with the novel Noughts and Crosses – a book that opened my eyes to how discrimination and racism is ever present in real life as well as on the page. Conceptually dystopian, I like to think that the series served as inspiration for the resurgence in social awareness through the medium of literature; like 1984 it uses an alternative reality to highlight the problems in our own societies and way of thinking. Blackman’s other science fiction work explores social inequalities and ethical issues, guiding her largely adolescent readership to question what they know and accept with every sentence. That, to me, is what a writer should be; someone who doesn’t lead by the nose in their writing, but encourages freedom of thought and for the reader to make their own decisions based on what they now know.
Awarded an OBE in 2008, Blackman was the Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, testimony to her high value as a contributor to literature. Like Philip Pullman (as you’ll find out in a moment), she joined the Let Books Be Books campaign, which seeks to stop children’s books being labelled as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’.
I actually met last Malorie Blackman last year at the 2016 YALC and, on top of her literary prowess and her passion for equality in all forms, she also seems like an absolutely lovely lady.
6. Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman is one of the notable writers of our time, not only for his own literary prowess, but because of his passion for books and knowledge as a whole. The author of the acclaimed His Dark Materials, which has to be one of my favourite children’s series of all time, Pullman spends his time promoting literature and encouraging pride in our rich national tradition of poetry and prose.
Although I would say I put him on this list mostly because of my love for His Dark Materials, his personal life only lends itself to his place in the top 15. In October 2011, Pullman backed a campaign to stop 600 library closures in England, calling it a “war against stupidity”, which I’m sure anyone who has ever used a library will agree with! Pullman is also an equal opportunist reader: In 2014, he openly supported the Let Books Be Books campaign to stop children’s books being labelled as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. He spoke of his stance: “I’m against anything, from age-ranging to pinking and blueing, whose effect is to shut the door in the face of children who might enjoy coming in. No publisher should announce on the cover of any book the sort of readers the book would prefer. Let the readers decide for themselves.” Beyond that, he is a great supporter of civil liberties, and criticises governments encroaching on individual lives.
In essence, Pullman is a passionate, talented man with an imagination as big as the nation’s love for him. His Dark Materials stands pride of place in my bookcase and I doubt it will ever leave.
5. Jane Austen
Austen gets a lot of criticism at times and is often disparagingly mislabelled as “chick-lit”. While it is true that her books largely feature romance and relationships, it is not Mr. Darcy’s smouldering looks that have allowed her words to survive two centuries and secure an immovable place on the British school curriculum.
At the time of publication, Austen wrote anonymously, and it was her critique and interpretation of the British gentry and the role of women in marriage that brought her works to the public eye. Her use of irony, social commentary and realism is what, even now, inspires literary essays and anthologies ; her works mark the beginning of the transition into the literary realism movement of the 19th century. As testimony to her greatness, Austen will feature on the new polymer British £10 note.
4. Terry Pratchett
The late, great Sir Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series, a flat earth that was carted around the universe on the back of four elephants riding a huge turtle called the Great A’Tuin. Although undeniably fantasy, Pratchett’s books are more than just dragons, wizards and trolls. He used the Discworld to create a parody of our world that explored how we treat others who are different.
Through the injustices visited on dwarfs and witches (not to mention female wizards), and the crimes against deities like the Hogfather, Discworld became more meaningful than your average fantasy series, and caused everyone to question our own world. Pratchett’s imagination showed us a world where anything was possible – although not everything was permitted – and thereby created a mirror to reflect how we act and how we see ourselves.
Even after his death, Pratchett’s wisdom and insight lives on in his novels, his wit and quotations (seriously, look some of them up, they’re solid gold). To all those who have dismissed his novels as “silly fantasy” – and trust me, there are those who believe that – I repeat what Pratchett has said before: Stories of the imagination tend to upset those without one. He made you think about the world and how we treat people – and he made us laugh as he did it. And that’s why he’s on this list.
3. William Shakespeare
The Bard has been a staple of British literature for centuries, even though he was not the only one of his contemporaries to achieve fame in his lifetime – in fact, other playwrights were considerably more well known at the time. Having studied Bill at great length – almost an exhaustive length! – I can see why opinion tends to polarise about him. He’s a bit like Marmite, you either love him or don’t want him around whilst you’re trying to eat breakfast.
To me, Shakespeare is more than countless rhyming couplets written in old English; more than bawdy jokes and incomprehensible innuendos about fruit. His plays were a mirror of society at the time: capsules of history that commented daringly on the role of women – be it in marriage or murder – the questionable morality of men, the power play between the sexes and so much more. To all this, he added humour that would attract all social classes, and successfully grab the attention of his varied audience whilst they were being distracted by food, gossip and – yes – even women of the night. The sheer fact that he did all this whilst never straying from his lyricism… it’s no wonder his work has survived as long as it has.
His contribution to theatre, literature and even the English language is unquestionable: we have folded over 1700 of his invented words into our national vocabulary and even some phrases – “as [good] luck would have it”, “bated breath”, “be-all and end-all”, “break the ice”, “dead as a doornail”, “Devil incarnate”, “eat me out of house and home”, “foregone conclusion”, “green-eyed monster”, “laughing stock” and many more. So, whether you’re a fan of his work or not (or were a fan but school mercilessly hammered that out of you), I think you’d agree he has more than earned his place among the greats!
2. George Orwell
I first fell in love with Orwell when I opened 1984 and found, to my pleasant surprise, that his narrative was like sinking into a nice hot bath. His prose often reads like poetry; smooth, lucid and powerfully evocative. It wasn’t long before I was swept away into the world of Big Brother, horrified by the idea of Newspeak (the idea made me so angry, I physically put the book down for a few moments) and the Thought-Police. But Orwell doesn’t stop with 1984. He has written a number of classics, promoting awareness of social injustice, speaking against totalitarianism and dictatorships and encouraging social equality, liberalism and democracy.
Orwell, or, as he would have been known in service, Eric Arthur Blair, attempted to sign up to the military for the Second World War but was repeatedly refused on medical grounds. Being so politically-minded and thus active, Blair joined the Home Guard instead. His views were unswayed by the realities of war and it is these values that he is remembered and honoured for. Freedom of speech, social equality and fair government and governance were what Orwell wrote about, hoped for and fought for, and provided us with more than one cautionary tale of letting our freedoms be stripped away without protest. His voice inspired many like-minded people and continues to do so today.
1. JK Rowling
Well, you can’t have a ‘Best of British Authors’ list without good ol’ JK.
By now, everyone knows the struggle this wonderful lady faced before Harry Potter grabbed the attention of a generation; she is a beacon of hope for all those dealing with depression and facing adversity in achieving their goals. Her imagination and determination is matched only by her generosity: JK has given so much of her earnings to charity, she lost her billionaire status. She continues to dedicate her time and money to charitable causes, even funding her own charity Lumos, which seeks to provide a stable home life for all disadvantaged children.
Hers is the underdog story that inspires us and influences us, perhaps beyond what we realise: according to a 2014 study in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, fans of Harry Potter tend to be more politically tolerant, politically active, open to diversity and less authoritarian. Now that the “first” Harry Potter generation are of voting age (not to mention the second and possibly third, because I occasionally forget how old I am), JK may have given us the tools to take our future in hand.
Have I missed anyone?
Who are your best British authors and why?
Also, of course… I hope you enjoy tonight’s fish and chips!