What is BrexLit?

Before you commit to following along with this book any further, you might first want to know what that familiar looking yet slightly weird word means. The word "BrexLit" was coined by the Financial Times in 2016, and refers to an emerging genre of literature defined by its speedy publication in the wake of the Brexit referendum, which was held on June 23rd, 2016. For those readers unfamiliar with what the political phenomenon of Brexit is, it refers to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This decision was made in a referendum vote, meaning that politicians asked the people to vote for whether they wanted to remain in the EU, or leave it. The debate over whether to remain a member of the EU or not was among the most polarizing political debates that Britain has ever seen, and caused conflict not only among individual people, but among the constituent parts of the UK as well. Where Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain, England and Wales voted Leave. "Leave" won with a 52:48 majority - hardly a majority at all - but despite the narrow victory, the government honoured the results of the referendum and began working to disentangle the UK from the European Union.


Meanwhile, authors also began working on their own projects, and a stream of literature began to very quickly emerge which directly or indirectly tackles the causes and implications of the Brexit referendum. Perhaps one of the most well-known is Ali Smith's Autumn. Published only four months after the referendum took place, it has been frequently labelled the first BrexLit novel. However, I argue that the first BrexLit text is actually Geoffrey Hill's The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin - Hill's final volume of poetry, which was published posthumously. Hill had likely been working on some of the earlier poems in the volume before Brexit emerged as an issue in British politics, but as you continue through the collection it becomes evident that his poems respond with extraordinary immediacy to the events unfolding around him. Certainly, one explanation for his speed is that he knew he was nearing the end of his life, but there is something deeply powerful and moving about the urgency with which he writes - with which every BrexLit author writes - about this seismic event. Hill in fact did die one week after the referendum, and yet there are poems contained within his volume that were written in the days following the vote.


A non-exhaustive list of BrexLit texts - those which I analyze in my book - are pictured below. Despite their shared focus, they are by no means homogenous in feeling or message. Each text contends with the problem of Englishness in the wake of Brexit differently - either with the aim of exposing it as a paralyzing, polarizing political moment, or as an opportunity, though borne of polarization and isolation, to unite and move towards a more inclusive version of Englishness. In the simplest terms, some BrexLit texts are hopeless, some are hopeful. Despite these differences, all BrexLit texts encourage us to reflect on what contemporary English identity looks like, how it has come to be, and what it means for the future not only of the nation as a whole, but of those of us living in it as well. I urge you to read some of these texts for yourselves. While for those of us who lived through its palpable tension and turmoil, being reminded of Brexit may be the last thing we want to do, I believe it is important to reflect on the stories and perspectives that accompany it in order to shape the future of Englishness and indeed the UK as a whole. Furthermore, as is always the case with literature, these stories encourage us to challenge and (re)shape ourselves as well.