Money spinner: Martin Amis and his hip coterie of young British novelists were at the heart of the 80s fiction boom

Twenty-five years ago, Martin Amis and his fellow young British novelists hit the commercial bull's-eye – and we've been reading the results ever since

Generalisations about decades are difficult to maintain. Life doesn't neatly split into 10-year units and anything you say about one particular era can easily be made to apply to another. But for all that, the 1980s were an extraordinary time for British fiction, when popularity coincided with achievement in a way rarely, if ever, equalled since. The year 1984 alone saw the publication of Martin Amis's Money, JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun, Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and David Lodge's Small World. (The Booker Prize winner that year was, surprisingly, Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac.) Looking further afield than the British Isles, the decade also saw the publication of Schindler's Ark, William Gibson's Neuromancer and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. So what alignment of heavenly influences caused this fiction boom?

Giants still walked the earth of course. Iris Murdoch's finest novel, The Sea, the Sea, was behind her, but The Book and the Brotherhood and The Good Apprentice were as compellingly readable as ever; Amis père still commanded respect; and William Golding and Anthony Burgess famously went head-to-head for the 1980 Booker Prize, the latter refusing to leave his room at the Savoy unless he was told he'd definitely won. He could be excused his tantrum when Golding carried the prize; if you can't win the Booker with a novel as stupendous as Earthly Powers, you might as well give up.

The Booker Prize, and book marketing in general, played a key role in the wider perception of contemporary fiction. For the novelist and critic DJ Taylor, the "symbolic moment" was the transition from Golding, 1980's winner with Rites of Passage, to Salman Rushdie, winner in 1981 with Midnight's Children, beating another seminal Eighties bestseller, DM Thomas's The White Hotel. (The chair of judges in 1981 was the era's literary taste-maker, Malcolm Bradbury).

The inaugural Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983 spelt out who was in vogue to a literary public eager to take notes. Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and Rose Tremain gained instant fame from the Granta nomination. Also on the list were A N Wilson, Adam Mars-Jones, Lisa St Aubin de Teran and Christopher Priest. The latter is less well known now but highly rated by Christopher Fowler, the custodian of our "Forgotten Authors" column: Fowler calls him "the writer's writer"; his novel The Glamour (1984) is "the first in my recall to pinpoint the frightening new blankness of our times".

"What was special about the fiction of the early 1980s at the time was its sharp contrast to the slices of thin, English realism that had been served up in the late 1970s," comments Taylor. "Suddenly, with Money, Midnight's Children, Waterland, and the range of talent on display in the Granta Best of British promotion, the novel seemed eclectic, multicultural, even vaguely experimental in a way that it hadn't for ages."

This was the self-confident, brash era of Margaret Tha-tcher, however much left-leaning north London authors may have hated her. Library budgets still covered new literary hardbacks, and the Net Book Agreement, which protected authors from the pile 'em high, flog 'em hard world of bean counters and the bottom line, was still in force. It was also the time when large advances started to be handed out: "Amis and [Peter] Ackroyd suddenly became major figures," says Taylor. "This wasn't just a literary phenomenon, it was a commercial phenomenon too – it was as if books and their authors were trendy and saleable in a way they hadn't been 10 years before: Goodbye Kingsley Amis and hello the bright, agreeable future."

However, that bright future wouldn't go away; its exemplars simply grew huger and more suffocatingly eminent as the years went by. What did the younger writers growing up in their shadow make of them? The novelist Matt Thorne was less than impressed. "With honourable exceptions (JG Ballard, Fay Weldon, AS Byatt, Ian McEwan), I can't say that the British fiction of the 1980s excited me much as a young reader or writer," he says. "I think the biggest problem with the fiction of the period is that writers were still too nervous about engaging with popular culture. Eighties film, music and fashion is still an essential reference point for most creative people today, but the literature of the time now looks stiff, dated and unambitious." Instead, the young Thorne looked to America for his kicks. "It wasn't until the late 1980s that American writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney properly engaged with the age and set the template for much of the fiction of the next 20 years."

Let's not forget, this wasn't just the era of UEA graduates or the hip young things in Martin Amis's social circle (on display in the current National Portrait Gallery photography exhibition Martin Amis and Friends). Just as impressive was The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks's grotesquely horrifying debut. Banks has continued to be a major figure, a commercial and critical success. Also still with us today is "punk novelist" Martin Millar, who debuted in 1987 with Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation (featuring a hapless minor drug dealer whom the Milk Marketing Board wants to kill).

At a time when American novelists are often seen to be setting the pace, it's poignant to look back at an era when the British novel was in the ascendant. Perhaps the 1980s have special resonance right now because 25 years, the time lapsed since that annus mirabilis of 1984, is the span needed for young turks to become old farts. "I now pine for slices of thin English realism," muses Taylor. "I wonder if Rushdie ever wrote a decent novel after Shame (1983) or Amis after Money, and think that the whole group of British writers who made their names in the early 1980s had a very mixed effect on what came after." Our 10 essential novels, at least, have more than stood the test of time.

Wise words: Ten essential 1980s novels

1. Earthly Powers (1980) Anthony Burgess

Morally engaged, bitterly entertaining panorama of the 20th century, narrated by Kenneth Toomey, an octogenarian gay writer whose best friend becomes Pope

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) Jeanette Winterson

Semi-autobiographical novel detailing escape bid by teenage lesbian into the world of books, light and life, from a repressive religious upbringing in the North

3. Hawksmoor (1985) Peter Ackroyd

Creepy East End occult thriller mixing delicious 17th-century pastiche with prototype autopsy-porn. Inspired by the then-unknown Iain Sinclair

4. Waterland (1983) Graham Swift

Eels, ale and incest: history, natural history and human drama combine in this fluid meditation on life in the Fens

5. Riddley Walker (1980) Russell Hoban

Written in a glorious invented English dialect, and set in Kent long after a nuclear holocaust, this picaresque novel is profound, funny and horrifying by turns

7. Money (1984) Martin Amis

Hilarious, bleak exposé of 1980s values narrated by the slobby, sensual John Self, a sleazy film director who hurtles between New York and London, menaced by shadowy forces

8. The Wasp Factory (1984) Iain Banks

Teenage child murderer Frank lives with his father on a Scottish island. Revolting rituals, poignant deaths and a fearsome final twist had critics alternately retching and cheering

9. Sour Sweet (1982) Timothy Mo

This crisp, aromatic tale of Chinese immigrants running a takeaway, who fall foul of the Triads, was nominated for the Booker (as were Mo's two subsequent novels)

10. A Case of Knives (1988) Candia McWilliam

McWilliam's precious prose enraptured literary London when this stylish and macabre debut came out. Quiet of late, though a new book, What to Look for in Winter, is due next year

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate