Michael Gove’s campaign to reintroduce the ‘classics’ to the English Literature school syllabus has been widely reported, but to what extent have our schools and universities ever really deviated from teaching them?
Although there is clearly some truth in the fact that our current generation of students is now more at home reading contemporary texts than Wordsworth or Shakespeare, commentators have generally failed to observe how conservative the typical English Literature syllabus still is in other ways. Some 40 years after writers and academics from across the globe first began to challenge which authors and texts make it onto the so-called ‘canon’ of English Literature, there are still comparatively few women writers on school and university syllabuses and even fewer texts by black authors.
Further, those black and Asian writers who have made it onto the syllabus constitute a distinctive sub-canon of their own centred on Monica Ali, Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. This group is celebrated, in particular, for its depiction of London as a vibrant multicultural world-city, but questions need to be asked about why, even with respect to contemporary literature, the pool of black and Asian British authors studied remains so small and why those who do make the cut are London-based.
Does it mean, indeed, that the cultural north-south divide which was a recognised feature of the literary establishment in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s – causing writers like Anthony Burgess, Bill Naughton, David Story and Howard Jacobson to ‘go south’ in order to make their names – is reproducing itself with this new generation of black and Asian writers? Corinne Fowler, one of my co-authors on Postcolonial Manchester, suggests that it is, and provides some compelling explanations of why London-based authors still tend to do better than those hailing from Manchester or the other regions of the UK regardless of their ethnicity.
Although Manchester has produced a rich array of talented writers since the 1960s – several of whom have won critical acclaim – none has achieved the international profile of Monica Ali or Zadie Smith or, indeed, made it onto school and university syllabuses in the same way. According to the authors of Postcolonial Manchester, the reason for this can still be attributed to the north-south divide and the fact that Britain’s literary establishment – i.e., the close-knit networks of literary agents, publishers and reviewers – is still predominantly London-based.
Writers depend upon access to these networks more than is commonly known. For example, out of the thousands of novels published in Britain each month, those that are successful will almost certainly have been marked out for special promotion by the publisher who will have paid high-street bookshops to display them and encouraged high-profile newspapers and magazines to review them. Getting a favourable review in a national paper is undoubtedly an author’s first step towards academic recognition and this, in turn, may eventually lead to the text making it onto the literary ‘canon’.
It is nevertheless hoped that academic studies like Postcolonial Manchester, focusing directly on literature produced outside the metropolis, will start to challenge this London-centric monopoly and persuade teachers and academics to choose texts that are little less ‘classic’ for their syllabuses.
- Postcolonial Manchester by Lynne Pearce (Lancaster University), Corinne Fowler (Leicester University) and Robert Crawshaw (Lancaster University) is published today by Manchester University Press. Read more about the Moving Manchester project.
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