Television, books and lists

November 8, 2019 0 Comments

Television is scared stiff of books.  It’s different on the radio, and it used to be different on television in the distant past – remember Melvyn Bragg’s excellent Read all about it In the 1970s? – but those who decide what we watch on the box today seem to think that to make a programme or series about books would be career suicide.  Films or drama series based on books are acceptable, of course.  But that’s as near as TV bosses will usually get to recognising that millions of people enjoy reading and discussing books – and would certainly appreciate intelligent television treatment of them. 

Next week the BBC dips a very hesitant toe into this dangerous water, with three programmes on BBC2 based on its recent list, chosen by a panel of ‘writers, curators and critics’, 100 novels that shaped our world.  The list doesn’t, thank goodness, claim to be the ‘best’ novels published in English in the last 300 years.  They’re just what the panel members felt were the books that had had the greatest impact on their lives.

It’s an interesting list, and one designed, as it should, to excite comment as well as introducing new reading experiences. 

The panel decided to group their books into ten subject categories, each with ten titles: identity; love, sex and romance; adventure; life, death and other worlds; politics, power and protest; class and society; coming of age; family and friendship; crime and conflict; and, rule breakers.  This list gives a nice mix of traditional genres and contemporary concerns, and of interior and social subjects.  No doubt it helped to suggest book titles to fit.

When you look at the titles themselves the first thing you notice is that, although the time period is three hundred years, there’s a heavy bias towards the recent past – the second half of the twentieth century and this one.  You could justify this, on the grounds that more novels have been produced since 1950 than in earlier times.  But it does mean that there’s no room for Fielding, Sterne or Swift, and nineteenth century writers are thin on the ground, beyond Dickens, Scott and George Eliot. I wonder of the panel thought that they were too ‘difficult’ for a typical group of modern readers?  The fact that Herman Melville is represented by the novella Bartleby, the scrivener rather than Moby-Dick might increase that suspicion (not that Bartleby is a bad choice, quite the reverse).  If so, there’s a certain timidity in the selection. 

Phillip Pullman

On the other hand, the panel’s unexpected choices are frequent and stimulating.  It’s refreshing that Charlotte and Emily Brontë are ignored in favour of Anne (The tenant of Wildfell Hall).  Virginia Woolf makes the cut with Orlando, not Mrs Dalloway or To the lighthouse, and John Steinbeck with Cannery Row, not The grapes of wrath.  Salman Rushdie features with The Moor’s last sigh.  Often the panel cheats by nominating a series rather than a specific title, so we end up with many more than 100 titles.  So, Philip Pullman wins three times over, with His dark materials series (fine by me), while other two authors are grossly over-privileged: C.S. Lewis with ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ (I can hear Pullman grinding his teeth) and J.K. Rowling with ‘The Harry Potter series’.  It’s good, by the way, that the list includes books for (older) children, as well as ‘genre’ fiction like fantasy and science fiction.

The selectors aren’t afraid to make what might seem old-fashioned choices, like John Buchan.  But balance, of the contemporary kind, is clearly a big concern for them.  You can almost see the muscles straining to ensure good representation for groups often lacking in earlier such lists.  Women novelists are there in force, and novelists from very different ethnic backgrounds.  There’s one area, though, where balance is woefully lacking.  This isn’t an international list – translations from non-English languages are clearly excluded – but neither is it a UK-only selection.  There’s a large number of North American works on the list, and a good scattering from Commonwealth countries.  But within the British Isles it’s an almost totally English set of novels.  I spotted some Irish writers, but very few from Scotland: where are Alasdair Gray, Val McDermid and Alan Warner?  And scandalously, as Emma Schofield points out in a piece for Wales Arts Review, there isn’t a single book by an author from Wales, unless you count Roald Dahl (I wouldn’t).  If Welsh language novels are inadmissible – Un nos ola leuad would easily earn its place in a different list – are there no Welsh novels in English that can stand beside other books in the list?  A list that, after all, includes quite a few airy confections, like Jilly Cooper’s Riders or M.M.Kaye’s The far pavilions.  These are included just to shock the respectable, and could have been thrown out of the balloon without loss.

The BBC’s panel

You could squabble about choices of authors and titles, and about the categorisation.  The ‘rule breakers’ section is disappointing: is P.G. Wodehouse really a rebel, and how can James Joyce be absent, or B.S. Johnson?  But in general this is a good list.  It reminds you of masterpieces that still haven’t reached ‘classic’ status, like John Kennedy Toole’s The confederacy of dunces, and introduces you to others that you feel you should investigate.

What television will make of it all, though, we’ll see.  The list is supposed to herald a whole year of BBC celebration of the world of the word, across radio and television, and online.  Radio, especially Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, has always covered books well, so the test will be television.  Some promising one-off programmes have already been announced, including Gillian Wearing on George Eliot, David Olusoga on African novelists, and Hilary Mantel on herself.  But why, I wonder, does literature have to wait decades for its ‘year of celebration’ to come round, and will the old fear of writing and writers reassert itself when the year’s over?

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