The Novels That Shaped Kit de Waal’s World

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We’d like to say a big Thank You to Birmingham Literature Festival for inviting us to speak over the weekend, and to Kit de Waal for joining us on stage.  After months of Covid restrictions it was great to see so many people in person, and to share some highlights of the research we’ve been doing over the past year.

In our talk The Novels That Shaped Our World: The Big Reveal Professor Sebastian Groes and Dr Tom Mercer shared some of the many results from a study inspired by the 100 texts on the BBC’s The Novels That Shaped Our World list.  Nearly six thousand people took part, providing a fascinating glimpse into what ordinary readers made of the novels chosen by a panel of authors and literary experts.

One of the most interesting findings to emerge was the way in which judgements about social class appear to shape the way that readers react to books. For most of the novels on the list, there was a reasonable correlation between people reporting that they enjoyed the book and people judging it to be ‘literary’.  One notable exception was Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow, a portrayal of life in the East End of London in the 1960s.

Dunn fills her novel with expletives and what literary critic Raymond Williams calls ‘the orthography of the uneducated’ (for example, ‘luv’ instead of ‘love’).  Several respondents suggested that this gave the impression that the text was intended as social comment rather than a piece of highbrow writing.  This is a fascinating opposition – and one that plenty of authors past and present might disagree with.  Nonetheless, this example shows how middle class speech patterns may go a long way towards creating a sense that a novel is literary.

Sebastian and Tom were joined on stage by author Kit de Waal, who helped compile the original list for the BBC.  Kit noted that there is lots of prejudice against certain groups of writers and argued that reading for pleasure is more important than literary credibility.  She also shared some of her reading preferences, and gave us her own views on what texts we should be valuing as a society.

We’ll be sharing more results from the study here soon.   If you would like to join us to hear more about research, check out our list of upcoming events.  And don’t forget to take part in our latest study.

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