Books at the BBC

by Rob Palk

People who like reading novels — there are a few of us left — will have been puzzled by the BBC’s latest list of 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. They may have glanced at the world and wondered whether shaping it in its current state is anything to boast about. Their puzzlement will have increased when they looked at the list itself. Missing from it are Ulysses, The Satanic Verses (surely one of the few recent novels to have any real life impact), Les Miserables, Madame Bovary and Don Quixote. Dickens gets one weakish book, Proust and Roth get none. In their place we get the Twilight series, Dune and Harry Potter. As a novelist, it is my duty to inform you that these books are very bad. There are some good books in the list of course, but all come with the strange sense they have been chosen for subject matter over any other consideration.  Like a school drama assembly or a Tony Benn speech, this list is all about the Issues.

The absence of the great works of European literature can be put down, not to the personal illiteracy of the judges, but to the strange stipulation that all novels considered have to be written in the English language. I have tried hard to work out a justification for this, other than simple bigotry, and can only assume they think readers, in these days of Brexit, will be put off by fancy foreign names, as they will by too many old books, or too many books aimed at adults. The Reader, a largely fictional construct, exists to be mollycoddled and flattered. She might have heard of Flaubert but he hasn’t shaped her world, and nor must he be allowed to try to. Readers who find this patronising would be advised to put their concerns to the BBC.  I can just about appreciate not watching subtitled films — there are too few car chases, and the reading hurts your eyes — but books ought to be different.   

Aside from containing many bad books and having a deranged hostility to foreign languages, the list suffers from its remit. Novels do not, on the whole, shape our world at all. Hardly anyone reads them, for a start, and many novels are more concerned with depicting the world than trying to alter it. Off the top of my head, I can think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (helped get rid of slavery) and Harry Potter (helped infantilise a generation) as serious world shapers, but most novels are playing an entirely different game. They evoke life’s granular intensities, they painstakingly record the movements of a mind, they depict the contradictions of human intercourse. They are patterns that show us ourselves. The BBC’s list is not friendly to these books. These books do not have Impact. Perhaps future novels can be judged entirely on world-shaping, with one star granted for a changed heart, four stars for altering government policy, all the way up to five stars for stopping — or starting — a major war. Novels that fail to shape the world can be consigned to the fires and we will all live richer lives.

Talking of cleansing fires, one of the few redeeming features of this list is the involvement, as a judge, of ‘Stig’ Abell. ‘Stig’ (I find the name requires protective inverted commas) used, in a previous life, to edit The Sun newspaper. As readers of novels, we are suckers for redemption and ‘Stig’s’ life story doesn’t disappoint. While you or I might expect to be cast out of decent society had we made some of ‘Stig’s’ career choices, the London literary world is more forgiving. ‘Stig’ has been able to find a new role, as editor of the TLS and wise and frequent opiner on tolerance and truth. What’s more, he has done so without anything as undignified as an apology. In, say, Middlemarch, which does make the list, we are constantly being shown that characters we had written off as fools or villains, lead complex rich inner lives. This is evidently true of ‘Stig’.

The list contains many works dealing with ethnicity and race, works dealing with the struggles faced by minorities, works that call for a better world. I like to think ‘Stig’ chose these books. We were idiots, weren’t we, to assume that the managing editor of The Sun must be a brute? Instead, we find that all our assumptions were wrong. We can picture, ‘Stig’ returning home, from a hard day exposing a love-rat, kissing Mrs ‘Stig’ on the mouth and climbing to his study. He’d wipe the Wapping sweat from off his brow. He’d turn to his shelves full of the greats of post-colonial literature, and pick a book by Chinua Achebe. Opening it, sitting, he’d bury himself in language. Achebe’s words and vision would solace ‘Stig’ and heal him, give him strength. They’d restore his inner being. The next day, given stature by these words, ‘Stig’ would return to work. With Achebe’s great novels echoing his soul, 'Stig' would summon all his resolve and publish a piece by Katie Hopkins calling migrants ‘cockroaches’. Thank heavens for the novel. Let us hope it continues to shape our world, almost as much as calls to genocide can. For as long as we’ve got novels, the scales should balance.