Literature news for the week: a win for feminism and ‘diversity’- hurray!

After an uproar from the public over the lack of women on English bank notes, it seems campaigners have finally been listened to as it was announced Jane Austen would be appearing on £10 notes in a few years time. More importantly, she is not only a woman, but a literary woman! Not only is this a feminist victory (which should be brought up every time someone spouts the ‘feminism ain’t needed no more’ line), but also it nicely places more recognition on women’s role in British literary history. Sometimes it still feels as if there is a collective public amnesia that women also wrote books and influenced literary canons and styles.

My years as an undergraduate have equipped me with an analytical feminist brain that can see sexism from a mile off as well as right-under-my-nose, which has led me to compile an ongoing list of problems with sexism in the literary canon and teaching of literature. Amongst this list is the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum – which honours Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. All men. My romantic literature course at university had a total sum of two female authors – Jane Austen (Hurray bank notes!) and Ann Radcliffe, despite the fact that, as I later learnt, female popular fiction and poetry totalled half the literature sold and read at the time. ‘Women’s issues’ was often a topic for a week’s discussion or an essay topic from a range. So indoctrinated into the myth of male experience as the default as we are, many students did not seem to find this as strange as me, considering women are not a minority but half of the population. This is not a problem with a particular university or person, but the whole attitude to literary history.

In other news, the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker prize has been described as the ‘most diverse’ in its history. There’s nothing more satisfactory than a bit of diversity- and this is diversity both of author (gender, background) and of form (length, subject). As the chair of judges, Robert MacFarlane, puts it:

“This is surely the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject. These 13 outstanding novels range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1,000, and from Shanghai to Hendon.”

Only two have been nominated before and a lot of the other nominees are not well known names. More than anything, fresh faces having an opportunity to get recognised shows a celebration of diversity.

Does this signal a change- that the days of hierarchy in literature are over? Maybe, maybe not. It seems almost inevitable for more ‘literary’ novels, poems and plays (is there such thing as a non-literary play or is that what we call a film?) to always be esteemed higher than the mainstream and popular. A distinction should be made here between ‘popular’ in the sense of popular with people who are familiar with a wide range of literature and so have the ability to understand different motives and styles, and any person in society who is literate. If it is the former, then literature (as distinct from ‘books’),  becomes a secret club- but is this a bad thing? The aim of literature has never been to be readable by absolutely everyone. Nonetheless, it is more than coincidence that thoroughly unreadable books (I’m looking at you Mr Joyce) are revered as masterpieces. And this is aside from matters of taste- different readers, different writers. Some readers prefer the comfort of familiar plots and storylines. My Dad reads the same type of crime novel over and over and never enters unknown literary genre territory.

However, differentiating the quality of novels based on their ‘literariness’ is not always simple. Take for example Zadie Smith’s NW: her reputation, the experiential structure, the subject matter of London’s lower classes and even the book cover itself signals a certain quality that will win praise with reviewers and panels of judges. However, the reviews have been mixed and I myself was disappointed. I hope that this celebration of ‘diversity’ will spell a new open-mindedness and open up questions about what exactly is this mysterious thing we call ‘literature’.