Literature Just Got the British Public in Quite a Twist

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Literature Just Got the British Public in Quite a Twist


Byline: David Sexton

THAT immortal work of literature, 1066 and All That, proclaims "History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself."

Much the same might be said of literature itself. The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) today publishes a report called Literature in Britain Today, revealing the results of an Ipsos MORI poll of a representative sample of 1,998 members of the British public. The survey is, the RSL says, "as far as we know, the first time anyone has attempted to find out how many people read literature, what literature means to them, and which writers they consider to be literature".

Most of the results come straight from Sybil Fawlty's specialist subject, the bleeding obvious. "Men and people from disadvantaged social groups are particularly likely to miss out on literature." Women and the better educated read more. Who knew? Some 75 per cent of adults maintain that they have read something in the past six months that they consider to be literature. When they asked the pollsters what was meant by literature, they were obsequiously told it was "entirely up to them", which is admirably democratic, if not what Matthew Arnold believed. Alas, a quarter of the population resists literature even by this definition. Some 13 per cent represented themselves as readers, but not of literature, while 11 per cent were non-readers altogether.

Asked what might encourage people to read more literature, recommendations of good books came top at 26 per cent I know, it's a problem knowing what's worthwhile, isn't it? I struggle with it every day while 21 per cent meanly mentioned books being cheaper. The RSL is not best pleased by this answer, calling it "problematic", since it is a body representing writers whose earnings have fallen to an average of PS11,000 a year. …

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