Friday, 10 June 2011

Book lists, FR Leavis, and why he wouldn't have liked Twilight much...

A book list is meant to be a fun thing: something to talk about in the pub, or at the book group when the wine has replaced the paperback and the evening really gets going. But it isn't necessarily trivial: indeed one list more than any other single thing has had a lasting impact on the books we read and how we read them.

It occurred to me that the originator of the idea, at least in the modern literary sense, was FR Leavis. Forget that mythical BBC list all this is based on, FR Leavis was the man. A Cambridge don, he is credited with defining what has become known as the English canon: the great works of literature next to which everything else is compared.

To Leavis "great novelists show an intense moral interest in life" (I'm quoting Wikipedia, sorry it was the one that came to hand).

The authors he believed came up to his high standards included Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence. Famously, or infamously, they excluded Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens: hugely popular writers but not, he felt, serious enough. Compiled for his book The Great Tradition in 1948, it didn't bother with the likes of Tolkein or CS Lewis either.

The thing is, Leavis' canon is simply a list. And it's his list, one which we are entitled to disagree with. He ended up disagreeing with himself, and 'rehabilitated' Dickens in 1970 with another book.

It's the legacy of his Great Tradition which is extraordinary. Leavis effectively started the whole literary fiction-commercial fiction dichotomy. The one that exists to this day giving us the Man Booker, snotty editions of the Culture Show and those depressing lists of the Best Young Writers Under 40.

I enjoy a great literary novel: if it is original, engaging and interesting. I can also enjoy a thriller, mystery or even (it has been known) a vampire romance.  FR Leavis would not, I think, have had much time for Twilight.


  1. Okay, here are ten of my favourites: Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Hardy); Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys); Pursuit of Love (Nancy Mitford); Pride and Prejudice (Austen); Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh); The Constant Nymph (Margaret Kennedy); Selected Poems (Wallace Stevens); Selected Poems (T.S. Eliot); Selected Poems (Ezra Pound); To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf).
    p.s. Reading Possession at the moment and F.R. Leavis not sympathetically portrayed.

  2. Maggie, thanks for the list and the comment...Ezra Pound eh? And there was me thinking you were more a James Joyce sort of a girl...