Canon fodder: how the BBC can get beyond the Bard and define the future of fiction

When the BBC fixates on a narrow literary canon, and presents classic novels in straightforward adaptations, it wastes its own potential. Why not follow up Radio 4's extraordinary and unusual 'Bloomsday' celebration to use fiction as a creative springboard to a radical new kind of broadcasting?

Jamie Mackay
6 September 2012

From George Orwell to Anthony Burgess, Martin Amis to Irvine Welsh, the vast majority of Britain’s most celebrated novelists have made, cemented or, in the case of Evelyn Waugh, tarnished their reputation in the cultural strongholds of Langham place and White City. This is no coincidence, the notion of the good and the great - a cult of celebrity so integral to contemporary literary consumption in general - has historically been propagated by the BBC who, as much as the dons of Oxford and Cambridge, have had a central role in determining what constitutes ‘literary’ reading.

In the specific case of the novel, the position of which as the dominant mode of storytelling has been gradually usurped by developments in film and television, the BBC’s power over the form is increasingly evident. Indeed, the institution’s semi-autonomous status, as granted by the license fee, affords it the space – and the imperative - to commission programmes for such a specialised audience. With the novel, this is made all the more difficult: unlike poetry or drama, extended prose narrative does not lend itself easily to straightforward translation on broadcast media (though the recent ‘Bloomsday’ recitation of Ulysses on Radio 4 was an ambitious attempt to challenge this assumption).

The BBC’s subsequent transmission of novels through interviews, debates, extracts and adaptations has wider connotations in determining the parameters of an imagined ‘British’ literary space. But as dedication to the form becomes ever more defensive – the imposed sensation of uselessness never quite shrugged off - the danger is that these imaginings become the property of a caricature: tailored by a select group of nostalgic highbrows and grounded in the work of an ever shrinking pool of writers.

The worrying proximity of this future was inadvertently revealed by Sebastian Faulks’ 2011 Faulks on Fiction, a low-key documentary on the “brilliance of the British novel” from Daniel Defoe through to Zoë Heller. Narrated with a highbrow moue, Faulks’ observations were punctuated cheerfully by excerpts from the BBC archive: Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin wrestling by the fire; Mr. Darcy dismounting moodily from his horse; the pornographic bigotry of John Self. The premise behind the narrative, that the literary value of these texts is something objectively measurable, was reinforced by this montage technique, where the novels were presented as pre-given ‘great works’ of national heritage and not the result of a subjective editorial process. This was, of course, determined largely by the programme’s reliance on the BBC’s extensive history of television adaptions, which aside from a few examples – The Field of Blood - have generally (and conveniently) tackled the same material as that from which Faulks’ discussion was drawn. In this context, the stories were presented as always-already ‘national’ - validated by the BBC’s resolute commitment to the importance of these chosen texts in a process of cultural revival.

As literary criticism – both academic and journalistic - has increasingly concerned itself with probing the vested interests visible in the canon (its predilection towards texts produced and historicised by a narrow demographic), the BBC can be seen as equally vulnerable to the numerous assaults on the outdated premises of the Leavisite model in which Faulks’ commentary found its historical reference point.  Aside from the usual citation of aesthetic classism, the imperial residue of this ideology is particularly offensive given the specific role of ‘national literatures’ as key components in the push towards political devolution. Indeed, the BBC’s seeming blindness to a widely perceived muzzling of Scottish and Welsh cultures is one of the clearest examples of where things need to change.

The time is surely ripe for a greater proliferation of literary historical programmes that actively challenge the assumptions of the Leavisite canon in line with developments in contemporary scholarship. Such output might instead tackle the monumental wealth of material that has been forgotten, lost, censored and sidelined by the institutions that have exerted such stifling control over the boundaries of literary culture within the UK. A documentary about the life of B.S Johnson in response to the success of Jonathan Coe’s recent biography; an analysis of the mysterious experimental novels of Eva Figes; a retrospective on the forgotten texts of post-war naturalism. Most provocatively from a devolutionary perspective: how might English literature look if it were collated by a different section of society?

Or how about a BBC2 Sitcom based on Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners? A podcast of Janice Galloway’s short stories? A rotoscoped animation of Suhayl Saadi’s Psychoraag? The creative possibilities that could be opened by engaging with the diversity of the canon highlight the negotiable space within which the institution could provide literary programming with a new focus, grounded in the acknowledgment that there is no such thing as a unitary reading public.  

A final suggestion, and one which would do much to invigorate prose fiction in general, would be to commission more young authors and provide a platform for first-time novelists. The initiatives that do exist – the ‘International Short Story Award’ or the ‘Books and Authors’ podcast – are peripheral, poorly marketed and poorly funded in comparison with the high budgets that can seemingly be conjured from nowhere in order to keep Hamlet’s legacy alive (as if it were under threat). But imagine if some of this money were to be redistributed and the BBC were to, for example, host a web collection of short stories about life in various regions of the UK. A black comedy about life in Coventry, a utopian cyberpunk vision of the future of Newcastle, a bilgdungsroman set in Abergavenny. In a climate in which publishing is so difficult – the avant-garde acceptable only as a sanitised postmodernism - the BBC could play an important role in providing an outlet for material that would otherwise struggle to break through the relentless logic of the literary marketplace.  

Such seismic shifts in ‘cultural policy’ cannot be initiated in any meaningful way until the BBC abandons its paternalistic commitment to the values of Arnoldian liberalism and takes active steps in establishing a deliberative environment in which authors and the reading public might recognise in one another a sense of shared ownership and empowerment. For if the BBC’s literary sybaritism is to be developed into anything other than the X-factor for snobs, it is essential that the institution make attempts to reposition itself as the producer of a space in which to celebrate, challenge and participate in the canon. 

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