Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Reading List

According to Ellis Sharp the post-war fiction reading list at a UK university is very unadventurous. I studied at Lancaster (1985-8) and our list was equally poor - I'd been reading Burroughs and Acker in my spare time and was given David Lodge ("How far can we go?"), Iris Murdoch ("Under the net"), William Golding ("The Inheritors") and JG Ballard ("Empire of the sun", of all the strange choices!) to go on. I wasn't impressed, with only Doris Lessing's "Memoirs of a Survivor" and Fowles' "French Lieutenants' Woman" (also on Bookworld's list) passing muster. What golden age there was for English literature was clearly not the fifties, sixties and seventies. Several of my choices novels were written since my university days. I'd half agree with Ellis about "Morvern Callar", though I feel it might be too much of a time and a place, or (though its probably too recent) Magnus Mills' "Three to See the King" - but I'll stick with 10, and throw a couple of more commercial wild cards in the pack.

Money. Martin Amis
The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Will Self
The Bloody Chamber. Angela Carter
Earthly Powers. Anthony Burgess
On the Black Hill. Bruce Chatwin
The Jerry Cornelius Trilogy. Michael Moorcock
The Collector. John Fowles
Continent. Jim Crace
Diamonds are Forever. Ian Fleming
Memoirs of a Survivor. Doris Lessing.

I realise there are 3 books of short stories on there. Not on purpose, I just think that Self, Carter and Crace's best books are probably the one's listed. The Fleming might not be the best one - but it's either this or "Dr. No" if my memory serves me well. I even got a house point for reviewing it when I was at school. (Sad, but true.) These official "reading lists" seem to tread an uneasy line between books that have been big contemporary hits, and ones that are long-in-the-canon The former you'd have expected an English literature student to have at least seen (or seen the TV version - Smith and Coe for instance), the latter seem to be hanging around beyond their historical sell-by date. (I like Drabble, Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis for instance but think there's a limit to what you can learn from them.) I agree with Ellis, that such a list should be to provoke, and encourage - about both the possibilities of fiction (most of the above list) and the grace of the language. We seem to be strong in writers, rather than books - so none of the above are isolated novels; but high spots of reasonably distinguished careers.

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