Later today, an expert panel of leading British writers, curators and critics enlisted by the BBC are revealing 100 genre-busting reads as part of an ambitious Novels That Shaped Our World season. In this, the 300th anniversary year of Robinson Crusoe, they were assessing not just the global significance of the English language novel as an art form, but the effect each title had on them personally. Criteria included artistic excellence, emotional power, personal resonance and social impact. Novels really can and do change our lives for the better and have played a driving role in not just reflecting social transformation but leading it. Would suffragettism, for instance, have emerged when and how it did without a century of writers and readers giving a voice to women's experiences before it?
The panel was also encouraged to shift the dial, avoiding a list that simply replicates the predictable roll-call of previous ones. Rather than asking for a countdown from 100 to 1, BBC Arts asked them to select ten novels that best spoke to ten themes like identity, politics, family and friendship where the novel has both captured and broadened human experience. We hoped for a list that would be provocative, spark debate and inspire curiosity. This is why we selected Stig Abell, Syima Aslam, Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal, Mariella Frostrup and Alexander McCall Smith—a range of trusted experts from different disciplines and backgrounds—to form the panel. We also wanted them to wear the inevitable subjectivity of lists on their sleeve rather that purporting to the impossible goal of a definitive canon. They have not disappointed. After six months of enthusiastic debate and the occasional stand-off, their list is complete. It includes terrific reads and timeless works of art unrestrained by old-fashioned distinctions between 'classics' and 'genre fiction'. It is also a more diverse list of landmark novels than I have seen before, recognising the extent to which the English language novel as an art form has a life far beyond British shores. The list will be revealed to many millions live on The One Show and the Radio 2 Book Club with Jo Whiley.
The list of 100 is the departure point for a major Novels That Shaped Our World celebration that will define our books programming across the BBC for the next year. A three-part series with that title starts on BBC Two this Saturday. With contributions from leading writers and experts, it argues that the novel has always been a revolutionary agent of social change, spearheading shifts in gender equality, colonial and post-colonial attitudes and social mobility. Three stand-alone films on BBC Four look at these themes in closer depth through a single author: George Eliot (as seen by artist and film-maker Gillian Wearing), VS Naipaul and Barry Hines respectively. There are many other television documentaries on subjects ranging from household names like Hilary Mantel, Bram Stoker, Michael Bond and Helen Fielding through to lesser known stories like the African literary renaissance of the last fifty years. George Eliot's bicentenary will be celebrated across radio. James Ellroy is sharing his Private Passions with Radio 3 and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is dramatised for Radio 4. On BBC Sounds, we are releasing new recordings of twenty classic novels including Wuthering Heights, Silas Marner and War of the Worlds. There is much, much more besides.
It would be wrong for a season focused on the social impact of the novel to focus purely on private consumption of both books and programmes about them. Novels may be read or heard alone but they contain characters and ideas that disseminate into our culture and conversations. The list of 100 also launches a year-long outreach festival led by Libraries Connected (and supported by Arts Council England) with libraries and reading clubs all around the UK. Events include film screenings, live performances and walking tours as well as more traditional discussion groups. They are designed to reach out to everyone—from committed readers to people living with dementia or at risk of knife crime. In Liverpool and Manchester, events both celebrating and questioning the legacy of Robinson Crusoe will target hard-to-reach and deprived communities, while in Leicestershire authors will be giving talks in prison libraries.
The proven benefits of reading are well known: it helps us reach potential as individuals, enables us to empathise with others, and provides comfort at moments when it is most needed. Novels That Shaped Our World—as embodied by the list of 100, the programmes and the outreach events—has one simple aim which is to inspire everybody, whoever they are, to read more novels.