I was invited to celebrate the launch of the BBC’s ‘Novels That Shaped Our World’ campaign at New Broadcasting House on Tuesday night with other book bloggers and vloggers. It begins a year-long celebration of literature at the BBC and also marks the 300th anniversary of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe which is widely considered to be the first modern English novel.
Six writers and critics – Stig Abell, Syima Aslam, Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal, Mariella Frostrup and Alexander McCall Smith – have come up with a list of 100 novels that shaped our world. The list itself is not going to please everyone. It consists of English language titles only and it also includes several series such as the Earthsea trilogy and Discworld, so to call it a list of “100 novels” isn’t strictly true. However, I think those bemoaning the fact that it is not a collection of “greatest” novels featuring lots of worthy tomes are slightly missing the point, as it is very much a list of books which have had personal impact on the panellists. That’s not to say that books traditionally thought of as great literature are not here because they are (‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ are among those which made the cut). But it seems to have upset some people that they appear alongside more modern books considered to be guilty pleasures (‘The Twilight Saga’ and ‘Riders’ being two which are typically excluded from these kind of lists). Organised thematically, it’s a bit like an updated version of The Big Read series from the early 2000s but without a public vote, thereby preventing the overrepresentation of Jeffrey Archer and Jacqueline Wilson this time.
The list was officially revealed by Mariella Frostrup in a feature on The One Show at New Broadcasting House in London. Myself and the other guests were in the audience for the live broadcast. Thankfully, we’re not visible on screen – instead about 30 of us were crowded behind the camera in a studio which, as they always say, looks a lot bigger on screen than it does in real life. For non-UK readers, The One Show is a live half-hour very light topical news show with features and interviews shown on weekdays at 7pm. The hosts were Matt Baker and Michelle Ackerley and the other special guest was Emma Bunton. Being in the same room as a Blue Peter presenter from my childhood and one of the Spice Girls was a little bit wasted on me in 2019, but it would have meant a lot to my nine-year-old self. Overall, it was a slightly surreal experience.
In her interview, Frostrup highlighted the equal gender split on the list (51 of the chosen novels/series have been written by women) which is also the main theme of the first episode of the three-part Novels That Shaped Our World documentary series. After The One Show, we went to a preview screening of this episode which was shown on BBC Two last night and is now available on iPlayer for UK viewers. The programme is a thematic exploration of novels that shaped our world rather than a run-down of the same list chosen by the panel. From ‘Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson to ‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams, the first episode focuses on women in literature, as authors and also as characters. It’s an engaging episode with an interesting range of books from popular classics such as ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood to less well-known titles like ‘No Surrender’ by Constance Maud. Many thanks to Joanna Hawkins at the BBC for inviting me to the preview screening.
The campaign kicks off a host of other events and programmes celebrating books throughout 2020 and will no doubt provoke lots of debate. Books coverage on television hasn’t always been the BBC’s strong point in recent years, but hopefully this is starting to change.
What do you think of the list? Which books have had the most personal impact on you?