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The Queen’s Jubilee Book List: why did they bother?

The choices show a lack of levity, imagination and courage

“Experts” have been busy again. In their usual omniscient fashion, they have drawn up a list of 70 books to commemorate the Queen’s platinum Jubilee, spanning Commonwealth literature from 1952 to the present day. The 31-strong group of “librarians, booksellers and literature experts” (can I be a literature expert, please? It sounds fun) have dutifully produced an assortment of books that contain “bold, beautiful and thrilling” writing. These consist almost entirely of fiction (although some poetry by Heaney and Derek Walcott is included) and span every country from Nigeria to Wales. Needless to say, the backlash has already begun.

Several of the featured authors are included for the wrong book

At the moment, the major source of dissent is that the list has been called “elitist” and “difficult”. It is. Many of the most “literary” writers of the past half-century are featured, from Walcott and Jean Rhys to Kazuo Ishiguro and Bernardine Evaristo, but there has been little attention paid to more popular fiction: there is no Lord of the Rings, no J.K. Rowling and no Terry Pratchett. The only real nod to levity is the incongruous presence of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, confirming how comic fiction has been so sidelined over the past few decades. (One whistles for Waugh or Wodehouse, both of whom produced work in the past 70 years although alas, little of it their best let alone Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Edward St Aubyn.)

Because of the determinedly broad spread of Commonwealth literature, there are questions of emphasis and whether some writers and their work really merit such inclusion. Can one sincerely argue that, say, Edgar Mittelholzer’s 1955 novel My Bones and My Flute is a more important work than Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood? Or that Kamala Markandaya’s 1972 The Nowhere Man should be here, and Philip Larkin’s High Windows is nowhere [sic] to be seen?

The few gestures towards populism seem largely tokenistic. Acceptably literary novels that were turned into major films such as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient make the cut, but there is no place here for the similarly bestselling likes of Birdsong or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, both of which were enormous crossover successes in the Nineties, let alone such Zeitgeist-defining works as Bridget Jones’ Diary, Martin Amis’ Money or The Line of Beauty. That’s even before we get onto more cheerfully lowbrow writing, which is nowhere to be found.

Another difficulty is that several of the featured authors are included for the wrong book. Anthony Burgess is here for A Clockwork Orange, not Earthly Powers; Iris Murdoch makes the cut for The Sea, The Sea, but a more fitting choice would have been Under the Net or The Bell; John le Carré has had Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy as his choice, whereas many would argue that either The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or A Perfect Spy would constitute a more appropriate selection. And so on, and so on.

Ranking books as if they were horses is never a brilliant idea

Ultimately these are questions of taste. What is more difficult is that it feels as if several of the titles have been included “to swell a progress”, rather than because they are cast-iron literary classics. E.R. Braithwaite’s 1959 To Sir, With Love is an effective and modestly powerful semi-autobiographical novel about a black teacher’s struggle to be accepted in an East London comprehensive school after World War Two, but it is hardly a seminal novel. Had its author hailed from Glasgow rather than Guyana, it is hard to imagine that it would be here. While several of the inclusions are acknowledged classics of world literature, such as Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there is also the difficulty that, especially in the last two decades, it is impossible to know what will truly endure. Will Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain still be thought of as major works in a decade, let alone five decades? It’s impossible to say. But on the list they go, and so the debate begins.

Ranking novels in this way is always a near-impossibility; one wonders why the panel bothered. What we know of the Queen’s literary tastes suggests that Her Majesty is a great aficionado of Dick Francis and Jilly Cooper (although it has also been said that she read, and enjoyed, Remains of the Day) rather than the more demanding works that are in this selection, so it could hardly be said to have been put together for her benefit. Much as the endless “greatest British novel since the war” lists could be described as parochial and unadventurous, they do usually feature books that most people might enjoy and want to read. But the likes of Lord of the Flies, A Dance To The Music of Time and Possession — usually perennials on a list of this kind — are nowhere to be seen. Is that because Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, say, is a better book? Or is it because there is an understandable fear about including a selection of writers (male and female alike) who are too white, too middle-class and too conventional?

Accusations of wokery can, and probably will, be thrown around, but I will not make them. There is no point trying to second-guess the autonomous decisions of a panel of experts, after all. And the absence of the dread Sally Rooney, usually a perennial on such lists, is a blessed relief. But it is hard not to feel that this carefully curated selection feels like a missed opportunity, with box-ticking winning out over great writing. Genuine imaginative art that stirs spirits and moves hearts has lost out to the inclusion of a novel that just happens to have originated from New Zealand. Ranking books as if they were horses is never a brilliant idea. But this uninspiring, Gradgrindish assortment still feels like the least inspiring selection in recent memory. First Prince Andrew, and now this: what a disappointing 2022 the Queen is having.

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