So what's ENGLISH literature?
One always has to be a bit careful about getting up in arms too quickly about reforms in school education. We really dont know for a fact yet that Mice and Men has been "banned" because Mr Gove doesn't like it (though I am tempted to say that the fact that such a rumour is even plausible says something about how we have come to take political "interference" in the syllabus for granted); but we can be pretty certain that there will be thousands of schools across the land flogging off their Steinbecks by the dozen for next to nothing.
It's also the case that the insistence in the Department of Education document on certain categories of literature (at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th century novel) are minumum requirements, and nothing is to stop more being taught. Yet the exam for English Literature GCSE really doesn't have that many "set books", and anyway the importance of getting the kids to get the top grades in order to make sure the school has a good place in the League tables is not an incentive to wide and imaginative exploration.
With a bit of perseverance you will get through to the nitty gritty via this website . But I reckoned from looking at one specification that we are currently dealing with: one Shakepeare play (plus a performed version), selections of the work of one "old" poet (from Chaucer to Wilfred Owen), one modern play, one prose work "from a different culture" (that's where Mice and Men comes in), one "oldish" novel (eg Pride and Prejudice or Animal Farm), and selections from work of one modern poet (eg Seamus Heaney, Carol-Ann Duffy). So, once the DoE rules are taken into account, there wont be very much room for anything else.
What I soon became curious about, however, was what the rules actually meant, and what counted as fulfilling the rules. My first query concerned Ireland. I know James Joyce isn't likely to get set for GCSE, but would Ulysses only count as sufficiently "English" if it actually appeared before Irish independence (as it happens, it did: published in February 1922, when independent Eire was formally established, signed and sealed in December . . . Phew). But I neednt have worried, the prescription carefully says post 1914 fiction or drama from the "British Isles". So Southern Ireland is in, whatever.
But there did turn out to be a broader question, which produced tricky questions of definition. Would something written by Auden in the USA count, or Robert Graves on Majorca?
According to the DoE as quoted in the Guardian, the rule is the exam should include a work of fiction or drama "written in" the British Isles. In which case, we had better make sure where Graves was resident (Majorca, Cairo?) before we start setting I, Claudius or Goodbye to All That. And (were it not for being just the wrong side of the 1914 watershed) then a lot of Henry James (who wrote much of his stuff in London) would squeak in.
In fact, when I looked at the actual DoE document, it didn't quite say that (you can reach it through here). It said: "fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards". That's obviously different, but it's not quite sure exactly how different. Does that mean published in the British Isles? Or written by someone whose work is generally identified as from the British Isles (never mind whether they wrote the stuff on a long Australian holiday)? In which case Graves would be fine, but there would still be a big question over Auden (who became a US citizen, for heavens sake). And anyway how should we interpret the fact that it is the work not the author that is to come "from" the British Isles? In what sense do "works" have homes?
And the nineteenth-century novel has some awkward edges too. I guess we wouldn't want to set kids to read the juvenilia of Jane Austen, but what about Tristram Shandy?
Now, you might say that all this is silly nit-picking. It is pretty clear what the DoE prescriptions are getting at and anyway, most of the things I have been mentioning wouldn't be obvious candidates for GCSE (though they might well be for A level). But the point is that is does expose the ridiculous side to this kind of centralised syllabus management (especially when, frankly, it isn't very well drafted... didn't anyone in the DoE themselves wonder what "from the British Isles" actually meant? what kind of use of English is that?). And it also exposes the fact that in the English speaking global literary world post 1914, then these boundaries cant usefully be policed anyway. Perhaps we should flood the DoE asking for adjudication on some of the hard cases.
Or perhaps better, the Department and Mr Gove might like to go and have a look at the ThisBook website. It's a project (connected with the Baileys Prize) that is asking women to choose the book written by a woman that has has the most impact on them. There's a first tranch of choices on the website now, from the likes of Sandi Toksvig, Martha Lane-Fox, Caitlin Moran and (yes) me. What is so striking is that these books come from everywhere. There are some nineteenth-century favourites (I chose Jane Eyre, Martha Lane Fox chose Mary Barton, and Kate Mosse had Wuthering Heights) -- but there are "foreign" books too by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Harper Lee (two people, Shami Chakrabarti and Sharleen Spiteri picked To Kill a Mocking Bird).
Isn't the lesson here that we should just lighten up a bit and reckon that different things work for different kids, and different people, and that we should encourage that?