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Ethics and literary choice

If we were to ban writers from the canon of A-level English literature on ethical grounds, Milton would be out for supporting terrorism (backing an illegal court that beheaded a king), Coleridge and Huxley for drug-taking and Byron for incest.

Will Self looks a bit dodgy, having taken heroin on Tony Blair's press plane. Yet, along with Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby, he is on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority contemporary-writer list (page 9).

Morals apart, are they great enough? Won't they be forgotten tomorrow? They might not be up with Dickens, but Self and Hornby at least are alongside him in The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Bethan Marshall, King's college lecturer, says that they will crowd out the classic texts, but students need contemporary writers to help them challenge assumptions about the canon. And there's no evidence yet that overdosing on literature leads to heavier drugs use.

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