Why do white men still dominate English literature?

26th September 2014 at 01:00
Campaign challenges drop in diversity for GCSE set texts

The story of female authors and their contribution to English literature is long, rich and varied. But the revamped GCSE curriculum has brought an unwelcome twist to the tale, say campaigners.

The new English literature qualification, due to be taught from September 2015, has sidelined women in favour of more texts by men, according to an analysis of the books approved by exam boards.

Some 63 per cent of the texts in the current GCSE specifications were written by men, but from next year that proportion will rise to 68 per cent, according to the #BalanceTheBooks campaign. On the list published by AQA, the UK's biggest exam board, the proportion of texts by male authors will rise from 60 per cent to 74 per cent, campaigners say.

Jane Bradley, founding editor of the website behind the movement, For Books' Sake, said exam boards should be striving for gender equality in their choice of authors, along with a greater diversity of race, class and sexuality.

"Young people need role models who represent their voices and experiences," she said. "And we think they'd have to look pretty hard to find anything resembling that in some of these texts. With the dominant demographic of writers skewed towards white, middle-class men, we don't feel these lists are up to date with today's modern classroom and the students who will be studying these texts."

She suggested that as well as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, the selection of 19th-century authors could include Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote Wives and Daughters, and Frances Trollope, author of anti-slavery novel Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw. In the drama category, alongside Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, pupils could study Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and Winsome Pinnock's Talking in Tongues.

Of the main exam boards, only OCR has increased the proportion of texts written by women - from 32 per cent to 38 per cent - according to the campaign.

The new English literature GCSE has already caused controversy after exam boards dropped American works including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which had been curriculum staples.

Guidance issued by the Department for Education states that pupils must study at least one play by Shakespeare; a 19th-century novel; fiction or drama from the British Isles written since 1914; and a selection of poetry composed since 1789 including texts by the Romantic poets.

Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls' Day School Trust and chair of the judging panel for the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, said: "Historically, male writers were more numerous and dominant than women and, in view of that, having a third of texts by women writers is not such a bad result.

"My view is that in everything I'd like to see 50-50. For the Baileys prize I read 158 novels and know there are absolutely excellent women writers out there. It would be nice to see some of those shortlisted books as set texts in future."

Barbara Bleiman, co-director of the English and Media Centre, which supports English teachers and students, said that campaigning for a better mix of male and female authors was a "brilliant aim".

"I hope it will get teachers to think about the balance of texts their students are studying," she said.

But Susan Hill, author of GCSE set text The Woman in Black, disagreed. "I think they should choose the best books for the students to read, regardless of the sex of the author," she said.

"I really dislike all this gender stuff. When I was last judging the Man Booker Prize, it wasn't until we had chosen the longlist that we thought to ask what the ratio of men to women novelists was. It turned out to be about even but it hadn't been an issue and it never should be."

A spokesperson for AQA said: "We understand that people have strong opinions about which texts should be studied but unfortunately we can't please everyone. We consulted a wide range of people, including teachers, subject specialists and representatives from higher education."

The Edexcel board - where 29 per cent of the selected books for next year are by female authors - said that the Shakespeare requirement skewed the results. Outside that, it said, 40 per cent of the plays and novels for study were by women.

`Default position'

Joanne Harris, the author of 14 novels including Chocolat, believes that more women should be featured on the GCSE English syllabus.

"The current list perpetuates the myth that literature is male-dominated, when it isn't," she says. "Women authors are not in a minority, but it is still the default position that when you think about a writer, you think of a male, white face. Even now there is the old-fashioned idea that men write for everyone, but women write for women.

"It would be very helpful for students for more women's voices to be represented on the GCSE list. It would be good to see more black and Asian writers."

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