Most people in the UK have probably heard about the new set texts for GCSE English. Michael Gove claims that this list will broaden, not limit, the books pupils read, and I do think it’s good that the new rules require a mix of older and newer books as well as prose, drama and poetry.
There’s just one problem with the ‘broadening’ assertion: The vast majority of authors on the list of set texts are white British men. Obviously, the Shakespeare list doesn’t allow for diversity, and the 19th-century one has a good mix of British men and women (including Charlotte Brontë, pictured above), but the post-1914 list has 11 authors, eight of which are white men and all of whom are British. The poetry list doesn’t fare much better. While there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing British literature for British students, and naturally in doing so most authors will be white, because most Brits are white, the effect is that there’s less opportunity for authors to teach A Streetcar Named Desire or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, because they must fulfill the British requirements first and foremost.
The ‘British’ defence also doesn’t excuse the dearth of female authors. Last I checked, Britain was around 50% female. I’m not arguing that books should be selected purely based on the author’s background. It’s more that this list displays an inherent prejudice within British society, that the books deemed worthy of study are written predominantly by men. Without making some kind of an effort at diversity, this isn’t going to change, because each generation will grow up reading the same white male-authored classics, which in turn informs their opinions about whose writing is worthwhile. To be honest, I don’t know how best to change this without turning the book list into a diversity bingo card; nevertheless, I am disappointed at the lack of diversity on the set list, and the insistent focus on British writing to the exclusion of all else.