I was alerted to this Guardian article by a "round-up" post at the Elegant Variation.
From the Guardian piece : " Contemporary writers never used to feature on A-level syllabuses. For years, the nearest most candidates got to a living author were the poems that an elderly TS Eliot or WH Auden had published decades earlier. Even by the end of the 1970s, the most up-to-date fiction studied might be one of the novels published by William Golding in the 1950s. Nowadays things are different. This summer candidates were being examined on Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and Louis de Bernières. Next summer it will be AS Byatt’s Possession and Michael Frayn’s Spies."
I am surprised that lightweight books like "Oryx and Crake" and "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood are set texts. I’ve read quite a few Atwood, including these. I absolutely hated the Handmaid’s Tale and thought Oryx and Crake petered out; both were unbearably heavy-handed, and although she can write language, I don’t think her books provide deep insights or the same rich foundation to the potential lifelong reader as, say, Hardy, Dickens, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Wolfe, — or a great work by an uneven author — Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath", for example. You would learn a lot more about the issues addressed in Handmaid’s Tale, and the human condition in general, by reading "Tess of the d’Urbervilles" or "Middlemarch". (Or, of course, "To Kill a Mockingbird", which is still a set text and deservedly so.)
"Enduring Love" by Ian McEwan is also, apparently, a regular set text. I adore Ian McEwan — he’s my favourite living author. But I would definitely class him as someone to read when you’ve finished at school or in parallel with school, not as a set text. Rather than Enduring Love, you could get a lot further in understanding the fundamental issues addressed in that book by reading "Arrowsmith" and "Madame Bovary".
Whatever you think of McEwan or Atwood — I love one and do not like the other — in my view they do not alone provide the tools for appreciation of the richness of humanity via the reading habit in comparison to some of the other books and authors I’ve mentioned here.
Of course, the Guardian article might just be winding people up — it is more than possible that at A level, a modern work like a McEwan or an Atwood is read as well as a wide variation of other books. That would be fine, as students would have an interesting set of comparisons to make. But at GCSE English, there is only one set novel, and I think it would be a pity if it were to be one of the "modern" books mentioned by the Guardian — which implies that these choices are made for commercial reasons — hard to believe, I would imagine it is more likely to be some misguided ideology by "educationalists".
Another quote from the Guardian piece: "Anyone who has interviewed sixth-formers for places on university courses over the past decade will know that Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been studied as much as Pride and Prejudice (and a great deal more than any other 19th-century novel)."
On a related subject, Big A little a highlights an article in the Washington Post about whether assigned reading is too difficult for its target audience, highlighting the fact that "Beloved" is read by sixth-graders. Having read this harrowing book, I do hope that sixth-graders in the USA are not the same as year six students here in the UK. (Year six in the UK means you are 10 or 11.) To me, the point of both newspapers’ articles is similar — set texts should be chosen with care and thought. I would suggest that some books are best read after others — don’t learn to read before you know your letters.
I would be most interested in any readers’ views on my perhaps rather elitist and inflammatory posting above. Please let me know in the comments.