When it comes to love stories, what makes a great novel a classic rather than a guilty pleasure? This Valentine’s Day, academics are asking readers for help to understand why some romantic novels are remembered as masterpieces, while others are considered light entertainment.
Riders, a tale of wealthy love-rivals set to the background of show-jumping, helped author Jilly Cooper to sales of 12 million books after it was published in 1985.
But Cooper herself said she was surprised to see the story appear alongside Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the BBC’s recent 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.
Austen’s novel is a staple on school and university syllabuses, while Cooper’s novel is yet to make it as essential academic reading.
However, work by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggests that acceptance of a novel into the literary canon – a body of texts considered important or influential – often has less to do with the work itself, and more to do with other social and cultural factors.
This finding was supported by recent research in the Netherlands. In a ground-breaking project, The Riddle of Literary Quality, a survey of over 13,000 participants found that readers gave statistically higher ratings of “literary quality” to novels written by men.
Project lead Karina van Dalen-Oskam described the results as startling.
She suggested that while many high-quality novels by female authors were included in the study, the Dutch canon contained only a few books written by women, and that this may have shaped readers’ perceptions of women writers.
As part of The Novels That Shaped Our World season, a team of literature experts led by Professor Sebastian Groes at the University of Wolverhampton, hopes to explore whether the same is true for English texts.
This Valentine’s Day, they are asking the public to tell them about the