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Novel Perceptions: Towards an inclusive canon

Reading is important. We have to be able to read all kinds of texts to manage our way through life. From an early age we are also instilled with the idea that we have to read and enjoy high brow literature and ‘the canon’. Literary prizes and their winners receive much media attention. However, literary scholars are hard-pressed to explain what kind of books deserve such a literary prize or a place in the literary canon.

In the highly innovative Huygens-project The Riddle of Literary Quality (2012-2019), we selected 400 contemporary Dutch novels and combined computational text analysis with the opinions of readers gathered in a large survey. We were able to show that literary value for a large part correlates with linguistic features of the novels, but is also influenced by the perceived genre of the novel and the perceived gender of the author – to name but two things.

In the project Novel Perceptions we seek to replicate the Riddle research in the United Kingdom. In additional surveys we ask for readers’ preference of classic and historical versus newer, non-canonised texts; the volume of novels that readers consume; novels they finish and don’t. We ask people to reread novels they read in the past to understand how memory operates.

The aim of the project is to gain more knowledge about the role of literature, but the results will quite naturally lead to raising awareness and to challenging established reading habits. In turn, this will help us promote a more diverse, inclusive reading ‘diet’.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and will run from October 2020 until March 2022 at the University of Wolverhampton (UK). Project leaders are Sebastian Groes, professor of English Literature at University of Wolverhampton and Karina van Dalen-Oskam, Huygens Institute and professor of Computational Literary Studies at Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Project partners include the British Library, Libraries Connected, Writing West Midlands, the Library and Information Association (CILIP), the University of Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health. Other researchers on the project are Dr Aidan Byrne (English Literature, University of Wolverhampton), Dr Laurie Hanquinet (Computational Sociology, Free University Brussels), and Dr Tom Mercer (Psychology, University of Wolverhampton).