By history and by ethnic make-up Britain is a polyglot society. It has the opportunity to be wide-ranging and cosmopolitan in its reading choices, but is often said not to be. Indeed, in its literary (and other) tastes it is accused of insularity and philistinism. How true is this?
When in the late 1980s I ran the literature policies of the Arts Council of Great Britain-the predecessor to the four Arts Councils we now have-I undertook, with the help of the Library Association, to test whether British reading tastes, as evidenced by library loans of fiction and poetry, were as parochial as many people assumed. We found that loans of foreign literature were indeed falling, although there were exceptions where the local library authority made active attempts to reverse the trend-as they did in Sheffield and Birmingham.
There were two probable reasons for this decline. The first was the changed experience and training of people recruited to library careers, who no longer came into the system with English or arts-based degrees; instead they were information technology managers. If you were a sixth-former interested in doing a project on African novels or European poetry, the library staff were less likely than they once had been to know where to guide you. At the same time new supply and demand principles had been introduced. Put crudely, if there were ten people at a time wanting to borrow a Jeffrey Archer novel and only one reader a year who was interested in contemporary Finnish poetry, edited and translated by Herbert Lomas, then the library was instructed to buy multiple copies of the former and to forget the latter altogether.
But there were (and are) countervailing forces. Imaginative promotion schemes, funded by the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Boards, have helped to draw attention back to foreign authors, both those in translation and those who wrote in English. Also, school curricula changed dramatically in the supposedly jingoistic 1980s. Perhaps in a spirit of covert rebellion against the prevailing political tone of the decade, teachers became much more willing to contemplate the teaching of texts from non-Anglo-Saxon cultures.
In 1972 I had helped to form the Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African and Associated Literatures, which served as a pressure group to draw to the attention of examination boards the quality of contemporary writing in English outside Britain and the US, and…