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Wolverhampton researchers collaborate on BBC’s “Novels That Shaped Our World”


A team of University of Wolverhampton academics is working with BBC Arts on an ambitious new engagement project to mark the 300th anniversary of the English Language novel.

Starting in January 2020, “The Novels That Shaped Our World” is year-long project that asks the public in Great Britain and beyond to debate a selection of 100 novels that have impacted upon the nation since Robinson Crusoe, 300 years ago.

The project is accompanied by a nationwide Festival, due to take place later this year, programmes on BBC TV and Radio and a collaboration with libraries and reading groups throughout the UK.

The centre piece of the season will be a three-part BBC Two Series, The Novels That Shaped Our World, looking at fiction from three perspectives: The Empire, Women’s Voices and the Working Class Experience.

Once the novels have been chosen by a celebrity panel, a team from the University of Wolverhampton, led by Sebastian Groes, Professor of English Literature in the School of Humanities, will provide quantitative and qualitative analysis of the public’s reading preferences and judgement of literary quality.

Professor Groes said: “It’s an honour to be involved in such a high-profile project which will see myself along with Professor of Computational Humanities, Karina van Dalen-Oskam from the University of Amsterdam, lead a team of computational linguistics and English Literature scholars to analyse the public’s engagement with these 100 novels.

“We will investigate the ways in which age, gender, ethnicity and place are involved in shaping readers’ judgement of the novels in terms of genre, theme and degree of difficulty.”

The interdisciplinary project unites research by Wolverhampton’s Research Group for Computational Linguistics, including Dr Sara Moze, Richard Evans and Dr Emad Mohamed, and from English and Creative Writing staff, led by Dr Aidan Byrne. The project is seeking support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Groes continued: “We will ask important questions about generating a diverse, and socially inclusive canon fit for the twenty-first century, whilst stimulating literacy and readings cultures across the UK, and beyond. Our team will showcase our research at literary festivals throughout the UK. Impact will be phenomenal as we will be using the nQuire platform, which was used for instance for the BBC’s massively successful Gardenwatch programme, to solicit data. We expect to engage over 100,000 members of the British public.”

The results will be revealed as the Novel That Shaped Our World project culminates in October 2020 to coincide with the annual Libraries Week.

The jury includes broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, screenwriter and columnist Juno Dawson, Bradford Festival Literary Director Syima Aslam, author and University of Wolverhampton Honorary Graduate Kit de Waal, journalist and editor of The Times Literary Supplement Stig Abell and award-winning writer Alexander McCall Smith.

They will appear on Radio 2’s Book Club to discuss deliberations before the 100 novels, all in the English language and all works of fiction, will be revealed at a live event hosted by Radio 2’s Jo Whiley at the British Library and streamed into libraries onto the Living Knowledge Network in late autumn 2019, to coincide with the BBC Two series The Novels That Shaped Our World. The panel will also be appearing at literary festivals, including Bradford Literary Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival.   

The books will be presented in ten themed categories (Identity; Politics, Power and Protest; Rule Breakers; Love, Sex and Romance; Coming of Age; Adventure; Life, Death and Other Worlds; Class and Society; Family and Friendship and Crime and Conflict) and will fuel a year-long engagement campaign working closely with Libraries Connected, the Scottish Libraries and Information Council and Cilip, the Library and Information Association, along with the Reading Agency and Publishers’ Association. There will be events in libraries to provide a platform to discuss the novels that continue to shape our world and information packs will be made available from January to October 2020 to reading groups for them to discuss and debate the categories and novels.

Lamia Dabboussy, Director, BBC Arts, says: “The emergence of the English language Novel three hundred years ago has resulted in some of the most entertaining, exhilarating and extraordinary works of art of all time. It has also been an agent of immense and radical social change, altering the way we look at class, gender and race. From engagement campaigns to landmark series across BBC TV and Radio my hope is that The Novels That Shaped Our World season and accompanying festival will encourage everyone to read more and discover new books and authors, from the classic to the contemporary.”

Mark Freeman, President, Libraries Connected, says: “The Novels That Shaped our World Festival is a fantastic opportunity for local libraries to promote some of the most influential books ever published. The festival will help demonstrate the enduring impact of English literature on society and culture, not just in this country but around the world. I couldn’t be more pleased that Libraries Connected is partnering with the BBC in this wonderful celebration of 300 years of the English language novel.”

The birth of the novel will be marked, celebrated, debated and explored with other programming across BBC Radio, which will be announced in due course.

For anyone who already has their results, applications can now be made through the Clearing website, calling the HOTLINE on 01902 518585 or contacting us through our Social Media channels on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Anyone applying for a course through Clearing can register their interest and arrange a phone call with the University on results day, Thursday 15th August. Or visit our next Open Day on Saturday 17th August 2019.


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