English literature is no longer literature written in English: it’s literature written by British people. Confusingly. British literature, then. Briterature. Never mind the quality, feel the provenance. Don’t look out; look in. Don’t welcome words from around the world: ours are enough.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the writing of men and women who had the misfortune to have been dragged up in this rather glum collection of decaying islands. We (if there is a “we”) have produced some delightful things to touch the soul. There’s that shared cultural heritage, the slight memetic experience embedded in our souls, even if, say, the Britain of the Brontes might seem sometimes harder to imagine ourselves in than the United States of Arthur Miller.
But then, isn’t literature about travelling – not just in time but space and imagination? I’m reading Moby Dick at the moment. There might be a huge cultural gap between Herman Melville and me, his reader, but isn’t that the point? I can transport myself to another time, another place, another story, another world, thanks the power of a book – and my own mind – thanks to the magic of reading. I’m really there, in a whaling town in a far off land hundreds of years ago.
There’s a good reason for celebrating wonderful British (and Irish) writers, but another good reason to look further, to the US and Canada, to Australia and New Zealand, to India… But I wouldn’t stop with books written originally in English either. Why deny yourself Gunter Grass, or Peter Hoeg? Why stop there? Why not look beyond Europe to stories beyond white folk and their former colonies? Literature isn’t just about the language; it’s about the power of the story, the joy of imagination, the transportation in the mind.
Or, you could just study British writers only because you don’t like Of Mice And Men. You know. That.