Literature in Britain Today

As the national body responsible under Royal Charter for ‘the advancement of literature’ in the UK, we have decided to ask the nation what it thinks about literature. Our ground-breaking opinion poll, carried out by Ipsos MORI, is, as far as we know, the first time that anyone has attempted to find out how many people read literature, what it means to them, and which writers they see as writers of literature.

The results are summarised and discussed in our report
Literature in Britain Today, published on 1 March 2017.

The full technical data sets can be found on Ipsos MORI’s website.

We will be looking at how the findings may feed into future developments at the RSL. We welcome feedback and ideas, and, as a small charity, we especially need partners, supporters and sponsors to help us create a national voice for literature. If you might be able to help, please get in touch.

We hope that the report will be helpful across the field of literature and beyond. The findings are of course open to interpretation, and we look forward to the debate that this will generate. Do join in the discussion on Twitter using #LiteratureMatters.

Read the press release here.

Here are comments from some of our Fellows and others:

The report makes fascinating reading. The RSL has asked the British public to tell us what literature is and what value it carries. The answers are heartening. In an era of increasingly polarised opinion, when Brexit and Trump dominate the political agenda, literature serves as a way of opening up new points of view. It enables people to step into others’ lives.  Now, when we urgently need insight into the unfamiliar, literature matters more than ever.
Dr Lisa Appignanesi OBE FRSL, Chair of the RSL

What the survey seems to suggest is that literature is recognised as force for good in the world. Not everyone is certain what it is – something that’s true for authors as well as readers – and its qualities are hard-to-define, even elusive. But it continues to be associated with positive ambitions and the growth of the mind, and those who experience it find their lives nourished and enriched.
Simon Armitage CBE FRSL, poet, Oxford Professor of Poetry

It’s wonderful to see that literature is thriving in Britain. This in itself is a cause for celebration, but it is also disconcerting to see that out of the 2000 people surveyed, only 7% of the writers mentioned were Black, Asian or Mixed Race, compared to 13% of the population, and only two such writers were named by more than one respondent. The challenge of diversifying and enriching British literature so that it is truly inclusive of its multicultural demographic is as urgent as ever. I hope that this report prompts new initiatives to publish more writers from Britain’s BME communities, and to invest in marketing them to a wider readership.
Bernardine Evaristo MBE FRSL, Professor of Creative Writing, Brunel University

Literature matters: to society, to education, to future generations. It matters for our minds, brains and hearts; it matters because it widens our scope of life and intensifies our perceptions; it takes us on journeys, invites us to share our lives with strangers, challenges and threatens, moves and changes us. It matters to every one of us; and it matters to me. And for these reasons I celebrate the Royal Society of Literature and its raising of literature’s profile in this report.
Professor Dame Hermione Lee FRSL, biographer and literary critic. President, Wolfson College, Oxford

This is fascinating and positive. I’m happy to find myself voted into a group of 400 such literary luminaries. It makes a fellow feel good, for a moment or two anyway. But I would hate to minimise the significance in our society of the vast numbers, albeit a minority, who do not know or value or love literature. There seems to be a gulf that shuts off 20% of people from the benefits of literature, a gulf that I know the RSL and others are determined to bridge.
Michael Morpurgo OBE FRSL, children’s writer, author of War Horse

This is a most important and impressive study. It joins what is now a long line of evidence about the nature and extent of reading, and literary reading in particular, by ordinary people in the UK. Systematic surveys date back at least to the 1930s and all tell the same story – that reading is something done by a majority of the UK population (two-thirds in most surveys, even more in this one), and that it is constitutive of how people spend their lives and form their values. Far from being marginal or in decline, reading literature is mainstream. It enables our habits, our outlooks, our interactions. People read now more than ever before in human history. So, all congratulations to the RSL for providing another piece of compelling evidence, and for celebrating a neglected fact about our national life.
Prof Rick Rylance, Director, Institute of English Studies, University of London,  formerly Chief Executive, Arts and Humanities Research Council

Here’s a survey to make you wonder why such a survey doesn’t already exist. As a writer I often hear (and sometimes make) claims about literature in the UK, but always based on anecdotal evidence or – worse – using information gained from within an echo chamber. There is much in here to be heartened by – not least the fact that ‘literature’ isn’t seen as an elitist off-putting word, but one that is claimed and embraced by a wide cross-section of society.  There’s also usefully a great deal to suggest areas in which work needs to be done in the name of literature – including a championing of local libraries, which is directly relevant to many other challenges raised in this survey.
Kamila Shamsie FRSL, novelist, Vice Chair of the RSL

It’s fascinating that Shakespeare, known mainly for works written to be performed, should head the list of writers of literature. At no other period of English history have works written for the stage had such great literary quality. In their original form and in translation his works go on illuminating and enriching the lives of readers everywhere.
Professor Sir Stanley Wells FRSL, Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust