1 in 5 people within Britain unable to name a single author

Living in Ireland, we might take it for granted that we have all at least heard of one or two authors in our time. Heaney, Yeats, Joyce… maybe Roddy Doyle or Maeve Binchy… perhaps even Samuel Beckett or CS Lewis. However, a recent survey undertaken by the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) discovered the surprising fact that 1 in 5 people within Britain cannot name a single author of literature.

Literature in Britain Today, an Ipsos MORI poll of public opinion commissioned by the RSL, found that a substantial minority of people have little or no knowledge of literature, with men and people from disadvantaged social groups are particularly likely to miss out on literature. 15% of the people survey believed that literature is too difficult to understand, while 33% believe that literature doesn’t matter to most people.

For the survey RSL did not define ‘literature’ – if any of the 2000 respondents asked what was meant by ‘literature’, their interviewer replied that it was entirely up to them to define the term, allowing the survey’s findings to be based as closely as possible on Britain’s own understanding of what literature means. Interviews were conducted face to face in home among a nationally representative sample of adults aged 15+ in Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland. (We can’t help but wonder how the results might have differed if Northern Ireland has been included however…)

When asked what would help them read more literature, respondents’ top three responses were recommendations of what to read, cheaper books, and more local libraries. The survey also found some encouraging statistics about people’s reading habits:

• 75% of people (adults in Britain) have read something in the last 6 months which they consider to be literature.
• 56% of people who do not currently read literature would definitely or probably like to read it in the future.
• 88% of people agree that literature should be part of everyone’s education.
• 67% believe that literature comforts people in times of stress.
• 81% of people agree that literature helps people understand other points of view.

For those who did read, newspapers and magazines were the most popular forms, coming in at 59% and 50% respectively, with novels at 51%, cookery books at 26%, history and biographies at 23%, children’s books at 22%, and short stories and travel guides at 20%. Interesting, only 32% of people defined the most popular forms, newspapers and magazines, as ‘literature’.

Readers of literature are significantly more likely than other people to be white, female, have higher levels of education, come from higher socio-economic groups, and have access to and make use of the internet. The most common reasons for not reading more literature are not having enough time, not liking reading, and being too busy.

The RSL welcomes comments on this report and ideas for the Literature Matters activities that they are planning to develop. They are looking for individual lovers of literature to join their membership, other organisations to collaborate with them in projects and campaigns, and would especially welcome business support through corporate partnerships. If you might be able to help them in any way, please get in touch.

And as for the Irish authors we named above? CS Lewis was named by 6 people, Joyce by 4, Heaney, Yeats, Binchy only 1 each, and of Doyle and Beckett… no mention.

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