The big read: assembling the popular canon

Wright, David (2007). The big read: assembling the popular canon. International Journal of the Book, 4(4) pp. 19–26.




Sociological accounts of the literary field emphasise the ways it is institutionally shaped and how actors within it make claims to cultural authority. These accounts include consideration of reviewing as a social or institutional practice and the role of literary prizes in the production and management of esteem. Much of this research draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu as an inspiration, particularly around notions of cultural capital, disinterestedness and autonomy. Recent research into such phenomena as Oprah’s Book Club in the US has demonstrated the complexities and ambiguities of cultural authority in the light of mass forms of participation and access. This paper uses the recent phenomenon of The Big Read – a television and internet based search for ‘the nation’s favourite books’ broadcast in 2003 – to examine persistent and emerging forms of cultural authority in the light of these debates. By exploring the processes of book selection, the type of books selected and drawing on a textual analysis of the television programmes covering ‘the top 21’ favourite books, the paper examines the different ways in which questions of value in the literary field were addressed and negotiated. The paper concludes by suggesting the need for a modification of the Bourdieusian perspective on cultural authority in understanding the contemporary literary field.

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