Exploring novels that break the rules

This summer, we’ve been diving into the BBC’s list of 100 novels that shaped our world.

One of the categories is rule breakers and the BBC panel selected these 10 books:

  • A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  • Bartleby, the Scrivener – Herman Melville
  • Habibi – Craig Thompson
  • How to be Both – Ali Smith
  • Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  • Orlando – Virginia Woolf
  • Psmith, Journalist – P. G. Wodehouse
  • The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde

Here are some questions that this set of books poses:

How and why did Nineteen Eighty-Four become so culturally significant?

Even if you haven’t read Orwell’s novel, you may have seen the adjective Orwellian used to describe many things, and concepts such as Big Brother have made it into the mainstream. Professor Dan Lea from Oxford Brookes has written about the legacy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and you can find his article on our research repository, RADAR.

A Confederacy of Dunces? That’s an odd title for a book, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s an adaptation of a quotation from Jonathan Swift, who says “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. Of course, as the character of Ignatius J Reilly illustrates, the world can also be in opposition to you because you are a fool rather than a genius. If you want to read Swift’s essay, you can find it on Early English Books Online.

Is Bartleby the Scrivener the one about the whale?

No, that’s Melville’s more famous book, Moby Dick. If you want to know what Bartleby the Scrivener is about (spoiler: there’s no whales), there’s a radio adaptation on Box of Brodcasts.

Aren’t PG Wodehouse’s novels a bit old-fashioned?

Maybe. But that, and their humour, are what make them the perfect escapist fiction for for a pandemic. At least that’s what Carly Osborn argues in her piece for The Conversation.

How does Zami: a new spelling of my name break the rules?

In a 2009 jounal article, Christoher Giroux notes that the subtitle hints at newness and a rewriting of the rules. Significantly, Lorde described her book as a “biomythography”, a conscious blending of biography and mythology. Borrow it from the library if you want to see what a biomythography looks like.

Of course, these aren’t the only ten novels that have ever broken the rules. If you would like to nominate another one, or tell us why one of these ten has shaped your world, let us know.

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