Before I start let’s just get something out of the way: The Richard and Judy Book Club is on the whole and on balance a good thing. It encourages reading, helps people choose what to read and gets people talking about books. And while it has been accused–correctly I think–of helping to skew the book trade in favour of coffee table bestsellers and hokey populist emotionalism, I don’t think it’s doing anything more than going with the market flow.
In any case ‘Richard and Judy’ readers, like ‘Oprah’ readers in the United States, are not scared of difficult material. The Richard and Judy Book Club winner for 2008 is Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel about women in Afghanistan which the New York Times described as flawed, but praised for its ‘sheer momentum and will’. Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition, another of this year’s books, which tackles manic depression, has been widely praised by serious reviewers in serious newspapers. Obviously the Richard and Judy Bookclub is about readers and lots of them, but popular doesn’t have to mean second rate.
And that brings me to my main beef with the Richard and Judy Bookclub, that there are no ‘classic’ novels on the booklist. Why is there no Elizabeth Gaskell, or the Brontë sisters? What’s wrong with Dickens and what’s so hard about Hardy? Do the producers of the Richard and Judy Book Club think their readers wouldn’t like these writers? If so The Reader magazine would like to bet they are wrong. These great novels are full of stories about difficult human subjects: bad marriages, unrequited love, childhood, families in crisis, joy and mourning. Everything in fact that shows up in the modern novels that do get chosen for the list.
We would like to see a ‘classic’ novel in the Richard and Judy top ten and as of right now we are launching a campaign to make it happen. We’re starting with a poll to decide which novel we should champion over the coming months. In consultation with Phil Davis, the magazine’s editor and having taken suggestions from people in the office we have a shortlist. Please vote for the book you would most like to see championed on the famous couch.
Update: It was announced today (June 16, 2008) that The Richard and Judy Book Club is moving from ITV to the satellite channel UKTV. This is a great chance for a fresh start–let’s have a ‘classic’ novel on the new show.