On Teaching Literature

The following is something I wrote initially for SNB before thinking that it really didn’t suit the magazine at all. And so I thought I might as well stick it up here!

The gradual erasure of literature from UK schools has been going on for some time and now the situation is set to worsen. Reforms to the exam system mean that from 2015 onwards, a new English language exam will make the teaching of literature optional for children up to sixteen years of age. It will be perfectly possible to get through a whole education without ever studying a well-known book in our own mother tongue.

I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught? For teaching literature can be full of pitfalls. When I was fifteen – a young girl who constantly had her nose stuck in a book at home – I hated the way we did it in school. What I adored was the feeling of being utterly caught up in a different world, lost to the twists and turns of a story. In the classroom we ‘read around the class’ a dull and painful exercise that took all immediacy from the words. Then we chopped the text up into little bits and studied them in a way that removed the natural connection between imagination and emotion. I understood the ambiguity of the stories, but felt too vulnerable myself to appreciate it. I needed a good teacher to stretch my emotional understanding, and that can be hard to do in a class of thirty students, all with different needs. Even all these years later, Shakespeare and Dickens remain two authors I cannot love, destroyed as they were by that old-fashioned teaching process.

When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.

Some of the answers came to me as I studied the interactions I had with my students. At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing. This made sense: studying literature is primarily an exercise in self-awareness. We are never more fully ourselves than in that private place where we read and – inevitably – judge. To protect that private place (and we do so fiercely), it seems right to insist that a personal opinion is obvious and universal, and to sidestep the challenge of alternative interpretations. And a good piece of literature will not provide the straightforward answers we often long for. Literature is not there to solve the problems of the world, but to give us a startling, enlightening glimpse of them in all their awkward complexity. What we feel about this draws on complicated emotions – some provoked by the story, some from personal history – and expressing either can be difficult to do.

For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side – forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful – they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.

Other problems arose: the students were quickly frustrated by the length of time their studies took. Couldn’t they watch the film adaptation, which would be so much quicker and less demanding? (No, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is NOT an accurate account of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.) Then they were upset by the troublesome assertion that there were no rules to essay writing, and by the confusion that arose out of differing interpretations. Why was it not so that all interpretations were equally valid? And if there were no rules to organising essays, why were their essays still criticised for structure?

Here they bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organise their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument. These things aren’t easy to do, and they eschew the sensationalism that our culture generally prioritises in stories, to such an extent now that to take the sensible approach sometimes felt wrong and disappointing to them.

This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.

This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.

Teaching literature has changed a lot since I was at school, and teachers nowadays do a fantastic job of finding ways to bring the magic and the subtle power of storytelling to children’s attention. My son, who was only really interested in computers during his schooldays, loved the Shakespeare he studied, and the Steinbeck and George Orwell’s 1984. These were books that if someone had asked me, his mother, I might have said they were too hard for him. But no, with the right teacher, any book is accessible. It gladdened my heart to think this part of him was being nurtured. Literature isn’t an easy option; surely if stories teach us anything, it’s that nothing worthwhile ever came quickly, simply or easily. But they offer us a kind of pleasure that can be intense and long lasting and a way of knowing the world that can’t be gained anywhere else.

 

Various Fires

A couple of things today. First, the latest inbetweenie update of Shiny New Books is available at the site – a further 22 reviews and features. A few of my personal highlights:

The editors discuss the Booker longlist (which we enjoyed doing very much)

Max Dunbar’s wonderful review of Kevin Birmingham’s book about the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses

When I was too poorly to read and review Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Simon leapt Sir Galahad-like into the breach and took it on for me. He liked it but didn’t think it worthy of the prize longlist.

Reviews of books I absolutely have to read: Beth Gutcheon’s Gossip, N. Quentin Woolf’s The Death of the Poet, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhatten, Angela Young’s The Dance of Love, Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.

TheArsonistFor almost the past two months I’ve been hesitating over Sue Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, and whether I would review it here or in SNB. I’m a huge fan of Sue Miller and think she is wonderful on the complex networks of emotions that bind families and friends together. She has tremendous subtlety in her writing along with a fine-tuned understanding of the dramatic power of ordinary daily life. In short she does something I love: write about reality in a way that digs deep into the real. When I began The Arsonist, I was convinced it was going to end up on my best-of list for the year, but then the ending left me in all kinds of doubt.

The story begins when Frankie Rowley comes home to her parents in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire after fifteen years as an aid worker in Africa. She is burnt out from the frustrating work, and the strange combination of glamour and destitution she has experienced as someone who would do international good. She has also recently been through a bruising break-up, after the kind of intense but short-lived relationship she is normally skilled at resolving. Although she hasn’t yet told her parents, she isn’t sure she will ever go back.

Parents Sylvia and Alfie have their own troubles. They have recently retired and decided to live in what used to be the family holiday home, thinking that its rural location will be both soothing and energising. But Alfie is increasingly troubled by the early signs of dementia, and Sylvia finds herself in the undesirable position of carer in an isolated environment. Nearby, Frankie’s sister, Liz and her family, are building a holiday home of their own, and Liz is relieved to see Frankie back, feeling that impending responsibility for their parents has rested for too long on her shoulders. But Frankie feels herself shrinking away from family demands. Her relationship with Sylvia is awkward – ‘mothering wasn’t a gift of her mother’s’ – something Sylvia herself doesn’t deny when she realises how much she resents Alfie’s slow decline, and after the demands of Africa, Frankie instinctively veers away from more impossible calls for aid. Alfie, who has always been indulged, does not understand what a burden of care he has set in motion.

Anyway, the first night Frankie is back, she wakes with jet lag and decides to go for a walk. On her return, a car shoots past her and she believes she can smell smoke. It isn’t until the next morning that she learns a neighbouring property has been set on fire and burned to the ground. And it isn’t until several days later that she puts two and two together regarding the car and whom it might have contained. In the meantime, the fires continue steadily. An arsonist is at work, targeting the properties of the summer vacationers, and whilst it seems that care is being taken to choose ones that stand empty, it isn’t long before a mistake is made.

Frankie begins a new relationship with Bud Jacobs, owner of the local newspaper and another escapee from the grind of ambitious careers. He used to be a political journalist in Washington but decided to take on the challenge of local news instead. As the number of arson attacks mount and the residents become ever more alarmed for their safety, Bud searches for all possible angles from which to cover the fires. When he writes that an anonymous source from the state police suggested that ‘the divide between year-round and summer residents could offer a possible motivation for what otherwise seems a series of motiveless crimes,’ he stirs up a hornets’ nest with this possibility of ‘class resentment’. It isn’t long before the summer residents are sending a petition to him, demanding more responsible reportage. The issue is hotter than the fires themselves.

So Sue Miller creates all kinds of provocative and fascinating oppositions in her novel: Will they track the arsonist down before someone’s life is lost? And what will the motivation for the crime be – personal or political? What will happen to Alfie as his condition deteriorates? Will Frankie choose the ‘ordinary’ life of small town America or the big picture of Africa? And what of her relationship with Bud – will that persuade her to stay? What of the dynamics in Frankie’s family – can they work together or will they be torn apart?

But once Frankie and Bud begin their affair, it seems to suck all the heat out of the rest of the story; the least interesting part of the narrative slowly starts to dominate. And much as I do not wish to give anything away, it’s fair to say that nothing is resolved, not any of the potentially enticing and thrilling storylines. You might of course say that Sue Miller remains resolutely true to life in making such choices. But at the same time, after all the lit fuses of the early part of the novel, it’s a letdown that there are no explosive conclusions.

I wondered whether Miller had so acutely put her finger on a series of powerful issues in America that she was unable to resolve them without coming down off her novelist’s fence. It would have been too risky to come out with the motivation for the arson as class resentment, too provocative to have Frankie choose outright for insular concerns over difficult international situations, too awkward to tackle the very real constraints to personal freedom that are posed by serious illnesses – both to those who suffer and those who must care for them. As I say, what I like most about Miller’s writing is how real she is. But she is also an insistently compassionate author; she has her characters admit to awkward, shameful failings and is careful always to grant them every sympathy. Perhaps she couldn’t, at any level, construct villains. But it does make for an uneven and inconclusive novel.

First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.

A Rare Linky Post

Usually I think of my blog as the place where I put down my thoughts. But things have been so hectic of late that I haven’t really had any that are worth noting. Instead, I’m going to link to three posts that have caused me lately to stop and think.

 

Andrew Blackman: The Future of Books: Reactive?

This fascinating post reports on advances in technology in ‘reactive media’ in which we get to be hooked up to a machine that stimulates the storyline we’re reading if we get bored, or dials it back if we’re overreacting.

I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media,’ Andrew writes.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in.

 

Dutch Courage (written by my friend Ingrid): Proving Yourself

This is a beautifully written post in which Ingrid considers the subtle difference between ‘justifying yourself’ and ‘proving yourself’, a distinction linked to gender identity that she becomes aware of while supporting her young son as he grows. Masculinity, she learns, consists in part of:

The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one’s action’s approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.’

 

The Guardian: Top Five Regrets of the Dying

This is an old post that Mr Litlove alerted me to a while back and which I return to every now and then to check in with and check myself against. It arose out of a book written by an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. The regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (apparently every single man said this).

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings (many felt that buried resentment and bitterness had played a part in their illnesses).

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends (ironically, while typing this my neighbour came to the door for a chat and after catching up with the headlines I had to shoo her away because I had so much work to do).

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What a salutory lesson those five regrets encompass. I find myself particularly drawn to the last one, although I think that, taken wrongly, it can be made into an excuse for suppressing problems that really need to be dealt with. I’d probably change it into ‘I wish I’d let myself fully recognise what emotions were appropriate to any given situation, and let myself experience them.’

On that note, I will just say that I think my son is beginning to find more emotional equilibrium, and my back is a great deal better. Thanks to the splendid heated band-aid, I did make the event in Heffers last week with Jill Dawson (who turns out to be absolutely lovely). I was not what you’d call comfortable, but I was there. One less thing to regret. :)  Thank you all for your amazing, invaluable support; I certainly couldn’t manage without my virtual friends.