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I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught?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.

 

Why I’m Rather Quiet

I haven’t been posting as much as I usually do, because I’ve had one or two books to read for the magazine.

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The pile on the left are the ones awaiting review, the pile on the right are the ones I still need to read and then review. By the end of June. Ye-es, that’s what I think, too. Some of them I requested on behalf of SNB from publishers (which has made publishers more willing than normal to send me books) and some of them are my own copies. But we won’t mention that to Mr Litlove, right? That’s just between us. I’ve read some wonderful books though – in particular a memoir of a writer’s first job at a literary agency where the prize client was J. D. Salinger, and the most surprisingly twisty portrait of grief from an American novelist. More about those on the 1st July when our next edition comes out.

If you’re wondering about the outrageously pretty sofa they are resting on, yes, it is new. We had a makeover of the study when our old brown leather chairs more or less fell apart. Here’s a better picture of it:

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When it first arrived (and there was some doubt whether we could get it through the door – it’s certainly not going anywhere ever again), it was wrapped up in a huge plastic bag, tied with a cord at one end. Oh the urge I had to keep it safely nestled in plastic! Mr Litlove comes in all sawdusty from his workshop, or sweaty from rowing and throws himself down on it, at which point I make him get up and change before he is allowed to sit down again. The cat, who is rather elderly these days and jumps onto soft furnishings with a wince-inducing scrabble of claws, has been banished. The one evening he snuck in, he lay on the sofa in the most ridiculous position, front legs stretched out as far as they would go as if to cover as much surface area as possible. He has not been invited back. My favourite thing to do is to shut all the doors to the study and then look at it through the panes of glass. Oh I know it won’t be long before we’re sitting on it to eat our dinner and lying with our feet up, if we can get the cat to give us a bit of space. But for the moment, I am trying to preserve its exquisite newness.

One final thing: the last ever critical essay I wrote has recently been published online. It’s about the work of Gabriel Josipovici, an author I love who isn’t well known enough in this country, and on whom a special journal edition has been put together. My essay is called The Cost of Creativity in the Work of Gabriel Josipovici, and is about the way his poignant relationship to his mother has influenced his books. If you click through to the journal, you’ll find there are all sorts of other fantastic essays on his writing.

Back with reviews later in the week.

A Hit and a Miss

It feels like an age since I’ve written about any books. This must be partly because the books I’ve been reading lately have often left me uncertain how I feel about them. I’m not sure whether it was because of the writing course, which encouraged us to unpack pieces of writing (I’m not exactly unused to that) or whether it’s just been the nature of the past couple of months with their run of irritations that have put me in a funny place in relation to my books. It’s one of the great paradoxical truths of existence that the more you long for things to be perfect, the less likely it is that they will be so.

Matisse woman with goldfishNothing ruins the experience of a book more surely than having too high expectations for it, and I wonder whether that was at the root of my troubles with Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque; A Search for the Sublime. In theory this ticked all my boxes. I’d read one of Hampl’s essays on the writing course and been very impressed by it. This book was exactly the sort of hybrid creative non-fiction that I am most interested in, a journey across time and space that begins with the sighting of a Matisse painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. A young woman at the time, Hampl is on her way to lunch with a friend when she is stopped dead in her tracks by Matisse’s picture of a woman contemplating goldfish in a bowl. Something about the woman’s attitude, the timelessness of her gaze, the relaxation of her posture, appeals strongly to Hampl but resists articulation. Armed with the belief that the woman in the painting represents a way of seeing that is intrinsic to art and highly valuable to life, Hampl enters into a length meditation that encompasses the lives of artists she loves, as well as trips to the locations where they were inspired, and her thoughts on the work they produced.

What’s not to like? The artists considered include Matisse and Delacroix, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Katherine Mansfield – a small constellation of stars in Hampl’s inner universe. And the travel writing, moving from Minneapolis where Hampl lives, to the Côte D’Azur and North Africa provides suitably glossy and exotic locations. What appears to be the main thrust of the series of interlinked essays – that the speed of the modern world makes us miss the sort of experience that end up being most valuable to us – is one I wholeheartedly endorse. And in all honesty there is much to love in this book, so many exquisite sentences, beautiful, vivid imagery, some nice points made, and at all times Hampl’s intelligence shines through.

But I just could not stay awake while reading it.

There is a fundamental problem with this kind of hybrid writing that skips between memoir, biography and criticism, and that’s the difficulty the reader is bound to experience trying to hang onto the point. I find that, like a complex dream, all those weird shifts between heterogeneous scenes erase what came before, and I can lose whole chunks of narrative, forget them as if I’d never read them. I finished this book only a couple of weeks ago and have retained practically nothing from it. No, in all fairness, I recall the travel writing, which was excellent. And I felt that in those scenes something was happening, something I could really engage with. Hampl’s art criticism, whilst always intelligent, tended to sink into the swamp of its own thought, witness this small excerpt where she is talking about an autobiographical film:

I was listening to a memoir, the genre that inhabits a fascinatingly indeterminate narrative space between fiction and documentary. As it refines its point of view, lavishing itself on the curious habits of personal consciousness, memoir achieves a rare detachment even as it enters more deeply into the revelation of individual consciousness. Its greatest intimacy (the display of perception) paradoxically reveals its essential impersonality. It wishes to see the world, not itself. Hill’s real subject, like Matisse’s was individual perception: not simply what was seen, but how seeing was experienced.’

A few paragraphs like this strung together and I was out like a light. Which goes to show that, like everything else, critical writing needs to keep the concrete in sight at all times. The more grounded the writing, the more it is about something real, the better the chance of hanging onto the reader’s attention. But this book frustrated me, as I felt it had a lot of interesting things to say, and I really did wish I could stay conscious long enough to hear them.

 

Weissmanns of WestportAltogether more grounded was Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. In my twenties I’d enjoyed her first novels, The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece and recalled them as being sort of literary rom-coms. Not a lot has changed in the intervening decades – the Weissmanns tale being loosely based on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I forgot this detail until halfway through the novel, when I thought to myself, ‘goodness me, these sisters are exactly like Eleanor and Marianne Blackwood!’ and recalled that this was, in fact, the point. And then I was aware enough of these literary ghosts to watch the novel diverge from Austen’s plotting and play a few neat tricks with its model. Just in case you were wondering how that particular borrowing worked out.

At the tender age of 75, Betty Weissmann finds herself being divorced by husband, Joe, on grounds of irreconcilable differences. ‘Irreconcilable differences? she said. Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What has that to do with divorce?’ Of course, there is another woman, Joe’s secretary, Felicity, and Felicity manages to talk Joe out of leaving the New York appartment to his estranged wife on the grounds that it is much more generous to take the burden of worry about taxes from Betty’s shoulders. So Betty finds herself exiled and downsized to a holiday cottage owned by wealthy, family-loving cousin, Lou in Westport, Connecticut. Partly to support their mother, mostly because of financial crises of their own, Betty’s daughters Annie and Miranda move out to live with her.

Annie is the sensible, one, a divorced librarian with two grown boys, who is impotently aware of her mother and sister spending far more money than they possess. Miranda is the flighty one, a literary agent recently humiliated and put out of business by revelations that the misery memoirs she traded in were more fiction than fact. The family hasn’t been in Westport long when Miranda starts a relationship with an out of work actor, Kit, and his enchanting little son, Henry. Meanwhile, Annie pines silently for Felicity’s brother, Frederick, a writer with whom she has been briefly entangled, but who is now persona non grata for obvious reasons. Best of all, nothing works out the way you might think it would. This was charming and funny and intelligently written enough that it was like hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream and no guilt. If such a thing as a poignant soufflé existed, I could liken this book to one. Don’t come to it expecting Tolstoy, but the quality of the writing and the insights about love and life lift it above the level of your average comfort read.

All Change

So, my son left today for university and it is such a happysad event that I can’t even begin to know how I feel. He’s excited and keen and very ready now for his own life, so this is exactly how it should be, this is the right timing. But of course I grieve for the ending of an intense period in my own life, one that was harder than I could ever have imagined and more rewarding than I could ever have guessed. But don’t those two always go hand in hand? Anything worthwhile stretches you far beyond your known limits, as our son is about to discover.

I think what makes it harder than it might be to let him go is knowing that he’s already in a tricky stage of his life, deeply committed to a relationship that is in a particularly challenging phase. Mr Litlove and I have our moments of fearing it will be doomed, but our son, combining his passion, his determination and his sheer willpower, three rights somehow making a wrong, refuses firmly to believe any such thing. I worry about that, because if there’s one quality we all need in relationships, it’s elasticity, and some acceptance that negotiating separateness is as important as dealing with togetherness. I worry that he faces challenging and distressing times ahead, possibly without enough support.

But I also think that this whole situation has a lot to tell me about the art of letting go. The thing about motherhood is that it’s based on an experience of culturally accepted madness. You get this baby put in your arms and the shock of responsibility is tremendous, breathtaking, you pretty much never get over it. Parenting means you spend years doing the kind of things that you should never have to do for another person. Those first three years in particular are a boot camp into an extraordinarily intrusive, overbearing way of being that is based on the sacrifice of your own life. And then after that come the field marshal years, where you bark commands from one end of the day to the other, spend your time checking the canteens are supplied and generally give every remaining drop of energy into mustering morale among the troops. Eventually it enters your bloodstream, you are brainwashed, trained up and kitted out. Because if you did not do these things, even if you do not especially like the person you become when doing them, chaos would result. This is not about choice.

So when adolescence comes along, and teenagers reclaim the territorial rights to things that were always theirs in the first place, it can be disconcerting. Mr Litlove and I have absolutely no right to tell our son who to love or how to love, or what he wants or who he should be. We can discuss these things, adult to adult, if he’s willing. But all those old strategies – bribery, blackmail, begging, putting one’s foot down – that fell into the category of means justifying ends in the old days, revert to being the unacceptable tools of oppression that they basically are. Thinking that we have any say in such matters reverts to being intrusive, that we ‘know better than him what he needs’ is egotistical. And however much I might wince and fret to see him running into the future, arms outstretched and calling for experience to come to him, knowing that smiling destiny will beat him up, there is nothing I can do about it now. He has to learn the hard way, like we all do.

It’s good news, then, that I have this new writing course to distract me. This first week has been tentative, on the whole, with the twelve members posting their work onto the website almost discreetly and not a great deal of discussion going on. Those who have commented have been resolutely nice. The unexpected challenge has come from the first long written piece that we are preparing. The brief was to write a personal essay that braided together two separate narratives. I thought the braiding would be the difficult part – and it was – but little did I suspect that the personal part would be worse. Yes, I managed to write a first draft involving two narratives, neither of which was in any way personally about me. And you know what, I didn’t even notice I’d done it! If you asked me, I’d say I was someone who went on and on about themselves, more than ready to overshare. But when I think about it, I rarely volunteer. If you ask me, I’ll tell you, otherwise I assume I have nothing that anyone wants to know.

‘That blog of yours,’ said Mr Litlove, when we were discussing this strange phenomenon, ‘talk about a dance of the seven veils. Of course you’ve got none left now and everyone knows all there is to know about you. But they probably don’t realise because it took you so long.’

The more I look back, the more I see that I do it. Being with students was only okay because it wasn’t about me; it was about books, or their problems (I avoided the social events as much as possible). And one of the most striking things about my son leaving home is how exposed it makes me feel. What will I tell people now when they ask how we are? When people come round or we visit, what possible entertainment can I provide? I don’t mind rushing out and doing ten minutes of cabaret, on pre-prepared topics. But reveal myself? That sounds….awful. I had no idea how much I feel compelled to hide.

There are only two personal topics that I will readily talk about here: chronic fatigue and anxiety, both things that I feel are stigmatised and insufficiently spoken about. So there’s a sort of public duty about bringing them into the light of day. But can I talk about them at length in essays where I speak openly about myself? Oh my goodness; suddenly this course looks even more demanding than I thought.