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I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught?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

 

Riptides, Or What Makes A Good Short Story?

riptidesWhen, several weeks after I had expected this book to arrive, it was still missing, I emailed a friend who knew the publisher and could track it down. The response was that it was travelling to me by boat. Boat! From Canada to Cambridge! And when it finally arrived, the package certainly looked like it had been on one hell of a journey. It was bashed up on one corner, with rips in the brown paper, the ink of the address smudged and tearful. I wondered if it had been personally rowed to shore by some hardened old seasalt, nestled under a stinking tarpaulin while wild Atlantic storms tossed the craft like a cork circling a city gutter.

The book in question was Riptides, an award-winning collection of short stories from writers based on Prince Edward Island. Its dramatic arrival gave it a sort of subversive feel, as if the writers in question were lost in isolation, left to resort to a message in a bottle.

In fact, the introduction to the book suggests that the literary history of the region has been dominated by Lucy Maud Montgomery and her perennial childrens’ favourite, Anne of Green Gables. In subsequent eras, the island has produced a lot more poets than fiction writers, perhaps the editor says, because the islanders knew each other’s business too well, and writers feared that every character they created would be hijacked by someone in real life, convinced they had been plagiarised on the page. Anyway, this collection is offered as a way to showcase the up-and-coming talent in the region. And, it seems, to place some literary distance between contemporary writing and that commercially successful but twee and safe world of Lucy Maud. The island has been ‘transformed by the juggernaut of change’ the editor writes:

Where one might detect echoes of Avonlea, that resonance is often troubled by our era’s insistent ironies, scepticism, malaise, wryly or sardonically complicated longings and antipathies, comic bite, and plaintive vulnerability. Too, the transmutations of gender roles, marital and sexual relations, and class awareness transgress by a country mile the boundaries of Montgomery’s fiction and the idyllic and genteel heritage parameters of tourism promotions.’

All of which rather made me wish my book was still on its romantic-sounding journey to me, not laying bare its garbled agenda. Because I don’t know about you but I’m no fan of agendas. They usually mean violent emotions have been transformed by overthinking into something potentially self-righteous. In the urge to run for the hills away from anything charming or ‘quaint’ or comforting or cheerful, I feared I would be on the receiving end of a great deal of dirty realism.

The good news is that the introduction was by far the worst thing in the book. The stories themselves were generally very good and there were several real highlights. In ‘The Nothing’, Melissa Carroll’s wonderfully sarcastic narrator nearly loses her winning lottery ticket to the machinations of a scheming work colleague after an unfortunate accident with a printing machine. In Malcolm Murray’s ‘The Enlightenment Tour’, an elderly gentleman alone on an equally elderly bus tours lost outposts and turns a rip-off into a meditation of sorts. In ‘Watermelon’ by Beth Janzen, a young girl watches her family’s spotlight of attention shift away from her to an ill, overweight relative in a story of exquisite subtlety. And in what was perhaps my favourite, ‘At The Red Light’ by Bonnie Stewart, a chance encounter at traffic lights leads a woman to reflect back on a turbulent period in her life.

There was, in all honesty, a bit too much dirty realism for me. I get weary fast of stories about drug-takers, cancer sufferers and would-be suicides. Those topics seem too… easy, somehow, a swift, callous route to the reader’s nerve centre. But there were also plenty of stories that tried something intriguingly original, and these were ones I deeply appreciated, too. In ‘A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly’, Jeff Bursey creates a properly intriguing voice, with a narrator who has always clung tightly to the emotional coldness that keeps him superior, but who now finds himself helplessly adrift in an unaccountable crush on the actress Juliet Stevenson. And in ‘The Widows’ Dinner’ by Philip Macdonald, a group of elderly women sit down to eat a delicious lunch together, harboring unexpectedly sinister secrets.

With twenty-three stories ranging across all sorts of subject matter and voice, there probably is something for everyone in this collection, from the psychologically astute and chilling ‘Dust’ by Shirley Limbert, in which a young woman disassociates from her abusive relationship, to ‘Where The Wind Blows’ by Samantha Desjardins, a final carefree fling with quaint and charming, in which the narrator’s grandmother and her sewing circle finally finish the hot air balloon that will transport the diminutive grandma on a long-awaited journey of discovery.

In fact, by the end, I wondered why I shy away so often from short stories. At their best they are a remarkably satisfying genre. But then, the fashion for so long has been the short story as a slice of life, a glimpse into a startling situation, that can be powerful in its style, but also leave you wondering where the rest of the novel has gone. I’m going to come right out and say it – I much prefer short stories that are obviously complete within themselves. Where something happens, and a proper ending is reached, not some sort of trailing off or hanging loose. I want a short story to be, above all else, a story, just a compact one. But that’s just me, and given the range of short stories in this collection, there must be all sorts of different tastes. What makes a short story good for you?

Holiday!

Mr Litlove decided, quite at the last minute, to take a week’s holiday this week. We have an assortment of plans and half-plans and I’m not sure of our final program, but I will be absent from the blog for the week. Whatever else we do, I’ll be working my way through the last batch of reviews for our second edition of Shiny New Books. There’s going to be a new colour scheme, a brand new competition and masses of reviews of new books.

Before I go there’s a question I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on. I read a review a little while back that became very angry with a certain novel because of the way a secondary character was portrayed. This was a gay man (and the book was set back in the early 70s when homosexuality was not considered to be publicly acceptable) who behaved quite badly towards his wife; their relationship was complex in many ways, but he could at times be quite mean and unkind towards her and there was a sadistic element to their sexual relationship. There was also deep attachment between the two of them, even if that was not always healthy. Well, the reviewer said that such a portrait of homosexuality was not acceptable, that it ruined the book for her and that no one wanted to read such a thing in the 21st century.

So my question is two-fold. The first part a) is whether as a reader you find you can be completely put off a book by a relatively small part of it? The second b) is whether you feel writers should not portray once marginalised identities in a negative way? I’m most curious to know what people’s instinctive reaction is to these issues….

 

ETA: It occurred to me that it wasn’t fair not to mention where I stood on the questions. Although it doesn’t happen very often, I can be completely put off by a small thing. I remember reading a novel last year where the excessive repetition of the speech tag ‘whispered’ really irritated me, to the point where I could barely concentrate on the story. Then Mr Litlove read the same book and said he hadn’t noticed it at all. As to the other question, I don’t think special pleading is a very good idea; to my mind, equality is about treating everyone similarly, which is to say understanding that first and foremost we are all human and all human beings do good and bad things, and often behave badly when their vanity or safety is in some way threatened. Plus, in novels, I think paragons of virtue are boring and implausible. But this is not a fixed view and I’m more than open to hearing other sides of this particular argument. I’m very curious about it.

 

Blindness and Insight

raymond carver_cathedral_coverWhen I worked in Waterstone’s back in 1993, Raymond Carver was the man. I hadn’t even heard of him, but it wasn’t long before I realised he represented some pinnacle of writing to the people I worked with. A collected edition of his stories had recently been published and I bought a copy of it, though it was in fact many years before I actually started reading him. Short stories aren’t something I read very often. I did appreciate him, and all those blue-collar depressives he wrote about, self-consciously ordinary people on the run from their better natures. But I didn’t love him, not in the way I felt I ought to. One story, though, stuck out in my mind, awkward and yet fascinating. This was ‘Cathedral’, the story in which a man overcomes prejudice and experiences a moment of pure revelation.

Our unnamed narrator is waiting at home, anticipating a most unwelcome visitor. Long ago, before she married him, his wife became good friends with a blind man named Robert, who saw her through some difficult times with compassion and support. For a long time they have been corresponding by means of recorded tapes and this friendship and its unusual communication is clearly very important to her; ‘Next to writing a poem every year,’ our narrator tells us, ‘I think it was her chief means of recreation.’ But now Robert’s wife has died, and he is coming to pay a visit. ‘I don’t have any blind friends,’ the narrator whines to his wife. ‘You don’t have any friends,’ she retorts. She tells him a tender story about Robert’s marriage but the idea of being married to a blind man sparks a train of perjorative speculation in our narrator, who is made deeply uncomfortable by the thought of having to be in proximity to someone so mysteriously disabled.

Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one,’ he ponders. ‘Someone who could wear makeup or not – what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter.’

We can see he’s a guy who idealises a certain kind of normality, a man trying too hard for simplicity and ending up with emptiness, ringed by danger. He wants things to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but when that easy, dependable sight is out of the equation, what creeps in instead is chaos, the breakdown of civilisation represented in that mad Picasso-woman he imagines. While he tries to exert his own superiority in his prejudice against the blind, we only hear wilful ignorance and ugly anxiety, provoked by a stranger who threatens not to be exactly like him.

When Robert arrives, he is easy-going, friendly, happy to fit in with the couple and to appreciate any little thing that’s done for him. Together they share drinks and a meal and then a joint. For most of the evening Robert and the narrator’s wife talk, and when the talk slows, the narrator turns on the television in a gesture that’s pretty much an insult. But Robert is as unruffled as ever, content to learn through listening, as he puts it. When a program comes on about cathedrals, our narrator feels obliged to add a little commentary. Robert admits that he knows very little about cathedrals, and says he’d be grateful to have one described. Our narrator is once again bumping into his limits, lacking the words, let alone the intelligence, to make a decent attempt at it. So Robert asks for pen and paper and he asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him, covering the narrator’s hand with his own and following the lines. After a while, completely engaged in the task, Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes and together they keep drawing. ‘It was like nothing else in my life up to now,’ the narrator confesses: ‘”It’s really something,” I said.’

So the point of the story is clever but obvious. The blind man is not the one who is physically blind. It’s our narrator who has to open his eyes metaphorically to all sorts of things he has been strenously keeping out – wonder, amazement, new experience, sensitivity, insight. That last one says it all: ‘insight’, the ability to see beyond the façade or to look inwards to the experience of a different but potent world. Though Robert may be blind, it’s clear he is open, aware, flexible, loving, engaged with everything around him. He manages to bring his would-be enemy to a point of unexpected revelation, and it’s important that whatever that revelation is, the narrator can’t describe it in ways the reader can see. This is how we know his internal paradigm has shifted.

I wonder whether we can’t take the analysis a little further, though. A literary critic called Paul de Man wrote a book of essays entitled Blindness and Insight. His argument was that blindness and insight are not an either/or, but an ‘and’. We cannot have one without the other. This argument came out of looking closely at various critical readings of books that seemed to select only certain points of a story to base an interpretation upon while ignoring others. This was considered a flaw, but Paul de Man suggested it was a necessity; to try to deal with the entirety of a story at once is too overwhelming and complex. His point was that you can only get an insight with the help of a little selective blindness. So to return to our story, perhaps it’s no coincidence that blind Robert seems to have uncanny powers of understanding and empathy. Nor that the narrator, who privileges sight in an excessive way, seems to know nothing and understand nothing and this quite willingly. He has to be made to slow down and focus in tight, to deprive himself of his cherished sight, in order to gain that special quality of insight.

Maybe this is a reason why so many writers – and Raymond Carver was exemplary here – hit the bottle as part and parcel of a writing life. Maybe they need to anaethetize some part of themselves, tune out the white noise of the world or the multiple voices inside their heads, in order to select the elements that make a story. Only alcohol, being such a blunt instrument, tunes out more than they bargained for.