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I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught?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

 

Mr Litlove and the Animals

A little while back, Mr Litlove and I were in the study chatting, when a look came over his face that I recognised very well. In translation it reads: Oh. My. God. Do I tell her or not? If there should be any confusion in those who know me over the correct response to this question, the answer is: YES, TELL HER NOW. But knowing my husband as I do, I simply leapt off the sofa where I had been sitting and put some significant distance between myself and it. Just as well; scampering gaily over the back, mere inches from where I’d been moments before, was a spider the size and heft of a mouse.

Quite what happened next, I’m not sure, maybe I blacked out. But when I was fully functioning again, the spider was gone. Mr Litlove had wrestled it into submission and chucked it out the front door, without having indulged in his usual fun trick of dropping it once to give it a sporting chance. St Francis of Assissi could not have been more efficient.

This is something I admire tremendously about my husband: he is remarkably fearless about animals. We put this down to our upbringings in very different locations. Before we were married, Mr Litlove used to say that the distinction was perfectly exemplified by the headlines of the local newspapers in our respective counties. While his paper would say something like: ‘W. I. Triumph In Jam At Local Fête’, my local paper would read: ‘Body Of Gangland Killing Found Dumped Off A12’. Suffolk and Essex share a boundary, and we lived about five minutes either side of it, but even so, I felt very much the urbanite compared to his rural location. But what the newspapers didn’t say was that Suffolk had more than its share of carnage; the war was, however, between man and beast.

Mr Litlove grew up in a large house in the countryside where nature ran rampant. His family had always had cats whose job it was to keep the vermin population down. Occasionally they would get ambitious and take out a few rabbits as well. One of my fondest memories of my much-missed father-in-law is of sitting at the breakfast table with him by my feet, wielding the dustpan and brush and saying ‘Don’t look down! Don’t look down!’ as he removed the remains of whatever creature the cats had consumed as a midnight feast. (My favourite cat story from that time is of the whole family sitting down to tea at the kitchen table when the fridge door opened and one of the cats fell out.) To stay in the house was to feel very close to nature; always something rustling in the eaves or scuffling around the skirting boards and there was often the patter of eighteen toes behind you. In the brief period when my mother-in-law had no cats the house was inundated with mice. She bought a humane mousetrap only to find in the morning that its captives had eaten their way through it to freedom.

So anyway, Mr Litlove grew up removing half-eaten carcasses, and chasing out the lucky ones that got away.

We don’t have much of a mouse problem where we live now, but we do look out onto the village pond, a reasonably large affair with its own share of wildlife issues. We have a large population of ducks, who sometimes take it into their heads that all they want to do is cross the road (obviously some evolutionary rivalry with chickens). A couple of weeks ago I was working at my desk and noticed a woman had stopped her car, holding up the traffic, in order to get out and herd a few wayward ducks back onto the bank. The next time I looked up, I saw one had been too foolhardy; its crumpled body lay in the middle of the road.

Mr Litlove walked in at that point and said: ‘Oh we can’t just leave it there like that.’ And he went and found a plastic bag and took it away for a more decent disposal. I couldn’t have done it myself, but I was so glad that he did. Perhaps, by comparison, it was less upsetting than the discovery back in summer of not one, but two dead rats (or what remained of them) in our shrubbery. At the time, we looked at our cat, who returned the gaze levelly with his usual withering scorn. ‘Nah,’ we both said, ‘not likely.’ We’d seen our cats with mice before – they were fascinated but clueless. (Harvey was too lazy and Hilly was even spooked by butterflies.) Still the unenviable task fell to Mr Litlove again to do the necessary with the corpses.

His finest hour, however, was undoubtedly with a whole, live bird. Every day a casting line for a Hitchcock movie sits on the apex of our roof, throwing a very entertaining shadow onto the road below. Once in a while – drunk on autumn berries, or after a bit of argy-bargy up there – it so happens that a bird falls down a chimney. In the past they have been small enough to fly out into the room and, eventually, out of an open window. But one autumn, on a day when my son was at home recovering from an illness, we heard the heart-wrenching sounds of a bird fluttering in panic behind the brick walls. At first it was a distant scrabbling, scratching sound, but as the bird made its wretched way down the chimney, the noise grew louder and louder. It was awful, and I wondered how we’d put up with it until it finally died. But when Mr Litlove came home from work, he listened for a moment and then went and found a tea towel which he wrapped around his hands before fearlessly shoving up them up the chimney. When they emerged, they (and the teatowel) were wrapped around an enormous pigeon that struggled a bit with the indignity of the situation, but allowed itself to be taken out the back door and set free. ‘I thought it had to be sitting on the ledge up there, wondering what had happened,’ Mr Litlove said, a little out of breath from the exertion.

My son watched with wide eyes. ‘And that,’ I told him, from my safe distance away, ‘is one of the reasons why I married your father.’

Death of an Avid Reader

9780349400570As we near the publication date of our next full edition of Shiny New Books, you might reasonably fear that the title of this post referred to me. But no! It is in fact the most recent addition to the series of crime novels by Frances Brody featuring her 1920s lady detective, Kate Shackleton. I confess I just love this sort of reproduction vintage crime. I’m a fan of the traditional cozy whodunnit, and ready to cheer when – for example – Kate’s stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, brings in the tea and hot buttered muffins as Kate sheds her coat and muffler after a long day of tough sleuthing out in foggy Leeds. Bring on the comforting period detail! This novel provided me with a weekend’s perfect relaxation.

So it’s autumn 1925 and Kate has received a letter regarding a new private investigation. The venerable Lady Coulton charges her with finding the daughter she gave up for adoption many years ago. With only an old photo and a last-known address to guide her, Kate sets to work with her trusty ex-policeman assistant, Jim Sykes. But it isn’t very long before her attention is distracted, first by the discovery of a Capuchin monkey in the back of her car, property of the local organ-grinder who seems to have gone missing (Mrs Sugden is disapproving but scarcely ruffled, you’ll be glad to know, by a monkey as a house guest), and then by a distinctly odd story of ghosts in her local library. As a member of the board, she agrees to witness an exorcism in order to settle the fragile nerves of the ladies who work there. But instead the evening ends with the discovery of a real body, that of Dr Horatio Potter, a learned local man who is deeply involved with the library’s business. And lying not far from him, in a state of collapse, is the organ-grinder.

Kate finds herself dragged into this case in order to prevent the crime from being thoughtlessly attributed to a poor old sick man. But when it seems that the missing daughter she seeks might well have been a former employee at the library, and that the library is riven with quarrels over a proposed move into new buildings, her cases merge and become more complicated.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and the plotting is masterful. There are plenty of revelations and twists and turns, a colourful cast of characters and the atmosphere of 1920s Leeds is beautifully recreated. I thought this was consistently well-written and Kate Shackleton is a fine creation. Left widowed by the war but far from helpless, she puts her VAD nursing skills to good use along with her able intelligence. She never oversteps the boundaries of what a lady of her class could do in that era, but you do feel that she actually works her puzzles out, rather than relying on some stroke of luck or anachronistic act of derring-do. She’s often been compared to Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs, and there is a circumstancial resemblance to her, but there’s more detecting going on in these books, less historical detail. I don’t mind that as I can sometimes get a bit bogged down with Maisie. And on an entirely superficial note, the covers are fab. If you like your cosy crime intelligent but restful, then I’d warmly recommend her.

As for this avid reader, I am aware of being horribly behind yet again in my blog reading. I’ve kept all your posts on my feed reader and hope to start getting to them very soon. Many apologies – hopefully the new edition of SNB will more than make up for my absence!