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I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught?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 Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

frank cottrell boyce Going to lectures by childrens’ authors is not something I normally do, but I have a good friend with an eagle eye for these events, who is writing children’s fiction herself, and then the speaker was Frank Cottrell Boyce (henceforth FCB) whose books Millions and Framed were favourites of my son. The lecture is an annual event held in memory of Phillipa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the book buying/signing shindig afterwards, I felt pretty sure I had never read that book and so – naturally in the interests of supporting the event – bought a copy. Though Mr Litlove wasn’t impressed: ‘It’s got ‘worthy’ written all over it,’ he said.

The lecture was, by contrast, all about the intense pleasure of reading and FCB made some rather good points. As well as being a prolific screenwriter and children’s book author, he is also involved in an organisation (and dammit I missed the name and can’t track it down in my internet searches) that promotes reading aloud to people in dire situations – children with extreme special needs, prisons, drug rehab centres, that sort of thing. FCB believes that being read to is a magical situation, that listening to a story, you are both highly alert and yet entirely without anxiety. If you know nothing is being asked of you other than your attention, you fall into a state of keen and agile acceptance that can have powerful consequences. Several of the anecdotes he told us concerned reports back from readers who witnessed attention deficit kids sitting still for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes when engrossed in a story, and of prisoners experiencing an entirely different way of thinking.

tom's midnight gardenHe was also talking about another power of storytelling – that of unpredictability. He read us several excerpts from novels by Phillipa Pearce using them to demonstrate how intriguing unpredictability could be, how audacious on the part of the author, to whisk the reader off in a direction s/he never saw coming. This idea of unpredictability fed into another line he braided into the talk – that of memory. He recalled in particular the moment on Christmas day many years ago when his grandmother woke up in the middle of the Morecombe and Wise special and started telling him about his grandfather, a man who had died before FCB was born. This was, he said, quite unprecedented. His grandmother didn’t like television, she didn’t like radio and she didn’t like conversation. He had spent far too much time with her as a child in a room full of clocks whose every tick marked the plucking of a hair of time, in what he termed a depilation of death.

His grandfather had been born with a caul over his head, which was supposed to indicate good luck, and indeed, he’d been an extraordinarily lucky man. He’d spent his life as a merchant seaman and had survived the battle of Jutland and the Second World War. The one night he’d got drunk and missed his boat, it had hit an offshore mine and gone down with all 700 hands lost. And then, it seemed that his luck ran out on the day that he died. He’d been a stoker, feeding the furnaces, and in the late 50s, when his boat was in Cardigan Bay, it happened to hit a mine leftover from the war. The mine exploded against the boiler room and his grandfather was the only man to lose his life. He shouldn’t even have been there but he was covering the shift for a friend.

millionsWhat on earth provoked this memory from his grandmother, he wondered? It was a story of unpredictability that seemed itself to have sprung from nowhere. We were all entranced as he told it, feeling for ourselves that suspension of the world that happens when we listen closely. And this was what his talk was like – a series of dramatic scenes that were vivid and fascinating but there seemed to be no coherent argument, just a hopscotch between the ideas of listening to a story, memory and unpredictability.

But then he drew them all together in an intriguing image. He told us about the formation of coal, how algae soaked up billions of summers on an empty planet, sinking down into the earth until the heat of the sunshine was compressed and compacted into rock solid matter. And then a hole was opened up and the coal extracted, where it burnt with the energy retained from those billions of unseen sunny days. And he said that stories worked this way in the mind. That they took their energy and brilliance down into the mind and lay there for a long time, decades, perhaps, until suddenly, a shaft opened up and that story came back, its splintered images emerging unpredictably but just when you needed them.

FCB said he worried that the way stories are taught in schools, particularly with young children, destroyed their power. He said he often went to read in schools and he’d be introduced by the teacher and the kids would be really happy at the prospect of listening to a story. ‘And we’re going to listen out for when Mr FCB uses his ‘wow’ words,’ the teacher would go on to say, ‘and afterwards you’re going to write them down and make some sentences from them…’ At which point, FCB argued, the power of the storytelling was lost. If you turn listening to a story into a transaction, you rob it of its value. All the energy of the story is dissipated. Not least because the pleasure was spoiled, and pleasure he argued, is a profound form of attention, one with alchemical properties.

I thought that was extremely interesting. The talk also reminded me how much I missed reading to a child. I loved bedtime reading. It felt like a rare time in the day when my son and I were both doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. During questions, FCB was asked about his favourite books as a child and he said he couldn’t distinguish now between the ones he liked and the ones he’d enjoyed reading to his own kids. But he did single out the Moomins, particularly Moominland Midwinter, when Moomintroll wakes up while all his family are hibernating. It was, he said, like someone had asked Kierkegaard round on a play date. A line I have savoured ever since. If Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be too worthy, I might remind myself what the Moomins were all about instead.

moominland midwinter 2

Stay Up With Me

stay up with meI remember when short stories fell out of fashion. For a while there, from the mid-90s onwards, only the most established authors could risk a collection. But now, suddenly, they seem to be back, and I have just read two brilliant volumes in quick succession, with Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress still to come. I can remember that I agreed with the pervasive cultural judgement that a short story was less satisfying than a novel, and yet here I am, actively preferring the ones I’ve been reading to some of the full-length stories I’ve recently read. What’s going on?

Stay Up With Me, Tom Barbash’s debut collection was addictively compulsive. Just one more, I kept saying to myself, as shops closed, meals grew late and bedtime passed. Barbash has the gift of drawing the reader swiftly into his situations, where more often than not, some cherished certainty has just been rudely challenged. Divorced or widowed parents find new love, over-invested relationships fail, self-deception falls apart. It was always essential to know what happened next.

In the opening story, ‘The Break’, a mother is thrilled to have her college-age son home for the Christmas holidays, and then aghast when he begins a slightly clandestine relationship with a local waitress. She stalks him, insists the relationship end, loses it at one point and slaps the girlfriend and then, refusing to look her behaviour in the face, rustles up another girlfriend for him, a more appropriate one. There is so much packed into this with writerly slight of hand. How the mother can’t abide the thought of her son not wanting the things she wants for him, her unwitting projection of her own loneliness and neediness onto the waitress, her rather cunning manipulation of all concerned that runs dangerously close to showing her how badly she is acting out, and in the end, a hesitancy revealing both her hopes that her plans will come out as she wants and a fear that her son will see her behaviour for what it is. The perspective of the story inhabits the woman’s skin – we don’t know what she’ll do next, which creates the fascination, and yet we’re close enough to feel the contradictions in her behaviour, the way our best qualities and our most noble desires run so worryingly close to our worst choices and our most dangerous delusions.

In ‘January’, a teenaged boy is forced into a snowy expedition he does not want by his mother’s new and somewhat heavy-handed partner, a man determined to display his recklessness as a fun quality. The resultant disaster is just what the boy wants, and equally something he has to pay for in physical pain. In ‘Balloon Night’, Timkin decides to pretend his girlfriend hasn’t left him when their annual party takes place before the Macy’s parade. The resultant experience is one of joy that he can overcome disaster, and of constant fear that he may be found out. In one of my favourites, ‘Somebody’s Son’, a real estate con man who is something of a newbie and therefore not quite on board with his job, gets close to an elderly couple whose property he wants to buy for a song. He longs for them to get wind of the situation and keeps stealing small items from their house, displaying them openly in the hope they’ll wise up. But in the end, they shame him in unexpected ways with their impermeable goodness and kindness. The richness of the emotional experience is, in each of these cases and many more, extremely satisfying.

I loved the way that the stories reveal the strange onion-skinned nature of existence. The top layer of what Barbash’s characters think they’re doing, the image they cling to of themselves, is peeled away to show what they are actually doing, the emotions they are working so hard to conceal, and then a further layer remains – the unexpected outcome of their actions because the world always works in ways that are stubbornly mysterious to his characters, so intent are they on their fabled goals. One intriguing example of this is ‘Paris’ in which a journalist with a humanitarian taste for real suffering and disaster visits a poor town in upstate New York. The portrait he paints of it in his subsequent newspaper article as a town fraught with problems of poverty, alienation, addiction and anti-social behaviour is one he considers powerful and hard-hitting. When he’s called to a meeting in the town, he is amazed that the inhabitants are so upset by their representation. He meant it as a call to arms, a wake-up alarm to authorities and inhabitants alike – but was he right, or are the townspeople right to take offence?

I found most of these stories ended on an unresolved chord, a new situation on the point of opening up, for instance, or an unexpected twist that challenged all easy judgements. It was a clever kind of frustration. Though in some of the stories – the last one in particular, in which a young man who has recently lost his mother finds his father’s newfound womanizing hard to cope with – he shows how sometimes we need to go wrong, to suffer and ache and agonise – before we can go right. Ultimately, Barbash’s characters display the unexpected but oh so necessary elasticity of human emotions, the way we can hover near the brink and then snap back into a new version of ourselves. This was just another example of the emotional authenticity that kept me welded to this book until I’d finished it. One of those rare books that make me long to read it again.

 

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?