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I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught?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

 

The Fantasy Book Group

Eric over at Lonesome Reader started it, and then my friend and co-editor, Annabel, carried it on (and included George Clooney) and I found I just couldn’t resist putting together a fantasy book group myself. They were both looking for celebrities who weren’t authors but who had bookish interests. Well, my book group members probably aren’t celebrities by normal standards, but I did just about manage to avoid fiction writers (my first, immediate, mental list began Virginia Woolf, Ali Smith…). I also think it will be as much a séance as a book club…

 

alexandra pringleAlexandra Pringle – currently Editor-in-Chief at Bloomsbury, she began her career at Virago, went on to work for Hamish Hamilton and then became a literary agent for a while. Her list of authors include: Donna Tartt, Barbara Trapido, Michele Roberts, Richard Ford, Esther Freud, Jay McInerney, Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Georgina Harding, Ann Patchett, Kate Summerscale and Elizabeth Gilbert. I bet she’d have a few pithy things to say about any book put in front of her.

 

eunice frostEunice Frost – initially secretary to the founder of Penguin Books, Allen Lane, she was at his side when he introduced the much-reviled paperback book. She became an editor in the late 30s and eventually a director of the company (the penguin mascot is named ‘Frostie’ after her). A worrier and a sufferer from bronchial complaints, she was known for her formidable hats. It was largely down to her that Penguin began producing original work, not just reprints. She would have a fine eye for a book, I feel sure.

 

roland barthesRoland Barthes – French cultural critic who was hugely influential though he never held an orthodox academic post. He wrote a great deal about his theories of reading, and it would be irresistible to have him in the group, asking: ‘So hands up who experienced jouissance when reading this text, then?’

 

f r leavisF. R. Leavis – I hesitated over including him in my line-up because he was such an opinionated old grump. However, you need a bit of grit in any book group to get traction in a discussion and I would put good money on this formidable literary critic stirring up some fine book talk.

 

miss marpleMiss Marple – Well there has to be someone there to keep any egos under control, and I felt Miss Marple, with her razor eye and her sweet old lady façade would be just the ticket. The combination of her knitting and her unassuming but devastating one-line put-downs was not to be missed. She’d have a thing or two to say about current crime fiction, I’ll bet.

 

So that’s my line-up. Who would be in your fantasy book group?

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

And Now Something Completely Different

I am a lucky woman to have such good friends, real and virtual. One of the consequences of my last post was that I caught up with the man I like to call my academic son. He was my PhD student back in the day, and we had just the best time together. Anyway, he happened to mention that he’d recently read Attica Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season and loved it, having a taste for narratives with those Antebellum elements. Upon hearing which I said, ooh, I might just try to put you a list together of other novels you might enjoy, thinking amongst other things of Danielle’s fabulous Thursday Thirteen series.

Well, when I tried to come up with Antebellum stories, I did not do very well. Naturally I thought of:

gone with the wind1. Gone With The Wind, the classic by Margaret Mitchell.

And after some more thinking, I remembered – though have never read myself -

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I believe has a line of plot about a slave girl in the deep South? I know Butler best as a sci-fi writer, and quite how that fits in, goodness only knows.

midnight in the garden3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which is all voodoo and spirits and noirish murder elements, yes?

Finally, I remembered reading a few years ago

4. Palladio by Jonathan Dee, which was about a bunch of New York advertising executives on a mission to turn publicity into an art form. I’m pretty sure they end up basing themselves in an Antebellum mansion down south, which has interesting connotations. I remember it as a postmodern sort of novel with lots of metanarrative elements and I did enjoy it.

After that I drew a blank. I mean, I have heard of authors like Eudora Welty and Ellen Glasgow and Robert Penn Warren, aware they are deep South writers without knowing whether their novels contain that sort of plantation story.

So naturally, I turn to you wonderfully read people for further suggestions. Any good ideas I can pass on?