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I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught?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



41 thoughts on “On Teaching Literature

  1. I must admit that the way literature was taught at school has so far put me off classics for life. To the best of my knowledge, I have not picked up a book written before 1900 since the day I left school. I’m sure this is my loss and I should probably try to remedy this.

    • I feel very like you, but then I also understand that in my heart I am a modernist. I’ll go back as far as 1830 but no further, and really I’m most comfortable with the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s just where my interests lie. I do tend to find an awful lot of 19th century lit overly verbose (which is doubtless a short-sighted judgement!).

  2. A very fine post! The idea of not teaching literature is a shocking one, not least because – even if poorly taught – it may well introduce students to the habit of reading. Literature can offer us a glimpse into the lives of others, both past and present, whose lives are very different to our own helping us to develop empathy.

  3. A deeply thoughtful post and thank you for it. I’ve been a school teacher (all ages over the years) and I’ve run workshops in creative writing for adults. I’ve experienced terrible advice and instruction from the so-called education authorities, I could even call some of this advice hideous, soul destroying, fury generating. However retirement allows me the pleasure of this and a few other literary blogs. Bless you.
    To anyone still wanting to read deeply can I wholeheartedly recommend the North London and Paris based Literary Salon. One of the best experiences around….

    • Is that a real salon, Carol, or a virtual one? Sounds most intriguing. My heart goes out to teachers, who have endless restraints placed upon them and what they can do. I can well imagine you were on the end of some infuriating ‘initiatives’. At Cambridge we could teach how we wanted, but the admin was becoming more and more crippling. You’d think someone would realise how idiotic this all is!

  4. In the mid 1970s, the school I went to had what must be considered a progressive attitude towards teaching Eng Lit. We didn’t sit the O-level – they had seen the joy of reading spoiled for so many girls by the confines of analysing a narrow range of books in repetitive detail, they decided not to bother. We still did Eng Lit, but got more enjoyment out of it – at least I did, but I always was a reader anyway. How this set those who took it up for A-Level though I don’t know as I did sciences… (Great essay by the way).

    • What an interesting experience you had! It would have been great to be able to read more widely in school without all the time-consuming and ultimately pointless analysis. I actually think literary criticism is best when it’s motivated by common sense, and that emotional maturity is the most useful quality for fostering it – I often taught students who hadn’t done any lit at A level, and we started from scratch with them. They usually picked it up in no time – though of course refining what they did took a lot of time and practice, by the nature of the beast.

  5. What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I can remember being really put off some books at school once we’d studied them to bits – Cider with Rosie being a case in point. I loved it first time round then when we’d dissected it, I could bear to read it again. Luckily some of the books we read survived the test (Orwell being a case in point) – but literature does need some sensitivity in the teaching. If you can get the pupils really involved in the story, captivated by the books without the force feeding then half the battle is won…

    • Oh I do agree. Anything dies a slow painful death by a thousand cuts…. well, maybe apart from Orwell. There are a handful of authors who are better for close study (I’d include Proust and the postmoderns) but for everyone else, I found that some verve and attack worked better. Enthusiasm and passion make for very interesting discussions. I’ve never read Cider with Rosie – I ought to!

      • I rather wonder what I’d think of it if I read it now – perhaps there’s been enough distance for me to enjoy it once more! And you’re right about Orwell – he’s so good he could survive anything!

  6. Wow–I can’t believe your government is going to do that (or whoever decided on those ‘reforms’). It seems awfully short sighted to me. For some students who love reading they will continue on, but for those reluctant readers who do not have parents or other family members encouraging them to read, I think they will be lost to literature! As for what a good teacher would do for a reader–your post is wonderful and I need to always remember about really good lit being something to shake me up (and that is what is happening a bit in the lit class I am taking now…). This is a post to print out and hang up on my bulletin board as a reminder!

    • Aw bless you! You’re a natural critic, Danielle, because of the huge empathy you have with the stories you read. You set yourself to one side in favour of the book you’re reading more than just about anyone I know. I think the reforms are ridiculous and heartbreaking. We miss out on so many skills if we don’t get children thinking about literature. And a good teacher can find all sorts of ways for young adults to interact in informative and engaging reading activities. But then the government does tend to go about knocking subjects perceived as ‘difficult’ off the curriculum so schools can keep their grade averages. Makes me hopping mad!

  7. ” … with the right teacher, any book is accessible. ” What an inspiring statement and argument for the English schools to keep literature in the curriculum. And I can feel your sense of loss, it’s the English who’s eliminating English literature? Well, I’m glad here in Alberta, Canada, high school students are still reading Shakespeare… among contemporary fiction. Coincidentally, I’ve been pondering recently about this issue of how to distinguish between literature and pulp fiction… all from writing the movie review of Gone Girl. Have some thoughts up on my current post. 😉

    • Ooh I must come and read that post – did I miss it? Even with my feed reader that’s too easily done. I think a lot of schools will keep Shakespeare in the curriculum, but they’ll have to study him early – children of 11-14 or so, before the stuff they study for exams kicks in. It stands to be a bit of a mess, anyway. It’s because literature is perceived to be elitist and a ‘difficult’ subject – utter nonsense if you ask me.

  8. What you say about Shakespeare and Dickens is interesting. I have to admit that I am grateful that I did not have to study Dickens at school. My love of Dickens remains undiminished. However, there were several books that I studied at school which I enjoyed then and have re-read since, such as Animal Farm and Huckleberry Finn. But for the books that I disliked at school such as Sons and Lovers and Day of the Triffids, having to slog through to the end only increased my dislike.

    Shakespeare has the extra problem of the antiquated language. I have known more than one person from a non-English speaking background here in Australia who has said that Shakespeare was a special struggle, since they were still trying to get a grasp on everyday ENglish.

    • Shakespeare is a funny one. I found the language rebarbative when I was a teenager. But my son, who was never keen on English lessons generally (and loathed foreign languages) really enjoyed studying him. I sometimes wonder if there is a Shakespeare ‘gene’ that only some inherit. But then, I disliked reading old French, too. Day of the Triffids was quite a forward-thinking choice for your school, but it’s certainly true that the old-fashioned way of teaching books rarely made you love them.

  9. Love, it’s because education is owned by business; and the only required reading for an MBA is the Nasdaq ticker. If we want education back, academics are going to have to be as bloodthirsty about Shakespeare as bankers are about debt acquisition. Vive la rhyme scheme!

    • Lol, vive la rhyme scheme indeed! You are quite right – education is a business, and so we trim the parts off that risk low grades. It’s ridiculous and makes a mockery of the learning process if we only let kids study things they can learn easily anyway. Grrr. Very irritating.

  10. I had an enlightened English teacher when I was studying Higher English at my school in Edinburgh. There were a number of set books (Steinbeck comes to mind) that I didn’t “like” so I sat at the back of the class and read my way through Colette, Nin, Grass, Turgenev, Bellow (and others). I made no attempt to pretend I was taking part in the dissection of a novel I really couldn’t get on with (my naivety I am sure) and he, seeing that I wasn’t fooling around, just let me get on with it. I managed to retain a love of the plays of Shakespeare and (from memory) I don’t think we read Dickens. I always took part in the study of the poems we were set however.

    • Ha, this makes me think of my interview with the college I taught at. The interview board knew I’d done half my thesis on Colette and at that time, no one really studied her. I was asked how I’d handle the typical clever-boy student who didn’t want to read Colette because of his prejudice that she’d be a tedious, apolitical, unchallenging ‘women’s’ writer. I replied that if he was that clever he could jolly well write me a decent essay on her. I appreciate your teacher’s understanding of you, but we might as well be clear that if you’d been in my class, I’d have been a little stricter! 😉

  11. Very interesting and thoughtful. I taught literature for many years so this struck lots of chords with me. I had no idea the govt. was going to make literature an option. Truly shocking.

  12. “why is it not so that all interpretations are equally valid” is the hardest question I struggled to get my students to answer when teaching literature. I think I finally had success only when I started to point out how many more times I’d read most of the books I assigned. We had a book the college asked new students to read each year, and I’d have them teach that one to me a bit more, since the playing field was level–we’d both only read it once.

    • That’s very interesting. My reply would be that only interpretations solidly backed up by the text are valid. Too many of those other, floating interpretations are based on speculation. My rule was that the words on the page constituted everything we knew, everything there was to the story, and what we made of it had to be drawn out of actual solid verbal evidence. It’s a good idea, though, to choose a book new to you all to teach back and forth – I can imagine that going down really well.

  13. Good Lord, I hated “reading around the classroom” when I was in elementary school. I invariably read some other book under my desk until it was my turn. There were only three other people in my class who could read properly, and one of them refused to do it (she was cranky), and one of them had a speech defect that made it impossible for you to understand what he was saying. Ghastly. It made it IMPOSSIBLE to enjoy whatever book we were reading.

    • I do agree – it was torture, wasn’t it! I’d usually read several pages ahead in the book and then had to struggle to find the place when it was finally my turn.

  14. I have read your post with recognition and admiration.

    I studied English literature at University and also Early English – this was back in the 1960s. I was totally out of my depth as an 18 year old trying to understand the Metaphysical poets let alone grapple with a foreign language which Early English was – I still remember the small group reading aloud from King Alfred’s bible…

    You have articulated so well the problems and joys associated with studying literature, but above all you have explained why it is important to do so.


    • Aw thank you, Sue. I struggled too with the early languages – I really hated having to read and sometimes even teach authors like Rabelais and Montaigne. Our first years were taught an author from each century, 20th century backwards. There was a medieval component and I drew the line there, always asking a graduate student who specialised in medieval studies to take that class for me. I could never get to grips with the really early stuff. 20th century for me all the way!

  15. An excellent analysis, Litlove, if a depressing one. I was at secondary school in the 1980s, and was probably of the last generation that was taught to understand that the world outside one’s own concerns is something worth learning about. When I speak to younger people, even those who love literature, they often seem to be looking for something that validates their own preconceptions, rather than challenging or expanding them.

    I was fortunate in having some wonderful English (and French and German) teachers, who brought literature alive for me. I suppose in those days, teachers had more freedom and could actually inject some passion into their jobs rather than being slaves to government directives and “success criteria”. It was a golden age of education between the staid rote-learning of old, and the “every interpretation is valid” ethos we have now.

    It’s no exaggeration to say that literature formed my whole view of the world. I’ve never worked in academia, and my knowledge of literature has only been of tangential use in my career. But above all, literature taught me to THINK: to question things, to apply my imagination, to understand other people, to structure my thoughts.

    I remember reading “Julius Caesar” as a 14-year-old, and being astonished that something so old could be so moving and gripping. Didn’t care much for “Romeo and Juliet” because the characters were so two-dimensional – but loved “Othello”. Was also haunted by Andre Gide’s “Strait is the Gate”… But there were many others. I remember that feeling of seeing the world illuminated, which was utterly thrilling. Do young people still experience that?

    • So fascinating to read your comments, thank you for leaving them. I lived for the ‘aha!’ moment when I was a teacher. Nothing gave me more pleasure than seeing a student suddenly get something they’d been struggling with, that moment when their perception broadened. It’s the part of teaching I really miss – and maybe readers have those moments occasionally when they read my posts, but I likely won’t know about it. I, too, hate the ‘let’s validate my experience of the book’ form of literary critique because it’s so self-enclosed, when all literature seeks to take us out of ourselves and into a different place. It seems to me to be against the very heart of the endeavour. But I never despair that we will lose the empathy-with-otherness because criticism has gone through all sorts of fads and fashions and it has never really gone away. There have always been some people remaining true to the books first and foremost, and it’s by far the most satisfying type of critique to read. I do believe that people fundamentally need to reach outside of themselves for something beyond their own experience – they don’t always realise that, perhaps, not in the current climate that validates narcissism so, but that feeling that you describe is essential and eternal. By its very nature it cannot lose its power.

  16. Wow, I hadn’t heard about these reforms, and am pretty shocked. The idea of going through school and not learning anything about literature is just stunning to me. It seems that the government views education purely as training for the workforce. The things you talked about in this wonderful essay are exactly what education should be about, but I honestly don’t think the people in charge of the education system want children to learn how to think deeply and contemplate and analyse. They want children to study “useful” subjects like science and maths, so that the workforce will be skilled and the country will be competitive. Helping people to live deeper, richer lives doesn’t seem to be on the agenda any more.

    • It does so often seem that way, doesn’t it? Just as depressing, the government only funds research it considers ‘useful’ now – outraging scientists and humanities alike. I like to think that there will be an underground movement, though, validating literature in all its forms. You can take the books out of schools, but you’ll never take them out of a culture. We simply need them too much.

  17. Marina Warner has been “encouraged” to resign from her University of Essex teaching lectureship, her work seemingly superfluous with no value to it. She is a world valued/famous, unique and distinguished scholar. We are being governed/managed by philistines. (She’s written about this in the London Review of Books)

  18. Reading around the class was tedious but not as bad as the books that were chosen for us. Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet Major taught to us by an ex-public school girl, was just not relevant to a group of fourteen year olds growing up in London with the rave culture all around us. Chopping up text is fine for people like me with scientific tendencies. That was what first got me to realise that I could be good with the written word too, the frame that close analysis provided. Literature is so different anyway when we are in different parts of our lives. When I was younger I craved and almost fetishised language. To me, it couldn’t be a good book unless the person had proved their cleverness with words. Now I think ideas are more important. Extrapolate this backwards and what is literature to teenagers and how should this be taught? Sorry, I can’t provide any answers, just more questions! Strangely, in our school, since they *have* to do (but not pass) the GCSE literature exam in the new regime to make the highest of lang and lit count double, all of our Year 10s are now studying literature. Although I suspect there is the temptation to be cynical and for schools to merely enter their non-lit people for the exam without having prepared them for it, just to get round the rule.

    • My feeling is that, precisely because teenagers need and appreciate different things, a variety of approaches is necessary. All classes, weirdly enough, have a sort of culture that arises organically. Some of my seminars were very lively, very argumentative, others quietly analytical, and all I could do was go with the group. I think experienced teachers are very able to gauge the approach they should take, or tailor their usual methods. The 19th century does now seem a very long way away from us, though, and you have to wonder how much it touches some students – though again others will love it, hence once more the need for variety. It’s a perfect opportunity to explore the basic differences between people with respect and curiosity (something that heaven knows we should all practice). Very interesting, too, to hear how your daughters’ school is responding to the new exams. Yes, I’ll bet they just quietly shunt the ones who aren’t doing so well off to one side. But frankly if it means they get to do some literature, I’d rather that than nothing at all.

      • Yes, perhaps this is a good thing that will come out of the reforms, that it will have the effect of giving literature to everyone, rather than the half of the year deemed “able” enough.

        You sound like you were a fab teacher. I am researching Uni courses for my daughter and there is a lot of umming and erring about Cambridge teaching. It’s regarded as the best in surveys, I think, but the students interviewed for the Independent article in 2011 weren’t so sure. There seems to be an agreement that other Unis are much more modern and flexible in their approaches, really focussing on drawing out students’ abilities and getting the maximum info in, while the impression of Cambridge (like Oxford when I was there I suspect) seemed to be that they had a bunch of clever students already so they didn’t have to make all that much effort.

        I am not sure whether the recent marketisation of University education has done anything to improve the status of teaching vs research.

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