Making Choices

On Friday I completed what I think will be my last survey for an online market research forum into contemporary books. When I first received the email inviting me to join, I liked the idea of filling in surveys about the books I bought and read. The reality has been surprising, however.

The vast majority of questionnaires have been about supermarket books, the most mass market romance and thrillers to which I don’t pay much attention. The most persistent questions concern the covers and the blurb, as well as the endorsements that feature there. I’m not sure whether I have ever convinced the shadowy forces behind these surveys that I really do not buy books for their covers. And certainly not supermarket books whose covers are far from innovative. Time and again the questions back me into a corner. Of three dull and ordinary covers, which one do I like the best? Reluctantly, I click. And what do I like most about this cover? (Please be as detailed as possible.) I struggle to find a polite way to say: absolutely nothing, but I prefer it to the other two, which I sincerely hate. The survey presses on. Which one of these blurbs makes me most interested in reading the book? Where is the option to say I am not interested in reading this book at all, regardless of blurb or endorsement or cover? In the eighteen months or so that I’ve been responding to these questions, there have only been two surveys about literary books, one of which was about repackaging modern classics for book clubs. The rest of the time I’ve been doing what I thought was impossible – responding to questions about books in which I actually have no interest. It’s not even that I wouldn’t buy a supermarket book from time to time; it’s just that scrutiny of them reveals a sort of painful banality.

Yesterday, in the spirit of Bank Holiday spring cleaning, I decided I would finally tackle the great heap of academic books that came back from my university rooms and which have been lying for almost three years now under a throw. The hope was that they might have the vague appearance of a table, but they have never really looked like anything other than the corpse of my intellectual life. I’ve done a lot of book culling this year, and before storing what I wanted to keep in plastic containers in the loft, I knew I ought to make a serious attempt to reduce their number. When I first took the throw off it was like unveiling a time capsule, packed full of books I had completely forgotten about. I sat back on my heels, thinking how smart I would have been, had I managed to read all of them. The question now was how many to keep, which translated as: how smart did I think I would be in the future? There was an honest answer to that and an idealistic one. Which to choose?

It occurred to me that these two experiences concerned the books at the furthest ends of my reading spectrum. I’ve always really liked reading everything. I’ve never wanted to define myself by being the ‘type of person’ to read only one genre or another, high literature or low. I never wanted the possibility of a book foreclosed to me before I even knew what it was about. When I was a teenager in the 80s, I loved reading Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz, Susan Howatch and the sort of family saga that reached a zenith with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the start of the 90s. After that, there was a great phase of witty, sharply observed women’s writing, by authors like Kathy Lette, Anna Maxted, Victoria Clayton and Caro Fraser. All the time I was reading these books, I was studying Beauvoir and Proust, Camus and Sartre, Colette and Duras, Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Goethe, Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida. Why not? As the new millenium approached, I spent an hour a night reading children’s literature to my son and loving that, too. The more the merrier. I loved the feeling of imaginative expansion, all these ways of seeing, all these approaches to storytelling.

But in the past few years something has definitely changed. I suppose it is probably me. I decided with great reluctance to give away the pristine, untouched books I owned by Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers I barely understood when I was at the height of my intellectual curiosity. And I have to say that I don’t like a lot of the mass market fiction that’s currently being written. The Girl on the Train was its epitome (or nadir?) for me – a narcissistic narrator, a silly, overly sensational plot and badly written. It’s that flat, first person present tense narration that I truly hate, all cliché and ultra-conventional emotions laid out as if they were insightful. I find myself much more drawn towards Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym for my essential comfort reading, as all three can turn an exquisite and characterful sentence.

In one way it’s sensible to focus in on the authors that I appreciate the most. However much I want to read everything, I don’t have the time for it. And I seem less able to tolerate the styles of writing that displease me; I’m more critical than I used to be, and I’m not at all convinced it’s a good thing. I’ve never thought that the greatest powers of discernment when it came to books had anything to do with value judgement. Instead, I valued elasticity, the ability to look at any book on its own terms, and engage with what it was doing and how it was doing it. But my tastes are narrowing. However much I don’t want to make choices in my reading life, I seem to be making them anyway.

Maybe for that reason, I found I couldn’t give away many of my academic books. Instead I sorted them into different areas of criticism and theory, packed them into storage containers and let Mr Litlove struggle under their vast weight to the loft. In all honesty, I’m not getting any smarter. But I decided I’d keep the hope that one day, it might happen.





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.