Sunday, June 1, 2014

"An Important-looking Door" - GCSE English Literature.

Richard Jutras as Owl Eyes in "The Great Gatsby" (A & E and Granada 2000)

“An Important-looking Door.” - GCSE English Literature.

“On a chance we tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.
A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded.
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.”

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chapter 3, “The Great Gatsby”

I thought of Jay Gatsby’s library in this week’s ‘unsteady concentration’ of news and views about GCSE English Literature, of that library and what it all seemed to mean. At least to me.

Library Open.

The current controversy is about books studied for external examination. In three decades of teaching to GCSE and A level I have never objected to a set text on literary grounds. I don’t now. Heads of English especially will appreciate the numerous exigencies that determine who teaches what; I won’t rehearse them here, except to recall personal favourites play little part in the process. I’d teach any text set or ratified by a board, as often or infrequently as required. Boards don’t select books they can’t assess. Either at GCSE or A level the texts set allowed me to educate students in the critical appreciation of imaginative literature.

Hence, one major thread of discussion this past week has been irrelevant. I refer to exchanges of opinion regarding the literary worth of (in particular) John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. On the farthest limb of insupportable irrelevance sat the Tweet exhorting the generality to “Stop pretending...that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is canonical literature. It’s Oprah Book Club level.” This, in apparent ignorance of the presence on Oprah’s latest 2014 recommendations list of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and two Charles Dickens novels.
A related thread opined that the novella and Harper Lee’s novel have been “done to death” (in the words of one Tweeter). A variation on this theme has been to promote the notion that “stale” teaching is a consequence.
Now, I have probably taught “Hamlet” (having studied the play at A level and university) for two-thirds of my career. In my last college, I was, for several years, teaching “Hamlet”, “King Lear” and “Frankenstein” to both A2 and both A1 groups simultaneously, at variant places in the text and course. Every time was like the first - it was to the students and I made it so for me. Back in the ‘70’s when, as now, texts were slow to change (for practical, legitimate reasons), I decided never to keep last year’s course notes, never to attempt to reproduce historical responses. For me “Hamlet” is evergreen.

Equally, especially as Head of English, I felt it a responsibility to teach new arrivals on the syllabus. It didn’t matter what they were. At root, it’s simplicity itself to avoid repeating texts. If the teacher/department want to, they can. If the exam board is concerned about a text, it can replace it. If those who consider the American writers above to have been “done to death” one wonders why they fail to find similar fault with “An Inspector Calls” or, more prominently (it’s Hobson’s choice), the narrow range of Shakespeare’s plays typically on offer - probably narrower given the universal omnipresence of “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet”. These have been ‘done to death’ - but only in the drama.

Content as I am with each book in the ‘libraries’ specified by the four GCSE exam boards, I have concerns about the librarians and for the readers.

Librarians and Readers.
In 2010, the traditional selectors of texts, the exam boards, were still actively responsible. This Independent article clarifies  by whom and how books were chosen. Since late 2013 (when This specification was published) all boards have been subject to a new hierarchy which delimits their traditional role. The lineage of that imposed structure reaches up through the DfE and Ofqual to the Education Secretary and, ultimately, the National Curriculum. Powers that, hitherto, have been brought to bear on education to KS3 and on the conditions of teachers are now (logically) focussing on our relatively infant exam boards, throwing them just as surely into reactive mode. These new draft specifications for English Literature are first reactions - and would not be in contemplation without the new DfE requirements, which are uniformly binding.

While I firmly oppose the National Curriculum, this is not the place to argue its merits. There are, by now, after all, too many who have never known anything else. I think, however, we can all agree the intention is to offer every student the best we can and that state power is a formidable thing which, when exercised, had better be beneficial. So, let’s assess the effect the state ‘librarians’ are having on our short ‘chain’.

The Chief Librarians.

There is, of course, a superfluous magnanimity in Michael Gove’s assurance he is banning no books and pupils, with or without teachers, are free (indeed encouraged) to read whatever they wish. We do not need to be granted a freehold already enjoyed. The issue is not freedom to read: it is what we are free to read for detailed study to be examined on at GCSE. To continue my library analogy, we are precisely concerned with the (hopefully extensive) larger “stacks” or pool from which examiners may from time to time select set texts.

That pool is described by the DfE in the following crucial passages of its 2013 document, the only quotation I need present here:
"Students should study a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include:
-at least one play by Shakespeare
-at least one 19th century novel
-a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry
=fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards"
The opening sentence is general and embraces all literature written in English that satisfies the description. The second sentence enforces the inclusion of the range then detailed. In retrospect, perhaps, the authors regret (they should) placing so much responsibility on one word in the interpretation of intended meaning. It matters whether you take “include” to mean “wholly comprise” or “ensure present as part of the general range required”.
Another matter the DfE would be wise to revisit is the validity (not to mention imprecision) of the phrase “from the British Isles”. It’s a self-defeating inconsistency and an insupportable restriction. The specification elsewhere calls for breadth and depth of high quality literature but this phrase ironically jettisons everything written in English overseas in precisely a period of especially fertile flowering.  Contrast the 19th Century novel. I can think of no valid reason to limit the later period but not the earlier.
I’d expect both the DfE and Ofqual to query certain features common to all of the exam boards’  specifications if they prove not to be addressed in revised drafts.   
The Chain Librarians.
OCR, AQA, Eduqas and Edexcel published remarkably similar drafts this week. Most notably, not one offers any addition to the range signified by the four DfE requirements. Having accepted this range, all other stipulations automatically apply. No other reading will share the status of those texts to be examined for grading. Schools vary in the matter of wider reading at GCSE. The crucial point is that only the set texts will enjoy detailed study. This feature makes them special to all affected.
Boards offer variant numbers of choices (one wonders just why) but evince a striking unanimity in core selections across the board. So uniform is their common approach that I’d simply register with the one I’d worked with before, which has its bureaucratic advantages.
No board takes up the single opportunity to offer a novel written in English by a non-Briton - the 19th Century requirement would, for example, be unimpeachably met by the inclusion of one of the best novels I know that illustrates the consummate ability of a writer to limit the broadest of personal vocabularies in the appropriate creation of an illiterate narrator: “Huckleberry Finn”.
Whence does this lost opportunity derive? Four ‘librarians’ in my chain made the same decision to restrict the 19th Century novel ‘shelf’ to Britons. Why? This is the first draft of a very different GCSE and at the very least this omission sends out a signal that non-British 19th Century novels in English are off the radar, possibly as permanently as the post-1914 prose and drama of America and elsewhere.
Is this really the intention enshrined in the DfE document? Have the boards collectively misunderstood, wilfully introduced restrictions, or frozen their reason in play-safe mode? Has the penny fully dropped anywhere in the hierarchy of librarians that they have contrived to disenfranchise great swathes of literature in English, reduce the total pool of potential texts for detailed study, implying the irrelevance of decades in which the world came to appreciate English literature was most fruitfully defined as  literature in English? Surely, as M would say: “This will not stand”?
With power comes responsibility. If this week’s statements from Michael Gove and the DfE represent the state’s intentions then the exam boards have not yet reflected them. Those who exercise power to instigate changes in the content of examinations may refer critics to the subordinate boards but this relieves not an ounce of responsibility for this (thus far) unedifying, divisive enterprise.
No doubt, syllabuses will develop with time and experience. For the moment, to ensure GCSE English Literature heads in the only legitimate direction is simplicity itself. I should feel more sanguine if reference to the British Isles is promptly removed and (as a token of intent) all boards extend text choices of 19th Century novels and post-1914 prose & drama to include works written in English beyond these shores.
The Readers.
How (as a librarian or reader) you perceive what constitutes literature in English influences the nature of response to poetry, plays and imaginative prose.
Literature in English is a democracy. I may be a Shakespeare specialist but I am wired against the notion of canons which seek to classify by comparative worth, authorial nationality or gender works of art that only exist when experienced in the mind of a receptive, observant, unprejudiced and thoughtful reader who is so sensitised to language that imagination is engaged. People are not normally called upon to justify their existence or prepare strangers with a bite-size “Guide to Me”. Artists, musicians and writers have fashioned what they ‘mean’ in the finished work and (rightly) balk at superfluous ‘explanation’.
I want to take the blog reader back to Gatsby’s library to illustrate why I view the current approach to set texts as a recipe for shallowness not depth concocted by the very people who should and I’m sure do know better.  The books are found indeed to be “real” - only in so far as they contain physical pages. That they are patently unread is evidenced in their uncut virginity. The man with the owl-eyed spectacles concludes this illustrates the fullest extent of Gatsby’s purpose in assembling a library. No book, of course, of any kind may exert any discernible influence on life unless someone cuts the pages and reads. The point is that we have here (in the emphasis on display and, for many, symbolic personal mystery in Gatsby’s motivation) just one example of the multiplicity of common obstacles in the way of direct experience of a book’s potentially real “reality”.
English teachers are all too familiar with these obstacles, usually erected by students themselves. A film or particular stage performance may precondition or usurp the centrality of  reading experience. Biographical, historical and cultural backgrounds may dominate the foreground. Bewitching incidentals such as an undue attention to authorial nationality and gender effectively delay ‘the cutting’ of any ‘pages’ let alone those of authors summarily dismissed as ineligible. The very library shrinks, cowers. Those tomes surviving the nationality cut do not celebrate; they brood, ashamed. They do not expect a fair hearing.
These obstacles relate to one of the central problems I’ve encountered over the years in the way students approach set texts. I call it:
The Tyranny of Theme.
Strictly, I mean more than theme but the word suffices to extrapolate to other manifestations of this phenomenon, notably in the treatment of character, imagery and natural description by literature students.
The sooner a student appreciates the difference between imaginative literature and its close sisters, history and biography, the better. Put simply. literature creates what never existed in ordinary life while history and biography seek to recreate and record. There are fascinating hybrids. I  once troubled to check all the libraries from Birmingham to Dudley to see how librarians had classified Laurie Lee’s “Cider with Rosie”. ‘Fiction’ or the Dewey 800’s or ‘Biography’ were equally represented. I also found it in folk tales (of the Cotswolds), agriculture, gardening, crime and on the history shelves. Lee’s raw material may be his own childhood but it is consciously imparted through novelistic means. It is as metal re-forged. This in itself seems to me depict how the adult Lee feels in recalling distant days.
The tyranny of theme feeds on an approach to literature borrowed from the reading of history and biography. Information and themes are mined, extracted and noted that are only meaningful, only breathe, in the context of the world in which they were created. GCSE bitesize revision notes (of ancillary value) service this perceived need. I have noted in a previous post the (entirely understandable) anxiety of A level students to collect from teachers and elsewhere handy prepacked ideas they can use in exam answers. Even the definition and recognition of literary terms often places cart before horse, insulating the reader from fulsome experience of imagery in the raw.. Characters, relationships and themes are neatly tabulated as akin to ‘facts’ while natural description is all too often undervalued (and skimmed) as ‘decorative relief’ or ‘setting’.
Closing Time.
Teachers of English literature thrive on depth and breadth in the study of poems, plays and prose and they’ll willingly cut the pages year after year in an ever-expanding library. They deserve an external exam system that draws its water from pure springs - whatever the source. If Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons reduced their range of flavoured bottled waters in unison to ‘Raspberry’ alone,  there’d be trouble at t’super market.
I simply hope for a system that unequivocally acknowledges the centrality of direct imaginative experience operated by people who demonstrate they have not forgotten the life-long insight and delight derived from realising  why, in the second chapter of “Sons and Lovers”, following the kicking of WIlliam, D H Lawrence chooses to take Mrs Morel “out over the sheep-bridge and across a corner of the meadow to the cricket ground”, there to sit, statuesque as Leontes’ Hermione, as the narrative moves to sustain over several prolonged paragraphs a heart-breaking empathic chorus of  natural description.
I want to sense examiners consider the nationality and culture of (say) Henry James of negligible interest in comparison with a transparent encouragement of students to wonder why William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” island is so aptly peopled entirely with males. Especially do I hope for a focus that supports a GCSE candidate's emergent sense of form, that values the novella or short story for what they are - the most appropriate vehicle for the author’s imaginings, rather than stalled novels. “The Great Gatsby” was longer in first draft - the final “cut” is a gem. It’s on my shelf, filed alphabetically, smiling out between Fielding and Forster. All its pages were cut long ago. I like my libraries fully open, vast and real.

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved.

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