Alive to criticism

Michael J Smith

Bernard O' Keeffe considers the problems and rewards of teaching contemporary literature. The definition of contemporary literature as literature "for which there is as yet no established canon" suggests both the problems and opportunities involved in teaching it.

How is teaching a contemporary text different from teaching more established works? A cynical view might be that we haven't yet been told what we should think of it. We may be more uncertain about the worth and significance of something which has not yet, to use the great rallying cry of those anxious to define a classic, "stood the test of time".

There is no critical consensus to lean on; there are no slim, supporting critical guides and no lists of old examination questions suggesting what those in the know have judged to be the text's important features. We probably haven't taught it before and we might not even have read it. It might, let's face it, involve a lot more work than trotting through Emma or John Donne's poetry for the umpteenth time.

Yet it is important to teach contemporary literature even if at times we feel exposed and uncertain, running the risk of "getting it wrong". But to return to the question, how exactly is teaching contemporary literature any different from teaching older stuff and what might be our reasons for choosing to do so? We may feel we instinctively know such answers but these questions are more problematic than they seem and throw open the larger issues about what the function of criticism is and what we are doing when we teach A-level English literature.

Educating Rita, Willy Russell's play about a Liverpudlian hairdresser on an Open University literature course seems a good starting point. Rita produces her first essay on Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle. Frank, her disillusioned tutor, is unimpressed - Rita, he feels, has been too "subjective" and it is clear that he is not sure of this particular text's worth. Rita, however, is unbowed. She has been equally unimpressed with Frank's recommendation of Howard's End. It is, she says, "crap". "Crap?" cries Frank, "and who are you citing in support of your thesis? F R Leavis?" The audience laughs (or is intended to laugh) at Rita here. She, poor thing, thinks it is acceptable to produce essays on Rita Mae Brown and is dismissive of one of the accepted literary greats. We are tempted to laugh again later in the same scene when Frank says to Rita, "You seem to be under the impression that all books are literature." Rita seems a little surprised and asks her teacher how you are able to tell that some books are literature while others are not. Frank hesitates and stammers, "I - erm - erm - one's always known, really" but Rita remains unconvinced. "But how," she asks, "d'y work it out if y'don't know?" We, intelligent theatre-goers, are more likely to nod in agreement with the educated, knowing Frank than shake our heads in protest with the ignorant hairdresser, Rita. After all, she prefers Rubyfruit Jungle to Howard's End and appears, poor soul, not to know the difference between "criticism" and "partisan interpretation". This is not the behaviour of someone in the know, someone who has learned what criticism is, or is supposed to be, and has learned how to make discriminating judgments.

In the course of the play Rita does learn - she becomes "educated" in the conventional sense of the term. She learns the language of criticism as rather aridly and unconvincingly exemplified here by Frank, and she develops a new confidence. By the end of the play she has learned that Rubyfruit Jungle is not as good as Howard's End but she has also learned much more. She has, in short, joined Frank's club, mastering its rules and codes and is able to speak its language. And what of Frank? Frank's weakest line is "I - erm erm - one's always known really". One has never always known - there is, despite what Frank implies, nothing natural or obvious about it. If it were there would be no problems in establishing a "canon" of any nature - it would be, simply, the best.

Yet deciding on the good, let alone the best, is a far from straightforward activity. How are such decisions made? One of the problems for a student like Rita is that she may very well feel that such judgments have already been made - Forster is great because Frank says so and if Frank says so it must be true. One of the problems with the study of English literature over the past 30 years or so has been that it has taken as its aim the education of generations of Ritas by generations of Franks.

Many of us start off, in greater or lesser degree, like Rita. Then in the hands of a Frank we become less like Rita and more like Frank. However, if our two characters were to involve themselves in a discussion about contemporary text, things might be a little different; Frank, without the reassuring prop of established opinion, might not be able to be so dismissive of Rita's responses and might find himself in a different teacher-student relationship. Frank may be a more practised reader but in a sense, the academic playing field would be much more level. The more contemporary the text and the less weight of criticism attached to it, the more chance there is that the Ritas will value their own voices and the less chance there is of the Franks pulling weight. There is a greater chance of both "getting it wrong".

Rita learns in her discussions with Frank that to call something literature is to accord it privileged status, to place a value upon it which separates it from other writing. One of the ways in which literature can be given such privilege is for it to make it "onto the syllabus". Of course all good teaching goes beyond syllabus constraints but there is still something validating about being "put on the list". What better way of a text being legitimised? What better way of being sure of a contemporary work's significance and worth?

For a long time it has been syllabus-makers who have determined what contemporary literature we are allowed to teach. Those who make such decisions about inclusion and exclusion are clearly powerful, but who is to say they are not as likely to "get it wrong" as, say, publishers' readers or editors who, in one sense, control what we are allowed to read, or the Booker judges who decide on the best of what we've been allowed to read? Examples of misjudgment and uncertainty abound, but it might be worth recalling three recent examples: Tibor Fischer's Under the Frog, which is rumoured to have been turned down by 50 publishers before being taken up by Polygon, made it onto the 1993 Booker shortlist; Doris Lessing submitted a manuscript under the name of Jane Somers only have it comprehensively rejected; Jill Paton Walsh, after rejection, published Knowledge of Angels herself before making the 1994 Booker list. Criticism, after all, is a notoriously tricky business, one age's George Eliot may well be the next age's Julie Burchill.

The syllabuses clearly reveal an attitude to what literature is and have changed considerably in recent years. One change is an increased number of texts offered for study which, 10 or 20 years ago, would not have been considered. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that works by Alice Walker might find their way on to A-level syllabuses? Boards seem more willing to accommodate more immediately contemporary texts (the syllabus I teach currently offers Carol Ann Duffy's Mean Time, Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia) and some Boards even offer an option specifically on contemporary writing.

Progress has clearly been made since the days as recent as the early 1960s when many university English courses stopped their chronological survey of English literature in the late 19th century. However, many might feel that they have still not gone far enough. Why is it acceptable for drama scripts to be studied but not for film or television? And if that question seems tired and familiar, how do the startling developments in information technology affect our sense of the literary text?

The introduction of coursework has been one of the significant recent changes to the A-level (one other is the development of language and literature syllabuses). This has introduced a far greater element of choice in determining what contemporary literature we can teach, giving both teachers and students much more influence in decision making, permitting negotiation of both text and task.

My recent experience is of an option in which all students write 3,000-word essays on an area of particular interest. Such an option clearly avoids the problem of having your notion of what is "literature" decided for you, and is particularly liberating for those whose interests lie mainly in contemporary literature. However, when students are offered a free choice they do not automatically move towards the frequently cited "relevance" or "accessibility" of the contemporary text. Some are even frightened of doing so, because of the uncertainty and the possibility of "getting it wrong". What emerges in their choices is a surprising variety, a pleasing combination of the traditional and the contemporary. While some go for Milton, Austen, Spenser, Conrad, Hardy, Chaucer, Coleridge, Dickens, Joyce, Sterne and Yeats, others study such contemporary writers as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Ben Okri, Margaret Atwood, Keri Hume, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.

What is interesting from the teaching point of view is that those working on contemporary writers tend to produce fresher, more engaged responses and tend to become involved in the more interesting decisions. Many of these focus on "worth" and value. (Is there really that much to say about Brett Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero and might it be worth choosing something else?) Some concentrate on critical approaches (What is the best way to tackle Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy?), while others question the need to place the work in context (How much period detail is needed to understand Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia?) or the need to compare the contemporary with the classic (If you're looking at the city and justice in The Bonfire of The Vanities why not put it up against Bleak House?) Experience has shown that once students have considered different approaches to contemporary texts, they are far more willing to apply the same open, questioning process to more established literature.

There have not been many significant trends, but Martin Amis (closely followed by Ian McEwan) has proved to be the most popular option. In fact the AmisMcEwan "canon" seemed to establish itself fairly swiftly. Whether those who study The Rachel Papers (published 20 years ago and rooted firmly in the 1970s) or Money, (published over 10 years ago and rooted firmly in the 1980s) are engaged in the study of truly contemporary literature is another point entirely, as is the observation that Amis, despite his popularity as coursework, has yet to make "make the list" (or at least my syllabus list) - an example, perhaps, of a contemporary big-shot just a little too big for the canon?

This is an extract from a talk to be given at the English Association Conference on Teaching Contemporary Literature tomorrow at St Catherine's College, Oxford.

Bernard O'Keeffe teaches English at St Paul's School, London. He is an editor of The English Review.

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Michael J Smith

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