Navigate round the icebergs

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Toni Morrison. Edited by Linden Peach Macmillan

Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
By Gail Ashton #163;37. 50
Jane Austen: the Novels
By Nicholas Marsh
#163;9.99. Shakespeare: The Tragedies
By Nicholas Marsh
Virginia Woolf: the Novels
By Nicholas Marsh
Macmillan #163;9.99.

Every autumn there is a terrible wrenching sound in schools as the great ship GCSE meets the iceberg of A-levels - passengers drop overboard, and, all too often, a number drown.

The exam requirements are still so different, and so differently driven. However the new A-levels turn out, there must inevitably remain a tension between a competency in English moulded by GCSE and the national curriculum, where there is so much emphasis on simple familiarity with the texts and on the students' responses to them, and the need for the A-level student to demonstrate not only an ability in close analysis but also an awareness of critical positions and their implications. The critical study books under consideration here perch on one or other of these two stools, but there may still be a danger that, without careful guidance, the students will find themselves wedged uncomfortably between them.

The New Casebook series has long established itself as an invaluable tool in providing a way into the critical debates surrounding particular authors, and this volume on Toni Morrison is no exception. Essays explore different aspects of Morrison's work from, among others, feminist, African-American, psychoanalytic and postmodernist perspectives. The essays are stimulating and well selected, but you need to be well versed in the various critical positions in order not to be overwhelmed by the language.

Analysing texts is a new series of critical studies which each concentrate on a specific author, or on one aspect of an author's work. The first to be published deal with Chaucer, Austen, Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare's tragedies. Each volume contains close studies of important aspects of the writer under consideration - Jane Austen's ironic use of language, Chaucer's characterisation - with suggestions for further work which students might do on their own or as a class. There is also a brief treatment of the historical and critical context of each author.

These are sound and reliable studies as far as they go, and offer students not only insights, but also a model for critical writing which many will find helpful. They do, however, present a problem for the teacher, simply in being free of any close consideration of all that has happened in critical theory in the last 20 years. Where the Casebook series is intransigently theoretical, this series presents practical criticism of a kind Leavis and Richards would have applauded.

The Analysing Texts series will provide a useful tool for the student fresh from GCSEs, the Casebook study of Toni Morrison will be superb for the aspiring university entrant - but it is, as ever, the hardworked classroom teacher who will need to bridge the gap between the two.

Sarah Matthews is former head of English at Chipping Norton School, Oxfordshire

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