Tag Archives: news

Michael Gove- The Little Grey Man of Literature

Michael Gove- the little grey man of literature Image by new3dom3000 under creative commons

I tweeted a few days ago that Michael Gove’s reforms to the English GCSE curriculum reminded me of Putin’s Literary Canon pronouncements a few years back– nationalistic, narrow-minded and reductive. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the head of OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform claims that Michael Gove has personally intervened to ensure that where novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird would have originally been studied, students will now be examined on a work of fiction or drama originating from the British Isles since 1914.

I am deeply concerned that the education secretary has been allowed to interfere in the English Literature curriculum without consultation with teachers and universities about this. There is no university department which teaches an English Literature degree without reference to writers from outside the UK, for the simple reason that literature is not something which is restricted by geographical borders- it is designed to challenge and breakdown barriers, not to reinforce them in such an arbitrary and mindless way.

And, to steal David Cameron’s favourite phrase, let us be perfectly clear, while there are plenty of students who could and would engage with the works of Jane Austen and Dickens, there are plenty of students who would find the language and volume of reading a struggle. Lower ability students will be penalised as they will require extra support to access the lexis, syntax and context of these novels in the limited contact time that they have with their teachers. So this latest reform will do to the novel what his plans to have primary school children learning and reciting poetry by rote will do- turn more and more students off Literature.

Students used to ask me why I chose to study English Lit at university- and I would tell them it was because I couldn’t decide what subject to study. When studied properly, literature allows you to study history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religion… it broadens the mind. That’s what worries me about this latest announcement, it’s so incredibly reductive it makes me wonder if Gove isn’t one of those little grey men from Michael Ende’s Momo, ripping the colour and fun out of education for every child in the country because they are at odds with his personal values.

Whatever he is, he’s a very dangerous man.

Fire at the National Library of Wales

National Library of Wales copyright Caroline Ramsden

My brother who is currently a student at Aberystwyth University (my old uni) text me earlier today to tell me there was a fire at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. I have a joint honours in English Literature and Welsh, and as a part of my Welsh language studies we visited a lot of important Welsh cultural institutions to talk to the staff about the role of the Welsh language there. The National Library of Wales was one of these, and I remember being terrified at the idea of being there when a fire broke out because of the tour behind the scenes.

The National Library of Wales is a copyright library which means that it holds a copy of every book or newspaper published in the UK. There are miles and miles of shelves behind the scenes and because many of the documents are very rare, they would be damaged by water sprinklers in the event of the fire, so they have air tight steel walls which come down before the room is pumped full of carbon dioxide to prevent the materials stored becoming fire damaged. I think a special alarm sounded to let you know that the steel curtains were coming down and you had a minute to get out. Really scary. At least you’d stand a chance of getting out of a burning building.

You can read more about the fire here

Putin’s Literary Canon

Let us take a survey of our most influential cultural figures and compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read.” Vladimir Putin

You may not have heard about Putin’s plan to develop a Russian literary canon of 100 books which ever student leaving school would be required to read. For those unfamiliar with the problems surrounding state mandated reading, Alexander Nazaryan outlines them pretty effectively here so I won’t go into the political/national/historical side of the issue.

What gets me, apart from the above, is the psychological impact of such a mandate. I’m not a huge fan of reading by numbers, I don’t find that it motivates me and as a big fan of book topic blogs on wordpress, I’ve noticed that many people who set themselves a yearly target of books to read are already becoming stressed at “falling behind” or are worrying about “what counts”.

As a former English teacher, I hate the idea of a dictate stating that students must read x amount books from a list of y and z which is a pity, since the study of English literature generally necessitates some required reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favour of encouraging anyone to become a reader. But when something becomes a rule, the pleasure is taken out of it. Though some people find a numerical target motivating, there are an equal number who will find it causes them to dig in their heels or shy away from a task. By forcing students to read from a list of prescribed books I believe that you are at risk of creating a huge number of reluctant readers.

A hundred books? That eliminates anyone who has any kind of literacy issue or comprehension difficulty (and who would benefit most from reading regularly) from wanting to read.

A set literary cannon? During The Big Read, the BBC published a list of 100 books that everyone should read. Say that this was a compulsory literary cannon and I had to read every book on there, I’d rather eat your eyeballs (not mine, I need them) than read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And I’m something of a compulsive reader. I’ve read several (too many) Jane Austen novels and found myself irritated beyond belief in some way by each one of them. Being forced to read another (my grandmother has tried) would spoil my enjoyment of reading.

So politics aside, I think that for any government to set a list of 100 books that all students must read would do more harm than good. When their intentions are to create a forced sense of “unity” or preserve the “dominance” of a culture then you’re in trouble. (Though interestingly as a side note, that’s how the study of English literature came into being- the British government decided that it would have a “civilising” influence on the Indian population they were oppressing ruling at the time and they wanted to indoctrinate the populace with British values.)

In the immortal words of David Nicholls,

 “And Jackson, of course you should study whatever subject you want, the appreciation of literature, or any kind of artistic endeavor, is absolutely essential to a decent society, why do you think books are the first thing that the Fascists burn? You should learn to stick up for yourself more.” David Nicholls, Starter for Ten

You can control a person’s ideals and beliefs by controlling what they read.

Reading and the Riot Act

I think it says a lot about the looters we’ve been seeing mug shots of on the TV that during the riots which have broken out across the country libraries in Manchester and London have been vandalised and damaged, while the only shop at Clapham Junction to avoid looting was the Waterstones. Apparently the looters aren’t big readers.

An incredibly intelligent young woman of my acquaintance posted this quote by Martin Luther King on Facebook earlier:

“When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty & shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up & express their anger & frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard” – Martin Luther King, B’ham, Alabama, Dec 1963

On the surface an apt quote, but with respect, in this instance I disagree. What we have here is not a social protest, though it may have started out as one. I’ve worked in some rough schools in Reading and South Wales, as well as with children from pretty difficult backgrounds in Oxford, so I am aware of the challenges that some children face. Though this might be described as a by-product of these fractured backgrounds, it is not a protest against them.

This is an opportunistic mob run riot, grabbing what they can regardless of who they hurt with no aim to improve their personal circumstances, unless you count material gains such as plasma screen televisions.They are damaging the facilities which they still have left, are destroying people’s homes and livelihoods while exploiting the power of numbers. People have been killed and have had to jump for their lives from burning buildings.

I am disgusted that this is happening in this land where we really are so lucky in the opportunities life presents us when compared to other countries.

The Return of Harry Potter?

The Owls Are Gathering (photo by A.J. Hand)

Like myself, J.K. Rowling isn’t dead, but has been busy…

Unlike myself, she hasn’t been busy with house-buying paperwork and other trivialities (as far as I know at least) but has been twiddling her wand fingers to conjure up some more Potter related excitement. I’m sure that you’ll understand my excitement, and forgive my flowery language, when you check out Rowling’s newly registered website where Owls are gathering ready to deliver some big Potter news in 5 days time.

If you can’t wait that long for your next Potter fix, why not relive those heady days as a Potter virgin by reading through this great online journal.

In less exciting news, I’ve been quiet, but I’ve been reading, so expect more from me soon.

Author Attacks! Mayhem at BigAl’s

She may have designed her own cover too...

This may be a bit controversial, but something that really annoys me is the misuse of the term “indie” when it comes to publishing. Indie to me (and the publishing company I work for) denotes an independent publisher. Self publishing is still known as the vanity press. Sorry.

Of course, lots of writers don’t want to say that they self publish, because, let’s face it, most people are of the opinion that if you didn’t get a contract with a publisher (indie included here) your book isn’t going to be that good. I know that there are numerous examples of people who have self published and gone on to have great success, and many will cite a variety of reasons (other than flat-out rejection by publishers) for deciding to self publish. Fair enough.

Wherever you stand on the issue of self publishing, you can’t help but notice that there has been a widespread attempt to rebrand self publishers recently. Because of course there will be some genuinely talented writers who aren’t what publishers are looking for, and why not challenge the stigma? Good for them.

Not everyone is making such an effort to cooperate with the rebranding of the vanity press though. You’ll have been hard pressed to miss the recent case of semi literate self publisher Jacqueline Howett who, when faced with a negative review, had an almighty meltdown on BigAl’s Books and Pals, a review website devoted to reviewing books from the indie press. Reading Jacqueline Howett’s comments on Big Al’s blog, I highly doubt her claims that she is from England, or any other English-speaking country. I don’t know how else to explain the misuse of the English language.

I won’t be reading any of her books, not matter how great she claims they are. The only way to have made these comments any funnier for me would have been for her to extend her poor spelling to the book’s title The Greek Seaman.

Thank you Jacqueline, thank you for your crazy comments which went viral around my office and brightened up an otherwise boring day.