Archive for the 'literary criticism' Category

How I write

March 9, 2017

This post was prompted by a fellow blogger on matters literary, who reflected on whether it was better to research and read around a book before coming to read it, and the impact that others’ judgements might have on how one then read and enjoyed that book. He got me thinking in more depth about what goes on as I write these posts.

I write my blog because I enjoy it; it has become a discipline of sorts, over the years. I don’t have a vast number of readers, but I hope that they do get something from what I have to say.

My reading is very undisciplined. By this, I mean that I don’t have an agenda or programme or a list of books that I intend to read in a particular order. True, I do intend to read that enormous pile that is only shrinking very slowly in my study, but whether I will ever finish it or not is determined by factors beyond my control: one book suggests another and what I intended to pick up next may never actually find its way into my hand…

Equally, I have periods where I read avidly, and others where, surprisingly, I don’t feel much like reading, or where I read magazines rather than books. And there will be times when I’m thinking about various aspects of literature more generally and produce a different kind of post for a while.

But, when I pick up a book, it’s almost always to begin reading straight away. I’ll ignore the introduction, if there is one – I may decide to read it after I’ve finished the book, or, if the book is very challenging or vexing I may interrupt my reading to take in the introduction, to see if it helps. As I read, I think, reflect, and occasionally jot down notes on a small pad which is usually at hand. I like to have my iPad close by too, to look up words or places or details that may occur to me as I’m reading. So by the time I’m at the end of a book, I usually have enough notes from which to construct my blog post. If I’m writing a more general post, like this one for instance, I will usually make some notes and devise a general plan first. As a student of literature for many years, I have acquired tools and skills which encourage me to trust my own judgement, at least initially, before turning to what others have said and thought. I don’t feel I approach things this way out of arrogance, and after I have read and reached what I think are my conclusions, I frequently then look at what other have thought and said…

I’ve left longhand drafts behind long ago: what’s the point of new technology if you don’t take advantage of what it has to offer? So I type directly into Libre Office. When I have a complete draft, I’ll re-read, edit and correct (I’m a dreadful typist), taking care over language and nuance: although I know some of my readers, most of them I don’t, and need to be really careful to get my meaning over clearly and accurately, hopefully leaving no room for misunderstanding. And there are many readers from other lands whose first language will not be English.

Often I will leave what I’ve written to mature for a couple of days before I come back to it and give it a final check before actually publishing; after some time has passed I will have a clearer sense of whether what I’ve written says what I want to say, the way I want to say it.

Note to my former students who read my blog: this may well not be the way I taught you to write essays, but hopefully you will remember that I also said you should find out what works for you and then stick with it. Which I have done.

My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

Helena Kelly: Jane Austen The Secret Radical

November 22, 2016

41-eofq1hel-_ac_us160_There are going to be a lot of new books on Jane Austen next year to cash in on the bicentenary of her death: this is probably the first of them. It’s a detailed collation of the evidence for Jane Austen’s radicalism, anti-establishment views and so forth, as found in the novels. Kelly is interesting on how Austen’s reputation was carefully crafted and shaped after her death to suit various different purposes and times; she also clarifies how little is really known about the writer’s life, and how much is gossip, hearsay, pure invention, or unevidenced anywhere. It’s therefore in the novels themselves that we might discover what the author’s real opinions were … (or not?) The point that Britain was by and large a totalitarian state during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and that therefore we need to be reading between the lines just as Austen’s first readers would have done, is worth consideration..

John Mullan reviewed this in last Saturday’s Guardian, just as I was getting into it: he basically panned it. What I’m gradually coming to realise it that every generation reinvents an awful lot of wheels: there wasn’t anything radically new or wildly exciting in this book. Most of the ideas I was familiar with from my studies at university and my preparation for teaching Austen’s novels: Kelly packages her material differently, contextualises better and writes in the style of the latest generation of academics…

That Jane Austen was in some ways quite radical was no news to me; she explores the incredibly limited possibilities for women, and their parlous financial position whether married or not; she is aware of the dangers to women of pregnancy and childbirth; she raises questions about the Church and the massive changes – particularly enclosures – taking place in the society of her times, and she is aware of the role of slavery in creating people’s wealth.

Kelly explains entails in detail, clarifies some aspects of how the Church of England worked and its involvement in slavery in the West Indies, and she’s good on family wealth and its transmission in general; it seems to me that the most useful aspect of her book is the detailed contextualisation of Austen’s society and its workings, the outlines of which are already known to many of Austen’s readers.

And yet, nowhere does Austen seem to be advocating the overthrow or replacement of the institutions of her time; she seems innately conservative in many ways, particularly in the complex social novel that is Mansfield Park, and Kelly’s analysis of that particular novel does seem to squash it to fit her thesis. If anything, Austen seems to be arguing for changes in behaviour, particularly in relationships, and highlighting perceived injustices: she is not a political novelist. Austen isn’t a secret radical, so much as a highly perceptive and intelligent observer of her times, whose gaze nothing escapes.

Mullan’s judgement on the book is a trifle harsh: I did find it interesting. But I also thought Kelly imposes rather too much of contemporary sexual attitudes onto Austen and her characters at times. I found the tone of what purports to be an academic work rather too chatty, and having both footnotes and endnotes was unnecessary. And, was it the author or her editor who decided that Beatrice was the heroine of As You Like It? Good grief...

My A-Z of reading: C is for Criticism

October 18, 2016

Having been a student and teacher of literature for longer than anything else in my life, I’ve had time to read a lot of literary criticism, and to come to feel pretty ambivalent about it. At first, in the sixth form, I was at first a little surprised that people wrote about the books, plays and poetry I was studying. But A C Bradley and Harley Granville-Barker were eye-opening about the depth and richness of what Shakespeare had to offer me. At university, I was expected to read widely, texts and criticism; when researching I did little else, and it gradually dawned on me that I, too, was becoming a critic, of sorts…

There’s something important about the purity and primacy of an author’s text: once s/he has ‘given it away’ by publishing it, making it a public property, it becomes open to supporting a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, and not all of those are known to, or intended by, the author. This is often a very good thing, enabling, as it does, any reader to make a reading, perhaps an original one, as long as they can support their interpretation (cries of ‘evidence?’ used to echo around my classroom). I treasured those – quite rare, but very gratifying – moments when a student came up with an idea about a word or phrase that had never occurred to me, or that I’d never read about.

Criticism comes across as ‘learned’; someone has read, and carefully thought about a text, studied it and written about it, and would seem thereby to have a right to be paid attention to and be taken seriously… but the process, as I came to learn, is not quite as innocent as that. For starters, whilst opening us up to meanings and understandings that they offer us, are critics not also, at the same time, maybe shutting the door on other possibilities? A critic is not an innocent bystander, as I came to realise while studying for my master’s in Literature and Cultural Change in the Twentieth Century at Lancaster University, where we spent as much time on critics and how they worked as we did on literature itself: any critic develops her/his criticism from a certain cultural, political and social background, and so interprets from a certain perspective. Is that perspective one that I accept or respect? Marxist critics, for example, showed that writers can unconsciously and uncritically support a certain vision of the world and exclude others, and that critics do exactly the same thing; that’s not to say that Marxist critics are therefore right and have the last word, rather that they reveal something unperceived, and enlighten us a little bit more about what is really going on. Ditto for feminism critics…

My research into science fiction took my questioning of attitudes, perspectives and literary criticism itself even further, as I examined a wide range of works (criticism and fiction) written from a feminist perspective, and also studied a genre of writing which many critics regarded as a somewhat inferior genre, not really worthy of serious literary study – of course, I didn’t agree with this judgement, and had to make out and justify my case…a thesis followed by a viva examination with a good cop and bad cop examiner is quite something!

So, I think I’ve come round to the idea that criticism is a useful tool for making us think, or at least introducing us to the idea that it’s possible to see more than initially meets the eye in a text that we’re reading, but that we need to be as wary of the critic as we are curious about the original text. Also, as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to see history repeating itself, as it were: a new generation of freshly trained and qualified critics – just like I was once! – comes along to revisit the same texts, and similar issues, in pretty similar ways: every generation re-invents the wheel, as it seeks to make its living, and a few grains more are added to the sum total of our knowledge and understanding.

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