"Hi Sue, I'm doing your book, we have to read it and just wanna say it's the most boring crap book I ever read, so thanks a lot for ruining my life. Cheers."
"Hi Susan, we're doing your book, I've gotta do coursework only I don't understand about context, what is it, and I don't no any other gothic writers and we've got to compare you, what's gothic anyway. Pleeeeze reply asap."
"Hi. I've got this essay to do for tomoz, it's about I'm the king of the castle and does the setting play an important part in the story. Can you reply tonight and do it in bullet points so I can copy and paste it straight in. thanks you're a star in advance, cheers..."
"Hi, we have to do this essay on context with your book, and cultural context so what are those please, please explain carefully, I don't get it."
Those are genuine, and very representative, emails from school pupils, sent via my author website. The books they refer to are I'm the King of the Castle, set for GCSE English, and The Woman in Black (Theatre Studies). I also receive (far fewer) questions about Strange Meeting, set for the A-level module on the First World War.
Two years ago, inundated by questions on the books, I set up a special section of my blog in which I answered some of the Frequently Asked Questions on all three novels and occasionally took up a particular topic related to one of them and wrote about it at length. I hoped this would ease the flow of emails I had to answer. It didn't. I don't think any of them got beyond "Contact Susan" before firing off their query - looking into the FAQs seemed too much trouble. But then, so, quite frequently, was reading one of the books themselves, or reading all of it rather than bite-sized chunks - let alone actually answering questions, writing an essay, doing coursework. Why bother, when the author was there to do it for you? Worse, I have had questions not just from pupils but from teachers explaining that they are studying the books via videos of old TV versions and reading only short sections of the text itself. "They find it hard to read a whole novel," one teacher apologised. In that case, they should not be doing GCSE literature at all.
I am happy to reply to the cries for help. It has become distressingly clear to me that too many school pupils are taught badly, lazily, unintelligently and cursorily. They are not taught how to read and understand novels or to write essays and coursework and answer questions about them. Judging by the evidence of their emails, many should not be studying English literature at all, but with guidance, understanding and above all enthusiastic teaching they could certainly be helped to get more out of books - any books - than they are.
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