A Novel Way to Treat a Writer

I have been inundated with emails from GCSE and A-level students who want me to spoonfeed answers on their set texts

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“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.

It is unhelpful to complain that “things are not what they were in my day”, though I sometimes envy George Eliot and Hardy, Shakespeare, Donne and Keats, not so much for being great writers as for being dead and unable to be consulted. We studied dead authors at school and even when I read English at King’s College, London in the ’60s the course only went up to 1880. Modern Literature was a special option and one could get a degree without reading any living author.

I have no doubt that we should not turn back that clock. In the ’50s, far fewer students studied for O- and even fewer for A-Level English Literature than now. Those who did were much better equipped to study the classic authors, simply because they were the academically bright and well motivated, having passed the 11-Plus to grammar school. The rest (disregarding the independent sector) went to Secondary Modern schools where more of them studied just English language. Of course, there were drawbacks – no educational system is perfect. But not all pupils should study literature to GCSE and A-level standard. They are not equipped to learn how to analyse complex verse and prose or to develop critical awareness. Not all of them need to, or will ever, find practical application for those particular skills. But all children can learn how to read for pleasure, and for the enrichment of their lives, understanding and imagination. If those who struggle with analysis and textual comparison were introduced to a wide variety of books which they simply might enjoy reading, far fewer would be put off all literature for the rest of their lives. It saddens me greatly to think that my own novels may be taught so badly, so dully and so mechanically that they will contribute to this loathing of books. I have seen enough school essays and coursework to know that standards are lower than they were. But which standards? Of teaching, of exam marking? Yet the Examination Boards’ requirements are exacting enough.

This course aims to promote in students a knowledge of and affection for English Lit., and to lead them to an understanding of the literary uses of language and the human and spiritual dimensions of literary works. Students should develop the ability to read, understand and respond to a wide range of literary texts, appreciate the ways in which authors achieve their effects and develop the skills necessary for literary study; develop awareness of social, historical and cultural contexts and influences in the study of literature; develop the ability to construct and convey meaning in speech and writing, matching style to audience and purpose.

But there is many a slip twixt cup and lip, and written work I have seen often falls far short of those requirements. It may be that the competent students, with ability to study literature to A-level and

beyond, are confident and well taught enough not to need my help. Perhaps the only ones I encounter are those struggling at the bottom of the heap. I simply wonder if they should be in this particular heap at all. Bright pupils will be able to understand and fulfil the GCSE examination board requirements above. Yet they are the ones I am concerned about when it comes to A-level, because there should be a big leap in the standards required, and judging by the new AS- and A-level syllabus, that is not so. Not enough is being demanded of the cleverest pupils, who should be studying literature at this level.

It is not a question of “when I was your age, things were a lot harder”. They were certainly different and the books we studied more demanding – and more numerous – than those on the current syllabus. I did a lot of rote-learning to pass the exams – I had the blessed ability then to get by heart whole pages of novels and long poems, most of which I still remember. It was handy, in the days before it was permissible to take the text into the exam room, and it stands me in good stead now for crosswords, but otherwise I question the value of it. I could impress by regurgitating long paragraphs verbatim, but were my critical and analytical abilities in any way improved or tested by this? I had certainly no notion of what was meant by the “cultural and social context” of novels – if, indeed, anybody had ever asked such a question. A more careful, considered and critical response is required of students now, at least in examinations.

But I query the purpose of the new “creative and transformational” writing modules of the A-level syllabus. Empathy questions are most popular in the study of history, and at primary school age they are of value. At eight or nine years, my own children spent days pretending to be Romans, and dressed up as Victorian children to spend a school day as they would have done in 1880. It brought history to life in a way my dull lessons from textbooks never did. But far more should be expected of those aged 16 plus, and I get anguished requests for help from pupils who find “transformational and creative writing” almost impossible. They are asked to take on the persona of one of my characters and write a new chapter for the novel in that guise, or else they must write a new ending, changing the story or bringing it up to date. That was my job when I was writing the book as it is my job now. But mine is not a skill to be acquired in five terms, let alone imparted by the average school teacher. The study of English literature is something quite different from creative writing and students with great academic ability often find the “transformational writing” tasks vague and frustrating. But why should they be expected to write as I write? If the pupils who find analysing a novel and writing a critical essay about it difficult are being challenged beyond their limits, then the academically able are not being challenged enough.

Iris Murdoch once told me school students should not be studying her novels, they should only read the classics, the great Victorians, the major poets – in other words, the dead. I am sure that the brightest should indeed be studying the canon, as well as some modern writers – the key words being “as well”. A serious concern now is the way the exam syllabus is structured, in terms of teacher-choice. Once, it was “either Hamlet or King Lear,” “The Mill on the Floss or Jane Eyre,” but now it can be between, “Far from the Madding Crowd or A Kestrel for a Knave”, “poems by Wordsworth or Carol Ann Duffy”, and too many teachers will take the easier option – and it is easier to teach Duffy than Wordsworth, I’m the King of the Castle than Wuthering Heights. At GCSE the emphasis is almost wholly on modern writers, at A-level slightly less so, but the pendulum has still swung very far in the modern direction over the last few decades.

Teachers are afraid of their pupils being bored – or rather, of saying they are bored. But it is the nature of the teenager to affect boredom. The challenge to the teacher is to bypass that affectation and to interest, enthuse and excite. The word “relevant” rears its head a great deal, too. Modern writers are regarded as “relevant” to the interests and concerns of young people, while dead writers are not. Yet it is a teacher’s job to reveal how dead authors, classic writers, can be just as relevant to their pupils, in terms of the experience of being human, of emotions felt or perceptions shared. I fear that too many teachers are themselves afraid. They are afraid of being bored and not finding books “relevant”, and afraid of challenge, of complexity, of difficult language, of anything that is not immediately accessible and easily digestible. One of the reasons is that they often do not read themselves, for interest and enrichment, regularly and widely. I have despaired, going into the homes of teachers – and yes, teachers of English – and seeing no books, of talking to teachers of English and discovering that they only read the set texts of the day and have never studied anything beyond the syllabus. How can they hope to broaden the literary horizons of all their pupils if they do not broaden their own?

But to return to those emails. Several things are clear even from the few I quoted – and I do know that these are teenagers who never write formal letters with a pen on paper, but whose natural mode of communication is text and email. I have no objection to informal phrasing and a direct approach, I understand that they write and send in an instant, do not reread or spell- check. I hope I am not stuffy, but I do object to “Hi Sue”. Nobody ever calls me “Sue” and it is impolite to shorten someone’s first name automatically. If they sign “Joshua”, I do not reply “Dear Josh”. I don’t require deference, just friendly politeness. But it is not their fault. They have not been taught. Nobody has said, “If you write to the author of a book you are studying, you should address them politely as ‘Dear Miss Hill’.” Manners are not automatic, like breathing. Nor is grammar. I suppose I could correct the spelling and grammar errors, but if I did so, replying to their desperate emails would take me twice as long.

But what about attitude? That depends. I do not mind informality but rudeness and even abuse get short shrift. I do not ignore them, I reply in no uncertain terms and it is often pleasantly surprising to receive a charming apology, such as this one: “Dear Mrs Hill, I was dead out of order, I am really, really sorry. I hope you forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude and reading what I wrote I see now I was, only I was a bit stressed out, so please forgive me and I take back about saying your book was crap. I’m reeeellly sorry. Love from…”

I often tackle straightforward questions by suggesting where they might find out the answers for themselves and I often wonder how far they have simply not had some things explained to them clearly enough and how far they have been listening to their iPods at the time. I always correct any misinformation and, above all, I try to help them to see that the text stands alone and that their opinion of it has value, provided they have read it carefully and can explain why they find that something carries a particular meaning. I go on to explain that I may not have put that meaning there consciously, because so much of what a writer does is unconscious, but that nevertheless it is valid. This usually comes as a revelation and that is one of the tremendous advantages of studying a living author. I, that author, can give students permission to interpret my novel as they wish, encourage them to articulate their findings and validate the meanings they uncover for themselves in my text, even if those meanings are new to me. Those interpretations are often fresh and insightful and rarely as far-fetched and obscure as those of many an academic critic. If only I could have had such validation for my interpretations from Hardy and George Eliot and Donne.

It can be difficult to make students see that studying literature is not like studying maths, that there are rarely simple right/wrong
answers, that I cannot tell them something definitive which, on exact repetition, will ensure they pass their exam with high marks. This is a difficult concept to grasp at the age of 15 or so. Panic sets in. “But you’ve got to know the answer, you wrote the f—ing book didn’t you?” But encouraging, helping, explaining, clarifying – teaching, even – are one thing. Writing their essays, doing their coursework, providing nuggets of information in bullet-point form to be cut and pasted in are another matter. Last week, I told a girl that no, I would not actually write her essay for her. “Why not?” she replied. Did she genuinely not know?

Do I mind being “a set book author”? No, so long as I can somehow make everyone who has to study a book of mine understand that what I wrote was a novel, a story, to be read and enjoyed, not a set text on which exam questions could be set. One of the novels I studied for O-level was George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It was dully taught, we analysed it out of existence, and I have never been able to face it since. I often implore students not to let this happen to my books.

I wonder if they listen.