I’ve just come from a book club meeting that I found in one sense profoundly worrying but fortunately, ultimately extremely reassuring. We were discussing Patrick Gale’s most recent novel A Perfectly Good Man and the member who was introducing it began by saying that while she thought it was a good holiday read she really didn’t think that there was anything in the book to discuss.
Now this lady, who is a really good friend of mine, was for many years a much loved and successful A level teacher and so, having made this statement, she then began on a classic A level analysis of the text, organising her comments under the headings plot and structure, characterisation, style and themes. Sitting next to her I was starting to become concerned because not only had I enjoyed the book but I also thought there was a great deal to discuss and that one of the most interesting things about it was that it managed to combine being a page turner with being an extremely well written and thoughtful text. To my mind, it had some extremely interesting points to make about the nature of love, about being an outsider and about the way in which we may not recognise the really important moments in our lives until long after they have passed. What is more, Gale not only explores these themes through the characters he creates and the events that happen to them, but also echoes that exploration in the structure that he chooses. It may not be a text that lends itself to rigid literary analysis but that doesn’t make it a book that has nothing to say.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person there who didn’t really recognise the novel we’d read once it lay dissected in front of us and gradually we found ways of saying that we disagreed without, I hope, making the person leading the discussion feel too bad. However, this did make me think back to my own A Level days and wonder just how I ever came out the other end still a reader. For, while it is often useful to have in your mind the types of features you might be considering when thinking about a book, to reduce a text simply to its apparent ability to tick all the boxes on a checklist is to miss the point of reading in the first place. It reminds me of the writing test at the end of Key Stage 2 in which the children got a mark if they included a metaphor. It didn’t matter a fig whether or not said metaphor was appropriate to what was going on in the story at that point just the fact that it was there was enough to tick the box.
I think I was fortunate in as much as of the seven texts I studied for A level only one was a novel. I had three sets of poetry, three plays and Emma. I’ve told you the story of my relationship with Emma before. It took me an entire year to read it and the fact that I was still reading Emma became a standing family joke. Luckily for me, the poetry was well taught and I’d been in and out of theatres since I was two so no doubt those facts compensated for any woeful exam answer I might have provided for the novel section of the paper, but I wouldn’t mind betting that it was that question that brought my eventual mark down to a B. To this day, while I love all Austen’s other works I cannot even look at a copy of Emma without wincing.
It’s a challenge, though, isn’t it? How do we find ways of talking about texts without resorting to measuring them against a prescribed list of features characteristic of well written fiction? Maybe the fault lies in that word measuring. Or perhaps the difficulty is with the notion of something prescribed. Both bring with them a feeling of closing down options rather than being open to writers who offer new ways of exploring the world in which we live and our relationship to it and those others who inhabit it. I worry about the way in which our Government seems to want to recreate our exam system ever second year or so, but perhaps there is an argument for doing something about the way in which the novel is taught if only so that another generation of students isn’t left running a mile every time they see a copy of Emma.