A Perfectly Good A Level Text

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60I’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.

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30 thoughts on “A Perfectly Good A Level Text

  1. Being a teacher myself your post made me smile – how easy it is to forget what literature is all about – and made me wonder again how it could be done that students feel invited to read and to think. Ticking all the correct boxes certainly doesn’t make my students love literature. But on the other hand sometimes I’m flabbergasted how superficial their reading can be. A couple of weeks ago one of them claimed that in the story we were reading the protagonist wanted to kill himself by throwing himself down the stairs. Nowhere in the text was any indication for that. He was really confused when he couldn’t find the passage which he was so certain he had read. So whenever possible I’m aiming at helping them to read closely, critically and with a minimum of concentration and attention. Then the rest – questions and lively discussions – can follow quite naturally. So I hope that in the end all of you could enjoy an interesting and lively discussion. Anna from Germany

    1. Lovely to hear from you, Anna. Believe me having worked in different forms of education for over forty years I do know how difficult this is. I wonder if you read my earlier post about abandoning books where I mention a system developed here in the UK for use with primary children called ‘Tell Me’. I found this effective when working with my undergraduates too, especially when it was used as a framework to organise their reading journals. I don’t know how it would work with Secondary age students but I’ve just checked and it’s available on Amazon if you’re interested. The author is Aidan Chambers.

      1. Thanks ever so much for mentioning Aidan Chambers. I’m always looking for ideas which might be helpful in teaching literature. Although the situation in a book group is a bit different anyway because the members are already interested in books which unfortunately is not true for many students.
        I just wonder whether A-level readership habits might also be a kind of wall against books which we use in order to prevent being really touched and moved by books…

  2. Hi, Alex. Just for my own reading and writing benefit, I’ve come to realize that the key way to short-circuit my “A level” readership habits of looking only in terms of how I can fragment and dissect the text I’m reading is to try to emphasize only something quintessential about it, without naming it “plot, characterization, style, dialogue,” etc., unless that’s really the item it happens to be, and then just neglecting to discuss the other elements. I mean, if the plot is so innovative that it sticks out a mile, who really wants to discuss characterization and style and dialogue, and vice versa? This way, I often end up discussing content as opposed to form, but that’s just my choice. I don’t know if this helps.

    1. Hi, SO. I think I do very much the same without being conscious of the fact. Of course, being me, I usually find myself being most obviously drawn to the structure of whatever I’m reading but you’re right, if there is something else that is really important it will normally force its way through. By the way, your posts have stopped coming through on my reader. I don’t know whether the problem is at your end or mine, but I’m going to delete you and then reinstate and hope that that solves the problem. Sorry if I appear to have been neglecting you.

      1. Not to worry. The disconnection has sometimes happened to me too, with other websites. I just got a notice that you’re following my site, so maybe it’s just a temporary browser incompatibility problem (I’ve never had a permanent problem of that sort). Happy to have you along, and great blog, by the way!

  3. I actually dropped out of English Lit at Uni because the detailed analysis and concentration on linking books to authors’ lives was destroying my ability to really enjoy reading – to immerse myself in it rather than standing outside and looking at it objectively/critically. Crunch time was Great Expectations – although I was already a huge Dickens fan and had loved this book when I first read it for pleasure, carrying out an autopsy on it left it dead on the table for me, and it’s never fully come back to life.

    So now I never try to really analyse the structure of a book in detail – rather I judge it purely on how it makes me feel, whether it sucks me into its world, whether it makes me think. Although of course, to do all of those things, all the elements of plot, characterisation etc must be there…

    1. Now that is a real shame and a terrible indictment of the way you were being taught. Me being me, it is always the structure of a book that attracts my attention first, but that’s because I came to narrative analysis late and of my own volition. Having spent years working with the canonical narrative structure I am fascinated by what authors can do to deviate from that and still make sense to the reader.

      1. I’ve never really thought of it as a shame or regretted it. I think readers fall into two categories – those who like to read as a form of intellectual exercise and those who read simply for pleasure. I’m in the latter category but each has its merits. If anyone was ‘at fault’ I reckon it was my secondary school teachers who equated love of reading with a desire to be an academic reader and encouraged me, and other enthusiastic readers, towards studying English. In retrospect it’s obvious to me that I was never going to be suited to that, but I got out of it quickly enough that no permanent damage was done – except for my relationships with Great Expectations, Herman Melville and TS Eliot. 🙂

        1. Hi again, Alex. I had a caveat about disliking Herman Melville: while the shorter works and stories may justify themselves as good works, I don’t think it’s your fault if you didn’t like “Moby Dick,” but the fault of the book itself–if only the story could’ve been written without all the whaling info, or with only a smattering of it! Once, a male friend of mine told me that the reason that I didn’t like “Moby Dick” was because Melville is a “man’s writer”–but then, why do I like “Bartleby,” and “Billy Budd”? I think I didn’t like “Moby Dick” because in large spans of it, it’s just plain technical and boring!

            1. Absolutely not, SO, all thoughts are welcome and I think you’re right, sometimes it is the book itself that gets in the way. I have to admit that I’ve never even tried to read ‘Moby Dick’ simply because I don’t think I could cope with all the minutiae of whaling.

  4. Sometimes I momentarily regret having chosen sciences over English, Latin and Music for A-Level, but I do worry that having to dissect novels in this way would have ruined my passion for reading, so I’m glad really that I can just enjoy reading. Our bookgroup is very informal in our discussions and that works really well for us.

    1. I belong to three book groups Annabel and it’s interesting how they differ. There are three ex A level teachers in that particular group and it is noticeable that they are very reluctant to explore new ways of writing and of offering critical perspectives. The group I love the most is made up of primary teachers and university lecturers and their approach is much more open. I may be making gross over generalisations and the difference may be simply a reflection of the individuals but it is very noticeable.

  5. A Level English spoilt Jane Austen’s Persuasion for me, but thankfully years later I came to love it. Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was also one of the set texts, but that stood up to the A Level – or maybe it was because we had a different teacher for that book.

    It’s a funny feeling at a discussion group when you don’t agree with the others, but at least some of the others were on the same wave length as you. I was the only one at our last meeting who didn’t absolutely love the book and I felt a bit of an outsider. It made it worse that I was the last one to give my opinion.

    1. I think what made this worse was that the person involved is such a kind and gentle soul and yet she has a very narrow vision. The discussion became really quite stilted because no one wanted to disagree with her openly. Whereas in one of my other groups open warfare can sometimes break out and nobody cares two hoots because we all go home good friends at the end of the evening.

      1. I think we have a better discussion when we don’t all agree on a book – and yes sometimes it does get a bit heated. It’s hard if you have to tip toe, as it were, around a person’s feelings – we don’t have that problem.

  6. After I’d finished my first degree at Cambridge, I signed up for adult education classes thinking it would be fun to get an A level in English lit (my school wouldn’t allow me to study English, French and German – too samey they insisted to my chagrin). But I gave up after a couple of months because I couldn’t bear the dull and uninspired teaching. If I were given an A level class, I’d pick a book that also had a film adaptation and use the comparison between the two as a way of discussing the story. Comparisons are great, I think, always plenty to say without becoming too technical or too dry.

    1. One of my book groups does that every year at our September meeting. We haven’t meet for two months and have a great deal to catch up on so we discuss the book in the morning, have a long lunch talking about ourselves, see the film in the afternoon and then discuss the comparison over afternoon tea. We’ve been doing this for twelve years now and it works really well. As a side issue here, when I’m teaching Shakespeare I always start witht he source material and then ask what changes Shakespeare made and why. It’s a great way of getting at what is central to his vision.

  7. That club discussion reminded me so much of the scene in the film Dead Poets Society where the boys are directed to analysis which gives points that you could plot on a graph.

    Karen@bookertalk

    1. I hadn’t thought about that, Karen, but you’re right. One of my best moments as a teacher was when one of the students referred to me as ‘Mon capitaine’.

  8. Sometimes when we don’t know how to get into a text or we are supposed to do a presentation of sorts, we default back to our original analytical training. It could be worse, it could be like a few book groups I’ve been in where the default analysis was always whether or not the person liked the book.

    1. Those would be the groups where discussion of the book lasts for ten minutes if you’re lucky, I suppose, Stefanie? I’ve heard about these bur fortunately never belonged to one. We have been known to get turned out of the room in which we meet because we’ve gone over the two hours for which we’ve booked it:)

      1. Oh lucky you! Yes, those groups sometimes managed to has a discussion that lasted 30 minutes if there was a great divide between likes and dislikes. So very painful to be involved with them and to try to direct the conversation in a different direction would often produce blank stares. I never lasted long in those groups!

  9. This is an intriguing and really interesting post and comments. In the course of my work I’m in schools quite often and I wonder if the rigidity you describe, and that almost formulaic approach to responding to a text, isn’t just a problem in the teaching of literature but more an issue of pedagogy in general! When teaching lacks inspiration and excitement, I absolutely get how a rigid structural path to lesson delivery can bring about an improvement in quality. Sometimes though we get so obsessed with the structure we lose the ‘spark stuff’. One of the most depressing things I’ve ever come across was a school which earmarked two periods on a Thursday afternoon for ‘creativity’!!!! When I watch the best literacy teachers there’s a kind of uncertainty about where the lesson will end up – they have the confidence to follow it where it leads allied to the skill to manage that! I was for a short while in a book group that was like that – every month it followed an agreed structure – it still allowed every one to say what they thought – but only on cue!!! Soul destroying! Anyway ramble over – I’ve got this book on my TBR shelf – I should read it!!!!!

  10. Yes, Col, do read it and if possible ‘Notes From An Exhibition’ first as well. Your comment on the ‘creativity’ periods had me in hysterics i.e. somewhere in between laughing and crying because a university I know of as just instigated an MA which had that word in its title but which is still going to have to follow the same assessment pattern as other MAs. Nobody but me seems to think that this is going to cause a problem but how do you objectively grade creativity?

  11. I’ve really enjoyed reading this and Col’s comment in particular has given me pause for thought. I do agree that education does seem to deal in measurable outcomes and that can be confining sometimes; there seems to be a lot of pressure for ‘results’ rather than learning and pleasure, but maybe that’s not so, I hope not. I also see that after years of teaching one might get stuck in a rut. Duly noted…

    Unlike many of your commentors, I still love all of my A-level texts and was fortunate enough to have had excellent teachers – there were three at the school where I went for sixth form and two of them were wildly eccentric. In contrast, the teaching for my English GCSE, at another school, was sometimes plodding and I still hate Of Mice and Men…

    1. I think you raise two really important points here, Helen. The quality of the teaching is central and I fear that over the last twenty years the ‘space’ for a teacher to be eccentric as gone. You follow the rules laid down by the government of the day or you flounder. I know this is why I moved from primary to tertiary education because I would have found it impossible to be tied down so closely. At least in Higher Education you get a greater say in what is taught and how you go about it.

      The second point is possibly even more important. We have moved away from educating and now concentrate much more on teaching and even, training. There is a greater sense of roundness and of developing the individual implied in the term ‘educate’. ‘Training’, on the otherhand, to me at least implies turning out a nice neat series of clones.

      Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll do the former rather than the latter.

  12. Completely agree with you Alex. I studied James Joyce at A level and haven’t opened a book of his since. I like to read instinctively and although my English studies have widened my repertoire of writers I’m not sure the methodology od studying books has particularly helped. I remember my teacher being very dismissive of DH Lawrence. While he’s by no means perfect (!), living in Derbyshire his prose says something to me about my life too. But he seems to have gone out of favour which is a shame.

    1. Sarah, the Guardian book club is reading a Lawrence this month and because of this there was a really interesting section in one of their book podcasts on his works at some point in the last couple of weeks. I can’t remember the exact date but I’m sure if you checked on either the paper’s own site or I-Tunes you’d be able to track it down. I have to say that I’m no great lover of his work but I did find the discussion very interesting.

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