Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia

This article was written by Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics

george-orwell-bbc-1

George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a lowly member of the ruling party, rebelling against the totalitarian rule of Big Brother and The Party in Airstrip One (formerly England), part of the vast empire of Oceania. George Orwell’s novel shows with a terrifying clarity what a totalitarian regime looks like from the inside, with its propaganda, controlled hatred and perpetual war. The book was considered so realistic that when copies were sneaked illegally into the USSR, illicit readers presumed it was written by someone close to Stalin.

As others have pointed out, what makes it so powerful are the details that we all recognise. The dictatorship is all powerful yet the in the England of ‘Airstrip One’ sinks are still blocked, greasy canteens serve sloppy food and tower blocks smell of cabbage. When Winston Smith sleeps and dreams of freedom he wakes up with the name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. Unlike the brilliant abstract novel We that inspired Orwell, this dystopia, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, feels very close by (see Orwell’s review of We here).

The world in which Smith moves also feels scarily relevant. The leaders in Oceania control their people through targeted hatred and predict what they do before they do it. There are uncomfortable echoes of the dark side of a surveillance society and big data: they can even monitor you through your television. The book is also full of ‘political language’ that ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Double-think dominates a world where those in power can believe contradictory things simultaneously and bend reality at will. Opening up Orwell’s book today, Oceania’s propaganda slogan ‘ignorance is strength’ rings far too familiar for comfort.

Alongside the torture in Room 101 and the mind reading Thought Police, the truly terrifying feature of Winston’s world is the lack of objective truth. In Oceania it is impossible to establish something as a fact: what the Party says is true is the only truth. Winston Smith works in a Ministry constantly amending previous editions of newspapers, altering the past to control the future. Orwell’s fictional Oceania does what the truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century tried to do: create their own ‘moral universe’ insulated from reality. Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps in Nazi Germany were taunted by the guards with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’.

Orwell’s original title for the book was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Smith’s struggle to love and live in Oceania is a struggle to preserve his humanity. Despite its reputation as a vision of an alternative future, the dystopia of Oceania is as much a warning as a prophesy. Orwell’s book, written in beautiful clear prose, offers us a frightening glimpse of what life was like for many people (and still is like in many places). Is it completely bleak? Read the mysterious appendix on Newspeak that Orwell eccentrically insisted on keeping in, even for Reader’s Digest. It’s written in the past tense.

Listen to Jean Seaton, Ben Worthy and Caroline Edwards discuss 1984 at Birkbeck Arts Week event ‘Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia’ on 17/5/2017 at 6pm. For tickets click here.

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Bringing life to the Brontës

This post was contributed by Dr Siv Jansson, Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She was Literary Advisor on To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright: BBC).

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

A drama about the Brontes was something which Sally and I had talked about over a number of years, and I knew it was a topic she had long wanted to do. In 2014  it was green-lit by the BBC, and by the end of that year the process of producing the script began.

Sally did a tremendous amount of research and had clear ideas concerning the approach she wanted to take, and it was my job to support that. There is no clear ‘job description’ for the role of literary advisor; it depends upon the people you are working with and the nature of the project. The literary advisor is there to do just that, advise: the decisions rest with the writer/director and producer. Sally and I had many, many lengthy discussions, and I read the drafts of the script bit by bit as she wrote them. I’d comment or suggest, but it was always Sally’s script. She made the decision to focus on the period 1845-8, and I agreed with this; even though the BBC gave us an extra 30 minutes – making it a120-minute instead of a 90-minute film – to try to fit all the Brontes’ lives – and deaths – into two hours would have been an impossible task. 1845-8 is the period when the writing emerged into the public domain so it made sense to concentrate on that.

A major part of my role was research; for example, I found the newspaper story which Charlotte is reading to her father in one of the early scenes. It’s from the Leeds Intelligencer: Sally wanted something which would have been in the news at that time and of interest to Patrick (it was a story about Irish politics). I also re-read all the biographical material available and anything Sally didn’t have time to look at, looked up details – for example what information was available at that time on delirium tremens – put together a compendium of descriptions of the Brontes and the various images which are or have been claimed to be them, and also investigated some of the most well-known but possibly unfounded Bronte myths. As Juliet Barker has pointed out, Branwell not only didn’t go to London, but was never intended to do so – there is a letter from Patrick which talks about sending him the following year. Following up on this, I spent an afternoon in the British Library looking at coaching timetables and journeys to establish that he actually could not have made the journey he is supposed to have made on the dates or times he is thought to have made it, and that the planned trip to London was, indeed, a myth. We considered whether to excise the flashback scene where Branwell is describing to his father and aunt that he had been robbed in London (while Emily observes from the doorway), but decided that it did important work in terms of establishing character and Emily and Branwell’s relationship, and that it should stay for these reasons. These kinds of decisions are part of the business of producing a drama.

We were very lucky to have rehearsal time with the cast who were playing the family, and they spent a week in Haworth with Sally, where I joined them for a couple of days. It was an opportunity for them to see the Parsonage and spend time with the staff, work with Sally, benefit from the expertise of people like Ann Dinsdale (Principal Curator at the Parsonage), Juliet Barker (historian and author of The Brontes)  and Patsy Stoneman (Bronte scholar), and to bond in a way which I firmly believe contributed a great deal to the success of the film and the strength of their performances.

There has, of course, been some coverage in the press over Branwell’s use of the word ‘fuck’. I understand that some people have been troubled by this as being inappropriate or too contemporary but Branwell would have been mixing with quite a range of individuals as his drinking and opium habit developed and I think it perfectly credible that he would have sworn at all of the family as his life deteriorated. We referred this to Ann Dinsdale who concurred with us. I also think that there remains an assumption that great writers, or even those associated with them, must talk in some kind of ‘elevated’ way rather than like ordinary human beings. Anyone who knows Sally’s work will be aware of the sheer believability with which she imbues her characters and her dialogue. One of our key principles in developing the script was that the Brontes should behave and interact as much like a real, ordinary family as possible; there was to be no mystic wafting on the moors or notions that people born and bred in Yorkshire would talk as if they had just left elocution school. It is also essential, from a commercial point of view, to create characters who will have some resonance with contemporary viewers who may not be Bronte experts, or even fans.

Getting details right was a commitment made by everyone involved, and when I saw the recreation of the Parsonage rooms at the studios in Manchester, I was, quite frankly, amazed; without the benefit of any contemporary images from which to work, Grant, our designer, and his team came up with brilliant representations. Equally, the reconstructed parsonage on the moors was astonishing; seeing it built (and seeing what it looked like before it was finished!) gave me a real appreciation of the levels of skill involved in making something like this happen.

As anyone who works with biography will know, it is a slippery art form. Biographies are shaped by their cultural moment and the direction pursued by the biographer, whether on paper or screen. Bronte biography is particularly problematic because it is so dogged by myth-making , as Lucasta Miller has so aptly observed, and also because it is so patchy and erratic. We know a reasonable amount about Charlotte, though there are significant gaps; less about Anne and Branwell; relatively little about Emily. This is both a gift and a curse; it leaves wonderful imaginative spaces but at the same time means that speculation is inevitable. All any biographer or dramatist can do is provide their interpretation of the information we have. Dramatising the Brontes brings with it additional demands because they carry such a mystique with the public and their readers, and I think we were all aware that whatever we did, there would be some who would not like it.

Do I like it? I love it. The film does exactly what I wanted it to do when Sally and I first discussed it; it resists the myths, it shows a real – and sometimes dysfunctional – family, and it portrays the significance and development of the writing. I am somewhat baffled by those who complained that it didn’t show enough of this – I could itemise so many scenes which showed, or talked about, the poetry, or the novels, or the juvenilia. It even revealed Branwell as a writer, though clearly nowhere near the stature of his sisters. Writing is not a dramatic act: it is necessarily static and largely internal as a creative process. To show repeated scenes of people writing at tables – or even walking round them – would have been utterly tedious; nor do I think it was imperative to keep reminding the audience that the Brontes wrote. Yes, I have favourite scenes: Emily and Branwell’s nocturnal exchange sitting on the gate, the opening with the children, Emily speaking ‘No Coward Soul’ to Anne, the scene in Smith, Elder & Co. in London, the discovery of Emily’s poetry (and her reaction), the visit of William Allison to Branwell in the Black Bull, and the bailiffs’ scene.

What advice would I give to anyone taking up the job of literary advisor on a similar project? Be flexible and open to ideas, be thorough, respond speedily to queries and requests, love the topic (but) keep the genre of TV and its demands in mind, don’t expect drama to operate as a documentary, accept that your suggestions or advice won’t always be taken, and realise that the writer, director  and producer have the final say.  I had never worked on a project like this before and it was a (sometimes steep) learning curve; but I loved the experience, was delighted with the response, and am very proud of what we achieved.

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Farewell to John Berger


Framegrab from A Song for Politics, the third essay in The Seasons in Quincy

On 2 January 2017, John Berger died. Below we offer a reflection on John from The Seasons in Quincy director and producer Colin Maccabe. This article was originally published on the Derek Jarman Lab website

John Berger was an extraordinary individual, extraordinary in the range of his creation and his criticism. But also extraordinary as a presence. He had the least sense of hierarchy of anyone I have ever known. And he was uniquely interested in the present moment. So whoever he was with, young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown, man or woman, had his complete attention. This was in its way unnerving: you had to think about what you were saying because you were being listened to with quite unusual concentration. And you had to listen with real intensity because what was being said was being said for you and, it felt, for you alone. But if it was unnerving it was also immensely invigorating. You became more intelligent and more consequent, more insightful and more amusing. And what John said stayed with you and you felt transformed by it.

This may all sound quite pious. John could well have been an actor and there was something of the ham in his performances. He was also a seducer and you were seduced. But neither of these facts detract from the wonderful pleasure of his company, indeed they were an essential part of it.

He was the best and most reliable of friends – always willing to lend a hand, to encourage, to enthuse, and, very important, to criticise when it was necessary. His range was extraordinary: major art critic, great novelist, gifted film-maker. He even with his close friend Jean Mohr invented a genre: the committed use of photography and prose to render invisible elements of the social visible. They started with A Fortunate Man in 1967 but developed further with A Seventh Man (1975) which John thought his best book. It is 40 years since A Seventh Man was composed but the analysis of the crucial role of migrant labour in contemporary capitalism could have been written tomorrow.

It is foolish to predict reputation into the future, but I hope that people go on reading and watching John, because he joined the demand for social justice to the recognition of the centrality of desire and the importance of form. His death brought to me three quotes which touch on each of these emphases.

‘To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.’

John Berger ‘The Museum of Desire’ (2001) published at latimes.com, p.1

‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

John Berger ‘Keeping a Rendezvous’ published in Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje eds. The Brick Reader Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991, p. 330.

‘What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time.’

John Berger and Jean Mohr Another Way of Telling New York: Pantheon, 1982, p. 85.

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Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

This post was contributed by Prof Anthony Bale, who teaches on the MA Medieval Literature and Culture at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This article was originally posted on the Material Texts Network on October 30 2015

When is a book not a book? The destruction of a book – through burning, through recycling, through iconoclasm, for instance – places great emphasis on its materiality, its power as a physical object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when nobody knows about a book’s existence, it simply disappears – both the physical book and the textual lives inside it. When a book is unknown and hidden away it is perhaps reduced to the bare facts of its existence: a piece of matter unread, unloved, unvalued, uncatalogued.

Books disappear easily when they are not catalogued; it is through catalogues and finding aids that medievalists find their sources. When I joined Birkbeck College as a lecturer in 2002, I was excited to find that the College owned one manuscript, which I knew about from Neil R. Ker’s magisterial four-volume catalogue, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. But time passed, I became diverted by other projects, and I never got round to looking at the manuscript. And then I more or less forgot about it.

This year I have been teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ for students on Birkbeck’s MA in Medieval Literature & Culture. It struck me that it would be so much easier to talk about medieval books if one had one to show to the students – to talk about the binding, the physical construction of a book, the stains and the damage, the signs of a book’s lived life, as well as the text, the decoration, the illustration. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ker’s description of one manuscript, and looked it up, and sent an email off to my subject-librarian at Birkbeck’s library.

It was as much as a surprise to the College as it was to me to image3discover that Birkbeck houses a small collection of not one but four medieval books (three manuscripts and one incunabulum). I quickly arranged to view the books, three of which have not been catalogued and do not seem to have been viewed since around 1991. The books comprise a sort of ‘capsule collection’: they represent several important developments in European religious culture, in book history, and in literary tastes.

The books are:

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)
Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)

The Birkbeck Hours (sine numero): a beautiful small book of hours, from northern France, dated to c. 1400.

MS L.I: the rules and customs of the Capitoli della Compagnia di S. Girolamo of Siena, dated to the early fifteenth century.

MS 108.C: a manuscript of the Sententaie Sapientiae, attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Seneca, and which once belonged to the Monastery of St Zeno, Verona; dated to c. 1450.

Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius (sine numero): a skin-bound volume, a much-read history of the Trojan War, printed at Venice, 1499.

Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)
Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

One of the manuscripts, the Birkbeck Hours, was given to the College in 1977 by the widow of Dr Charles Fox (1897-1977), a lecturer at Birkbeck who later became a distinguished mathematician at Concordia University in Montreal. How the other three manuscripts reached Birkbeck is not known at present, although we do know that MS L.I was purchased by the College in the 1950s, probably to be used as a teaching aid. Ownership inscriptions in MS 108.C show that, in the nineteenth century, it belonged to a Peter John Bruff and, later, the Victorian scholar and antiquarian R. A. H. Bickford-Smith (1859-1916).

The books open a window onto readers and writers from hundreds of years ago; by coming back into public view, they can delight and instruct again. A more detailed examination of the books will, in time, yield much more about the lives these fascinating books have lived, and continue to live.

NB: The books are not currently available for public view, but it is hoped that a digitisation project will make them available online in due course.

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Where are all the grandparents in modern fiction?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel,Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart is out now from Halban Publishers. This article was originally published on The Guardian‘s books blog.

Grandparents-in-contemporary-literatureConsidering how important grandparents are in many modern families – plugging the gaps and picking up the pieces when the stresses and strains on working parents get too much – isn’t it surprising that we don’t find more of them in contemporary fiction?

There is, of course, no shortage of memorable grandparents in children’s literature, beaming benignly – or occasionally malevolently – from the bookshelves: from the four grandparents in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, via Grannie Island and Granma Mainland in Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag series to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, grandparents seem a far richer source of inspiration than boring old parents.

But look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at 60 and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfilment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply. One rare exception is Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson’s magical The Summer Book. Jansson (of Moomintroll fame) here turns her shrewd gaze on the interaction between an elderly grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter, spending the summer together on an island in the Finnish archipelago. The book is beautiful, astute and tells us a lot both about childhood and about old age.

When my novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, which examines the relationship between a grandmother and her young grandson, was published at the end of 2014, my expectations were low: I hadn’t published a novel for 20 years, my (excellent) publishers are a small independent house and a number of mainstream commercial publishers had previously rejected the book, telling me that it didn’t fit on their lists. So I was quite unprepared for the extraordinary reactions that began almost as soon as the book came out.

front coverIn Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, Sylvia’s bond with her grandson is threatened when his parents split up, driving her to extreme measures. I was invited on to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, together with Jane Jackson of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, which helps those denied contact with their grandchildren after family breakdown. I was quite panicked at the thought of my fiction side-by-side with real-life heartbreak. During the programme, I learned that a million British children have no contact at all with their grandparents because of some form of family rift. After our discussion, Woman’s Hour received so many emails from listeners with their own stories that they opened the programme the next day with a family therapist talking about the issues raised.

Sobered, I went about my business (including getting on with my next novel). A couple of weeks later, I was interviewed by a journalist who told me her own story of a family breakup triggering a loss of contact with grandchildren. Then a neighbour who had enjoyed the book told me about the predicament of a close friend, denied contact with her beloved grandchildren after their parents divorced. Real life, it seemed, was starting to outstrip fiction.

Last month I gave a reading at JW3, London’s new Jewish community centre. Grandparents were invited to come along and join a discussion of the themes raised by the book. Although the weather was cold enough to deter a much younger audience, the room was full and one after another the audience opened up with their own experiences. One woman, a grandma to 11 grandchildren, reduced many of us to tears with the desperate story of how her ex-son-in-law had denied her access to his children following the death of the children’s mother, her own daughter.

My humorous look at a warring mother-in-law and daughter-in-law suddenly felt rather light-hearted. It was a relief when another member of the audience spoke up: “You know the bit where Sylvia gives her grandson ice cream even though her daughter-in-law doesn’t allow it? I’ve done that.” There was a ripple of recognition around the room.

Other posts by Helen Harris:

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Patrick Modiano, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, is a paradox

Akane KawakamiThis post was contributed by Dr Akane Kawakami, Senior Lecturer in  20th and 21st-century French and francophone literature in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages. It was originally published on The Washington PostDr Kawakami’s books include A Self-Conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions

Patrick Modiano, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, is a paradox. He writes bestsellers but shuns the media. His novels sound autobiographical, yet his declared subject is a historical period that ended just before he was born. His style is clear and simple, but it masks complex time frames, unreal scenarios and a narrator who often seems to know little about the story he is in charge of. He is a household name in France but almost unknown outside his own country. This is one reason why the recipient of this year’s literature prize may come as something of a surprise to the world at large, if not to his faithful and numerous Francophone readers.

Even for those of us who have been reading and loving his books for several decades, this honor establishing him as a “grand man of letters” seems somehow not to fit the media-shy author. Can it really be that this recluse — famously inarticulate on the French literary program “Apostrophes” and always reluctant to give interviews — has been dragged into the limelight to be given the greatest literary accolade of all?

Modiano himself has always played down his own achievements, as well as the status of his chosen medium, the novel. In 1975, after four successful novels, Modiano — in a rare interview — claimed that the novel was an “anachronistic” genre that had ”slipped away” from public view. His heroes are known for slipping away, too; they’re shadowy, furtive figures modeled on himself (they tend to be tall, dark, shy and not good at interviews). In story­lines that are reminiscent of classic detective novels, his heroes set off on their searches into the past, trying to solve mysteries rooted in the period of the Occupation, Modiano’s avowed obsession.

Modiano_Missing PersonThe Occupation of France by the Nazis during World War II — along with the collaboration of many French nationals and the murder of French Jews — is a dirty pocket of French history that was not much discussed following the Allied victory. After Charles de Gaulle inaugurated the Fifth Republic, the general tendency was to stop talking about les années noires. It was only authors of a later generation — such as Modiano, whose guilt was inherited rather than personal — who proved able to explore this painful period. His first novel, about an anti-Semitic Jew who leads a colorful and surreal existence during the war, was published in 1968. Missing Person, published in 1978, is another highlight, about an amnesiac detective who goes on a hunt for his own identity during the Occupation. Honeymoon (1990), the story of a young Jewish woman who disappears in 1942, is also a gripping read.

Modiano’s novels are usually built around several time frames. They might start off in the 1980s, go back to the 1960s to evoke his youth and then suddenly shelve down into the 1940s to reveal a crucial link between a friend of his deceased parents and the woman he is dating in the present. Or the link will not be crucial; it will simply be a case of what might have been, the possibility that one ephemeral life that was extinguished during the Occupation might have brushed past another who has happened to survive.

In Dora Bruder (1997), Modiano gave up fiction and tried to re-create the real life of the heroine of Honeymoon, relating the few facts he had recovered about her movements in 1941 to his own wanderings through the Parisian streets as an adolescent in the 1960s, and to his walks in the 1990s. Gaps in his knowledge evoke the poignancy of the subject, as, in the end, Modiano has to concede that he still knows almost nothing about the girl, except that she was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and ended her days in Auschwitz.

Modiano tells all this in a limpid, almost classical prose that belies the ugliness of the events and facts. His writing is extremely readable, which is perhaps the reason for both his popularity in France and his relative lack of academic recognition (his novels are taught more in English-speaking universities than in French ones). Yet his clear writing eases the reader through instances of formal experimentation that would not be out of place in a Paul Auster novel: bewildering shifts in time, multiple appearances of “Patrick,” who may or may not be the author, and apparently real settings transformed into strange, hallucinatory spaces.

Light is something Modiano is good at describing, and many of the scenes in his novels are almost cinematic in their visual impact. Modiano co-wrote the screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle, and has carried on to make more films, such as The Son of Gascogne (Pascal Aubier, 1995) and Bon Voyage (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 2003).

His prose also achieves a difficult feat, which is to get French readers to face, time and time again, the unspeakable acts of betrayal and cowardice perpetuated during the Occupation. The detective novel framework, the clear style, the diffident narrators — all this makes it deceptively simple for readers to occupy the narrator’s seat in Modiano’s novels. The narrator of Missing Person introduces himself saying, “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the cafe terrace.”

The joy of reading a Modiano novel is to slip into that silhouette, to make the journey through the decades of French history and then — sometimes, suddenly — experience all the horror of the past at the same time as the immunity conferred by its distance.

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Can creative writing be taught?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published by Halban Publishers on 13 November.

Creative writing lecturers are used to the scepticism – occasionally tinged with downright hostility – with which some people react when they reveal their profession. “Do you really believe you can teach someone to write?” Well yes, personally I believe that with patience and imagination it is possible to teach anyone to do anything.

What is more disturbing is when a successful writer who also teaches creative writing loudly announces – as Hanif Kureishi did earlier this year – that creative writing courses are “a waste of time.” Cue uproar. Even as he spoke, creative writing courses were proliferating in universities up and down the country.

What is perhaps even more puzzling is that this scepticism seems to be shared by a number of students who enrol on creative writing modules. Some of them insist to me, for example, that the marking of their coursework must be subjective, that their friends thought it was brilliant and if I have not given it the high mark it so obviously deserves, that is just because my taste does not coincide with their friends’. Reminding them that all the coursework is second marked has little effect; creative writing is an imprecise individualistic business they seem to believe, certainly not an exact science with its own measures and its own criteria.

I could not walk into the classroom, certainly not at 7.30pm on a wet and windy November evening, if I didn’t believe I was teaching my students anything worthwhile. But what do I think I am actually teaching them?

For the past three years I have been delivering an introductory creative writing module which is part of Birkbeck’s BA English: “Writing Fiction”. My students are second to fourth year undergraduates. I begin the module by outlining what I believe I can – and what I can’t – teach them. The “can’t” list is actually quite short. I can’t teach them what to write; the story comes from them. Similarly, just as they all speak in their own voice with their own accent and vocabulary and mannerisms, the voice in their writing will be their voice. I tell them that within a few weeks I will be able to identify which student has written which piece of coursework even without names attached.

What I believe I can teach them is essentially craft. I run through the list of topics we cover in the first term – character, beginnings, plot, dialogue, point of view – and I explain that I am here to instruct them primarily in technique, not in how to write but how to write better. It is, I sum up cheerily, not much different from plumbing. (My all-time favourite student feedback form read roughly as follows: “I was a bit taken aback when Helen said at the beginning she would be teaching us to write in the same way that you might be taught how to assemble an IKEA bookcase. But as an approach I found it worked.”)

Of course it’s not quite like assembling an IKEA bookcase (something of which I am incidentally incapable.) But my students – and I expect most creative writing students – finish their course with a deeper understanding of what makes good fiction and how it works. Some of them lament that the way they read has changed; they fear they have lost the simple pleasure of enjoying a ‘good read’ without watching carefully to see what the writer is doing and how he/she is doing it. I tell them that this is in fact an encouraging sign of their progress.

front coverThe last session of the year was payback time. My new novel Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published in November. Over the year, we have spent many evenings workshopping their writing. For our final class I put my money where my mouth is. I emailed them the first chapter of Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart and asked them for critical feedback in our evening workshop. They set about the task with evident relish. As I listened to their feedback – “Is this really Jeremy’s point of view here or is it actually Sylvia’s?” “You told us not to include too much descriptive writing but you’ve got loads” – I could tell how much they had learnt over the year about writing fiction. And although I may have winced a couple of times, I am confident some of them will go on to write their own novels one day.

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Michael Gove should not kill the Mockingbird

This post was written by Dr Anna Hartnell, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published in the Guardian.

‘Neighbours bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbours give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

This poignant moment from the last few pages of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, records the instant where a girl, about nine years old, finally recognises the humanity of her childhood bogeyman. This is a coming-of-age story, unusual for the fact that it charts the development of a female protagonist, Scout, and explores issues around racial violence, rape, and social marginality in the depression-era deep south of the United States. It has stirred up controversy across US school districts since it first entered the classroom in 1963.

Michael Gove’s decision to remove this book – along with a number of other American classics such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which similarly explore political persecution, social exclusion and the oppression of the weak – from the English literature GCSE syllabus, is not just parochial and regressive, it also fails to recognise the dynamics that make up modern Britain. It fails to understand that a large part of the value of reading literature lies precisely in the kind of empathic leap Scout makes at the end of Lee’s novel, one that enables her to see herself through the eyes of an “other” and so more fully comprehend her own identity.

To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably itself limited by the vision of a white liberal, but it tends to strike a chord with young people because its voice is faltering and uncertain and wide open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form.

However, schoolchildren in the UK are now going to be given a “more traditional” syllabus made up of largely British texts penned prior to the 20th century. Such a syllabus harks back to the myth of a “pure” origin for English literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multicultural, multilingual and multinational space that Britain is today. Gove and his colleagues at the Department for Education are fantasising about a nation unencumbered by racial or cultural difference, or calls for greater social and economic equality.

This fantasy recalls an earlier moment in British imperial history when the colonial government in India decided in 1835 that education, conducted up to that point in native languages, would henceforth happen in English only. This narrow linguistic agenda ironically contributed to the reality of “literatures in English” – those other English voices that bear witness to the fact that the nation’s literary tradition does not have an uncomplicated beginning in medieval England.

At a time when the right is on the rise across Europe, immigrants are under attack from right and left, and the UK’s criminal justice system increasingly resembles the disastrous US model – which has seen the mass incarceration of black people under what many characterize as a new system of racialized control – the DfE’s decision plays into a poisonous atmosphere. There are of course other literary texts that are equally relevant for GCSE students; they need not be Anglo-American or indeed all be post-1900. But pre-20th century English culture should not dominate the syllabus: Gove’s attempt to wind the clock back overlooks the myriad identities of the children now populating British schools.

As Scout opens her narrative she reveals that her family can trace its lineage back to Simon Finch, a man from Cornwall who was persecuted as a Methodist and duly left England for the New World. There he acquired slaves, thus substituting one form of oppression for another. This knotty and discomforting genealogy that binds Englishness to empire and slavery and their fractious legacies of racism and inequality seems to be too thought-provoking for Gove’s deeply conservative vision of English literature. Our children should not be prevented from discovering it.

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Should we prize literary prizes?

This post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities.

It only takes a cursory look around the fiction section of any bookshop to see that literary prizes are big business.  Proclamations of prizes won and novels shortlisted clamour for attention alongside ‘3 for 2’ stickers and snippets of glowing reviews on every cover.  But are literary prizes more than just another marketing tool?

The weight which literary prizes hold with the reading public suggests a desire to be guided towards new and exciting literary fiction. In this sense, literary prizes provide a healthy counterbalance to a publishing industry which sometimes only seems interested in authors who have attained the status of celebrities or celebrities who fancy themselves authors. Nevertheless, the proliferation of literary prizes in this country risks reducing the attempt to draw special attention to the chosen few into a general cacophony of criticism.

According to James F. English, the rise of literary prize culture is ‘one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life’ whose examination raises questions about ‘the very nature of our individual and collective investments in art’. Many of the questions raised relate to the criteria by which literary prizes are awarded, which is also to say, the criteria by which some are excluded. This applies, not only to the inevitable fuss when a favoured author or book fails to make the cut, but also to the way prizes are delimited on the basis of gender, genre, age or nationality. The character of each prize is defined by which particular group of literature or authors it has chosen to support and promote, yet too rigorous a policing of its own borders risks seeming arbitrary or, worse, exclusionary. Controversy last week over Granta’s inclusion of Kamila Shamsie—a Pakistani author in the process of applying for British citizenship—in their Best of Young British Novelists list, is a case in point. Had Granta chosen not to include Shamsie on the basis of her lack of citizenship, though, the result would probably have been the same.The increasingly transnational nature of authors and their works is just one of the challenges to the traditional taxonomies upon which many literary prizes are based as they attempt to keep pace with the literature they judge.

Literary excellence, always ostensibly the most important factor in prize culture, is also subject to redefinition as values shift and change. When the 2011 Man Booker Prize committee declared the importance of ‘readability’ in their judging criteria, they unleashed a storm of debate about whether literary prize culture is inherently elitist and, if so, whether this constituted a problem. Critics like Allan Massie hit back saying, ‘Everybody is elitist when it comes to subjects they care about, quick to applaud what they think good and to disparage what doesn’t, in their opinion, measure up’.

But what measures up and what does not remains a difficult question to answer. Should worthy themes weigh more with us than dazzling prose?  Should a formally innovative novel be valued over one which moves us or can tell a captivating story? Philip Hensher, compared the Man Booker unfavourably to Granta’s list, arguing that it over-emphasised ‘significance’.  He went on rather glibly, ‘[b]rio, unlike the decision to write a long dull novel about a historical genocide, is a quality that tends to last’. If Hensher is right and we have reached a point where literature is divided into well-crafted and entertaining novels on the one hand and worthy but clumsy ones on the other, then it’s a depressing state of affairs, although one suspects that as a beneficiary of the 2003 list Hensher might be talking up the ‘brio’ camp to which his own books presumably belong.

Clearly no one is impartial in the question of what makes great literature and consensus will always prove elusive, but the attempt to settle the question comes around again whenever a literary prize is on the horizon. Anticipation in the build up to the new Granta Young British Novelist list, announced last week on 15 April, was intense for a number of reasons. Not least this year was the knowledge that—since authors over the age of 40 are not eligible—Hilary Mantel would not be swiping this one…  The Granta list differs from its fellows in that it comes around only once in every ten years but also because it rewards potential rather than established talent.  It has a good track record for spotting promise in authors not yet on most readers’ radar and of suggesting the shape of the literary landscape yet to come.  Despite some sad omissions (Courttia Newland and Jon McGregor are, to my mind, the most surprisingly overlooked) it’s an exciting list which suggests some interesting new trends. For one thing, there are a record number of authors who are expats, recent arrivals or of dual heritage, suggesting (as with the inclusion of Shamsie) that the prize committee wished to reflect an increasingly global outlook. The authors chosen also tend to straddle artistic boundaries, combining their career as novelists with games writing (Naomi Alderman), film making (Xialou Guo), conceptual art (Steven Hall) or sculpting (Jenni Fagan) to name but a few.  It’s also perhaps the first list to feature two writers (Naomi Alderman and Steven Hall) who have written for Doctor Who. What does it all mean?

Perhaps not as much as all that. After all, prizes are determined on arbitrary criteria by a small number of people whose judgement often errs, blinding us to the best in literature as often as it alerts us to something worthy of our attention. At the very least, though, they stir up debate and conversation about what it is we value about literature and where we should be looking for the stories that matter to the times in which we live. Not all prizes are of equal value, however, and it’s worth staying reflective about what they really represent. It seems to me that the public needs some guidance about which are the prizes that really matter, perhaps a small committee of expert individuals who could determine what makes a good literary prize and draw attention to those which are most merit worthy… Would it be taking matters too far to establish a prize for literary prizes?

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