Two weeks ago I blogged here about starting a week-long Get Into Reading course run by The Reading Organisation in the wilds of Cheshire. I promised an update. The week was packed, and there was plenty of work to catch up with at home when I got back, so this account is very much ‘recollected in tranquillity’.
Our group – eighteen fellows of the Royal Literary Fund, all professional writers – was the first group of writers the TRO had tackled, and it was always going to be like herding cats. There was a tension between their expectations of writers and the reality, especially the reality of writers starved of decent caffeine. (Jane Davis, who heads TRO, kindly brought me a coffee pot and coffee supply when things got really desperate.)
Did Sartre go on a residential course before he wrote Huis Clos (‘Hell is other people’)? It was far from Hell – it was lovely to be with other writers and readers – but writers are solitary workers. Most of us spend hours a day writing alone and are masters and mistresses of our time. Being forced to be with other people, even delightful ones, for up to ten hours a day, was very wearing. Any longer, and we’d have been appealing to PEN's prisoner support scheme.
So, given that TRO had to deal with a group of unherdable, stroppy, stir-crazy writers, it went pretty well. The highlight of the week was undoubtedly Wednesday, when we got to practise on some real, live readers from the local area. Each of us led a session with some seasoned participants in reading groups. They were lovely, courteous, generous people, and all extremely good at articulating and unpicking their emotional responses to the poetry we looked at. They had all been going at least once a week to read poetry and prose aloud and talk about it with other ordinary readers. Although we had been told that the groups did not want lit crit style sessions, they spoke confidently about alliteration and symbolism, bringing up the topics themselves. One man who had spotted that the poem we were reading was a sonnet went home and checked the rhyme scheme and the next day told me it was a Petrarchan sonnet.
There was another highlight, too. On Thursday evening, we – the writers – put on a Shakespeare-themed stage show for the readers. And the high point of the performance was children’s writer Joyce Dunbar, dressed in green motley once used as a dinosaur costume, playing Caliban (rehearsing in the picture, no costume)
We talked a lot about settings in which GIR (Get Into Reading) groups take place, about the choice of texts and about what people get out of it – and not only the readers, but the facilitators get a lot out of it. Many of us left on Friday fired with enthusiasm to set up groups of our own. Merseyside must be pretty much saturated with groups; elsewhere they are still sparse – though there is one in the Cabinet Office. How many of us will do it? It involves raising funds, and writers don’t usually like doing that. Or working for free, and writers certainly don’t like doing that. But there’s a lot of enthusiasm.
So what’s new about all this? Nothing. The Get Into Reading group activity is very closely modelled on the Oxbridge supervision/tutorial, which in turn is modelled on Socrates’ teaching methods. The critical approach adopted by TRO is simply reader-response (or reader-oriented) criticism, practical criticism in the I.A.Richards model. [New addition - thanks to Steve Cook for this link to a description of practical criticism as taught at Cambridge, where I learned and taught it many years ago.] But if TRO can manage to sell Socratic dialogue to the nation and so get more and more people reading, that will be a fine achievement. The very fact that the method has survived two and a half thousand years is a testament to its efficacy. Getting the country reading, and talking about good books, and reclaiming their literary heritage, has to be a good thing - with or without Socrates as poster boy.