Sunday, 26 April 2015

I Love Books So Why Did I Hate English Literature? - Julie Sykes

It often surprises people to learn that I gave up English at 16. As someone who earns a living from writing, and a keen reader too, I'm expected to have at least an A ‘level in the subject.

The reason I don’t is simple. You couldn’t study English Language at my sixth form college. It was English Literature or nothing. I hated English Literature, so I opted for nothing.

Shakespeare left me cold. It still does. If I want to read in a foreign language then I’ll learn something useful like German.

At 16, Thomas Hardy and Steinbeck depressed me. Chaucer, Hemmingway, Gerald Manley Hopkins…no thanks!

There, I’ve said it. My guilty secret is out. Please don’t yell at me. I can’t help what I like and it’s not that.

I’m not alone either. A few months ago, Orli Vogt-Vincet (the 15 year old book blogger) wrote for the Guardian, ‘I Love books so why do I hate studying English GCSE?’ 

Orli argues that, ‘We need a bigger variety of fiction, modern and classic that have themes that can be translated and can be relevant to teenagers today...’ She also says, ‘we need books that bring up intense messages of modern themes: sexism, racism, homosexuality. It’s not even like these books don’t exist…’

I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve talked to other teenagers about the books they’ve read in school. Joe told me that his class spent a term studying Holes by Louis Sachar. He loved it the first time they read it. He’d quite enjoyed it the second time, too. But after a term spent re-reading, dissecting and analysing the text Joe confessed that he hated not just Holes but reading full stop!

Can you blame him?

Reading is an essential life skill. It’s something that can be taught.

Reading for pleasure, encouraging children to become lifelong readers can’t be. That takes encouragement, enthusiasm and above all passion.

It’s about time we listened to the young. Ask them what they want to read. What they’d like to see on the English Literature curriculum. It doesn’t matter if it's comics, magazines, fiction, non- fiction or the manual that comes with the PlayStation. If it has words then it counts as reading.

You’d never force an adult to read a book they’re not enjoying. Why then, if we want to encourage more children to read for pleasure, do we force books on them and then over analyse the content?

What my 13 year old self thought of 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway


catdownunder said...

I was actually advised NOT to study English literature after the equivalent of "O" level. The person who advised me was the poet the late Judith Wright and she was backed by more than one other writer at the time. What they all said was READ!
It may help some people to do English literature but I never regretted doing history instead.

Julie Sykes said...

READ. That's good advice.

Nick Green said...

There is a happy medium to be struck, I think. Teaching today is far too goal driven and needs more space to breathe and explore. But I don't think that requires ditching Shakespeare or simply letting kids read what they want. People need to be pushed outside their comfort zones, at every age.

Shakespeare is brilliant, honestly. Personally I've never much liked Romeo and Juliet either, but I love Othello, Macbeth, the Henry IV plays, Lear and Midsummer Night's Dream... There's loads of choice. Twelfth Night too. Not every kid will warm to every text, but we do need to give them a chance. Othello is packed full of relevant themes for today, for instance... There's a reason the plays have lasted so long. But kids need to see them in performance. That is vital.

Anne Cassidy said...

They key is in the words
Reading for PLEASURE.

Otherwise why bother?

Emma Barnes said...

I'm glad I studied a bit of Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare at A level, but I'm also glad I then chose something else to do at university - that wasn't English Literature. I agree it's daft to think aspiring writers should automatically study Eng Lit. Better to find what you really enjoy reading, and maybe learn something about the world that isn't literature!

(I also studied Wordsworth, Coleridge and - my absolute low point - the Duchess of Malfi and still don't see the point of any of them.)

Nick Green said...

Isn't there more to learning than pleasure and enjoyment though? I've yet to meet a musician who enjoyed practising scales; nor have I met a good one who didn't play hours of them every week.

We may not see the point of certain classic works, but we should at least acknowledge that many people have, and ask ourselves why that was. Because maybe if we persist we might one day have that revelation. I don't believe in giving up just because something is hard or initially inaccessible. If after much honest persistence one still gets nothing, then that's fine... But we must not succumb to the temptation to make GCSE English all about what is merely popular today.

Sue Purkiss said...

I agree with Nick - I'm glad I studied Shakespeare and even Milton at school, because it taught me how to really engage with a text, and because I still love lots of Shakespeare today. But I do agree that over-studying novels can kill them - it depends how they're taught, I guess. If I was choosing what degree to do today, I certainly wouldn't choose English. All that literary theory... I'd do something else, and just read lots.

Julie Sykes said...

Thanks for all your comments. It's good to hear so many different views.

I agree Anne - reading for pleasure is definitely the key else why else bother!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm with Nick and Sue. There's a reason why classics are classics and it's because they still have something to say to us after a long time. Shakespeare certainly does. He has become a part of our culture. There are a lot of words and expressions we use without thinking that first appeared in his plays. Before my school made a very strict curriculum you have to stick to, I used to do an introduction to Shakespeare with my Year 8 classes, because it was the only way they were ever going to get even a taste of his work. And one of the first things I did was show them a screen full of words and expressions they used all the time that came from Shakespeare. Then I'd watch and listen with glee as they gasped with amazement and delight. Depending on the class's abilities, I would finish up the unit with a snippet from one of the films - one year I had a class which was happy to watch the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Another year I did a bit of Romeo and Juliet and invited anyone who wanted to see the end to come to the library at lunchtime(several did). The last time I did it, my class couldn't handle the real thing, so we watched "She's The Man" after I made them research Twelfth Night. They loved it.

We do Literature Circles at Year 7 and 8 and that gives them some choice. And I read ALL the options first and tell the classes what they're about and suggest that some are read only if they enjoy... Whatever... Or are good readers. But they mostly self select.

As a librarian, once the girls have read all the vampire romances, I suggest they try Dracula. Not a long book, not too difficult and it takes them out of their comfort zone. Which they need sometimes. There are a lot of wonderful books I never would have read if I hadn't had to study them.

All I can say, Julie, is - your loss! :-)

Richard said...

I failed my English Literature CSE. Almost every essay I wrote was less than a page long. I hated it.

I very much agree that none of the books we studied held any interest for me, and that includes Kes, which was supposed to be one we would enjoy. We never saw any Shakespeare.

And yet all that time I was reading and writing avidly. Every day I would bring in a page or two of typescript and my mate would correct my spelling and punctuation. I've still got the MS. Maybe I'll rewrite it at some point; it might make a halfway acceptable airport book.

Fortunately my uncle was an English teacher and got me through O level English Language that September. From a CSE grade 2 to an O level C in two months. That's the difference a good teacher can make.

Jess Vallance said...

I wonder if it's all to do with that psychological effect where something that might otherwise have been OK, or even fun, becomes a massive pain in the bum once you're told you have to do it, like it or not?

I hated Eng Lit too, although enjoyed most of the set texts when I read them outside of the years I had to study them.

But the same goes for lots of other stuff we did at school - history, science etc - back then I just wanted them to give me the facts so I could memorise them quickly and get a good mark in my exam. It's only now I don't HAVE to study them that I've got more interested.