Creating readers – or literary critics?

While writing this post on the importance of colour symbolism, I was writing about the ways we often expect students to implicitly understand the symbolism in literature, and I wrote the sentence: “it’s part of our job as literary critics to figure out whether that choice is important.” I almost edited it to write “as readers”, but then decided it crystallised a few things for me that I’d been thinking about. One was the ongoing debate about how to create great readers, and the other was something that had stuck in my head from reading the research of model texts which commented that of all the genres taught in an English classroom, the literary analysis was a genre rarely found outside academia.

Clearly, the need to be a fluent, confident and interested reader comes first – and I am fortunate to work in a school where the vast majority of Year 7s come in as keen confident readers, and it’s up to us to maintain that rather than create it (although that still presents challenges!) But by KS4, the requirements have changed somewhat, especially with more emphasis on literature in the Language exams.

So maybe the discussion about ‘readers’ is misleading? After all, consider the differences between the two:

Readers Literary critics
Read for pleasure
Often read in the same genres
Read based on recommendations from others
Skip, skim or don’t finish if they don’t enjoy it
Put books down and come back to them
Compare to what they’ve read
Focus on emotional response and connection
Finish books.
Read what they wouldn’t ‘read for pleasure’
Read in context of literary history and criticism
Compare to what they’ve read, and what they’ve read about literature
Read based on academic interest
Focus on writers’ techniques, methods and representation

The important ones for me here in the context of literary study is that readers read what they want, when they want, and in their own context. Literary critics read based on their current research interests and bring a wealth of literary history and criticism to their reading.

That’s the section that we need to focus on with our students to enable them to truly engage with the literature that they’re studying at a very analytical level. The emotional response can be important – but it can be made richer if they understand other things. Although “context” as an assessment objective is often lightly weighted, in my view it’s essential to truly understand the book.

An example – a common GCSE text, Frankenstein, which has come up in a recent Twitter discussion.

A reader might read this often dense, complex text and enjoy it, find it interesting and have an emotional connection to the story through the monster’s portrayal, and the deaths that occur in the book.

A literary critic will also consider the following:

  • Mary Shelley’s personal life, including her controversial personal life, the early miscarriages and deaths of her children.
  • The emergence of scientific enquiry, its rapid developments in the era, and public concern over the potential outcomes of these experiments
  • Religious understandings of the time
  • Shelley’s family upbringings with Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s also sometimes controversial, progressive views
  • The genre of science-fiction and its inception at this time, and its path since
  • A knowledge of new historicist and feminist approaches to literature

With an understanding of those elements, the text becomes richer, and we can explore the novel as not just a good read, but something more that speaks to our humanity and helps us to understand more about ourselves – the hallmarks of a classic, in my view.

Achieving this in the class-room

Clearly, reading has to come first. A reader who isn’t fluent and confident is going to struggle with Frankenstein because of its density. I usually get students to read the chapter in advance, and spend some time discussing their initial response as a reader. And then, a bit at a time, unfold the context behind it. Giving students a piece of information at a time – how does that change your view? Does that explain something you had trouble with before? How else can we read that chapter now you know this? Give them a school of thought and ask them to decide whether they agree.

Writing like a critic

I think this also has implications for writing style, as I alluded to at the start. In many academic journals you’ll not see the forensic pulling to pieces of individual words that students have been guided towards in recent GCSE specifications. Instead you see a much more consolidated overview, one that takes in the whole text but can see patterns, linguistic and structural, using an occasional pertinent example, Take this example from an undergrad thesis on The Handmaid’s Tale:

The red dress also masks individual identity by making the women virtually indistinguishable from each other. Offred describes the first sighting of another handmaid in the story, Ofglen, her shopping companion, in these terms, “a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket”. Offred shows the lack of identity among handmaids through the descriptions of her companion. Ofglen is described as “nondescript” and “a shape like mine,” indicating that this dehumanization of handmaids occurs even among the ranks of the handmaids. The handmaids first lose their identity when their name is replaced with the derivative of their commander’s name, such as Ofwarren, Ofglen, and Offred, but their identity is lost a second time through their mandated uniform. Instead of individual expression, the handmaids are draped with fabric so that they become one recognizable caste separate from society.

 

Nobody could argue with the style of this writing – and it is more the style I’ve been teaching this year with the closed book exams next year, and the OCR A-Level that we’ve been teaching too.  I think this benefits closed book exams – few quotations needed but a deep understanding of the ideas behind the text, not just plot and character arc. Using small extracts from this kind of academic writing is often just as valuable as pre-written model answers.

In my own learning, I’ve come to love even more the books that improve on study – the ones which were entertaining reads but, once you get down to it, they’re so well-crafted, layered and complex that you could study them for years and find something new each time. Students love that too.

What do you think?