The Week in Books: The benefits of GCSE literature go beyond just the classics


A lot of literary fists were shaken at Michael Gove this week for his plans not to include English literature in the five core subjects for the proposed baccalaureate. While the language part of English will remain compulsory, with all its form-filling functionality, literature will be an optional subject alongside French, wood-work, and the rest.

A warning letter signed by novelists, academics, children's writers and actors was published; cultural commentators predicted that Dickens, Austen and other canonical GCSE texts would be obliterated from the popular imagination.

The fear of cultural deprivation seems to cut both ways, both for those who think that the proposed raised standards of the literature exam will render it an elite subject, and for those who feel its downgraded status reflects the prejudice that the arts are not as central to life as more 'useful' subjects. Will wood-work, the more cynical begin to wonder, be elevated in our brave new baccalaureate world? Or will the study of literature go the same way as Latin, a once-central component of a classical education, now reserved for the few?

Either way, I don't think it will leave us a nation of literary illiterates. We will not suddenly think Darcy a character created for Colin Firth. We won't forget Shakespeare. Only, less of us will be forced to read these classics between age 14 to 16. And for arguments sake, just how useful were the texts we read aeons ago and barely understood for their complexities? We surely all know someone who sat through compulsory English lit and has no patience for fiction as an adult now. I count myself among those who can't remember a single text that I am supposed to have read for GCSE. My love of it all came with the A-level, whose every set text has remained memorable and tender, partly because I chose the subject myself and thus conferred it with hallowed status.

So nothing cataclysmic may happen if Gove has his way and yet, as a society, we will make the decision to relegate literature, to shrink it somewhat from our lives. We will be saying that we do not think its study compulsory and indispensible for the maturation of an English teenager's mind. In this symbolism lies the gravest wrong, I think.

Just as importantly, English literature isn't strictly about the classics alone. In the Department of Education's objectives for the new 2015 English literature syllabus, there is the listed aim to help pupils "enhance their critical and comparative understanding". To this end, there is a section in the exam that will ask them to analyse "unseen' texts". This bit of the GCSE I do remember because it forced me to think on my feet.

To closely analyse a test in this way is to cultivate critical thinking that goes beyond mere knowledge of the canon and a learning of lines by rote. It is really, at its core, about developing an understanding of the complex uses and effects of language, about sharpening our perception of human behaviour and about reasoned argument. These are things that teenagers ought to be learning, and that no other subject can teach at once. Of course the reading habit isn't learned between the ages of 14 to 16. It is probably acquired far earlier, and what it leads to is a profound falling in love with the imagination, our own included, that is set off by words and make-belief worlds on a page.

If a child develops a love of books, he or she doesn't need a GCSE to encourage reading. The ones who need it most are those who might never otherwise feel the usefulness of reading a novel, but in being forced to do so, might be converted to the mind-expanding, mood-enhancing, life-long pleasures of stories.

D'Annunzio reborn as Farage?

Mary Beard, reflecting on the Samuel Johnson prize winning book about Gabriele D'Annunzio – poet, seducer, national hero and facist – said the power behind his appeal could be seen in some of today's contentious political figures. There may even be grounds for comparison between the 19th century Italian and a certain British politician, she suggested: "What I think really interesting is that D'Annunzio was an absolute shit... and deeply attractive too. ... I see Nigel Farrage in D'Annunzio [in that] I both dislike most things he stands for and see what it is in him that makes people think he is interesting." The deadly attraction of such figures casts a long shadow across literature too, from Healthcliff onwards. They're deadly, with a deadly appeal.

Reports of Boyd Tonkin's demise greatly exaggerated

It's nice to be given a warm send off when the time comes, though disconcerting if they write your obituary when you're still around to read it. So it happened when Amanda Craig took to Facebook to announce the departure of The Independent's outgoing literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, from whom I will be taking the baton, from herein.

Forty-two entries from authors and reviewers including Linda Grant, Melissa Benn and Kamila Shamsie spoke variously of their sadness, confusion and outrage for this brutally truncated end to a remarkable 16-year tenure. How dare they put this horse out to pasture when he had served so admirably? One could picture petitions being signed in his name. The horse, however, was blithely settling into his new role as a senior writer and columnist for this paper after deciding it was time for a change.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'