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.

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