Few readers under the age of 60 will be familiar with the name F R Leavis. He was, in his day, the most famous literary critic in the country. In my first week at university in 1972, I sat down reverently at his guest lecture to watch a very brown old man, white shirt open halfway down his chest, deliver a rambling lecture about his mysterious friend Tom – “As I said to Tom ...” After the lecture ended I realised he was talking about T S Eliot, and he seemed so old that had he spoken of his mate Will, I’d have believed he knew Shakespeare.
The department of English on this new concrete campus was boiling over with his acolytes, ramming down your throat his book The Great Tradition. It was all D H Lawrence – the man, we were confidently assured, who knew more about women than any female writer. Leavis claimed a canon in English literature which included George Eliot, Henry James, Lawrence and a passing moue of distaste for Dickens who was too entertaining. You judged a novel, he said, by its “moral seriousness”. The phrase sticks in my throat like hard lard even now.
Leavis taught Howard Jacobson at Cambridge and me a decade later at York with strikingly different effects. The canon aroused in me a lifelong aversion to his or anybody else’s list of holy scripture. I turned to the Americans, to Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan and revolted against the “issue” novel. I wanted fiction without an easily digested message, novels that were wayward, surreal and surprising; novels of which you could not say with any ease what they were “about”.
This week my fellow novelists foamed up in Twitter frenzy over the reports that Michael Gove was “banning” American authors from the GCSE syllabus. Petitions were launched to ring-fence Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice of Men. It was demanded that they should be taught in perpetuity; having been set texts for the past 20 years, no teenager should ever be deprived of them.
The narrative went like this: Gove wanted to cut teenagers off from American ideas and impose upon them a musty list of relics of our imperial past, say, Rudyard Kipling and Evelyn Waugh. Exposing GCSE students to texts about racism and discrimination would develop and strengthen their understanding of how to live in a multicultural society, everything Gove was apparently against. Even if you got nothing from the literary qualities of the book, its language, structure, characterisation, metaphor, storytelling, you’d have imbibed a useful message about those bad, wrong people of the American past.
Once again, I have found myself in revolt against the canon. The American novel is magnificent, but it is not the only known antidote to racism. Nor should a course on literature be the means by which a funnel of correct ideas are poured down students’ throats. More subversive transatlantic texts I’d put on the syllabus in place of Lee and Steinbeck would be The Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy’s Complaint, each about adolescent insecurity and arrogance and each written in an authentic, vital, vivid voice.
When you examine the list of books that have replaced the Americans on the syllabus, the claims for the Americans begin to diminish a little. Maya Angelou, who died this week, is removed, and is replaced by Kazuo Ishiguro, Meera Syal, Alan Bennett, Mark Haddon, Stephen Kelman, some of whom are writing the fiction of contemporary Britain, of the societies teenagers are growing up in. The syllabus also requires the reading of a 19th-century novel. The choices include science fiction, The War of the Worlds; horror, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and crime, Sherlock Holmes.
The struggles of the American civil rights movement, the literary work of African-American writers such as Angelou and Toni Morrison, are part of the American tradition, but it’s not it in its entirety. And over here Martin Amis, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith and Will Self do moral seriousness, but not in the way Leavis intended it. If you want to send a message, use Twitter or email, not the novel.