Before we condemn Michael Gove over ‘Of Mice and Men’, let’s remember what novels are really for

We show too much reverence to works that carry a ‘message’


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas