The sweet nothings fail to stir up passion

The Art of English - The Art of English
November 24, 2006

These two books form the core reading for a level-three Open University course called "The Art of English". They assume that students have already covered some basic material in linguistics or English language. The fine OU tradition of beautifully produced texts continues here, although the days when such books cost a few pounds seem to be well and truly over.

So what is the art of English? The basic idea is that we play creatively with language much of the time in our everyday lives, and that we do so using strategies not very different from those found in art and literature. The first book, Everyday Creativity , starts by examining familiar things such as verbal humour, informal storytelling and children's playground rhymes and moves on to diaries, chat-room discourse, language and sexuality, and the place of literacy in society.

The second book, Literary Creativity , uses similar concepts and analytical tools to examine the language of literature. The obvious linking question at the start of this book is whether literature is "special" in some way and what makes some uses of literary creativity "better" than others. One chapter confronts this question bravely by comparing a love scene from a Barbara Cartland novel with a poem by Fleur Adcock. The book also deals with plays in performance, literary translation, what happens in our mind when we read a novel and the relationship between writer and reader.

Each chapter contains readings that are used for discussion and student activities in the main text. It is interesting to read about the language of black, Asian and white teenagers in the south Midlands, which varies strikingly in intergroup talk. I was impressed by a piece about Polari, a language variety spoken by working-class gay men and women until roughly the mid-1960s, when homosexuality was legalised in England. (Older readers may remember Julian and Sandy in the radio show Round the Horne , and some of the strange words they used: "How bona to vada (see) your dolly old eek (face) again, Mr Horne.") The book on literary language includes a splendid piece about recent Australian children's literature and the way it subverts the traditional white-centred version of colonial history. Other highlights are an illuminating study of the ways different characters fight for their turns to speak in the play Look Back in Anger and a fascinating interview with the author and activist Arundhati Roy.

Does this amount to a coherent and worthwhile programme of study? If I am sceptical, it is in part because I was attracted to linguistics precisely to escape from studying literature. Back in the 1970s, the mixture of watered-down Leavisite rhetoric, muddled formal analysis and rote learning of lengthy quotes eventually left me cold. Far better, it seemed to me, to find a field with some claims to being scientific, where data could be analysed and falsifiable hypotheses constructed.

No doubt many of the problems raised by language and society are far more important than controversies about whether the word "near" is a preposition or an adjective. Certainly the study of literature can raise profound questions about what it means to be human and can bring social problems to life with incomparable intensity. What we get in these books, however, is technical description of discourse without much of an attempt to invite students to join debates about important issues.

The basic difficulty is that sociolinguistics is an empirical science, whereas literary criticism is not. Arguably, it is important to keep them that way: otherwise the science will lose its rigour, and the critical process will lose its depth. The strength of sociolinguistics is its ability to problematise everyday life, so that what we take for granted in one culture becomes just part of a wider range of human possibilities.

Literary studies excels in raising huge questions, most of them not susceptible to scientific techniques but important nonetheless. These books blur those distinctions and leave me unpersuaded that the two fields can combine to their mutual benefit.

The first book tries to move away from seeing language as a set of patterns and rules and focuses on the role of verbal interaction in human experience. This is normal within sociolinguistics, but the authors go further, repeatedly using the notion of "identity". Whenever I hear this word I am tempted - like Hermann Goering with the word "culture" - to reach for my gun. The book stresses that people "construct" their identities in various ways. I talk to my friends differently than I do to my students, and I use different language again at university committee meetings. Does this mean I have many identities? Or does it simply mean that I talk differently in different contexts? Does it justify statements such as this:

"Language may be seen as an interactional resource that is drawn on in the performance of speaker identities"? What does the book mean when it talks about "the fusion of self and voice in a new identity"? I don't know, and I'm not sure that students will know either.

The first book covers a huge range of material, much of it very interesting in itself, but with the inevitable danger of superficiality. The material in the second volume tends to be most interesting when it moves away from literary language. The chapter on "Plot and characterisation" is excellent on a James Joyce short story and on action films, but the subsequent brief survey of functional grammar is a lot of work for not much insight. The chapter on translation introduces some of the cultural issues in translating literature, but then expects readers to cope with problems raised by translating Alice in Wonderland into Catalan.

There is little sense in these books of engaging students in debates where the experts disagree. Level-three textbooks should give students the opportunity to take a considered stance on controversial issues. Maybe in the hands of a skilled teacher these books could do that, but I am not optimistic.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, Brighton University.

The Art of English: Everyday Creativity. First Edition

Editor - Janet Maybin and Joan Swann
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan and Open University
Pages - 480
Price - £21.99
ISBN - 1 4039 8559 6

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