Utter fiction

Teaching Literature - Language and Control in Children's Literature
March 1, 1996

We in the writing department I we're in a situation where the English department is always mad at us." This is the voice of Grace Paley, who has a piece of her own called "Different places, mysterious places" in Judy Kravis's interview collection Teaching Literature, but it can also conveniently stand for the spirit of the whole enterprise - the writer-teacher devoted to handing on the heritage in person, more or less bodily. There were not many books on the table in Grace's classes at Columbia, Syracuse, Dartmouth, Sarah Lawrence: "In the business of teaching writing, you do a lot of reading. I not only do reading out loud, I don't let people have copies I One of the things I'm trying to do is make people listen."

The absence of packaged pages in her classes, though, is a deliberate paradox, for what she really teaches is reading. The stress on the spoken word turns out to be a kind of back-handed tribute to our new Dark Ages. It also helps to paper over the differences between spoken and written words, if you think of writing as storytelling. Grace Paley sounds like the late Christina Stead when she says "that's where literature comes from, from the need to tell, the longing to tell" (Stead the Red used to say that any housewife given a chance to sound off, might well sound like Medea). Paley has her ear to the ground, she hears her own stories as part of a quarrelsome chorus, and convincingly enjoys it: "It's a wonderful time for people who are really interested in paying attention."

So here comes everybody, in the wake of theory, or is it to the wake? Editor Kravis clearly thinks that the afterlife of literature depends on writers-as-teachers. Writing in her definition means "fiction, poetry, theatre, journalism and biography", not academic criticism and certainly not critical theory. Her anti-self-consciousness line means that she does not talk about this rivalry, and does not encourage her contributors to either. A glum Gabriel Josipovici at Sussex deplores the popularity of the theory MA ("It seems to provide a key I I think in literature there aren't any keys") and Hermione Lee at York rejects the notion of "two different languages, one which is technical, and one which is accessible and general", but on the whole the point is made by omission, and by exploring the variously untidy, enthusiastic, irritable, show-off and show-biz strategies these mostly Irish and American teachers actually use.

Andrei Codrescu, who teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, confesses to finding theory sometimes sexy. But then he finds nearly everything sexy and is setting out to be outrageous: "There is an erotic element in all teaching It's a marvellous minefield. Some reporter asked Allen Ginsberg, 'What is your teaching method?' and Allen said, 'Well, you must sleep with your students' I It's not something I would recommend particularly -you'd lose your job - but Allen I brought it back to Socratic teaching, which is probably the oldest way of doing things."

If Paley is the book's participating mascot, Ginsberg is its absentee hero. The Beats are often invoked - "Howl completely changed my life" says New Yorker John Giorno, creator of Dial-a-Poem: "The poet must be the terrorist of absolute compassion." Ann Waldman announces herself as a founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics ("you cannot hope to write anything of interest without reading, studying, honouring the wonderful iconoclasts of the past"); Ron Padgett recalls the inspiration of discovering that the authors of On the Road and Howl were "alive right now". Even quieter participants who are not so obviously "nomad-beatnik-warriors" (Codrescu's ringing phrase) want to "rescue the poem from the prison it's in".

The whole collection - 24 participants, counting Kravis herself - is full of partiality and personality. Even complaints about students' illiteracy and inattention are memorably put: "90 per cent of them have the intellectual passion of an armadillo", says Guy Davenport, who taught at Kentucky; and Edmund White (most recently at Brown) muses over the loss of a culture, and the impossibility of teaching Ronald Firbank, thanks to the "outing" of orientation: "Camp has vanished even from gay culture among the young, so that students don't get it at all." The overall effect is extraordinarily positive, a demonstration of the variety, humanity and performative ingenuity of writers as teachers - indeed, since they reminisce about their teachers, you glimpse a line of shabby, impassioned literature lovers, stretching back in time: "My Shakespeare professor I was a short chubby man, wall-eyed and with a pointy nose, and he would burst into long quotations I." There is a cogent, demystifying force in their attitudes, exemplified, for instance, by Katha Pollitt on the canon, and the culture wars in the United States: "The culture debaters turn out to share a secret suspicion of culture itself I Books cannot mould a common national purpose when, in fact, people are honestly divided I the way books affect us is an altogether more subtle, delicate, wayward and individual, not to say private, affair. And that reading is being made to bear such an inappropriate and simplistic burden speaks to the poverty both of culture and of frank political discussion in our time."

Actually, Pollitt is the sole contributor who wrote her piece, which is why it stands out. Kravis's case for the honesty and vitality of writers as teachers (as against academic critics) is itself curiously less than honest in the end, in its bardic stress on spoken words. What about teaching long novels this way? How do you resurrect the long dead? There is some sleight of hand, in other words, behind the impeccably improvised performances in Teaching Literature - though that does not detract from the eloquence of their energies.

The sense of freedom - of getting out from under the burden of reflexivity, of theory - is easier if you think of "literature" as poetry. But that is precisely because it is narrative fiction that is the focus for "poetics" and culture debates in our time. Language and Control in Children's Literature by linguists Murray Knowles and Kirsten Malmkjaer makes the point - for the only literature they consider is narrative, and despite being conscientious and inclusive commentators, they do not even notice that they are not mentioning poetry, or performable words. Nonetheless it is an interesting and in most ways untrendy survey of the textual strategies of children's books from the 19th century on, and ends up making rather the same point as Pollitt, that the uses of fiction are a lot less predictable and controllable than we think. They too, it turns out, are utopians of the word, in the sense that they are especially interested in those writers, from Carroll to Dahl, who place themselves on the child's side, authors against authority - not unlike the wandering bards in Kravis's collection. In these figures the big questions of cultural continuity come down, almost comfortingly, to individual voices, explaining the facts of (literary) life. Gay John Giorno, from Teaching Literature, deserves the last word on this topic: "If there were no literature teachers I there would be no writers, just like if there were no mothers and fathers there would be nobody else I."

Lorna Sage is professor of English literature, University of East Anglia.

Teaching Literature: Writers and Teachers Talking

Author - Judy Travis
ISBN - 1 85918 025 6 and 026 4
Publisher - Cork University Press
Price - £22.00 and £10.95
Pages - 3

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