Beset by bunk and flummery

June 12, 1998

One would think that when authors become so iconic that they are selected as subjects for academic study, they would be chuffed. Well, Alan Garner isn't and he tells Sian Griffiths why

What is it like to be the author of a set text, the subject of doctoral theses; every symbol and snippet of dialogue you have ever created pored over by academic minds?

Usually we are not told - because most of the writers whose work appears on the reading lists for English literature degree courses are long dead. But as universities move towards studying contemporary authors, writers still very much alive are having to deal with the unexpected - and not always welcome - pedantic attentions of scholars.

One of the genres academics are now turning their analytic pens to is that of children's literature. At the vast Modern Language Association's annual conference in Toronto this year there was a forum on children's books for the first time in the association's history.

Closer to home, doctorates are being written about one of Britain's best-known children's writers, although Alan Garner jibs at being pigeonholed as a children's writer. The author of haunting children's classics such as The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen, The Owl Service and Elidor, he invented a format - in which terrifying forces from British myth and history burst into the late 20th century, threatening to overwhelm the children they encounter. The novels make compulsive reading and have inspired countless doctorates from scholars across the world.

A formidably clever man, whose teenage ambition was to be professor of Greek at Oxford, Garner gives students and academics a lot to mull over. His books are painstakingly researched, weaving together archaeology, Old English, history, and myth. He himself says that his mind has an academic bent ("It's not for nothing that my Christian name is an anagram of 'anal'," he once said). Yet he is pretty ambivalent about being the object of academic study.

Sitting in the study of his medieval longhouse in Cheshire surrounded by family heirlooms, he is in full flow about one particular scholar who, he says, in a fed-up-sort of a way, "is trying to corner the market on me". He refuses to tell me her name - "actionable" he mutters - but she is Russian. "Fortunately," he adds, "the Russians are highly intelligent and saw her coming."

What he particularly objects to in her work (and in that of other young academics who "want their doctorates very badly" and pester him) is their failure to "acknowledge their pedigree". Garner cares passionately about the English language, is meticulous about every word he chooses. Those who write about his work, by contrast, all too often lapse into the jargon of literary theory, what Garner calls "a manufactured language, a warping - where the warping is used ... either to hide what it does not wish to say, or to hide that there is nothing to be said."

The young Russian academic writes stuff that is unintelligible even to her professor. "I do not see why she needs to talk like that", says Garner. Not only are her words meaningless, "they are such ugly words, they are not euphonic". It is a complaint he elaborated in a lecture about language in April at the University of Wales, Cardiff, in which he drew an extremely unflattering comparison between academics and the American military.

Both, he grumbled, spoke a manufactured language. "It is far easier to get away with killing when you can... glorify the unspeakable by invoking 'protective reaction', or 'registering a 100 per cent mortality response'," Garner said of the US military. But his attack on academics' motivation for using jargon was even more scathing. "More linguistically destructive (than military language) is the pomp of would-be intelligence bluffing its vacuities into power," he complained. He went on to give an example of the kind of meaningless, ugly utterance he had in mind: "The disjunctive present of utterance allows the articulation of subaltern agency to emerge as relocation and reinscription."

So why do academics use such perverse language? Garner has followed the arguments of the 20th-century French linguistic philosophers, whose thinking underpins the language of postmodern and structuralist theory, and rejects their idea that because language can never describe or reflect objective reality, only bring it into being, language, like reality, must be obscure.

What he really thinks, and does not hesitate to say, is that academics use obscure language to hide the fact that they have nothing of substance to discuss. "In the modern western world, it is necessary to publish in order to survive: to impress peer assessment so that the CV may be increased. If there is nothing to be said, it must be translated into a form that is so obscure that equally uncertain academics do not challenge it."

It is not that Garner is unsympathetic to academe - he is not - indeed he almost became an academic himself. From a working-class background he went to Manchester Grammar and then on to Magdalen College, Oxford to read classics. In his second year he decided he wanted to become a writer and booked a session with his tutor to discuss the idea. The tutor, an authority on Greek classics, made "a gentleman's agreement" with his student. "Go down this week and find out whether you have a creative nature," he told Garner. "If eventually you should decide you have not - then you will come back here and spend the rest of your life reading the texts of those who have." Garner left Oxford without completing his degree. Three years later, his first book was published. The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen went on to become a children's bestseller. Since then, he says drily, he has never felt in awe of academics.

At the moment he is in deep in research for his next book - Thursbitch ( Old English for "The Valley of the Demon"). During a walk on Alderley Edge, an ancient sandstone ridge near his home, he stumbled on a group of standing stones. One stone stands out, streaked with white, marked, says Garner, as "a great stone phallus" - the centre, he thinks, of a circle used by the Celts for stellar and lunar observations. In the same valley, set into a hedgerow, Garner discovered a memorial stone for a packman, cast adrift in a snowstorm, who died just half a mile from home. It bears the inscription: "The print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he died". And there is the fact that Macclesfield, erstwhile silk capital of England, lies a few miles to the east. The question driving his research is: "What if, at the time silk arrived in Macclesfield in the 17th and 18th centuries, it brought with it all the stories of the Silk Road and found something working in the hills?" His research will go on for years - archaeological, astronomical, historical. This is, you feel, the kind of work he thinks academics should be doing.

So what is the right way for a scholar to approach an author who is still alive, whose own research is punctilious and who cares passionately about language? Alan Garner has lost count of the "doctorates he has sired". But at least one stands out in his mind. Neil Philip, a London University research student finishing his doctorate, in which Garner's novels were "a large chapter", wrote and requested an interview during which he would ask "questions of fact only". "He was the only person who had the right way," says Garner. "He came up and was true to his word. Then, as he left, he said very diffidently, 'I have got a spare copy of the chapter. I do not want you to read it, I do not need you to read it, but you have been so helpful that if you would like to please accept it, but apart from errors of fact I am not going to change anything.' "He wasn't at Crewe," says Garner, "before I was on the phone saying to my editor - get that man - other people had been making moves to write critical works about me and I didn't respect their scholarships or insights". A couple of years later and the key critical work on Garner's fiction was published by Neil Philip, who was given full access to filing cabinets full of source material.

So that's how to do it. Oh, and the Bodleian is going to get Garner's archive.

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