Docked tales

With not only Bleak House but even Peter Rabbit seemingly too long for a texting, tweeting, attention-deficit generation, Valerie Sanders scans her shelves for a lightweight literary canon and asks: condensed or skimmed?

May 26, 2011

When students have to pay higher tuition fees will they expect to read longer texts? This absurd, dreamy, Alice-in-Wonderland thought came to me in the middle of all our discussions recently about fee levels and student expectations, recalling a depressing memory of last year when only one student in a Thomas Hardy seminar had managed to get through The Mayor of Casterbridge. But, I reasoned, you've just had a three-week Easter break, and it's not even a long novel! Their incredulous, despairing looks told me otherwise.

All Victorian novels are long, even The Mayor of Casterbridge. Did I not several years ago stop setting my favourite novel Middlemarch? Haven't I sighed wistfully over Bleak House, but never taught it? Novels like this are just too long for busy people who have to earn money, manage partners and children, drink, blog, tweet and text.

Text: exactly - but not that kind of text - and how many words (characters - but not that kind of character) are people allowed on Twitter? I don't know, because I've never tweeted. I've been too busy re-reading The Moonstone for this year's lecture, which my students politely attended as a substitute for reading the book (too busy, too many other things to do). Wasn't it recently serialised on BBC Radio 4?

Ah, but who has time to listen to long slow serials on Radio 4 when there is social networking to do and apps to download? As for the summer vacations when reading used to take place, there are now internships, volunteering, placements, US youth camps, music festivals ... not skulking about your parents' living room desperate for something to read.

This set me wondering about a new literature module for the new age of austerity: Greatest Shortest Texts, I would call it, or Novels for People Who Don't have Time to Read Novels (no, the title is too long). I used to have a colleague who asked students to read just the first page of a set text, convinced that they wouldn't be able to stop themselves turning over, at least to complete the sentence.

I suppress for a moment a memory of myself as an earnest first-year undergraduate tasked with reading Clarissa over the Easter vacation. How many pages were there? About 400 per volume over four volumes, in one of those mean, cheap-looking editions with a font size I can no longer read without bringing on a headache. There were four weeks in which to read it. I did the maths, set the target, and for several days managed 200 pages before needing fresh air and exercise; then went out, came back, and did another 200 before supper. I returned to university, pale but triumphant - to find that no one else had read it, at least not past the point where a row of asterisks indicates Clarissa's rape and the beginning of her slow decline towards death.

So back to my designs for the time- and money-saving economic module for our age. It would be composed entirely of thin, emaciated-looking texts that cost almost nothing to buy and can be read in one sitting. Plenty spring to mind: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Silas Marner, Treasure Island, The Lifted Veil, The Invisible Man, The Great Gatsby, The Turn of the Screw, Between the Acts, Wide Sargasso Sea, A Room with a View, A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, Heart of Darkness: all mere slivers of literature that would trouble no one beyond a well-spent hour or two.

I open one at random - Treasure Island - and read the first sentence: "Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen..."

My heart sinks. This is supposed to be a children's classic, a landmark text, and the first sentence goes on for eight lines. By the time you reach the end you forget what the beginning was about. The villain isn't called Long John Silver for nothing.

I turn in desperation to the thinnest novel of them all, Heart of Darkness, but it's such a mere wisp of a book I can't find it on my office shelves. I track it down in a fatter edition at home, bulked up with two other Conrad novellas, and there I rediscover the fatal lines about the meaning of Marlow's yarns being "not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze".

Peter Pan then? Ah yes, Mrs Darling with her "sweet mocking mouth" and the kiss that Wendy could never get. Nothing is ever easy, not even Peter Rabbit, which is either the story of an intrepid non-conformist hero, hampered by his bourgeois blue jacket, or a repressive morality tale which warns us not to stray beyond the boundaries of the family burrow like our good little sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.

There is, of course, a serious point to all this, and that is what students will expect of us when they're paying three times as much as they are now for the pleasure of having their cultural horizons expanded - but will they want to be harassed and badgered through The Mayor of Casterbridge or worse, Robinson Crusoe, which is perhaps the most unpopular, unread text I've ever taught? Even Scrooge loved Crusoe as a child - "There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Halloo" - and Titty from Swallows and Amazons plays at Crusoe and Friday with her mother, but no cries of "Halloa! Hoop!" rise up from the yawning seminar rooms unless we show Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and indeed the Muppets' version of A Christmas Carol.

Is it the schools' fault, with their bite-sized approach to A levels, their mini, microwaved, micro-meals for the lighter appetite? Or is it the universities' fault for assuming that what did us no harm will serve just as well for the next generation? Whatever, as the young say. There is no longer any shame in not being prepared for seminars, whereas I flinch to this day at the memory of my ignorant silence in a class on Arthur Hugh Clough's Amours de Voyage, which I never quite got through (never quite started, if the truth be told, but I did read most of Spenser's Faerie Queene).

What prompted these thoughts was not only the changing fee structures, but eight months' experience as acting dean of the faculty, engaging in well-informed debates in senior management meetings. Is it that there's now so much to talk about, and that we really care about it - or just that colleagues at this level genuinely seem to read up on access agreements and widening participation before the meetings? I've often found it hard to get a word in edgeways, which makes a refreshing change from the mid-afternoon prodding of readers bored with Emma and Mr Knightley's endless misunderstandings, or Lucy Snowe's desperate isolation in the (too long) Long Vacation.

I know there are ways of making long novels interesting (the English Subject Centre has been a great help and support), but wouldn't short novels better attract the grateful fee-payers? £9,000 for itsy-bitsy books delivered on Day One in a brand-new Kindle?

Either way, I emerge from my Alice-in-Wonderland dream convinced that less is more, and that next time I have to set an exam paper I will ask for a tweet on "Brevity is the soul of wit". Hoop halloo.

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