Top 10: Misconceptions about English Literature
I can picture it now. Some teacher, some time, a long, long time ago, staring at some kid in the face, desperate to tell him that his essay is a pile of rubbish but determined not to put him off his studies for life. So he diplomatically talks around the issue, reassuring said bonehead that there are no right or wrong answers when it comes down to literary criticism. And now, we all have to live with the consequences. There are right answers. And believe me, there are wrong ones. Too many people mistakenly believe that the subjective nature of appreciation means that criticism is also open to interpretation – probably the same people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Nope, sometimes an idea is just plain wrong, even in the nebulous world of lit crit. You have been warned.
Sorry to be all patronising here but if you know anything at all about Elizabethan theatre the words ‘lowest common denominator’ should spring immediately to mind. Back then, the theatre was a little more than an open air mosh pit complete with binge drinking, animal cruelty and fist fights. Almost all the spectators were poor, controversial plays were staged outside of the City of London for fear of upsetting the king and getting your head cut off, and the only reason rich people went was to sit above the stage and get some free publicity. Does any of this sound like high art to you? Ok, so William S had a way of words that will stand the test of time, but I do not think he was aiming for the frown of approval from literary connoisseurs ad infinitum. His plays are pretty much melodramatic excuses for violence and dick jokes, and half the reason for all that killer language is that staging was shit – he had to paint pictures somehow. I find it ironic that the average gushing critic and/ or bunch of unappreciative secondary school English students would have been too terrified to actually go see a Shakespeare play back in the day. But maybe that’s just me.
Oh how conflicted I am. On the one hand, a poor grasp of the grammatical basics is one of the single biggest chagrins in my professional life – kids who cannot or will not adhere to simple rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar simply because they hate me. But, and this is a big but, how I hate it when people get precious over the English language. I mean, come on, really? English? This language of ours is about as contaminated as your average pub peanut bowl, and it’s CONSTANTLY changing. Getting hung up on ‘proper’ English is ridiculous. The rules change, they’re constantly in flux in fact. It pains me to say but In 100 years’ time we will have done away with the apostrophe, definitely will be spelt with an ‘a’ and we won’t use capitals at all, ever. Look at Olde English compared to Middle English. Look at Middle English compared to Victorian English. Look at Victorian English compared to ‘proper’ modern English. Look at ‘proper’ modern English compared to txt speak. Language is fluid. Deal with it, or limit all conversations to the backwards landed aristocracy.
You know why everyone is scared of poetry? Because for some reason it’s been accepted that poetry is ‘hard’. Well we’re all wrong. I admit, pretentious poetry can be elusive, but in its purest form, poetry is anything but difficult. Yeah, the ‘meaning’ might not be obvious, but who said it has to be? As long as you can muster an emotional response to a poem, you’ve ‘got’ it. Congratulations. Now stop worrying and go do something productive.
We’re all a bit warped by perspective on this one. With such a rich wealth of literary talent in generations past it’s easy to forget that most of what has come before was, for want of a better word, cack. Basically, we have a nucleus of excellence that forms ‘the canon’ against which all present and future works are judged. Unsurprisingly, a lot of new writers are held up against the likes of Wilde, Orwell, Shakespeare, Eliot, Hardy, Austen, Bronte, Dickens (who annoys me) et cetera, et cetera, and fall short. What you need to remember is that for every literary gem there’s a surrounding sea of shite. It’ll just take a while for use to work out who our current gems are as we wade through the Dan Browns. (Note: I’ve never read a full Dan Brown novel – let me know if he will actually stake his place in the canon). Also, it’s worth remembering that when they were active, all these greats were hated by someone. Most people thought Shakespeare was a bit crap when he was alive – Ben Jonson’s pitch-perfect farces were far more popular. All it took was his death and few hundred years for everyone to change their tune.
Just because girls have the capacity to sit still, think for five minutes and not draw penises on everything, that does not necessarily mean that they are any better equipped to tackle the unique delights of English Literature and lit crit. Yeah they’ve got neater handwriting and longer attention spans, but it’s unfair to assume that this makes them any more likely to be ‘bookish’ than boys. I recently spent a good proportion of year 11 parents’ evening sulking. All my best year 11 boys are prompting for sciences and maths over English at A Level, simply because they don’t think it’s a ‘boy’ subject. I hope to god that girls aren’t being talked out of becoming engineers for the same reason…
7. Never judge a book by its cover
Bloody hell OF COURSE you should judge a book by its cover. At least partly anyway. Decades ago, before the 1920s dropped a Style Grenade on Western culture, I can see how looking at the design of a given book would be useless, but things have changed. Millions of pounds (I assume) gets spent on giving books the most appealing and relevant cover possible and by Jove we should take that into consideration when working out what to read. If it’s got IMPACT size 72 font and a picture of some kind of rifle on it, chances are an ex-commando wrote it and it’s going to have a poorly-executed sex scene in it somewhere. See? A cover is shorthand – a reference tool for all of us in our busy lives. You’d be a mug to ignore it.
Yeah, and everyone can beat the men’s 100m World Record, if they really put their mind to it.
I’ve never understood this. Our relationship with books is so weird – it’s the 21st century and we still treat them like sacred objects delivered expressly from the hand of god or something. People treat reading like undertaking a hike up a big hill. Once you start, you have to finish or it’s capital F Failure. No it’s not. Would you sit through a meal you hated the taste of, just to finish it? Would you watch a Channel 5 teledrama you stumbled across to the end, for the challenge? I admit, I’ve done both, but that’s not the point. If a book is rubbish, bin it. There are too many good books out there for you to waste valuable tube journeys dragging yourself through bad ones.
Struggling to think of a tenth… If you come up with one, leave a comment for me to agree/ disagree with. Ta.