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Why schools are choosing the wrong books

Posted August 29, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Late last year there was a call to ban Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera from the English Literature curriculum in Victoria. This came through a senior Literature teacher at a boy’s school, who argued that the book ‘explores an incestuous sexual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a 14-year old girl.’

Without worrying about how this completely ignored autonomous thought and interpretation on behalf of young adult readers, and the agency of the teacher in the classroom to explore the writing in a meaningful and appropriate manner, the issue becomes a bit more concerning when the same senior Literature teacher decided to write this week about the novel Tampa, and why it should be taught in classrooms around the country.

Firstly: the novel Tampa was released earlier this year and was subsequently banned from some bookshops around the country. Tampa explores the story of a female teacher seducing teenage boys, and has been likened to Lolita in its exploration of taboo areas of society.

Now I don’t feel it’s necessary to discuss the merits of whether this makes the esteemed Literature teacher a hypocrite or not. Far be it from me to do something he does so well himself. He did, however, feel it was worth teaching to students in the classroom – particularly young boys – because predatory, flirtatious teachers exist and young boys are at risk. So they must read the book, indeed study it with their Literature teacher, so that they main gain awareness of the world around them. Because it happens.

Boys, if you’re reading this: women are out to get you.

It’s worth ignoring the fact that the Literature teacher uses the Cate Blanchett film Notes on a Scandal as evidence for his argument, because paying attention to the inanities of the argument cloud what’s really at stake here.

As mentioned in an earlier post, what we choose or allow young people to read today is of great concern to me – in schools and homes and buses and trains and phones and wherever the hell they want to read – and that choice and freedom of reading seems to be diminishing at a rate of knots when curriculum is discussed in this manner.

The problems I see are this:

Teachers and curriculum boards are choosing books for students based on the real-world application of the ideas in the books.

This is fundamentally flawed. Surely all books, no matter their style or substance, no matter their genre, have real-world application. A book is being read in the real world. That is a great thing. By demanding a book be studied because it connects to some real event in the world is putting the horse before the cart. Not only that, it places primary emphasis on that connection – between the book and the real world – rather than leaving the book and its meaning in the hands of the reader.

In the hands of this Literature teacher, Tampa would be taught to male students to educate them about predatory older women, and Lolita subsequently taught to the girls so that they can learn likewise. The reasoning is nonsensical.

This issues-first approach to text selection is killing the reading experience in schools for students, and killing their prospects as readers at the same time. A book, after all, is a machine for generating interpretations, and we should allow that to happen, not expect only one result.

Nowhere in this consideration of Tampa as a book to study is the question ever asked: is this a good book? Is the writing any good?

Surely this is of paramount importance to any reader, let alone any teacher in charge of delivering a text worthy of study to awaiting students. This appears to be the case all over classrooms and curricula in Australia. The introduction of the national curriculum placed importance on the role of Australian and Asian books to reflect our cultural position in the world. I have no issue with this, except that it turns into a tick-the-box activity. Again, the fact that it’s a geographically significant text is placed above the importance of having a good text.

And what does it matter where a text is from? Or that it reflects overtly and outwardly the culture that it was written in? As an example, The Miles Franklin award was established to celebrate novels that had the highest literary merit and presented the Australian Life in any of its phases. That a book chooses to locate its setting in Australia is just as important – or just as unimportant – than a book that could be set anywhere yet was written in Australia. Surely any story worth reading presents aspects of an Australian life when written by an Australian?

I don’t know how the nationality of a text then determines that the subject of a story – the superficial dressing of the narrative – should have primacy over its merits as a good book. Why do the geographical specifics of a story dictate that it should be treated differently to any other?

We’ve got it wrong.

If we set texts according to need, as the senior Literature teacher recommends, according to the fact that the text discusses a major issue a reader might deal with in their life, then we’ve got it plain wrong. The only criteria that should be considered when choosing a book to be studied in the classroom are these: is the story any good? is the writing any good? and are the main readers of this book going to reach far and wide when generating their own interpretations of this book?

Here’s a novel idea: why don’t we ask the readers what they want to read, and then develop curriculum around that? At the risk of sounding like the Hemingway character in Midnight in Paris, surely any book is worth reading and studying when the story is true and the writing clean and honest, and the reading brave and good?

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Writing a Feminist Novel in 1974

Posted July 16, 2012 by Anne

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“Literary theorists argue that the feminist novel centres on the concerns of, and the bonds between, women. The category “feminist novel” takes into account the plurality of womanhood, including differences of class, race, ethnicity, geography, sexuality, age and able-bodiedness (Felski, Fraser & Nicholson, Kaplan, Robbins). Challenging literary and social conventions with humour and irony, Christine Townend’s first novel and appropriately The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else can be read as a feminist novel as it recounts the tale of a naïve young woman’s passage through marriage, childbirth, homemaking and leave-taking.

The protagonist Persia marries to escape a dominating mother. Settling into comfortable middle-class suburbia, Persia gives birth to a son, but realises that her life is still controlled by others. In a search for self-discovery she leaves home and goes to live in a different socio-economic situation in Redfern. The novel represents an example of the feminist protagonist who moves “outward into the public realm of social engagement and activity…” (Felski). With its novella-like form, its unusual language, its defiant plot and its parodying of social situations, the narrative fearlessly debunks literary and cultural conservatism. New writing like Townend’s opened a space for feminist fiction published in the later 1970s and 1980s.”

An extract from a paper presented by Adrienne Sallay. More info here.

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