How to Choose a Book
Tom Spindler, Head of English at SFX, discusses the process of choosing the right texts for English A-Level courses
I’ve spent the last couple of months being spoken to by a dead girl.
This isn’t as alarming as it might first appear: I’ve been reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, which is narrated by Susie, a teenage girl who watches over her family from heaven. It’s one of the texts specified for study in AQA’s English language and literature A level, so I’ve partly been reading it to see if it would be more suitable than our current choice, The Handmaid’s Tale. And it’s set me thinking about the challenge for English teachers of choosing the right texts for their students.
There is a difficult balance to be struck when deciding which of the many texts suggested by exam boards will provide your particular students with the most enriching experience (and, of course, which will support them to achieve the best possible grades).
It is tempting to select the most relevant, contemporary, even shocking texts in order to engage students with a love of reading and language. This is certainly important. At SFX, we find our students frequently cite Richard Wright’s Native Son and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus as the texts they most enjoyed studying, never mind the fact that the former (in my opinion at least) descends into a poorly-edited Marxist rant and the latter is a solid, if unremarkable coming of age novel. The themes explored in these texts, around negotiating cultural identity, inequality and oppression f different kinds, resonate with our students on a fundamental level. It is fair to say too that, in the department, we have made a conscious effort to ensure that we avoid solely teaching texts by dead, white, middle-class old men, as to do so would be to give a wholly skewed and exclusionist view of literature in English.
At the same time, though, there is no getting away from the fact that a canon of English literature exists and is still the basis of much literary study at university and beyond. We would be severely failing in our duty to prepare students for the next steps in their educational and professional careers if we acted as if the established classics were fit only to gather dust on library shelves; it is important to view any text within the context of the broad literary tradition in which it was created. There is also no getting away from the fact that some of the dead, white, middle-class men derided above have knocked out some pretty decent texts: Hamlet, The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire are wonderfully intricate, expressive works which reward close analysis and provoke challenging discussions. To exclude them for study in order to fit a particular agenda would seem a particularly self-defeating rhinectomy (nose-job).
So where does this leave The Lovely Bones?
I enjoyed reading it, found it moving in parts, but we won’t be teaching it at SFX, certainly not at this moment. This has less to do with the merits of the novel – I think it would potentially be engaging and would offer an accessible way to explore narrative, something our students often find demanding – and more to do with competition. For this part of the exam, Imagined Worlds, students have the choice of studying The Lovely Bones, Frankenstein (for me, a better idea than a book), Dracula (dated and dire – don’t get me started) and our current choice, The Handmaid’s Tale. There is simply no contest. Atwood’s novel ably satisfies both criteria: an unquestionable classic, which will continue to be studied for many, many years and a text which has a searing and tragic resonance for anyone reading it today, including our students.
For once, the decision of which text to choose is decidedly simple.