Revising Access to English: Literature

new edition As every cook knows, the success of any culinary project depends on the quality of the raw materials. So when Theresa Bowles Sørhus and I have received compliments over the years for the first edition of Access to English: Literature, we haven’t let it go to our heads. We have at the very least been prepared to share the glory with some of our fellow contributors to the book – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. In fact, the more disparaging among us might be tempted to ask whether it is in fact possible to write a bad book with ingredients of that quality. It is, I assure you. I’m reminded of a journalist I know who writes for a local newspaper (which shall remain nameless …) who, his editor once confided to me, had the unique ability of turning pure gold into granite.

There may be many of us who doubt the wisdom of the decision to divide Vg3 English into two separate options – Literature and Social Studies – and who feel that both courses would benefit from a dose of the other. However, it is with the writers of teaching books as it is with soldiers in the British Army – “ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die”. And it has to be said that for those students (and teachers) whose great love in life is reading good literature, the course is an absolute treat. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, you are offered nine months of sampling carefully selected nuggets of some of the best literature written in the English language.

question mark When I was given the task of revising Access to English: Literature, the first question to ask was why a revision was required. After all, the feedback from teachers and students had been overwhelmingly positive and the literary canon doesn’t have the same sell-by date that texts dealing with politics and background studies have. There are several answers to the question. Firstly, there was a real need to bring the final chapter, Contemporary Literature, up to date. This wasn’t just a question of finding texts published during the seven years since the first edition was published. There was also a recognition that the chapter failed to deliver in terms of putting texts in a literary and historical context. The fault was understandable – it’s much more difficult to “see the wood for the trees” in contemporary literature than in a period that is in the past. But difficulty is no excuse, and we owe it to our students to give them some idea of what characterises and typifies the literature of their own period.

This required yours truly to finally get his head round what is meant by Postmodernism! It’s a term that is bandied about so frequently and indiscriminately (also by me) that it’s often difficult to say anything specific about its actual meaning. However, whatever its shortcomings, the term is the only one available to denote the very real changes in literary sensibilities that have taken place in recent decades. After driving myself up the wall reading various postmodernist theorists (advice: never read Baudrillard after midnight…), I eventually threw caution to the winds (and Baudrillard into the bin) and went back to basics. Our students, after all, are living, breathing exponents of Postmodernism. They have never known anything else. With their eclectic tastes in everything from music to politics, their easy switching between reality and “virtual reality”, their symbiotic relationship to technology and their persistent irony, they are probably better equipped to understand postmodern texts than the soon-to-be sexagenarian writing this. What was required, I decided, was simply to relate the texts chosen to their own postmodern lives, and to choose texts that allowed us to do so. I don’t know if I have succeeded. If I haven’t, I dare say someone will let me know.

If the task of writing about Postmodernism was a daunting one, my other main writing task of the revision was nothing less than good fun. This was the new feature that we have called Across the Arts, a six-part study course that deals with other, non-literary art forms. The curriculum states that students should be able to “analyse and assess … a selection of other artistic forms of expression within English-language culture”. Of course, the previous edition did this too, first and foremost profiting from the wealth of visual art used in the book’s illustrations. But Across the Arts does this in a more structured way and throws the net wider with regard to what forms of artistic expressions are focused on. There’s not just painting, but architecture, music, photography, crafts and even landscape gardening. Obviously it can offer no more than a tiny morsel of the artistic wealth of each period, but I think Across the Arts will give students a welcome breather from the verbal focus of the rest of the book. And, of course, it provides a new slant for understanding literary history. For example, can there be a clearer visual expression of the ideals and tastes of the Enlightenment that the landscape gardens of Capability Brown?

Other changes made in the revision are perhaps less immediately noticeable. The structure is the same, with seven chapters, the first being an introduction to short story analysis. But the stories here are new, a change being, according to the old adage, as good as a rest. The new selection features such acknowledged masters of the genre as Nadine Gordimer, Somerset Maugham, Katherine Mansfield and Grahame Greene. Some readers will notice that there are more female writers in the book this time around. It’s not just a case of political correctness. Our omission in the first edition of any female writers from the Modernist period, for example, was unfortunate not just in terms of gender imbalance but also because it failed to reflect one of the important trends of the age, namely the growth of feminism. By way of penance, Virginia Woolf now not only looms large in chapter 6, but crops up in a commentatory role in a couple of other chapters as well! Elizabeth I gets to strut her stuff at Tilbury Docks, while Jane Austen comes in from her exile on the Access website and Charlotte Brontë gets to stand next to her sister Emily, alongside twenty other female authors.

When Theresa and I worked together on the first edition of Access to English: Literature, our aim was not only to put the chosen texts in a coherent literary and historical context. We also wanted to allow the texts to “converse” with each other across the centuries, recognising that, through different periods and changing sensibilities, the basic themes and questions that literature deals with remain constant. It’s tuning in to this “conversation” that is one of the main points of studying literature, it seemed to us. It’s at the core of what you Norwegians call “dannelse” – one of many Norwegian words that I struggle to find an adequate translation for in English. As I understand the term, true “dannelse” is not just a question of having read the “right” authors, but of understanding, through reading literature of different periods, a little more of what it means to be human. Relatively important, I would say, especially in an age when learning is increasingly treated instrumentally. So remember that, when some student asks you that ultimate put-down of a question, “why do we have to learn this stuff?” (fortunately not so common on a course like this), the correct answer is: “Because it makes you a better person.”

To those of you that are going to use the revised edition of Access to English: Literature, I hope you find that the ethos of the first edition is intact and that the changes that have been made are improvements. Let us know how it goes.