Sunday, 31 May 2009

Afternoon sun and A.S. Byatt


This afternoon, courtesy of the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, I sat in the shade in her lovely garden, overlooked by the Sheldonian and the Museum of the History of Science, with a group of other Exonians, listening to A.S. Byatt answering our questions.

A.S. Byatt is one of my favourite novelists. I devour her books, with a passion. But there are two things which have always niggled at me. Well, to be accurate one thing which has always niggled and one thing which niggled when I read her new book, which has been out all of a month. They are the same niggle, essentially. In The Shadow of The Sun the main character is a girl, the daughter of a famous novelist, in the D.H. Lawrence mode, who cannot really decide what to do with her life. In trying to free herself from his shadow, she goes to study at Cambridge, tries to write, starts an affair with the man who tutored her, who is also her father's greatest admirer and explicator. As is the way of things, she becomes pregnant, and the book ends with her decision, which is to have the baby and enter into domestic un-bliss with this rather unsympathetic older man. Her decision was the bit that niggled.

In her most recent book, The Children's Book, one of the main characters - of whom there are many - commits suicide. It's a character to whom I had become somewhat attached - of them all, that character had appeared to be the 'mainest' at the beginning, and the most sympathetic. I was cross about this too.

But when I asked about The Shadow of the Sun earlier today, A.S. Byatt's reply made me think. She talked of historical imagination, and said that it was a novel very much of the 1950s and 60s: one that in effect could have had no other end. The character, as she pointed out, was not as strong as she was herself, a rather battered girl, who took the only way open to her. I think that this is what makes A.S. Byatt a great novelist, rather than merely good: she takes hard decisions on behalf of her characters, that are true to who they are, rather than bowing to sentiment or desire for the world to be other than as it is. It rather fits The Children's Book niggle too - even before the suicide, when reading I had wondered how on earth this character could escape the corner into which their (used as an impersonal pronoun to avoid revealing the gender) personality had driven them.

So, hang it all, I think she's done for both those niggles. Byatt is a brilliant and intelligent writer. I cannot recommend her work highly enough.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Just a passing thought...

I don't know how many of you heard the interview with the Tory MP Anthony Steen, but you can certainly find it on the internet if you didn't. He claimed that the public interest in the fact that he had claimed £18,000 of expenses to spend on tree pruning on his estate was 'jealousy' because he had a big house that 'looks like Balmoral'... He also said the Freedom of Information Act should never have been passed and that the public had no right to interfere in his private life. Steen also claimed David Cameron had been 'surprised' when he said he would be retiring at the next election, and that he thought Cameron had been a little disappointed.

The cynic in me suspects that it was this bit that really annoyed Cameron, leading to his response when being interviewed for Radio 4, saying that 'another squeak' from Steen would lead to him being 'out on his (2) hoof.' Anyone else think that's a slightly odd expression? The pause shows that he's stopped what he was originally going to say, to substitute a different word. Now, to my mind, the phrase is to be 'out on your ear.' Which isn't offensive enough to swallow on Radio 4. So I suspect that the Right Honourable Mr Cameron was in fact going to say 'out on his arse.' Sometimes English Language study gives you that little bit of insight...

And a small postscript to my earlier rant. I got final approval on the review after about seven or eight rewrites, from the senior editor, describing it as a 'fantastic peace [sic].' Vindicated, moi?

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Reviewing Rant - Just getting it off my chest!

This is a rant, and unashamedly so. I’ve been doing quite a lot of reviewing lately, and while some of it has been a delightful experience, one particular publication has made it difficult beyond belief. It is, naturally, the one run by amateurs, graduate students at my university, who are taking the opportunity afforded to be as dictatorial as possible, demanding multiple rewrites and frankly abusing the already frustrating Microsoft Word Track Changes. Bearing in mind that I have an editorial job on another publication myself, I know what thereof I speak. Of course, I would dislike them – they didn’t like my review! In fact, I accept that the editors have the right to ask me to change my writing – they are in effect the people who commissioned it. But I have a few specific ‘niggles’ to use their phrase:

1) People who have not read the book rewriting my sentences to be more to their stylistic taste and thus making them factually inaccurate.

2) People who bring up grammatical ‘niggles’ which they are wrong about (‘their is not a gender neutral third person pronoun yet’ (well, yes it is – it isn’t singular, it’s true, but I was using it to refer to a group of people some of whom were female and some of whom were male)) , and then changing my correct relative pronoun ‘which’ for the incorrect/ American, but preferred by Word, ‘that’. (I refused to bow to that one. Just call me a rebel.)

3) The same people reviewing my review and making directly opposite comments on the two drafts – eg, I like this sentence/ paragraph in the first draft, and then saying they don’t like it and it’s unnecessary in the second draft….

There, I feel better now. And it’s better to get it off my chest here, than to send it in an email to them!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Reading Between the Lines

I had intended to blog today about the wonderful fact that Carol Ann Duffy is our new Poet Laureate. It's a poignant joy given that U.A. Fanthorpe died earlier this week, but I think she's probably smiling right now, anyway.

Instead, I'm very very cross. The reason is this BBC News article which is naturally based 'on figures published by the Conservatives.' It's all about dropping numbers taking English Literature GCSE. The fact that 37% of those on Free School Meals (used as a proxy variable for socio-economic status in education research) do not take the subject, compared to 28% overall, is seen as 'evidence' that the 'poorer pupils' are missing out on 'our country's cultural heritage.' I imagine that the Daily Mail will be reporting this story with the tag question 'has the world gone mad?'

The answer is no, it hasn't. Nor are those pupils who do not take English Literature GCSE missing out on Shakespeare and other great literature. Near the bottom of the article, in a quiet sort of way, the BBC does manage to put in Schools' Minister Jim Knight, who rightly points out that English GCSE contains elements of both English Language and English Literature study. (Incidently this is the reason why anyone who claims to have a GCSE in English Language is lying. There is no such thing.)

Lots of people don't take English Literature for good reasons. Such as the fact that they are struggling with English in the first place and need the time to make sure they get a good grade in the subject which is going to be an essential qualification for them to get a job, get into sixth form, get 'five good GCSEs.' Most schools teach English and English Literature in the same space of time that Maths gets to do one GCSE. It's a squash and forcing everyone to do English Literature will in fact have the effect of disadvantaging, not advantaging some pupils.

Then there's the fact that some pupils do Media Studies instead. (Cue shouts: Has the world gone mad?) Actually, studies have shown that for some pupils doing Media Studies instead of English Literature boosts their English result. Studying something that is both of interest to them and ties in with their strengths makes them better learners of allied subjects.

It might seem an odd stance for an English teacher to take, but honestly, the Conservatives are just being lazy in declaring this 'shocking.' They're looking for cheap shots, but like the good critical reader and media student that I am, I can read between the lines to tell you... don't believe everything you read!