Strange school set-texts

I was alerted to this Guardian article by a "round-up" post at the Elegant Variation.

Link: EducationGuardian.co.uk | Schools special reports | This term, we will be studying Zadie Smith.

From the Guardian piece : " Contemporary writers never used to feature on A-level syllabuses. For years, the nearest most candidates got to a living author were the poems that an elderly TS Eliot or WH Auden had published decades earlier. Even by the end of the 1970s, the most up-to-date fiction studied might be one of the novels published by William Golding in the 1950s. Nowadays things are different. This summer candidates were being examined on Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and Louis de Bernières. Next summer it will be AS Byatt’s Possession and Michael Frayn’s Spies."

I am surprised that lightweight books like "Oryx and Crake" and "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood are set texts. I’ve read quite a few Atwood, including these. I absolutely hated the Handmaid’s Tale and thought Oryx and Crake petered out; both were unbearably heavy-handed, and although she can write language, I don’t think her books provide deep insights or the same rich foundation to the potential lifelong reader as, say, Hardy, Dickens, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Wolfe,  — or a great work by an uneven author — Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath", for example. You would learn a lot more about the issues addressed in Handmaid’s Tale, and the human condition in general,  by reading "Tess of the d’Urbervilles" or "Middlemarch". (Or, of course, "To Kill a Mockingbird", which is still a set text and deservedly so.)

"Enduring Love"  by Ian McEwan is also, apparently, a regular set text. I adore Ian McEwan — he’s my favourite living author. But I would definitely class him as someone to read when you’ve finished at school or in parallel with school, not as a set text. Rather than Enduring Love, you could get a lot further in understanding the fundamental issues addressed in that book by reading  "Arrowsmith" and "Madame Bovary".

Whatever you think of McEwan or Atwood — I love one and do not like the other —  in my view they do not alone provide the tools for appreciation of the richness of humanity via the reading habit in comparison to some of the other books and authors I’ve mentioned here.

Of course, the Guardian article might just be winding people up — it is more than possible that at A level, a modern work like a McEwan or an Atwood is read as well as a wide variation of other books. That would be fine, as students would have an interesting set of comparisons to make. But at GCSE English, there is only one set novel, and I think it would be a pity if it were to be one of the "modern" books mentioned by the Guardian — which implies that these choices are made for commercial reasons — hard to believe, I would imagine it is more likely to be some misguided ideology by "educationalists".

Another quote from the Guardian piece: "Anyone who has interviewed sixth-formers for places on university courses over the past decade will know that Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been studied as much as Pride and Prejudice (and a great deal more than any other 19th-century novel)."

On a related subject, Big A little a highlights an article in the Washington Post about whether assigned reading is too difficult for its target audience, highlighting the fact that "Beloved" is read by sixth-graders. Having read this harrowing book, I do hope that sixth-graders in the USA are not the same as year six students here in the UK. (Year six in the UK means you are 10 or 11.) To me, the point of both newspapers’ articles is similar — set texts should be chosen with care and thought. I would suggest that some books are best read after others — don’t learn to read before you know your letters.

I would be most interested in any readers’ views on my perhaps rather elitist and inflammatory posting above. Please let me know in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Strange school set-texts

  1. I read this too – and felt I had much to say. I agree about The Handmaid’s Tale. I thought Cat’s Eye rather good though – and I would have thought much more appropriate – there would be so much to discuss in this book which is based so much in childhood.
    I did not think Enduring Love was McEwan’s best book either. The beginning was amazing but I thought it petered out. I much preferred Atonement – that too had issues that I think children could relate to.
    I think, in a way, we are trying to make children grow up too soon reading these books. They may be intellectually able to read them, but not yet ready to understand the social implications. I would have thought it better to let them keep them until later when they might appreciate them more.
    I was under the impression that sixth grade was like our Y6 – in which case I think Beloved is far too advanced – unless you can read (excerpts) on a more simplistic level, I suppose.
    On the other hand I should think White Teeth would be fine – after all the author was not much older than a child when she wrote it!
    Finally, I would just like to let you know that both my sons set book for GCSE was…Lord of the Flies!

  2. I think that’s a good point about making children grow up too soon, Clare. And, funnily enough, Cathy is studying Lord of the Flies right now for her GCSE too!
    I agree with you about Atonement — that an A Child in Time are my favourite McEwans. I did read Cat’s Eye but have forgotten it, I’m afraid. I think I only remember the Handmaid’s Tale because I disliked it so much — and Oryx and Crake because I read it fairly recently.
    I like the way Ian McEwan addresses science in a way that is not that common in novels. But A Child in Time was more successful in that regard (the book looked at time from many different perspectives) than was Enduring Love (protagonist a science journalist) — in my view anyway. And of course, the central plot in A Child in Time was far more poignant and dramatic than EL.

  3. Hey, Maxine–
    Though I didn’t like _The Handmaid’s Tale_ all *that* much, I really do like Margaret Atwood’s work in general. She’s got a lot of bitchy females in her novels, certes, but man can she write. And the ultimate book about just how bitchy/catty girls can be is _Cat’s Eye_ — like Clare, I’d def. put that on a reading list for adolescents. But the best one, in my humble opinion, is _Alias, Grace_ — it’s based on a real murder that roiled Canada in the 19th century.
    Everyone is always singing Ian McEwan’s praises and though I think he’s an incredibly intelligent and technically brilliant writer, the only novel of his (admittedly, I’ve only read three) that really satisfied me was _Atonement_. In that one I felt he really avoided his usual urge to make a joke out of serious things.
    I didn’t read _Enduring Love_, but I saw the movie because my thespian hero, Bill Nighy, was in it (though his character was *not* in the book). I found it an absolutely dreadful movie — dunno what you all think who also read the book.
    In my opinion, anything that gets kids reading is a good thing. What gets ’em reading here in the U.S. is a novel with a teenage protagonist — that’s why J.D. Salinger’s _Catcher in the Rye_ is a perennial hit. Perhaps in England they should assign David Mitchell’s _Black Swan Green_ — wonderful novel about an adolescent boy coming of age in Worcestershire…..

  4. I thought the movie of Enduring Love was feeble too, Susan, though of course, Bill N was lovely in it as he is in everything he is in. Have you read A Child In Time? Until I read Atonement, I thought it was his masterpiece. Now I think it is joint with Atonement.
    I am afraid I have so lost patience with Atwood and her slavish feminist robotic following that I can’t bring myself to read her any more. Give me Carol Shields or Marge Piercy instead!

  5. I would give you Alice Munro. She is the best living Canadian writer of fiction. Indeed, in my opinion, she is the best writer of short fiction in English, period.
    If you’ve not sampled her work, you must. Believe me, you will be hooked forever. She has several collections; I believe _Runaway_ is the most recent, but they’re all good.

  6. Oh, to write like Munro. Definitely agree with Susan about her short stories (all I’ve read of hers). Your local library should have them Maxine, that’s where I found her.

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