Miss Ellem stopped midway through her explanation of chromatography to glare at me. “What is that you are looking at Heather?” she asked. Everyone in the GCSE chemistry class turned their attention in my direction and I, with a slightly shaking hand, held up the offending volume that I’d been secretly reading under the lab bench.
You might wonder what book a fifteen year old girl had found so engaging that she had risked trouble to continue with it during double chemistry. I gather from some discussion on twitter today that young people are engaged by books that are relevant to them, depending on their class, gender and race. Young people want to read ‘voices near their own experience’.
So what book would suit my profile? I was a fifteen year old white girl, born in a council house whose parents had separated after my birth. Mother, lower middle class and with severe mental health issues, had died the year previously. Father, very working class, already elderly and suffering from dementia. My first memories were of life in a children’s home and since I was 13 I had been, not entirely happily, resident with working class foster parents who read the Daily Express, attended an American faith church and drove a minibus with bible texts printed all over it.
Such a girl needs ‘voices near her own experience’. There must be a book match out there somewhere!
Of course, as anyone with half a brain would know, such a girl was not looking for a book that would remind her of her own rather miserable life.
On that day I was reading Trollope. Anthony Trollope.
This dead white Victorian male chronicler of upper class life introduced me to a seductively orderly world of polite society, full of rich characters and written in a style that intrigued and whetted my appetite for nineteenth century prose. I do know lots of people that prefer literature that has more focus on the ‘gritty reality’ of life but that can often be because they haven’t experienced that particular reality for themselves. Often it is because such books are not the reality the reader is familiar with, that they are so intriguing. Curiosity is a basic instinct and descriptions of worlds very different from our own have always entertained. Conversely we also know that great authors say something general about the human condition. This is why their writing endures and why they are loved by readers of all social backgrounds.
It is odd that educationalists and teachers who are so keen to point out that they view children as individuals can so wilfully lump them into groups based on gender, class or race and bizarrely claim that literary tastes will depend on these factors. It is true that children need to read books to which they have access, that they can, on at least some level, comprehend. It is not because James Joyce is an Irish male, born in the 19thC that I would hesitate to recommend Finnegans Wake to a multi-ethnic A level class. The Dubliners might go down quite well. I’d suggest class and race are quite poor predictors of students’ interests and gender though better is still not at all reliable. Of course, someone’s politics are a slightly more reliable predictor of the books they may reject but we wouldn’t reject some books for our schools because of our political leanings, would we?
There should always be debate about what constitutes great literature but this identity based categorisation of our children, dictating what will engage them and what they will identify with, is patronising and stifling.