Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Deathless prose?

I've just had one of my pupils in, anxious about how to write a critical essay on a piece of journalism the class had studied. She'd missed the lesson and was floundering. We spent an hour of hard analysis; it was quite a humorous piece with some good tricks of the trade to talk about. But I felt myself increasingly puzzled by the content. It felt .... dated.

Answer: it was dated. Dated 1991, in fact. It was photocopied from a book - presumably a collection of writing from the period when the book was first compiled. It would be out of date before publication. What is the point of this? Journalism is surely, by definition, fresh - we can admire the style of a master like, say, Clive James, but he was even funnier first time around.

For most of my teaching career it was really difficult to supply good up-to-the-minute factual prose in quantities suitable for class use. But now that there is widespread online access to global journalism, should we not be encouraging our students to explore, to find what is worth reading - and to justify their choices? And if they're going to write about it in the SQA exams, what chance is there that the examiner will have read the same piece? It's not Wuthering Heights, for heaven's sake.

I dunno. It made me feel sad, this sunny holiday afternoon, to see that 16-year-old piece, photocopied and annotated. And I'm afraid it showed. We have a long way to go.


  1. Anonymous10:21 PM

    Interesting this. I feel this about a lot of children's literature - many of the books I enjoyed as a child are now very dated and, although they're regarded as classics, I have given up expecting the children to enjoy reading them at the same stage as I did. I think they will come to them later when the vocabulary and the style of prose will perhaps be more accessible to them. On the whole, they're much better off reading and enjoying the books of their time and worrying about the books of mine at a later date. We've always doen a lot of reading aloud (and still do, even in their early teens) but Philip Pullman is much easier to read aloud to a modern boy than Arthur Ransome. I'll get around to writing an essay about this on my own blog one of these days!

  2. And probably they'll never come to some of your treasures - simply because the world has moved on. Interestingly, I always found a market for "Hamlet" - older, bright kids and deathless verse!

  3. Anonymous1:04 AM

    Mind you, thinking about it again, we've listened to some successfully as story tapes on long car journeys. Perhaps it's all in the quality of the reading.

  4. Anonymous9:08 PM

    I think it is also true to say that there is a plethora of good writing for children now-a-days... much more than when we were growing up. Writers like Johnathon Stroud, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman and Cornelia Funke have (I believe) raised the bar for children's writing in a really positive way.

    I would particularly single out Pullman. I found the Northern Lights trilogy every bit as rich and rewarding many of the 'classics'...

    As to the journalism, I agree that printed collections are pretty redundant... that's one of the reasons I spend a lot of time nagging my classes to read the free online broadsheets! (Not that they do... in general!)

  5. It makes me chuckle thinking of someone reading or seeing Hamlet when it was first written and performed and their teacher telling them that they should be reading the classics instead!

    I tried to read the Narnia books to my kids and they are already dated! They both love the movie though!

  6. Stewart, I think we're talking universal truths versus ephemera here! Like, I don't think for a moment that blethers is anything but epemeral - even if it is occasionally quite well written. ;-)