Essay

Keeping faith with words

On teaching literature in the digital age

FOR MOST OF us who care to think about such things, the teenager was invented by JD Salinger in 1951. Of course, before he was described in literature, the teenager was a naturally occurring phenomenon in postwar America. As that country became the world’s richest, a whole generation of young white people emerged who did not need to go immediately to work, whose parents’ relative wealth and resulting access to astounding inventions like the washing machine and the motor car had created a new leisure. What Holden Caulfield has that young people did not have before him is time to think. Like a 1940s Hamlet he wanders the streets of New York, out of the jurisdiction of parents and teachers, free to ponder the ‘phonies’ he has known, free to feel miserable, free to feel trapped by the future his parents imagine for him.

Every semester I stand in front of a class of first- or second-year university students and ask them what books they have read. The answers differ from country to city, from inner to outer west, from degree to degree. Every year fewer of them have read much at all. Once it was an anomaly to find a creative writing student who had not read many books (how we used to laugh in the staffroom – the thought of taking a creative writing class without having read any books!); now it is the norm. The anomaly is the student who has read books despite the fact that she has a phone to soothe her and provide her with continuous company, despite the fact that she doesn’t need to leave the house to see a movie, despite the fact that there is simply so much else to do. I don’t despair any more. I just notice it.

Each year I ask my students who has read The Catcher in the Rye. One of them, two of them, none of them. Then I ask them if they’ve heard of it. Some have. Then I tell them about it, and the invention of the teenager. I tell them that The Catcher in the Rye didn’t act the way a book once had, hewing to some kind of narrative order, reasserting particular attitudes as certainties. Here was a voice that knew nothing for sure, doubted everything and, what was more, told secrets about his experience that had never been told in books before.

Of course, literature begets literature, I tell my students, and The Catcher in the Rye wouldn’t have been possible without its modernist forebears: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. All of these books reflected a total collapse of belief in what we might call Western civilisation: industrialisation, the colonial project. If, for instance, millions of young men could be fed into the newly mechanised maw of world war, what was left to believe in? Modernist literature enacts that collapse, and The Catcher in the Rye – fragmented, uncertain, apparently plotless – simply continues the process.

 

OF COURSE, BEFORE Holden Caulfield there were other teenagers in literature. Not just young people; actual, rebellious teenagers, fizzing with seditious ingenuity. Think Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Or Jane Eyre, fighting her way out of the Reed family and her horrible school. Or Heathcliff and Cathy, spurning moderation in pursuit of their violent love. But three lesser-known literary teenagers were the ones who spoke most directly to me when I was young.

‘In summer all right-minded boys built huts in the furze-hill behind the College’. This is the first clause of the first sentence of Stalky & Co., Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 book about his years at the United Services College in the little, unusually named seaside village of Westward Ho! in Devon. Kipling, born in 1865, began his schooling there in 1878.

Originally published as separate pieces in journals such as McClure’s and The Windsor Magazine, Stalky & Co. tells the story of Kipling’s schooldays. The ‘Stalky’ of the title is Arthur Corkran, one of a triumvirate made up of Beetle, Kipling’s alter ego; M’Turk (or Turkey), based on Kipling’s schoolfriend George Beresford; and Stalky himself, based on their friend Lionel Dunsterville, who became a major general in the British Army. Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk share a study together – Number Five – one of the privileges of the older boys in a school like the College, or ‘Coll’, as the boys call it. Here, Beetle writes poetry, M’Turk reads about art and architecture and puts up stencils and pictures on the walls, and Stalky, the general-to-be, directs operations.

Let’s return to that beginning: ‘In summer all right-minded boys built huts in the furze-hill behind the College’. If we read it with a mind open to possibility, we can hear an echo of Jane Austen’s most famous line: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Just like Austen’s, Kipling’s opening line is a small masterpiece, a weave of sincerity and irony. The real ‘right-minded boys’, those favoured by their masters, who would never think of making a hideaway in the hills, will turn up again and again in the pages of Stalky & Co. They are the enemies of Number Five, the slavish rule-followers; toadies and goody-goodies all.

The plot of the first story runs thus: Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk are bent on escaping a day of compulsory sport with the rest of the Coll. Their aim is the hut they’ve hollowed out in the furze that covers the cliffs, looking westward to the sea. As the chapter opens, they learn that their hut has been discovered and destroyed. Lesser boys would give in and go down to cricket as requested, but these boys, led by Stalky, are endlessly inventive. Stalky quickly enrols them in the Natural History Society, whose boundaries are broader than the rest of the school’s, and the boys set out. They find their way through the undergrowth to an eyrie at the edge of the cliffs. They bring out their books (contraband stored in their jackets at the beginning of the chapter), they make themselves comfortable and, hidden from the rest of the world, they read. ‘The sea snored and gurgled; the birds, scattered for the moment by these new animals, returned to their businesses, and the boys read on in the rich, warm, sleepy silence.’

Each chapter swirls over a half-hidden reef of books. Books for Stalky & Co are an escape from the absurd world of their military college, its rules and rewards, its insistence on a manacled future, its focus on right-minded boys with ‘pure souls’. Books are rebellion, utter subversion. Stalky, the most conservative of the three, reads Surtees’s Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities, a series of comic novels about a sporting cockney grocer, originally serialised in The New Sporting Magazine. ‘Beetle’, as Stalky proclaims to their friends, ‘reads an ass called Brownin’, and M’Turk reads an ass called Ruskin’ – author of the famous Fors Clavigera, a collection of treatises written for working men about the moral value of art and work. Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk read books the way I was reading as a teenager: in an unarticulated search for like minds, for company.

The boys return to their eyrie again and again, sometimes cheekily strolling out right under the noses of Mr King, their loathed Latin teacher, and Mr Prout, their house master. Finally, King and Prout follow them. What the masters don’t know is that the boys have befriended Colonel Dabney, the landowner, and have been expressly invited to range over his land as much as they wish. Triumph: King and Prout are found crossing Colonel Dabney’s land and are apprehended by the gamekeeper, who holds them at gunpoint until Colonel Dabney appears. And there the two masters are given a dressing down for trespassing, the very crime they are hoping to convict the boys of – all within earshot of the evil three, who by this time are hidden in the gamekeeper’s parlour, lying on the rugs and the couch, and crying with laughter.

Back at school the three boys, still showing the effects of an hour’s helpless laughter, are called up to the headmaster for trespassing and for public drunkenness. They cite their membership of the Natural History Society, whose bounds allow the boys to travel beyond the school grounds, and produce a badger given to them by the gamekeeper’s wife as proof of their commitment. They explain the truth of the matter, which they’ve withheld from King and Prout, to their headmaster, and he, understanding them utterly, perpetrates the ‘howling injustice’ of caning them all. He finishes by giving them a pile of new books and the boys return to Number Five, triumphant.

When Stalky & Co. was published the reviews were…mixed. ‘An unpleasant book about unpleasant boys at an unpleasant school’ said one. Somerset Maugham and HG Wells were among those who weighed in on its nastiness, and the ‘odiousness’ of its main characters. Unhealthy, unboylike, the demonic inventions of ‘the spoiled child of an utterly brutalised public’, Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk were ‘three small fiends in human likeness’.

In other words, they were teenagers. These three fifteen-year-olds methodically, brilliantly undermined everything that readers thought they knew about the public school. This was not Tom Brown’s School Days or Fifth Form at St Dominic’s, or even Eric, or, Little by Little. This was The Breakfast Club, only these characters, almost permanently on detention, had brains and education, and used those to defeat cant, brutality and sycophancy in all its forms. When I was fifteen I knew no one who spoke my language so clearly as these three nineteenth-century schoolboys. They were the best companions I ever had.

 

I’M THE MOTHER of two teenagers now; my son is thirteen and my daughter seventeen. They are both readers, particularly my daughter. In my son’s case, this is partly to do with restricted access to his Xbox and his phone. In the mornings before school and in the evenings after dinner he isn’t allowed to use his electronics, and, frustrated and bored, he generally ends up reading. My daughter – and I think this is to do with both her personality and her gender – reads to relax, for company, for entertainment. Every so often I try to nudge one or the other towards a certain book. Look, I’ll tell you, sometimes I pay them to read books. Our kids don’t get pocket money, but they do get paid for work around the house. In this way I paid for Pride and Prejudice. I also paid for In Cold Blood (Random House, 1966). I paid my son to read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Jonathan Cape, 1962) a few years ago. Most recently I paid my daughter to read The Catcher in the Rye.

She’d started it a few times because I kept pressing it on her, telling her about its importance, its place as a pivot in English literature, the way it gave shape to a heretofore invisible creature. The way it invented teenagehood. But every time Alice picked it up she was put off. ‘He’s so annoying,’ she kept saying. ‘I hate the sound of his voice.’

Sometimes in my classes I do a kind of dramatic clutching of the heart when my students tell me they haven’t read the books I am talking about. I try to avoid the dramatic clutching with Alice, but I feel it. I wanted to clutch my heart dramatically when she said that Holden Caulfield was annoying. Finally, though, curious or needing the money, she read it, all the way through. I’m sure she has some private responses to it that I won’t press her for, but her general response was twofold: first, he continued to be really annoying; second, it was so sad.

It never would have occurred to me to use the word ‘sad’ about Holden’s experience. But, of course, Alice is absolutely right – it is sad. He’s all on his own out there. He is absolutely lost, lost in his own city. The future terrifies him and nobody knows or cares what he is feeling. You can imagine his parents – ‘grand people’ – going to meeting after meeting with various school principals, working not to help Holden but to assure each new principal that at this school he’ll shape up, become like all the right-minded boys. What a cold reader I was. I knew Holden was speaking for me but I didn’t think about him with any tenderness.

This is partly because he didn’t think this way about himself either. Empathy is a habit of the late twentieth century, refined and improved in the new millennium. So of course my millennial children exist in a much more empathetic atmosphere than Holden Caulfield did, in a place where theirs and their friends’ feelings are noticed, valued. But don’t forget that this has a lot to do with their worth as consumers. In the current economy, what teenagers care about matters, and so they see themselves reflected in every surface. You really know you exist when someone tries to sell you something.

 

SOME YEARS AGO, I asked a literature class, ‘What happened in 1939?’

Total silence. This time I didn’t clutch my heart. Instead, I started for the door, saying, ‘If someone can’t tell me what happened in 1939, I’m leaving.’ We all laughed; I wouldn’t have left, but it’s good to create a bit of comic tension now and then. Then someone shouted, ‘World War III!’

I grabbed the door handle and swung round to glare at the class.

‘I mean World War II!’ shouted the same panicked student, and I let go of the door. We laughed again. We returned to the novel we were studying.

 

A BOOK THAT both my children read voluntarily – and then saw the movie, and then read the book again – is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008). The plot is simple: the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, lives in a dystopian future where a group of lower-class children and teenagers are ‘reaped’ – randomly selected – once a year to fight to the death in a huge arena, all of it televised.

The Hunger Games is written in the strangely affectless prose that seems to dominate YA writing these days. I’m looking now at its opening sentences:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

There doesn’t seem to be anything either terrible or wonderful about this writing. It is almost wholly uninflected. There are a lot of short sentences, to increase the sense that this girl has little time to tell you what she needs to tell you. The tenses waver a little. The descriptions are adequate. The plotting is solid. Despite the fact that The Hunger Games owes its existence, in part, to the literature that came before (to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and to Shirley Jackson’s terrifying 1948 short story ‘The Lottery’, set in a village that gathers once a year to choose a person to stone to death), the writing itself does not seem to know this. It is almost entirely textureless.

Still. Last year, teaching creative writing at a city university, I found myself talking about The Hunger Games to my class. I had been trying to explain to my students why some narratives have traction in a culture. The Catcher in the Rye had traction because the teenager was coming into being, and Salinger happened to be there to name him at exactly the right moment. The moment was not right for the characters of Stalky & Co., which remains a little-read book among Kipling’s enormous oeuvre. Trying to think of a text that might make sense to them, I suggested the reason The Hunger Games had been so popular was because it spoke to something unexpressed in ­teenagers’ hearts. It describes without seeming to describe their sense that they are being pushed out into a world they did not choose and did not create. The characters’ struggle to survive, the way they are forced to attack one another in order to live and the way this seems to have been invented for the amusement of adults: this is what it feels like to be young today.

I say these things, wondering if they will have any effect. But as I looked around the room, every teenager in front of me was nodding. Briefly, warmly, we occupied the same space.

 

I RECENTLY READ two books by the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Svetlana Alexievich. Originally from Belarus, Alexievich has spent years travelling around Russia interviewing ordinary Russians for what she sometimes describes as ‘chorus novels’. Instead of trying to tell stories, she asks questions and records answers, with little or any descriptive intervention. The result is powerful. While Voices from Chernobyl (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005) is the more instantly arresting book (its opening monologue by the wife of one of the first firemen on the scene after the reactor exploded is horrible, riveting), Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Text, 2016) had a more profound effect on me. Alexievich says, ‘I’m piecing together the history of “domestic”, “interior” socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything happens.’

I had read Russian literature and journalism about the huge changes the country has undergone in the last thirty years. I had some idea, some understanding of Russian experience. But reading these interviews with ordinary Russians in post-perestroika cities was like suddenly being introduced to the Russian psyche as a whole. I felt I’d never known who these people were before.

What struck me most particularly was how many people missed their lives under communism. We’ve been brought up to think that the privations of postwar Russia were unbearable – and in many cases they were. But it was odd to hear the children of parents sent to labour camps speak about regretting the loss of culture that came with the advent of capitalism. ‘Our country was suddenly covered in banks and billboards.’ ‘An entire civilisation lies rotting on the trash heap…’ One remembered when the new work of a favourite poet was published: ‘We’d queue round the block for a copy.’

 

I THINK SOMETIMES about my friend Trevor, a writer whose twenty-year-old son, Corin, has not read Camus and Sartre and Dostoevsky and Kafka, once the usual fare for thoughtful young men. I think about the time Trevor said to Corin that if he did not read fiction, he would be a very lonely man. This makes perfect sense to me, although it is probably wrong. Corin is most certainly not lonely; he has music and his band, and the magazine he writes for. But I feel less lonely just thinking about Trevor saying that.

I’ve passed through my activist age, when it was my sworn duty to make sure every student I taught read at least one book. It’s exhausting to be angry all the time. I try to remember what I learnt years ago: when the book became readily available in English households in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people feared a kind of apocalypse of communication. Instead of sitting by the fire in the evening and talking, everyone would disappear into the silence of text, and civilisation would come to an end. Then there was the long-playing record, and then there was the radio, then the movies and then, horror of horrors, the television. And now – well, here we are, still talking to each other.

Besides, there are two teenagers in my house, and when I look into their rooms they are happy reading, or texting, or checking their Instagram, or listening to music, or, it seems, doing all of these things at once. I don’t use any social media myself, but I can feel the rich hum of theirs in our house. There are ways my two children are communicating, ways they are becoming themselves, that are simply unavailable to me – and that’s as it should be.

 

STILL, THE TRUTH is that I do despair sometimes. It used to be that when I stood in front of a class I felt an excited kinship and a sense of my enormous luck – to be here, right now, among young people, as their reading and writing takes shape. I still feel lucky because it’s always a privilege to be next to young people. But when I read their writing I want to send up a howl of desolation. Their flimsy words scud across an empty landscape, a landscape unpopulated by all the books that came before. There’s no weight, there’s no texture, there’s no echo, there’s no depth. In the late ’90s I used to chuckle to myself when I read the work of yet another young man whose style had been colonised by Cormac McCarthy or Tim Winton or Charles Bukowski. There’s nothing to chuckle at anymore because my students haven’t read any of these writers. There’s no one to be colonised by.

Cue tumbleweeds.

I can’t expect undergraduate students to have read as many books as I have; I am fifty and they are twenty. They don’t share this sense I have, that literature is a conversation with history. But what if great literature was a place my students could go to think, to be confronted without being actively attacked, as they might be on social media? What if reading it allowed them, at their own pace, to engage with difficult, complex, existentially challenging ideas? What if reading helped them understand the movements of history, such as capitalism, communism or the invention of the teenager?

Nor do I expect my students to read Stalky & Co., or to be Cormac McCarthy or Tim Winton or Charles Bukowski. I don’t even expect them to have full command of their sentences when we first meet. Times have changed. These days I spend a good half of my class time demolishing and rebuilding sentences with my students, and the other half introducing them to as many works of unread literature as I can. I respect their right to be at university and I try to make sure they leave my classes having learnt something, and – this comes second and always must – having enjoyed themselves.

But oh, the silences in their writing. The rush of wind. The tumbleweeds.

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