A little while ago, in a blog post, I mentioned that I thought some pretty stupid things about writing when I was in high school.
Some of it was the typical teenager stuff. I thought that including sex made things adult and ~edgy~, I thought that the only major problem with English class was that they made us study boring books (keywords: “only major”).
Some of it was typical new-young-writer stuff – I thought I was a lot more subtle and nuanced than I actually was, for example.
But most of all, I thought I knew more about writing than my English teachers.
I was sixteen. You think a lot of very, very stupid things when you’re sixteen. That’s my defence and I’m sticking to it.
To put it lightly, I read a lot at that age. I still tell stories of the sheer number of books I read simultaneously: one book kept for every eventuality (one at school in my desk, one at home, one in the car, one in my bag). Being fast at reading became somewhat of a point of pride. I used to get little thrills whenever I came to school with a new book and someone would say, “What, already? Do you ever sleep?”
So by the time I was in my late teens, I thought I knew a pretty good amount about writing and books. I wasn’t exactly wrong – I was pretty knowledgeable. But I was still underdeveloped. I wasn’t getting as much out of books as I could later. Not to mention, I was still reading a fair bit of YA among my adult fantasy, and this was before the YA boom. Harry Potter had only just finished its book run, and we were still only up to The Order of the Phoenix in the movie theatres. Twilight was only just gaining popularity. The Hunger Games hadn’t happened, the market wasn’t yet glutted with brooding vampires and dystopian examinations of capitalism and love triangles. Not to say there wasn’t good stuff out there, it’s just that people hadn’t really started taking YA seriously as a genre yet.
I had friends who read literary fiction. At the time, I didn’t really ‘get’ it – I appreciated the finesse of expression, but I didn’t get into them.
So with that full understanding of my mentality at the time, let me tell you one of my most vehement beliefs about writing at the time:
“But authors don’t really think about all this stuff our English teachers are talking about in class.”
To my credit, this was usually modified with “Except literary fiction/classics writers, because that’s the point of literary fiction.”
However, it was equally often modified with “I’m a writer, and I don’t put any of this stuff in my books, and they’re just fine!”
Sometimes I get the feeling that my teenage self would be a bit horrified at me now, because nowadays I think about this stuff probably too much.
Now, this would be a cute little anecdote about growing and maturing as a writer and a reader, except that basically everyone I talked to about this believed exactly the same thing.
What was it about the way we were taught to look at writing that made us think that English teachers were stretching for meanings that weren’t there?
Let’s go back to those ‘boring books’ for a moment there. What books did we study at high school?
You can’t mention high school English without bringing Shakespeare into it, so there’s the first mention. People probably did at least one of the American classics – Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby. Then there’s a smattering of other classics like A Man for All Seasons, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Frankenstein.
Then there was a unit on poetry, which is usually pretty mishmash, but usually involved modern poets for us. There was a unit on a film, not counting an adaptation of the Shakespeare play that they made you study; this was also a bit more variable in its topic.
And then, perhaps towards the end of the year, they’d throw in ‘one for the kids’. They’d choose a ‘modern’ novel that the students would actually enjoy reading. It always felt a bit grudging, like they were trying to bribe you to not be too disruptive in the rest of the classes by promising you something you were interested in.
At least, they tried – as I said, YA wasn’t really taken seriously back then, so we tended to get novels (which I won’t name, since I’m about to disparage them) about, say, a family put in witness protection and brought from England to Australia and them trying to fit into a new school and life. It sounds interesting, but trust me, it wasn’t. I will admit – we studied the Phryne Fisher novels in year 8, and I did enjoy the novel, but I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the character of Phryne. By the end of studying it, I had pretty much decided never to read another of the novels again. Either that, or they gave assignments where you chose your own subjects, but for a teacher, that must be a nightmare – a teacher can never have read all the books that the students are studying, even allowing for the number who will write on the books that are popular with their age group. Sure, you can mark an essay without having read the novel it’s about (mostly), but there’s no way you can provide guidance or advice.
See, they weren’t very good at middle ground – at my school, at least. Either they had dense symbolism that you couldn’t really teach in the few weeks given per text with a high school class (In the Lake of the Woods is a prime example of this, and honestly one of my favourite books that I studied at high school), or a book that really was written just for entertainment value, which might have had interesting writing flourishes, but you have to take a totally different approach to get academic value out of it. A lot of the techniques you use to examine, say, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are totally different to the ones you use to examine Harry Potter. So students study the ‘literary fiction’, they get a template for how to look at novels, then they turn to the novels they read in their everyday life, use the same technique and come up with absolutely nothing. I love the Artemis Fowl series, but the book isn’t a metaphor for an underlying theme of the human condition. There’s no coherent thread of imagery through it that underpins the major conceit of the story. There are motifs, but it’d be a long, desperate stretch to tie them to a Message about Life that Eoin Colfer was trying to send. But that’s what it seems English teachers have to desperately try to do, to prove their ‘popular’ choices are worthwhile study on high school reading lists. It’s ridiculous.
Maybe books like The Hunger Games are changing that now, I don’t know. But I still get into a lot of discussions from people trying to tell me that authors just don’t think of books the way English teachers think they do.
And that’s not entirely true. Some authors don’t. They just want to write a good story, and more power to them. But to say that no genre authors put message and metaphor and motif in their stories is sort of laughable, and I have an entire bookshelf labelled “Proof I’m Right About This One”.
So, I’m sorry, English teachers I mocked as a teenager. I was wrong. You knew a lot more about your topic than you were able to let on. I hope books like ‘the Hunger Games’ have made things easier for you now.