Monday, May 03, 2004

Educating Rita and others

To the Arc Theatre on Saturday night, to see an amateur production of Educating Rita by Willy Russell. And, as amateur productions go, tolerably well done.

The play is a two-hander comedy, first premiered in 1980 and filmed three years later, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. The focus is very much on Rita, a young woman with no educational qualifications whatever, who decides that it is time she emerged from her state of hopeless ignorance. So she signs up for a course on English Literature with the Open University. (For the benefit of any American readers, the Open University allows you to take courses on a part-time basis, anywhere in the UK.) The second character in the play, Frank, is her OU tutor. Frank is a full-time lecturer at a traditional university, and has taken on extra work with the OU to pay for his drinking.

So far so good. The action of the play covers the first year of Rita’s education in Eng. Lit., and as such allows plenty of room for fun as the likeable but ignorant Rita interacts with the failed poet and not very good lecturer, Frank. Should you get the opportunity to see the play, or the video, you could do a lot worse. The film, in particular, received excellent reviews.

But the point of this post, of course, is to consider a few of the ideas raised in my head by seeing this piece.

First, the lovely Rita is studying the wrong subject, of course. If you want a good general education, you should be reading history. Frank quickly gets her reading E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and the big-time critics such as F.R. Leavis. A course of reading like that is enough to put anyone off education for life, and it is little wonder that Frank, having to teach the stuff all day long, has succumbed to the bottle.

Secondly, Frank peddles the usual Eng. Lit. party line about there being such a thing as the Great Novel. The Great Novel allegedly stands there in its prime, and if you don’t like it then you, the wretched reader, are in some way at fault, lacking in brains, sensitivity and all-round nous. This concept is of course complete balls from start to finish. I have neither the time nor the patience to develop the argument further here, but if you’re interested then you should read Chapter 5 of my book The Truth about Writing, and all will be revealed.

All that mention of Forster and Leavis reminds me that, forty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, I used to see those two gentlemen in the street from time to time. Forster was a Fellow at King’s, Leavis at Downing.

Forster had, and still has in certain quarters, a reputation as an important novelist, though I doubt whether anyone these days reads his books at all unless they have to take an exam on them (and probably not then). Although having said that, I have to admit that A Room with a View made an entertaining movie.

Forster also wrote a book called Aspects of the Novel, which, since he was a practising novelist, might be thought to offer some useful insights into how to write a full-length work of fiction. It doesn’t, I’m afraid. It is famous for including a passage which regrets the need for the novel to tell a story: ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ You couldn’t have any clearer evidence that literary people almost invariably miss the entire point. A story, to literary chaps, is a rather vulgar necessity which they would much rather do without. Whereas to the ordinary reader, who possesses at least a faint trace of common sense, the story is what makes the book worth reading. God forbid, apparently, that we should ever write anything which might appeal to the average reader. That would be frightfully common. Literary chaps only write for people of exquisite good taste.

Forster was, incidentally, a gay man at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in England. He wrote a novel with a homosexual theme: Maurice. This was circulated among friends during his lifetime and only published after his death.

As for the ghastly Leavis. Well, his intellectual position was that English Literature contained a core, or ‘canon’, of Great Books which included the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, some of Dickens, most of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and all of D.H. Lawrence. Everything else, according to Leavis, was crap.

This farrago of nonsense was surprisingly influential, and remains so to this day, though I must admit (having just looked him up) that Leavis got a thorough pasting from his fellow critics even while he was alive. You can find an essay on Leavis, by Paul Dean, here if you wish.

Cambridge, incidentally, only began to teach English Literature in 1917, and there was considerable opposition to the introduction of the subject even then. Most dons of the day took the view that literature should at all costs be kept out of the hands of self-appointed ‘experts’ who would take it upon themselves to tell the rest of us what we ought to be reading. The University, please note, never made Leavis a Professor. He remained plain Dr Leavis to the end of his days. So at least they got that right.

Leavis’s wife, Queenie, was an even bigger intellectual snob than he was. She wrote a book called Fiction and the Reading Public, which argues, in effect, that only intellectuals can possibly recognise which books are worth reading. According to Queenie, anyone who enjoys a book which is ‘not worth reading’ is self-evidently a person of no morality, character, or intelligence.

Those of you who dream, from time to time, of winning the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer, or some such literary bauble, may care to bear in mind that, in entering for any such enterprise, you are placing yourself, and your fate as a writer, in the hands of the successors of F.R. and Queenie Leavis, i.e. the self-appointed and usually half-baked experts who ‘decide’ what is good, bad, and indifferent. This is not a fate which I would personally wish upon my worst enemy, so why inflict it upon yourself?