US Book Ban

The following article from today’s issue of The Daily Telegraph caught my eye:


Michael Grove will regret the decision to divide literature into “nationalistic categories” on the GCSE syllabus, a Nobel Prize-winning author has said. Toni Morrison, an American, attacked the Education Secretary’s reported plans to drop classic US novels and plays from the school curriculum in favour of British works.  She also joked that the decision was “payback” for US universities replacing English literature with American literature  in their syllabuses.

Mr Grove has been criticised after reports that he wanted To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, John Srteinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Crucible by Arthur Miller to be removed from the curriculum.  More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition calling for them to stay.

Morrison, made a Nobel laureate in 1993, was asked about Mr Grove’s reforms when she appeared at the Hay Festival.  “I tell you [they] will regret it,” she said.  “When I started in grad school in the fifties at Cornell University, that was the first time there was such a thing as American literature.  It was always English literature.  American, what was that?  So now it’s just payback.  Just because we got  rid of English literature and moved to American, you’re going to fix it.”

Paul Dodd, of the OCR exam board, said at the weekend that it had left American texts off its English GCSE syllabus because of government guidelines.  “The essential thing is that in the new GCSE English literature you cannot do fiction or drama from 1914 unless it is British,” he said.

Mr Gove denied the claim, saying: “I have not banned anything.  Nor has anyone else.  All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people can study for GCSE.”  But the OCR last night confirmed that it had dropped many American texts form GCSE English so pupils could study more novels and poems by British writers.  The new syllabus will see pupils study Shakespeare along with novels by George Orwell, Meera Syal, Charles Dickens and HG Wells.


My reaction to this – as an American – is that it’s all a tempest in a tea pot, and I doubt very much that there is any sort of “payback” involved.  Who cares about the nationality of an author?  Is there a distinctive ‘American Writing Style’?  While the characters and the settings of American novels will tend to be different than their British counterparts, does this make the appreciation of the work, as literature, in the mind of a fifteen-year-old different?  I think what a fifteen-year-old will notice is the unfamiliar settings and maybe the strange characters, but will s/he think, “this is a different kind of literature”?  I doubt it.  In fact, if what we want to do with fifteen-year-old students is to confirm in them a joy of reading, isn’t it sensible to suggest works that will seem more comfortable and familiar – rather than foreign – to them?

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, in his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, listed eight rules for writing a short story.  While I would probably adopt a different set of eight rules, I think Vonnegut’s rules are quite interesting:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

For me, the important parts of this rule are: “total stranger” and “time wasted”.  One never knows who will decide to read a book that one has written, and it’s important that whoever decides to read it feels that it is time well spent.  This suggests that the onknown reader got something out of the story: enjoyment, new knowledge, new ideas . . .

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

This is essential!

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

A character with no desires is not human and therefore not very attractive or interesting.

4. Start as close to the end as possible.

For a short story, this certainly makes sense.  I’m not sure this holds true for a novel.  One example that springs to mind is Emily Bronté’s Wuthering Heights in which the characters are young children at the beginning.  The Russian novelist, Tolstoy, didn’t believe in this, nor did Sholokov.  However, the rule, it seems to me, is useful in that it encourages one not to included unnecessary material.

5. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.

It depends, I think, on what one means by “advance the action”.  A short story, by its very nature has to be tightly told.  In a novel, there is more latitude for scene- and context-setting.  I would argue that setting the scene and establishing the context are important in advancing the action, so long as they hold the reader’s interest.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

I’m not sure one has to be a Sadist, but it certainly shows the reader what a character is made of when tragedy strikes.  I good example is the principal character Henry in Sable Shadow and The Presence.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

I sense a slight conflict between this rule and rule number 1.  The one person for whom we write is a total stranger?  For me, the second sentence in this rule makes sense: one has to have focus in one’s writing, otherwise, it pleases no one.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I think this applies to a short story more than to a novel, but I’m not sure that Hemingway would have agreed with this.  His short stories often have surprising endings.