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"Hi Sue, I'm doing your book, we have to read it and just wanna say it's the most boring crap book I ever read, so thanks a lot for ruining my life. Cheers."

"Hi Susan, we're doing your book, I've gotta do coursework only I don't understand about context, what is it, and I don't no any other gothic writers and we've got to compare you, what's gothic anyway. Pleeeeze reply asap."

"Hi. I've got this essay to do for tomoz, it's about I'm the king of the castle and does the setting play an important part in the story. Can you reply tonight and do it in bullet points so I can copy and paste it straight in. thanks you're a star in advance, cheers..."

"Hi, we have to do this essay on context with your book, and cultural context so what are those please, please explain carefully, I don't get it."

Those are genuine, and very representative, emails from school pupils, sent via my author website. The books they refer to are I'm the King of the Castle, set for GCSE English, and The Woman in Black (Theatre Studies). I also receive (far fewer) questions about Strange Meeting, set for the A-level module on the First World War.

Two years ago, inundated by questions on the books, I set up a special section of my blog in which I answered some of the Frequently Asked Questions on all three novels and occasionally took up a particular topic related to one of them and wrote about it at length. I hoped this would ease the flow of emails I had to answer. It didn't. I don't think any of them got beyond "Contact Susan" before firing off their query - looking into the FAQs seemed too much trouble. But then, so, quite frequently, was reading one of the books themselves, or reading all of it rather than bite-sized chunks - let alone actually answering questions, writing an essay, doing coursework. Why bother, when the author was there to do it for you? Worse, I have had questions not just from pupils but from teachers explaining that they are studying the books via videos of old TV versions and reading only short sections of the text itself. "They find it hard to read a whole novel," one teacher apologised. In that case, they should not be doing GCSE literature at all.

I am happy to reply to the cries for help. It has become distressingly clear to me that too many school pupils are taught badly, lazily, unintelligently and cursorily. They are not taught how to read and understand novels or to write essays and coursework and answer questions about them. Judging by the evidence of their emails, many should not be studying English literature at all, but with guidance, understanding and above all enthusiastic teaching they could certainly be helped to get more out of books - any books - than they are.

It is unhelpful to complain that "things are not what they were in my day", though I sometimes envy George Eliot and Hardy, Shakespeare, Donne and Keats, not so much for being great writers as for being dead and unable to be consulted. We studied dead authors at school and even when I read English at King's College, London in the '60s the course only went up to 1880. Modern Literature was a special option and one could get a degree without reading any living author.

I have no doubt that we should not turn back that clock. In the '50s, far fewer students studied for O- and even fewer for A-Level English Literature than now. Those who did were much better equipped to study the classic authors, simply because they were the academically bright and well motivated, having passed the 11-Plus to grammar school. The rest (disregarding the independent sector) went to Secondary Modern schools where more of them studied just English language. Of course, there were drawbacks - no educational system is perfect. But not all pupils should study literature to GCSE and A-level standard. They are not equipped to learn how to analyse complex verse and prose or to develop critical awareness. Not all of them need to, or will ever, find practical application for those particular skills. But all children can learn how to read for pleasure, and for the enrichment of their lives, understanding and imagination. If those who struggle with analysis and textual comparison were introduced to a wide variety of books which they simply might enjoy reading, far fewer would be put off all literature for the rest of their lives. It saddens me greatly to think that my own novels may be taught so badly, so dully and so mechanically that they will contribute to this loathing of books. I have seen enough school essays and coursework to know that standards are lower than they were. But which standards? Of teaching, of exam marking? Yet the Examination Boards' requirements are exacting enough.

This course aims to promote in students a knowledge of and affection for English Lit., and to lead them to an understanding of the literary uses of language and the human and spiritual dimensions of literary works. Students should develop the ability to read, understand and respond to a wide range of literary texts, appreciate the ways in which authors achieve their effects and develop the skills necessary for literary study; develop awareness of social, historical and cultural contexts and influences in the study of literature; develop the ability to construct and convey meaning in speech and writing, matching style to audience and purpose.

But there is many a slip twixt cup and lip, and written work I have seen often falls far short of those requirements. It may be that the competent students, with ability to study literature to A-level and

beyond, are confident and well taught enough not to need my help. Perhaps the only ones I encounter are those struggling at the bottom of the heap. I simply wonder if they should be in this particular heap at all. Bright pupils will be able to understand and fulfil the GCSE examination board requirements above. Yet they are the ones I am concerned about when it comes to A-level, because there should be a big leap in the standards required, and judging by the new AS- and A-level syllabus, that is not so. Not enough is being demanded of the cleverest pupils, who should be studying literature at this level.

It is not a question of "when I was your age, things were a lot harder". They were certainly different and the books we studied more demanding - and more numerous - than those on the current syllabus. I did a lot of rote-learning to pass the exams - I had the blessed ability then to get by heart whole pages of novels and long poems, most of which I still remember. It was handy, in the days before it was permissible to take the text into the exam room, and it stands me in good stead now for crosswords, but otherwise I question the value of it. I could impress by regurgitating long paragraphs verbatim, but were my critical and analytical abilities in any way improved or tested by this? I had certainly no notion of what was meant by the "cultural and social context" of novels - if, indeed, anybody had ever asked such a question. A more careful, considered and critical response is required of students now, at least in examinations.

But I query the purpose of the new "creative and transformational" writing modules of the A-level syllabus. Empathy questions are most popular in the study of history, and at primary school age they are of value. At eight or nine years, my own children spent days pretending to be Romans, and dressed up as Victorian children to spend a school day as they would have done in 1880. It brought history to life in a way my dull lessons from textbooks never did. But far more should be expected of those aged 16 plus, and I get anguished requests for help from pupils who find "transformational and creative writing" almost impossible. They are asked to take on the persona of one of my characters and write a new chapter for the novel in that guise, or else they must write a new ending, changing the story or bringing it up to date. That was my job when I was writing the book as it is my job now. But mine is not a skill to be acquired in five terms, let alone imparted by the average school teacher. The study of English literature is something quite different from creative writing and students with great academic ability often find the "transformational writing" tasks vague and frustrating. But why should they be expected to write as I write? If the pupils who find analysing a novel and writing a critical essay about it difficult are being challenged beyond their limits, then the academically able are not being challenged enough.

Iris Murdoch once told me school students should not be studying her novels, they should only read the classics, the great Victorians, the major poets - in other words, the dead. I am sure that the brightest should indeed be studying the canon, as well as some modern writers - the key words being "as well". A serious concern now is the way the exam syllabus is structured, in terms of teacher-choice. Once, it was "either Hamlet or King Lear," "The Mill on the Floss or Jane Eyre," but now it can be between, "Far from the Madding Crowd or A Kestrel for a Knave", "poems by Wordsworth or Carol Ann Duffy", and too many teachers will take the easier option - and it is easier to teach Duffy than Wordsworth, I'm the King of the Castle than Wuthering Heights. At GCSE the emphasis is almost wholly on modern writers, at A-level slightly less so, but the pendulum has still swung very far in the modern direction over the last few decades.

Teachers are afraid of their pupils being bored - or rather, of saying they are bored. But it is the nature of the teenager to affect boredom. The challenge to the teacher is to bypass that affectation and to interest, enthuse and excite. The word "relevant" rears its head a great deal, too. Modern writers are regarded as "relevant" to the interests and concerns of young people, while dead writers are not. Yet it is a teacher's job to reveal how dead authors, classic writers, can be just as relevant to their pupils, in terms of the experience of being human, of emotions felt or perceptions shared. I fear that too many teachers are themselves afraid. They are afraid of being bored and not finding books "relevant", and afraid of challenge, of complexity, of difficult language, of anything that is not immediately accessible and easily digestible. One of the reasons is that they often do not read themselves, for interest and enrichment, regularly and widely. I have despaired, going into the homes of teachers - and yes, teachers of English - and seeing no books, of talking to teachers of English and discovering that they only read the set texts of the day and have never studied anything beyond the syllabus. How can they hope to broaden the literary horizons of all their pupils if they do not broaden their own?

But to return to those emails. Several things are clear even from the few I quoted - and I do know that these are teenagers who never write formal letters with a pen on paper, but whose natural mode of communication is text and email. I have no objection to informal phrasing and a direct approach, I understand that they write and send in an instant, do not reread or spell- check. I hope I am not stuffy, but I do object to "Hi Sue". Nobody ever calls me "Sue" and it is impolite to shorten someone's first name automatically. If they sign "Joshua", I do not reply "Dear Josh". I don't require deference, just friendly politeness. But it is not their fault. They have not been taught. Nobody has said, "If you write to the author of a book you are studying, you should address them politely as ‘Dear Miss Hill'." Manners are not automatic, like breathing. Nor is grammar. I suppose I could correct the spelling and grammar errors, but if I did so, replying to their desperate emails would take me twice as long.

But what about attitude? That depends. I do not mind informality but rudeness and even abuse get short shrift. I do not ignore them, I reply in no uncertain terms and it is often pleasantly surprising to receive a charming apology, such as this one: "Dear Mrs Hill, I was dead out of order, I am really, really sorry. I hope you forgive me. I didn't mean to be rude and reading what I wrote I see now I was, only I was a bit stressed out, so please forgive me and I take back about saying your book was crap. I'm reeeellly sorry. Love from..."

I often tackle straightforward questions by suggesting where they might find out the answers for themselves and I often wonder how far they have simply not had some things explained to them clearly enough and how far they have been listening to their iPods at the time. I always correct any misinformation and, above all, I try to help them to see that the text stands alone and that their opinion of it has value, provided they have read it carefully and can explain why they find that something carries a particular meaning. I go on to explain that I may not have put that meaning there consciously, because so much of what a writer does is unconscious, but that nevertheless it is valid. This usually comes as a revelation and that is one of the tremendous advantages of studying a living author. I, that author, can give students permission to interpret my novel as they wish, encourage them to articulate their findings and validate the meanings they uncover for themselves in my text, even if those meanings are new to me. Those interpretations are often fresh and insightful and rarely as far-fetched and obscure as those of many an academic critic. If only I could have had such validation for my interpretations from Hardy and George Eliot and Donne.

It can be difficult to make students see that studying literature is not like studying maths, that there are rarely simple right/wrong
answers, that I cannot tell them something definitive which, on exact repetition, will ensure they pass their exam with high marks. This is a difficult concept to grasp at the age of 15 or so. Panic sets in. "But you've got to know the answer, you wrote the f---ing book didn't you?" But encouraging, helping, explaining, clarifying - teaching, even - are one thing. Writing their essays, doing their coursework, providing nuggets of information in bullet-point form to be cut and pasted in are another matter. Last week, I told a girl that no, I would not actually write her essay for her. "Why not?" she replied. Did she genuinely not know?

Do I mind being "a set book author"? No, so long as I can somehow make everyone who has to study a book of mine understand that what I wrote was a novel, a story, to be read and enjoyed, not a set text on which exam questions could be set. One of the novels I studied for O-level was George Eliot's Silas Marner. It was dully taught, we analysed it out of existence, and I have never been able to face it since. I often implore students not to let this happen to my books.

I wonder if they listen.

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Michael K.
April 23rd, 2012
11:04 AM
What a refreshingly honest post from one of my favourite authors. I teach The Woman in Black to my theatre students, and I will definitely be printing this article out. I did find this well-written and engaging study guide, which might be a good place to point students in the right direction:

January 30th, 2009
3:01 PM
I am so pleased to find someone who thinks,as I do, that analysing etc tends to take away love of reading for pleasure. My son hated having to write about what he had read at Primary school and ever since has hated reading fiction. Or is it partly an excuse?

Matthew Banes
January 26th, 2009
5:01 PM
This was a great read, Ms Hill. As an A-level student I'm kind of shocked to read of this kind of behaviour. I've been lucky, in the sense that for GCSE and A-level I've had very engaging, well-read teachers who have a passion for expanding our literary appreciation. I've had a great experience and read a lot of books, but find your experiences with students surprising, yet depressingly believable. A friend of mine is currently comparing your Woman in Black to Woman in White. She adores the book, and chose it out of reverance, of a sort. I'll be showing her this article as soon as possible. Yours sincerely, Matthew.

January 22nd, 2009
9:01 PM
It doesn't surprise me in the least that students expect you to give them the "answers" for their assignments. I'm a lecturer and have just failed three students who plagiarised 80% of their essays - lifted wholesale from websites and not accredited. These are the dozy articles. We can't catch the clever ones... PS. Listening to books being read aloud is wonderful and mesmerising. I have happy memories of "heads on desks, close your eyes and listen" from my primary school. It seems there is little time to read to children in schools these days.

January 11th, 2009
7:01 AM
That was a splendid article, Ms Hill - many, many thanks for it. But what a rude way for those children to write to you! Please don't think all your teenage readers are like that. Some of us are actually quite nice. Me for example: I've all of your books - I discovered "The Woman In Black" in my fourteenth Winter and fell in love with your writing style. And I read them for pleasure, not for school as I was I'm schooled at home. Anyone who does not like such books as "The Woman In Black" and "I'm the King of the Castle" must be a half wit of the first order. Yours tolerantly Josie

January 9th, 2009
10:01 PM
I am glad that you're discussing the value of students being read to, or listening to audio-books, versus being limited to reading print books. This has been tremendously important for my home schooled kids. Their interest level, at various points in their development, has been higher than their reading level. Reading aloud and audio-books has enabled them to read novels that engage their minds and imaginations versus being bored with ideas that are "dumbed down" to fit a certain reading level. And it has not held back their reading development in the least, as some teachers seem to fear it might. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

Susan Hill
January 7th, 2009
5:01 PM
I am absolutely DELIGHTED that they should listen to it being read to them. It does not trouble me in the least that someone else is doing the physical reading bit. That is why I am delighted that the downloaded audiobooks of the novels are extemely popular among students. They are wonderfully well read and they help them to concentrate. I published a children`s book last year for the 7-12 age range and had a letter from a teacher to say she had started to read it aloud every Thursday morning to a class of unruly 9-10 year olds with many boys among them who found it almost impossible to sit still. But they became so engrossed in her reading that nobody so much as wriggled, and they were all sitting on the mat waiting for her, eager and attentive, every Thursday. Most of them had reading difficulties but once they had heard the book, wanted to try for themselves. She also reported several who had asked parents to buy it so that they could read at home. In three cases this was the first book the parent had ever bought. I am more proud of this, as I am of hearing about the army-bound older boys listening to the reading of The Woman in Black so attentively, than I am about almost anything. I don`t want them to have to strain to analyse and answer exam questions on my 'text' if this is something they genuinely find difficult, I want them to read or listen to the books and find that a positive and enjoyable and enriching experience which may encourage them to read or listen to another book.

January 6th, 2009
12:01 PM
To add a more positive note. I have regularly taught 'The Woman in Black' to GCSE students in an FE college. They have all failed the exam in school and so they aren't the brightest or the best motivated students. I don't believe in doing 'bits' of a novel or a play - it just spoils the whole thing, apart from any more academic considerations but I have to say that they way I cope with the whole text would not please any Ofsted inspector. I read the whole thing to them and they sit and listen, folowing in the text. It's like Jackanory. They're mostly boys and many of them are planning to join the armed services. After the first week, when they're understandably a bit sceptical about it, they're in the room before me, pushing the tables together so we can all sit round one space. Some even stop me round the campus to ask: 'Are we doin' more of that story about the ghost?' I'm too old to care that my methods would not be seen as interactive enough. I know most of them can't read well enough to enjoy the text on their own.

Joe Nutt
January 5th, 2009
9:01 PM
One of the points being missed here is the crucial part the misuse of technology plays in this whole sad situation. There has never been anything to stop a child from writing to a (not dead!) author in the past, and I am sure some enterprising and polite children did exactly that, but only after having been taught by their teachers the etiquette of letter writing, a convention designed to protect and satisfy both correspondents. Today’s teenagers are given the technology, but none of the etiquette. Worse, our entire educational landscape is being driven by techno-zealots and edu-bloggers whose own use of English wouldn’t gain them a grade C at GCSE but whose mish-mash of jargon and marketing speak, masquerading as academic work, has managed to persuade politicians who ought to know a lot better. At a couple of speeches I gave to teachers last year I showed examples it had taken me a matter of minutes to locate, and they were suitably horrified. I can point anyone interested in the right direction, should anyone wish to see the evidence, but believe me, it will be frighteningly easy to find for yourself.

Badger Madge
January 5th, 2009
5:01 PM
I did English Lit for my degree (2.1) and got away with reading around the subject for a lot of the time as I simply didn't have enough time to read everything PLUS all the critique. No, rilly. It killed my joy of literature; someone who constantly had her nose in a book from the age of seven. Something has to change…!

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