Hi everyone! I know it’s been absolutely ages since I last did one of these, I’m sorry about that, it’s exam time at the moment so I have been crazy busy revising (it will all be over next week thankfully!) and haven’t had time to sit down and write one of these, but I’m finally getting around to it. This week’s topic was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine about the books that we were forced to read at school & it got me thinking about required reading for exams.
We all remember the books that we were made to read for our exams, if you’re like me, it will be with less than fond memories, though I’m sure there are people out there who enjoyed them! Still if you’ve done your GCSE’s in the past few years, you probably know the formula: Shakespeare, 2 19th/20th century novels, usually by old white men, a modern play & poetry. All this sounds perfectly fine, until you talk to your parents and their friends and realise that the texts that you’re studying are almost exactly the same as they did when they were at school.
Now whilst I’m sure it makes sense to exam boards and the government to be assigning things that have been tried and tested and proven to get good results over the years, by sticking to the same old body of literature for exams, we’re missing out on introducing teens to a wealth of equally amazing contemporary literature. The assigned reading for GCSE’s also tends to be very Western focused, on British and American literature mostly, and I find that rather sad when there’s a world of great books out there for different cultures that we only stick to the one that’s most familiar to us.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with classic literature. It’s not to my personal taste, but clearly there is something about it that has resonated with people in order for it to last so long, & it does make sense to want to teach teenagers about issues of the past through these kinds of books. But teenagers nowadays face different issues, and it would definitely be worthwhile to offer them some contemporary choices, that they might be able to relate to more. It’s not as if there aren’t contemporary books on the same themes as some of the books already assigned for English Literature, teens could always be given the same books currently on the syllabus, but alongside more contemporary options, exploring the same themes, and compare and contrast, as an example, Lord of The Flies and Beauty Queens, books that pretty much explore the same situation, just gender flipped and that might make the tedium of reading Lord of The Flies a little more fun!
I also think that getting the opportunity to study more contemporary books, might engage students who are more reluctant readers. I mean, I love books and yet I hated English Literature, so I can’t imagine that long, stuffy classics would necessarily appeal to those who aren’t as keen on reading. It seems a shame that teens could get put off reading because they are assigned stuff that isn’t engaging.
There are also so many retellings of classics nowadays, which is an area I don’t think is explored often enough at school, I mean you can find a retelling of basically any classic book if you look hard enough and comparing and contrasting the original to it’s retellings would definitely add something new to simply studying the same old classic over and over again.
And whilst I certainly understand why we are made to study Shakespeare, I didn’t exactly find studying Macbeth thrilling, and I’m sure that a lot of teens probably feel the same way. But again, there are many modern retellings of Shakespeare, movies like She’s The Man & Ten Things I Hate About You for one, and even books that are modern retellings of his plays, like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (a modern Romeo and Juliet), there’s no reason why Shakespeare can’t be updated for a modern teenage audience.
There’s such a push for diversity in books for teens at the moment, which is great and absolutely necessary, but shouldn’t there be a push for diversity in the authors, playwrights and poets whose work we assign teens for exams as well? We didn’t read anything from any non-white authors for GCSE, & only the one woman, there was nothing by anyone with a disability or a mental illness and aside from To Kill A Mockingbird, there was nothing with any POC characters (even then, TKAM is still a white centred story). We want to make sure that our teens are reading diverse books and yet their exam syllabus is anything but diverse? That just seems wrong to me, we should get as much diversity as possible into our exam syllabuses. It might not be possible to represent every single marginalised person, but it would be great if at least some more diversity was shown in the choices for exam reading.
I also hate that there’s such a snobbery surrounding classic literature. Like that’s what assigned because it’s seen as somehow “better” than contemporary fiction. Sure there are some great classic books out there, but just because these books are old, doesn’t instantly make them better than contemporary books, in the same way that being new doesn’t make those books automatically better. There are both great classics and great newer fiction and it would be great if the fact that there are socially relevant and engaging books for teens out there was acknowledged in exam syllabuses.
Obviously, it’s not possible for all teens’ reading tastes to be taken into account when the syllabus is being set, and it’s not likely that you’ll love everything that you’ll read in school, but you would think that it would be possible to offer teens some choice, so that they read something they are interested in for their exam, after all, you’ll do a lot better writing about a book you love than a book you hate!
I have outlined just a few different ways that the current English Literature syllabus could be modified in order to include more contemporary literature alongside the classics which are already studied. It’s probably not likely that it will change anytime soon, given how long they’ve had the same syllabus for, but you have to hope that one day, contemporary literature will be incorporated into English Literature exams, or else I pity the poor students of 20 years time who will still be studying Lord of The Flies! In an ever changing world of literature, it seems awful that our literature GCSE has remained somewhat stagnant. There’s so many wonderful books out there to experience, let’s hope that someday, someone chooses to take a step outside the same old structured box and try something new!
What do you think? Do you think more contemporary fiction should be required reading for exams? Did you enjoy your English GCSE? What did you have to study for it? What do you think is the best way to get teens engaged in reading? Let me know in the comments!
I will have a new Jo Talks post up at some point in May (I totally meant to do more than one April one, but I just ran out of time!), although I have no idea what it will be about, so I can’t tell you! If there’s anything you would like me to talk about, then please let me know. In the meantime, I’m hoping to have a new review up in the next few days of my most recent read Paper and Fire, so stay tuned for that!