LITERATURE

Introduction by David A. Cooper:-

Studying literature should be entirely optional, though in intellectually-backward countries it may be compulsory. Because people have radically different tastes in the arts, no one should ever be forced to endure music or soap operas which they find repulsive, and in exactly the same way, no one should be forced to study the world's most dismal novels and plays. Art is supposed to generate emotional responses in people for positive reasons, though the emotional responses themselves need not be positive. This means that a painting, piece of music, poem, novel or play should be emotionally interesting in some way, perhaps largely by being informative, though more commonly by generating feelings such as joy or sorrow. Many books and plays succeed only in generating intense boredom, often being written in the mistaken belief that a depressing story qualifies as art in the same way as a tragedy does. If a play does nothing worthwhile for you emotionally, there is nothing that you can usefully say about it in an exam: you cannot say that this bit works because A, or that that bit doesn't work because B, because for you, none of it works at all and there is absolutely nothing worth picking out to comment on. If your teacher supplies you solely with deeply depressing plays which fail to inspire you, you cannot be blamed for failing your exams.
indentWhen I was at school, I had an English teacher who systematically dragged my class through the most pointless novels and plays ever to have been committed to print. She totally failed to explain why we were studying them, and left us at a complete loss as to how we could use them to our advantage in exams. Whenever we reached the end of one of these books, she would write a nebulous "question" about it on the blackboard for us to answer in an essay, though there was never any concrete question in it to respond to. We had to begin these essays with a summary of the play or novel before going on to answer the "question". I would write extremely compact summaries using a single short paragraph, perhaps half the length of this one. Once that was done, my essay was effectively at an end because there was nothing else to say, but the person next to me always wrote a very long, rambling summary before getting stuck at the same point. When the essays were marked, I would get very low marks, but he would get much higher marks, even though he hadn't answered the "question" and his summary contained nothing of any substance that mine didn't. That teacher was completely empty, and she rewarded bloated emptiness. I passed the exams despite her best attempts at sabotage: I relied upon inspiring books, short stories and poems which I had read in my own time at home. I actually enjoyed the exams because they were opportunities to find out what I ought to have been taught in the year or two leading up to them, and it was a pleasure to have questions to answer which actually asked for something concrete.
indentAlthough I passed my English exams without being taught anything of any value at school, I cannot be certain about what an examiner expects to hear from you in your answers to exam questions, so I will leave that for others to explain. The only thing I can say is that examiners are supposed to look for people who can think for themselves and express their opinions clearly and rationally. Should you happen upon an inspiring poem, short story, novel or play, you would do well to analyse it for yourself and try to find out how it works: what it is about it that moves you. If it tackles big ideas, think about how well it deals with them and about the impact it might have had when it was originally published. Using that as the source of your answer to an exam question ought to count in your favour, because the examiner should be testing for the ideas that come from your own mind rather than doing an audit of the stock answers crammed into your head by a teacher for unthinking regurgitation.

This page will link to other pages (as yet unwritten) which will analyse various pieces of literature and show you not only how to make use of them in answers to exam questions, but also how to appreciate them for what they are in themselves. I invite the best teachers, or perhaps extremely gifted students (or indeed, anyone else who genuinely understands how to teach), to write pages for inclusion in the list.

Select a novel, play or short story from the list below:-

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