Watching the detectives

Several years ago I enjoyed a fantasy in which English Literature disappeared from school curricula and was replaced by something much more inclusive. When I saw some of the suggestions in the English Orders (I’m talking about 2000?), I could see the possibilities of different kinds of work, investigating genre fictions across media. I thought it might be fun to study Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins as authors and explore both their influence on crime fiction and the adaptations of their work in films and on the stage.

Fat chance, eh? The thought police seem to be on the prowl again, attempting to restrict what KS4 students read. If Film and Media students can study Pirates of the Caribbean and sitcoms, why can’t literature students study crime fiction or science fiction? John Mullan has recently had a couple of interesting Guardian pieces exploring Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close as part of the Guardian’s Book Club. It’s OK to do things like this at degree or postgraduate level — why not at 14 or 17?

Studying genres in literature would enable students to learn more about narrative structure, about typing and about social context. (I think I’ve learned a lot about different milieu from reading crime fiction.) I suspect that the range of reading students do at school is narrower than it needs to be.

The other great advantage of genre fiction is that it can be universal. I’ve enjoyed crime novels written in many languages. Having read most of the wonderful Henning Mankel novels from Sweden, I enjoyed the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star this summer. A good translator allows access for readers of popular cultures across the world and I think I could argue that this is as important as introducing students to foreign language cinema. And why stop at crime? A good dose of vintage 1950s P.K. Dick would be good for most students.

3 responses to “Watching the detectives

  1. I agree that Lit. students should be able to do genre texts (long ago there was an AEB (666?) Eng Lit spec that allowed students to do anything of their choice for coursework (it was great). From a Media Studies perspective I’d like to do more reading books with students; but there’s the expense of books and also an implicit sense that books are part of the subject.English’s suffering, however, protects Media a little. The traditionalists can be assured that ‘real’ subjects are constrained by the high culture prejudice and so not worry (too much) about the popular culture we study.

  2. Error in previous comment, 2nd para should read:From a Media Studies perspective I’d like to do more reading books with students; but there’s the expense of books and also an implicit sense that books are NOT part of the subject.D’oh!

  3. For GCSE (old NEAB specification A, I think) coursework, I used to teach building suspense and ceating atmosphere in a horror film, followed by an assignment along similar lines on the opening of Hamlet (considering performance too), followed by another on suspense in Dahl’s The Landlady and Stevenson’s The Body-Snatcher. The students then had to write the opening of a horror story (afer reading some Dickens, Susan Hill and the board-unapproved Poe – can you imagine an examination board that doesn’t approve of studying Poe? Say AQA quickly.). The only flaw was that we taught All My Sons for the 20th century play. The kida thoroughly enjoyed it and there was clear evidence of transference of skills across the assignments.

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