Successive governments have been very prescriptive about reading lists – what children and teenagers should and shouldn’t have read by a specific age. This started in a big bad way in the late 1980s, when the villain of the piece, Kenneth Baker, began forcing educationists to come up with canonical lists of prescribed matter. It wasn’t what was on these lists that was the problem. It was the point of the lists: to impose some idea of cultural heritage on literature teachers, or teachers who used literature. These lists always wind up the same way: they’re the lists of what the minister and his or her mates have read themselves. It was the main problem with the Major, and later the Blair government, when it came to making decisions about the curriculum. They couldn’t imagine young people not reading what they had been brought up to read. Since there are now so many books considered to be, or to have been ‘good’, they created a logical impossibility. No student can ever read all the good stuff, whether it is good or ‘good’. The whole principle of canonical lists is just a nonsense, a hangover from the diktats issued by Leavis and others, who were a bit too obsessed with hierarchies of the great (Leavis himself liked to pop in a personal favourite, in his case, T.F.Powys, and then make extravagant claims for this addition – not that there is anything wrong with TFP, I hasten to add).
But the point of studying literature (and there was never thought to be a point until, more or less, the turn of the 19th into the 20th century) is a bit more complex than that. Since more fiction, poetry, drama and life writing is turned out daily than any self-respecting or even Argus-eyed young person can look at in a life-time, there has to be a more sensible reason for placing them on a list, other than that they have been ‘heard of’. And the reason is, in my view, that the reading of the books presents the students (of any age) with a challenge of some sort – an intellectual one, at any rate.
You can see this most clearly with Shakespeare. I have nothing against the man, other than that his work has now become a national obsession (and it’s been like that for ages. Even before Baker got his hands on the reading lists, the one golden rule for those who were 14 and over was that they had to read a) Shakespeare, and b) something else.) But only the most obsessive addict thinks that everything he wrote was a total and utter piece of genius. Some of it is peerless; some of it is lame. There is no real discrimination when it comes to prescribe him for reading though. ‘Doing Shakespeare’ is enough. In practice that means, at younger ages, Macbeth becomes the set text – that or Romeo And Juliet. The reason for Macbeth being a school favourite has nothing to do with merit, though (in fact, most of Acts IV and V are woefully dull) – it’s to do with its relative brevity: not a solution to the absence of criteria.
What Macbeth does have, and this is better, is a degree of ambiguity. There is scope, in the first three acts, to have different opinions. And that kind of ambiguity is a much better criterion for choosing a book for the purpose of study. If you present a book to a young person because it is allegedly great, then the golden platter on which it is presented will soon seem tarnished. Give them a text with lots of problems, and you get interesting debate. In other words, there is no point in choosing to teach works from the ‘canon’, nor any point inventing (as happens) an alternative canon. Choose books which lend themselves to debate, for whatever reason. It is surprising how often a choice is made on the basis that such and such a book is ‘great’. There is no point in presenting a text for the purpose of aesthetic or moral improvement.
My favourite put-down of Macbeth (the character, not the play), by the way, was Mary McCarthy’s. She saw him as a man with no imagination – ‘a golfer on the Scottish fairways’, as she put it, and suggesting that his opening remark, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ was the equivalent of saying ‘Terrible weather, eh?’ She added his endearment ‘dearest chuck’ to her argument. I find it hard to see it any other way after reading her words.