How to pass English Literature A level (2)

Okay, this time, I will try not to deviate: just let the three decades of teaching this subject, before I moved on, work any magic there might be.

When students are considering their exams in this subject, one of the things which exercises them most is which question will come up, and whether it will be difficult. What they often forget is that these questions have not simply been lifted from a shelf (they might have been many years ago, but not since the 1970s, I would say, when you could get rogue questions like this one – my all-time favourite nonsense – ‘What elements of humour are there in Coriolanus?’ Pity the poor rascal who might not have stifled even a wry smile, eh?)

But questions have been through a committee. People have sat and discussed them (as they have if an ‘unseen’ piece of writing has been set), and that means that they think there is something to say. What is more, they think it can be said in the allocated time. It follows that the clue really is in the question, and that any fearfulness in the face of a question is being experienced by anyone else who happens to be in an examination hall at the same time.

The second thing to remember is that some poor mug has to mark what you write, and that he or she is paid a very small pittance, and has to wade through hundreds of scripts answering the same question as yours. So what can you do to give him or her a slightly more memorable experience, a break from the tedious reality of wielding a red pen in a garrett somewhere?

There are three things you can and should do. The first is to start answering the question straightaway, preferably by using the name of the writer as the first word. A lovely introduction is too much of a luxury. Don’t think of it as perfect prose; you’re writing an answer. The second, which is more taxing for some than others, is to write neatly. This isn’t the same as having good handwriting – too late to cure that, if your writing is a bit of mish-mash. But if you quote from the original, briefly, as you must, put the quotation on a separate line, indented, with a line above and below it. That means your invisible examiner won’t have to struggle – make the lay-out clear, and you won’t irritate the poor individual, which is half the battle.

The third is much simpler than you might think. Make what you write interesting. Another way of putting this is: don’t make it tedious. All over the country, your competitors (for that’s what they are, for better or for worse) are writing that X says this and Y says that. After a short while, with 200 scripts to go, all this says-ing is going to get on the examiner’s wick. Use a more creative word. Lob in the odd adverb. When Heathcliff says to Nelly… Nope. When he barks at her, when he dismisses her with, when he remonstrates that, when he defies her with, when he coolly admits that, when he wearily and regretfully remarks to her… It means sprucing up your vocabulary (and being careful with it), but the dashes of colour will convince the examiner that you are just that little bit more interested in language than the others. Result: a better grade. Something subliminal in the examiner will react to the sight of some expressive words, and react positively.

One long-dead exponent of this trick was Harley Granville-Barker, the playwright and critic who wrote many prefaces to Shakespeare. He over-writes. But he makes you understand that, in his head, he is imagining what is going on. Another great commentator, and more accessible, is Mary McCarthy, whose collection The Writing On The Wall (1970) should be easy to find, and who wrote brilliantly and eccentrically about Macbeth in an essay included in the book. She calls him ‘a golfer on the Scottish fairways’, a middle-class man with no imagination who teases his wife with cheap endearments like ‘Dearest chuck’. You don’t have to agree with her. You just have to spot that she was a writer first, and an academic second.

They’re cheap tricks (you’re not paying me), but they’re worth it.


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