Monday, 31 October 2011

The Real Thing

Today being Hallowe'en reminds me that I was deeply pissed off at one point over the summer. My daughter is studying English for one of her A Levels, and I discovered that one of the set books was, of all things, Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I'd already been annoyed by the triviality of some of the texts my kids have had to study as "literature", but this seemed to take the blood-sucking biscuit.

Never having read the book myself, I thought it would make sense to actually read it before driving a stake angrily through its heart. For all I knew, it might turn out be a brilliant classic, even if only in a camp, knowing way. Well, it isn't. It is possibly the dullest, most pointless book I have ever read. It is a Pile of Poo. It is an insult to our children, especially the girls, to make them study this drab thing as if it were "literature". As I say, I was deeply pissed off.

So, how has it come to this, that kids at this most wonderful stage in their intellectual development -- when their entire, freshly-minted sensibility and intelligence ought to be concentrated on a few well-chosen true classics, an experience that should shape them for life -- are being required to study trash?

In a way, I sort of feel it's my fault. Back in the mid-1970s, having taken a three-year stroll down Literary High Street (a.k.a. an English degree), I became interested in literary theory. Questions like "Who decides what counts as a classic?" and "What does the reader bring to the literary experience?" seemed worth asking. All a year's further study brought, though, was some puzzling and dispiriting half-answers. I had had every intention of embarking on an academic career, but suddenly I was not so sure. I knew what the problems were, but I didn't see any way forward; indeed, I suspected there was no way forward, and -- looking ahead -- all I could see was an inevitable crisis looming for the Humanities, and unemployment for me. I left the field to others, who were inventing increasingly sterile post-modern games to play.

My killer question at the time (my heuristic device, if you prefer that fancy talk) had been to ask: "Why is the pastime 'reading and writing books' sufficiently well-regarded to be studied at university, when stamp-collecting and mountain-climbing aren't?" Ask yourself that question, and the whole thing falls into place. Or rather, crumbles into dust, like Dracula on a sun-lounger.

At bottom, once you've cleared away the accidents of history and habit, and got bored with the sociological aspects, the problem is an argument over the existence and nature of The Real Thing. It's practically theological.

Before, let's say, 1965, there was pretty much universal agreement about where the Real Thing could be found. In most of Shakespeare, indisputably; in much of Keats, Milton and Chaucer; and in variously-sized bits of a whole pantheon of lesser writers. However, its presence in, say, Arthur Conan Doyle or John Buchan was small, and in the case of writers like Ian Fleming, homeopathic. The presence of the Real Thing was not something that could be objectively measured -- you just knew it was there, or accepted that people who knew better than you said it was there, so you went looking for it. Learning to recognise The Real Thing was the point of the exercise.

Hmm. The trouble is, once the challenge is made -- "Who says this is the Real Thing and that is not, and by what authority?" -- Pandora's Box is opened. There is no way to justify the preferences of a self-appointed aristocracy as the definition of "good taste"; you simply end up playing an upmarket game of "U and Non-U". And once "judgement" has been devalued to "opinion" (as in, "It's just your opinion that David Copperfield is better than Dracula") no-one can agree what the Real Thing is ever again, and never will. It's game over, and "literature" gets devalued to "reading matter".

This process has been going on for 30 years, and the result is that genuine rubbish like Dracula ends up as an A Level set text, because enough people think it is the sort of reading matter that 17-year-olds will find accessible. Hey, it's about vampires, and vampires are cool! It surely cannot be because they think it is any good? Can it? In the words of the Steely Dan song, "Reelin' In The Years":
You wouldn't know a diamond
If you held one in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand
As it is, I'm still pretty sure I know I know what a diamond is, and what makes me angry is that something quite different is being pressed into our children's hands.


Huw said...


I read Dracula a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it (and I'm not a complete lightweight: I wrote a tolerable dissertation on Paradise Lost and it was a satisfying experience). Dracula isn't great literature but it's a significant novel that keenly reflected Victorian society and informs our culture hugely: I think it's excellent for teenagers to understand the deep rooted mythology behind Twilight, etc. I'm sure your daughter is also studying Shakespeare and poetry as part of her course? (I think Wuthering Heights is trash (and had to study it for A Level) but know that's just me!)


Mike C. said...


Well, what can I say?

You didn't, for example, find it about two thirds overlong? Or that the epistolary structure was unnecessarily contrived and deeply confusing, and the different voices (apart from the egregious Van Helsing) too similar to tell apart and entirely characterless? Or the plotting of this "thriller" linear and utterly without surprise or jeopardy, or the sentimentality overpoweringly cloying and the constant hysteria contrived, or...? I could go on.

That's not even to broach the issues that a modern reader will have with some of the book's views, which were pretty dated even in 1897 (Dracula is only "Victorian" by a whisker) -- the entirely unquestioning view of religion, the soul, and redemption as matters of mechanics and symbolism only, for example ("Dover Beach" was published in 1867!), or the utterly conventional view of gender roles and the deeply creepy sexuality that underpins the whole thing.

Sorry to disagree, but I found it completely without merit. I approached it with an open mind, and an urge to help my daughter with it (she hates it), yet failed to find any redeeming features that would justify its study in schools. The only sincere way to engage with the book is to parody it.

Fetch me that sharpened stake!


Huw said...


I enjoyed it despite all that! It's a Penguin Classic, so don't feel entirely alone in thinking it a significant book worth studying.

But it is rubbish being obliged to read and write about a book you seriously dislike, so sympathies to your daughter.

Have you read Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner? There's a top quality 19th Century gothic novel!


Mike C. said...


Well, all of D.H. Lawrence is in Penguin Classics, too -- have you read any of that, lately?! If anyone is evidence of how "judgement" has mutated into "opinion", he's it. Not so long ago, he was Leavis' gold standard of literary virtue.

I have read Hogg's book, which is in a different league -- I have a special interest in "peasant poets" of the Scottish Borders, as one of my distant ancestors was one such in the 19th century.


Dave Leeke said...

To be quite honest,Mike, "Dracula" has been on the syllabus generally for years - ever since a canon was put forward. I don't teach A level English Lit myself, although I have in the past. I wouldn't choose to teach it ("Dracula") either. Far too ponderous.

We use a play version in Year 8 which was dramatised by Phillip Pullman. We teach gothic literature which is a very popular genre at the moment given all the books aimed at young girls - sort of Vampire-Lite. I mean, vegetarian vampires?

It would be interesting to know what pre-1914 books your daughter prefers.

I agree that the novel "Dracula" isn't brilliant - but it's important to 20th Century culture as the original novel that sparked off a huge film franchise.

As I said, I don't teach "Dracula" because I don't teach A level Eng Lit but I do often teach the 1957 Hammer version in Film Studies which is good fun and the kids often love it. It's only tenuously linked to Stoker's novel but I think it's important that students are aware that these stories have existed for a long time. They need to be aware, I think, that there is a history - vampires have been around for centuries. I know it doesn't really matter to many youngsters - there's a sense of "so what?" - but I just do care.

I would personally never bother to read it again, though.