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 diamondAs 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.
If you held one in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand