Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Proust and the Squid or Reading, Writing and Talking

Jeanette Winterson (whose books I always want to like but am unlikely ever to truly warm to as she believes conventional narrative has had its day and is dull, or words to that effect) has been reading Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf which, it seems, is all about reading. It has clearly had a profound effect on her. One of the reasons I keep trying JW’s fiction is because I read her monthly newsletter and am consistently struck by her lucidity, her passion, her engagement with life which amounts to taking it by the throat and squeezing every last drop which can be got out of it.

Anyway, her take on Proust and the Squid is that reading is of vital importance to the development of minds. Well, with my day-job hat on I could have told her that for nothing. Not only reading but its necessary precursor, competent use of language. I have seen so many young children struggle to read because they don’t have the necessary underpinnings of language – it’s like trying to ride a bike when you can’t yet balance well enough to walk.

She makes out a case for our engagement with the problem – support libraries, be on school boards (American term, I assume she means be a school governor) all of which is reminiscent of Susan Hill’s current campaign to support libraries in schools and young offenders’ institutions. And so we should. Libraries are important.

But just as important as reading is talking. One of the reasons we’re such an illiterate society is that we don’t talk to our children, we dump them in front of a DVD and hope that that will foster their language. Well it won’t. No more than you would learn Arabic if somebody dumped you in front of a television screening wall to wall Al Jazeera. Learning language is an interactive process, it takes two.
In that respect reading is similar – you have to be taught. Whatever anybody tells you nobody entirely teaches themselves to read. Somebody has to tell you what these squiggles you’re looking at signify, at the very least.

I’ve always said that writing novels is not a million miles, philosophically, from being a speech and language therapist. Both, fundamentally, are about communication. And I stick by that claim. I do feel passionately about children’s language. I have gone into battle with schools, parents and the state from time to time to get individual children what they need to communicate successfully. So why am I not a full time SLT instead of footling about in the foothills of commercial fiction?
Frankly, because to engage with people – particularly needy people – all day every day it helps if you’re an extrovert. I like people, I’m fascinated by them, interested in them, but they wear me out. Extroverts get their energy from engagement with people, introverts (and I’m guessing that most people who write novels are introverts) get our energy from being alone. At the end of a day as a therapist I would come home utterly drained, totally devoid of the kind of energy writing novels demands.

So, I channel my passion for communication into writing words instead of speaking them. Does it do as much good in the world? I’m not sure. I know that at certain dark periods of my own life reading has shored up my sanity, if not saved my life, so I think books are pretty important. Even on a day to day basis, when my equilibrium is perfect, reading has a huge power and place in my life.
But that doesn’t dull the constant, nagging thought at the back of my mind that I should be out there, helping kids who, without adequate communication skills, will be unemployable and may well resort to crime. In case you don’t believe me, look at the statistics. Over three quarters of those in prison have problems communicating adequately. Whether they become violent because they have no other outlet for their emotions or whether they simply resort to crime as a way of getting money, kids with communication difficulties are horribly likely to end up inside. Particularly if they come from socio-economic groups which can offer no buffer between them and the streets.

All of which brings us a long way from Proust and the Squid. I shall probably read the book, it sounds intriguing and the brain has always fascinated me. But, in the end, will it offer any solutions to the problems of non-readers, those kids who come from homes where the only book is likely to be big and yellow, kids who never see anybody but their primary school teachers (overwhelmingly young women, a group unlikely to act as role models for macho little boys) reading books?

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t got the answer either. I find the linguistic divide – the linguistic haves and have nots – in this country depressing. I’m not talking about accent or dialect or whether you use ‘were’ or ‘was’ for the first peson singular and plural, I’m talking about the ability to use deductive reasoning, inferential reasoning, to make predictions and see consequences, all of which have linguistic substrates. The knowledge that ‘why’ always entails a ‘because’; that ‘if’ should always be followed by a corresponding ‘then’ (even as in the simplest of transactions ‘If you hit your brother, you will be in trouble’).

In writing novels, am I just pandering to the top half of the linguistic equation – the haves? Inevitably, yes, I am writing for people likely to read.
But maybe, one day, when I have honed my craft to a pitch of something approaching perfection, I will be able to contribute to the other side of the linguistic equation and write in a genre which I hugely admire – the ‘books for reluctant readers’. Books which have to have a story believable and exciting enough for a ten, eleven, twelve year-old boy told in language accessible enough for somebody with a reading age of around six.
I’m not there yet – still working through my linguistic over-achiever stage.

PS By the way, if you're interested in hearing Maryanne Wolf talk about the neuroscience behind the book, there's a great podcast here.


Lane said...

Interesting post Alis.
When I was teaching 16+ literacy, the books on offer were abysmal - too abridged and often too childish. There's a huge gap there for someone to fill.
And yes, it was exhausting. To make language engaging to that age group, it involved me being more outgoing, more flambouyant than is natural for me and that takes its toll.

Alis said...

Hi Lane, yes it becomes performance rather than teaching, doesn't it? Except most performers don't have to respond to the audience in quite the way teachers do!

KAREN said...

Very interesting.

(I've never got on with Jeanette Winterson's books either, though I felt I ought to!)

It's a source of disappointment to me that my children don't read more than they do - they seem to prefer the immediacy of film or tv, despite being brought up with books... being read to, and reading a lot themselves when they were younger. We didn't have a television growing up, so books were my entertainment, education and first true love! I'm hoping they'll come back to it later. I never give up getting books out of the library every week, and talk about them a lot, to try and tempt them. Sometimes it even works!

Alis said...

Hi Karen. Yes, my two don't read much. The UFF does, often have a book on the go, though it may take him a couple of months to get through it. The B, having had a brief love-affair with Dan Brown hasn't found anything else to tickle his fancy as much. Any recommendations along the same lines?

KAREN said...

A. J. Quinnell is very good - he wrote Man on Fire which was turned into a film starring Denzel Washington.