Last night I was one of a few lucky enough to be in a room with Dr Emma Gilby, who is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge. Dr Gilby invited us all to engage with the question ‘What is literature?’ as part of a new monthly ‘Big Ideas’ seminar series that has been launched as part of the Learning Together partnership between HMP Whitemoor and the Cambridge.
The group was introduced to several examples of printed text, each written to inform or explore an idea or concept. Texts included Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, a Stephen King novel, an instruction booklet for a domestic washing machine, and an illustrated children’s book about a lost toy and a child’s adventure finding it.
Dr Gilby read from the first page of Dickens’ classic and instigated a discussion which allowed an insight into the depth of thought, and critical analysis, required of literature students when reading such texts. Next, we were asked to consider the cover of the large children’s book (‘Knuffle Bunny’) before Dr Gilby read from the first page – here the reader is made aware that the child around whom the story unfolds, is not yet capable of speech as we might recognise it. Thus, the child attempts to communicate to her Dad about the loss of her toy, and he must endeavour to arrange its retrieval. At the moment of reunification the large illustration, which is on the penultimate page, shows the young girl’s face alongside a very solid speech bubble emanating from her mouth exclaiming the name of the toy. Brilliant, I thought, how wonderfully cute and funny it was that the very first proper words spoken by the protagonist of the tale was the name of her toy. Then the last page was turned and the author explained to the reader that those words were indeed her first. My heart sank at the realisation that even the writers of illustrated stories had to explain the plot in the narrative for the benefit of those, children and parents, who could not fathom it by themselves. I quietly reassured myself that this book was written for an American audience!
Members of the group then began to critically analyse the content of the book and debate the intentions of the author; a few could not comprehend how the main point of the story was the oratory ability of the child. Those few believed the story to represent, as a foremost topic, a moral for parents to be more aware of the whereabouts of toys, and such things that are so easily lost, in order to save tears and time spent searching later. While I agree this may be a value in the story, I could not agree that the author had not intended to highlight the unpredictability of a child’s first words. I was fascinated that the group spent longer deliberating the intentions of the author of a child’s illustrated story than they did that of a literary classic. Discussion about it carried over to the following day too!
So what is literature? We discovered there is no right or wrong answer… any answer could be correct, so long as it can be justified, which leaves it as difficult to define. I used to think of the word as a singular entity wherein material was either literature or it was not, but now I recognise it to be plural. Literature is the whole set of written works, as a rope is made up on many individual strands – maybe even as a Venn diagram, with lots of interfacing circles of characteristics that come together at their interface to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
Here’s to the next session of the series with more ‘big ideas’ to think about, and debate, together.
Dave – Learning Together mentor, HMP Whitemoor