Friday, 19 January 2018

Why didn't Nick Gibb and the Government do all they could to bring this about?

"Whether rich or poor, residents of the United States or China, illiterate or college graduates, parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will attain, according to a 20-year study led by Mariah Evans, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of sociology and resource economics.

For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.

Being a sociologist, Evans was particularly interested to find that children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home. She has been looking for ways to help Nevada’s rural communities, in terms of economic development and education.

“What kinds of investments should we be making to help these kids get ahead?” she asked. “The results of this study indicate that getting some books into their homes is an inexpensive way that we can help these children succeed.”

Evans said, “Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

“You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” she said. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”

In some countries, such as China, having 500 or more books in the home propels children 6.6 years further in their education. In the United States, the effect is less, 2.4 years, than the 3.2-year average advantage experienced across all 27 countries in the study. But, Evans points out that 2.4 years is still a significant advantage in terms of educational attainment.

For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Americans who have some college or an associate’s degree, but not a bachelor’s degree, earn an average of $7,213 more annually than those with just a high school education. Those who attain a bachelor’s degree earn $21,185 more each year, on average, than those with just high school diplomas.

The study by Evans and her colleagues at Nevada, UCLA and Australian National University is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on what influences the level of education a child will attain.

The researchers were struck by the strong effect having books in the home had on children’s educational attainment even above and beyond such factors as education level of the parents, the country’s GDP, the father’s occupation or the political system of the country.

Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level, and more important than whether a child was reared in China or the United States. Surprisingly, the difference in educational attainment for children born in the United States and children born in China was just 2 years, less than two-thirds the effect that having 500 or more books in the home had on children (3.2 years).

The study, “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” was published in the journal, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility
(Science Direct)."

My thoughts:

I gave the full text of this paper to Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, several years ago. If you were the Schools Minister, you might think - '" could change the face of education with this. I could bring about a sea-change in how children access education. I would try to see how with the use of school libraries and local libraries and local bookshops and second hand bookshops, I could make it happen so that children who don't have access to books at home could and would. It would be my social, educational and political priority."

When I said this to Nick Gibb he said, 'But we don't do "directives" any more. They do. This just happens to be a directive they don't do. In fact, I'm not in favour of directives either. The way round that would have been to make it a requirement for schools (ideally in clusters) to develop a reading-for-pleasure policy - and implement it - whilst cutting back on assessment and the curriculum.

Instead, reading-for-pleasure is on a kind of wish-list from the government and often seems to teachers like yet another thing they have to do on top of all the box-ticking and working for the ludicrous assessment timetable. Understood.

My 20-point set of suggestions for creating a Reading for Pleasure school

If you are trying to create a Reading for Pleasure school, then this might help you: my 20-point set of suggestions:

Just copy that link and paste it into your browser. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Interpretation - not limited to 'retrieval' and 'inference'

The SATs comprehension questions are limited to 'retrieval', 'inference', chronology and presentation. In fact, 'interpretation' is a more flexible, nuanced and more profound response than is allowed by SATs comprehension questions.

Retrieval: 'Billy had a blue hat. What colour was his hat?' 

'Blue' 'Correct'. 

'It was raining. Why was he wearing a hat?' 
'Because he supports Chelsea.' 
'Wrong, that's interpretation'. 
Inference says 'Because it was raining' is the one correct answer allowed.

If children choose books and read them for pleasure, they effortlessly absorb the patterns, conventions, forms , tactics and motifs of written language. They develop *interpretation* of these. This is high order thinking.

Interpretation involves the many processes of 'reader-response' that I've outlined in a 'matrix' 

(see May 22 2017 on this blog 

If you want to make 'interpretation' explicit then James Durran from NATE turned my matrix into a set of 'trigger' questions, here:

or in my booklet 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Secondary Schools' available through my website

or from Bookmarks Bookshop, Roving Books or Newham Books. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Phonics 'first', 'fast' and....'ONLY' ???

Some enthusiasts of systematic synthetic phonics get quite cross with those of us who suggest that the principle advocated is 'first, fast and only'. We raise our eyebrows at the 'only'. They say that they don't really mean 'only'. We have disputes about this! T

Here's are a few lines from a book that's just come out:

"...once children can decode accurately, they can use their reading skills to independently access the rich and motivating texts...' James Clements 'Teaching English by the Book'.

[btw is this using 'decode' and 'read' interchangeably?]

The word 'once' seems to imply indeed that Clements advocates 'first, fast and only'.

He goes on:

'It is...vital that discrete phonics teaching takes place within a rich text-based curriculum' 

'While children are learning to word-read, they will continue to listen to and enjoy a wide range of books'

If Clements has chosen his words carefully here, he is conjuring up a picture that teachers should do SSphonics first, fast and only, while providing a 'rich text-based curriculum' which children 'listen' to. 

He seems to be saying: only when they've 'got' the alphabetic code, are they allowed (?) to look at the texts (the words) themselves.


Justine Greening, 4 year olds, diktats and language.

Justine Greening has made a statement about social mobility, focussing in part on Reception children.

1. How dare these politicians make interventions and devise policies like this from the heart of the DfE in consultation with the Tory Party? Anyone starting from scratch would devise ways in which Reception teachers and researchers working with these teachers were at the heart of devising any policy.

2. Greening has made reference to the 'word gap'. What's involved here is a misconception of what language is. Language is not 'words'. It's how and why words are grouped. Any policy based on the idea that 'words' equals language is doomed. What matters is language in action and use, children planning, playing, discussing.

3. It's worth observing that there is a weakness in a good deal of research about children's language: it's based on adults asking children questions without this being cross-referenced with children talking to each other with no adult being present. I get my students (usually teachers) to compare transcripts of children answering questions asked by adults, with children discussing (e.g. a poem or picture book etc) with no adult present, with/without trigger questions given beforehand. Only if we nuance research like this, do we really find out what children can or can't do in language. Don't expect this kind of work is present in what Greening is saying.

4. I can see people already saying, 'Oh there's some good things in what Greening has said'. This is a re-run of every dictate coming from the DfE since 1988. It all misses the point. Since 1988, successive governments have worked to a regime of gathering trusties together, and delivering policy by diktat. It's not the only or the best way to do things. There is even another model, another way: the Language in the National Curriculum Project pioneered a participatory way of arriving at policy. After several years work, it was junked at a cost of many million quid. The point about all these policies is that they are devised because of the immediate political need of the party in power. In this case, the demand has gone out to all ministers that they should appear 'caring' and interested in the fact that their policies have caused poverty and a bit of plaster can make it seem as if they are dealing with this. We should not accept that devising education according to the political needs of an unpopular Tory Party is the best way to proceed.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Using literary methods to find out how the opening of 'A Christmas Carol' works, and what is it trying to say?

In a previous blog, I produced several 'trigger' questions as ways of breaking down the categories of narratology, stylistics, pragmatics, intertextuality and ideology. The list was not intended to be a programme to be adhered to rigidly, nor was it intended to be exhaustive. The categories are not intended to be watertight or distinct from one another. There are overlaps between them and within these categories there are sub-categories. Please don't treat this is as a regime. 

I suggested at the end of the list that I would look at the opening pages of Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' and apply these categories.

If you're reading on with this, it may well help if you put in front of you a copy of the opening pages down to as far as the first time Scrooge says, 'Bah!....Humbug!' and perhaps the short para after that too. You can find this online (for nothing). I'm working off the Penguin Classics edition which has handy footnotes at the back for phrases and terms no longer used, like 'upon 'Change' which was slang for 'at the Royal Exchange'. 

Please include the title page and the Preface. 

Immediately below is an abridged form of the list as a recap. 

1. How is the text narrated? Why is it being narrated this way? Categories here might be e.g. 'omniscient narrator' 'multiple narrators', 'unreliable narrator', 'first person narrator' 'self-conscious narrator' (who reveals that he/she/it is narrating).  At any given moment and at all moments, a text is narrated. The question here is how and why? [narratology]

2. Time frames. At any given moment and at all moments a text is in a time frame. It's possible and frequent for texts to move backwards and forwards in time. It's possible for texts to indicate continuous states of being in the past, present or future. [narratology]

3. Depiction of thought. How does the text indicate what someone is thinking? [narratology]

4. Point of view, foregrounding and focalisation. These slightly different terms point out that any given moment in a text, we are looking at someone or something from a point of view. [narratology]

5. Prosody - this means the musicality of a text [stylistics]

5a Sentences - without going particularly into the grammar of sentences - you can tell a lot of what is going on with texts by comparing lengths of sentences. [stylistics]

6. How are people, settings, creatures, and events evoked or described? [stylistics]

7. All texts use other texts from before. In fact, at every level word, phrase, clause, paragraph, chapter, genre - previous texts are borrowed. But borrowings also go on at the level of motif, trope, and rhetorical device. [intertextuality] 

8. All texts conceal as they reveal. [narratology]

9. Writerliness - this describes how texts refer to the fact they are texts. [narratology]

10. Register or code. Texts have to use a 'voice' or many voices which precede it. [stylistics]

11. Dialogue

How is the dialogue narrated? Using simple tags, tags with adverbs? Passages of description between the dialogue? What is being described? People, setting, weather? Inner states of mind and motive? [pragmatics]

12. All these features can be analysed and/or summated in terms of ideology. This comes from constantly a) finding ways to describe what's going on in any particular category and then b) asking  why? Why would the author have written the text this way?And/or what does the text 'imply' even if the author intended it or not? [ideology]

'A Christmas Carol'

1. Narration:
How many narrators are there, and how should we describe them?

a) C.D. who has written the Preface in which C.D. says that he wants to 'raise the Ghost of an Idea'. 
b) The voice  using 'I' and offering views and thoughts e.g. 'I don't mean to say that I know...' 
c) The 'omniscient narrator' who narrates the action, Scrooge's thoughts, dialogue and the thoughts of other protagonists. 

We shouldn't really take C.D. and 'b' the 'I' in the story itself as exactly the same. In the Preface, C.D. is talking outside of the story about what he intends the story to be and do. Within the story, the narrator is commenting on protagonists who do not exist in real life. They are 'textualised' beings, created out of signifiers.  That said, it's intellectually and emotionally possible to treat a) and b) as the same, especially as Dickens was then and still is/was so clearly a person, a story-teller, and actor. However, clearly the 'I' narrator of a) and b) fades away, as the voice goes into the convention of the omniscient narrator. As an indicator of omniscience and literary history,this voice ('c') uses the phrase 'Once upon a time...'. 

Other observations about this play between types of narration: 'b' argues with itself, and has conversations with itself (or is with the imagined or implied reader?) - 'Mind! I don't mean to say that I know...' and 'Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did? How could it be otherwise?' and 'You will therefore permit me to repeat...' 

What does this do rhetorically? We might perhaps say that because it appears to be having conversations it 'invites the reader in to the story to participate in the telling'. As a voice, it's 'borrowed' from live story-telling, where there is an audience who can respond with facial expressions and words to what the teller asks. But why is Dickens doing this? It breaks the fourth wall of story-writing because it reveals that it is doing telling. In fact, there are several clear indicators of this: 'Marley was dead: to begin with.' To begin what? This means, I take it, 'the story'. It draws attention to itself ie meaning:  'I am telling you this story which begins here.' without actually quite saying that.  In para 4, this narrator says, 'the story I am going to relate', an explicit self-referential part of story-telling/writing. It admits to the artifice of writing/telling to the reader/listener. But why? Why is it so important for Dickens (the real writer) to put this 'I' in the story and be so insistent about it? Under the category of ideology I'm going to try to answer that. 

2. Time-frames

In fiction we can take it that there is at least one past - perhaps several - which can be indicated by verbs such as 'he had done' something, or with words like 'earlier' or 'previously' or 'he remembered the time when'. The present in English writing is (confusingly) usually described with e.g. 'The door of Scrooge's house was open...' which in speech we would usually use to describe the 'past'. 'The door was open...' usually in speech would describe something that happened earlier than now. The 'present' of a story has a name in narratology, it's the 'diegesis'. It means the time and setting of the story. 'Diagetic' is the adjective to describe this e.g. diagetic action means the action taking place in the 'now' of the story. 

In these opening lines we have several time frames!
'Marley was dead' ( ie he died before the story started)
'to begin with' (ie in the time frame of 'me' telling you this story)
'Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change' ie a continuous time frame in the past and extending into the 'now' (the diegesis). This time-frame (ie the continuous state of Scrooge) carries on for a good part of the opening pages. 
Following 'Once upon a time' (a phrase which fixes the diegesis, the 'now', we hear 'old Scrooge sat busy in his counting house'. 
This time frame is interrupted by some further continuous past-present descriptions such as 'the clerk's fire was so very much smaller' 
In a difficult construction, Dickens interrupts the continuous with 'and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part.' This means, if Bob Cratchit came in with a whole shovel full of coal, Scrooge warned that he would sack him. This is not exactly 'continuous'. It's more one or more incidents that gave rise to consequences. 
A slightly different time-frame appears when Scrooge's nephew arrived: 'He had so heated himself...' ie the moment immediately prior to him arriving. 
A similar time-switch to the immediate past before the 'now' happened when the text says, 'The city clocks had only just gone three'. Note: not that the clocks stood at three' or 'struck three' but they had happened just a moment earlier. I'm not sure why Dickens would do this, other than to indicate a 'realism', in that clocks striking three bang in the moment of the diegesis suggests a coincidence, where all that's intended here is a sense of time passing, not something significant attached to 'three'. (Just a thought). However, we spot here, the ease with which such a text can switch between diegesis and several different kinds of past very quickly. 
Returning to the part where the 'I' narrator says, 'I am going to relate', we might say that this is at least a reference to the time-frame of the future, even if we don't yet go there! However, it's not the time-frame of the diegesis, (the now of the story), it's a reference to the 'now of the story-telling process! 

These time-frames are not just significant in themselves. They are significant in that they are 'switches' and we might ask why and how they are managed. I think they exist in this story because Dickens wanted to tell a 'thick' story, full of reflections to and from between past, present and future, (as exemplified, of course, by the ghosts). This is because he wanted to tell a tale of consequence and change, someone reflecting on differences between his past and present, and the possible route to the future. A 'thin' telling would just be an 'and then...and then' type story which doesn't go back or forwards in time from the diegesis, the now. Think of ballads for this as a classic 'thin' narrative style. 

The arrival of the diegesis as late as the ninth paragraph suggests to me that Dickens very much wanted to be saying to his audience that he was in control of this narrative. So, though it does into omniscient narration, we should only think of this as the 'I' and/or Dickens doing this. (That's my theory, anyway!) I'll come back to this under 'ideology'. 

3. Depiction of thought
a) one kind of thought we come across straightaway is the though of the 'I' narrator: 'of my own knowledge'....'I don't know how many years'. This is the first person narration of thought, much loved of modern YA fiction. It is usually taken as being 'reliable' unless, through irony, or events revealed later on, it is shown to be 'unreliable'. It can also be complex when it crosses time-frames as with 'Great Expectations' where the older Pip reflects on the actions and thoughts of the younger Pip. 

At least one irony emerges in this 'I' narration: the self-interruptions, which 'pretend' as if they just 'happen'. 'The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from'. Well, it was you who mentioned the funeral, not us!, we might say. This is followed by the jokey digression about Hamlet. Is the writer Dickens, telling us that this narrator is flawed? Liable to be a bit wordy and easily distracted from the flow of his own telling? I think there's a hint of this. This doesn't make this narrator 'unreliable' but at the very least 'slightly flawed', perhaps. I think there's an intention here to introduce a bit of light-heartedness, at the very least too. Perhaps this ties with an interesting phrase in para two: 'Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years'. What do you mean, narrator, you 'don't know'?! Of course you do, it's you telling the story, you making up the character (he's not real is he?) so if you want to say 'how many years' you could; if you don't want to, you don't have to! In other words, it's pretence that this character, Scrooge, exists, that the narrator 'knows' him but his knowledge about him is limited, though he will do his best to relate all he knows. It's a tiny piece of ironic, self-referential, jokey narration. 

(I tell the story, that I recite: 
'Down behind the dustbin
I met a dog called Jim.
He didn't know me
and I didn't know him.'
A boy said to me, 'How do you know his name was Jim then?'
And I said, 'Er...I don't know...sorry.'

It's the same game, where an author pretends that the incident is real (and not created by the author, and has incomplete knowledge of the person etc. )

b) We hear of Scrooge's thoughts both from the 'I' narrator and the omniscient one: 'Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did'. This then is still very much in the control of the 'I' narrator, telling us what he knows, creating the story under our eyes. However, there is a way of describing this as a from of 'free indirect discourse' rather than a conversation the narrator is having with himself. That construction of the question and answer to delineate thought without saying 'he thought' is 'free' of the tag 'he thought', it's indirect as with indirect speech ('i' turns to 'he') and it's part of 'discourse' ie the telling of the story. We get another hint of this with ''he answered to both names, it was all the same to him' from para  4.  This is Scrooge's continuous thought about how people addressed him. We get it again in para 9: 'But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked.' This is the technique of giving privileged access to a protagonist's thoughts without telling the reader that this is what you are doing. It was created most clearly for the first time by Jane Austen who wanted us to be privy to the thoughts of her key characters in a seemingly invisible or unobtrusive way. It is one of the tricks of realist writing...we arrive in the protagonist's head without it being signalled by words like 'he thought'. Dickens wants us to believe that Scrooge is 'real'. So this free indirect discourse method ties in with the narrator pretending to not know 'how many years', or 'the clock had just struck three'. 

c) The omniscient narrator (which I've indicated doesn't start happening (arguably) until after 'Once upon a time'  indicates how Scrooge is thinking like this: 'this was the first intimation he had of his approach'. As we'll see when we get to the pragmatics (dialogue) this method of going from outside (action) to inside (thought) can have a delaying effect in writing. This may be useful if you want to construct a joke, or a climax or a surprise. I think that this is what's going on here. As we shall see!

Later in the story, of course, there are many more ways in which the omniscient narrator shows us Scrooge's thoughts. It has to, because the story is in a way, about how Scrooge changes his mind ie his thoughts!

4. Point of view. Stories use the process of 'focalisation', they bring protagonists to the fore or put them to the rear. They 'foreground' or 'efface' protagonists. We might ask, for example, why choose your protagonist to be an animal? Or why do we only see one protagonist's p.o.v.? Why do we see, say, sudden shifts in focalisation? Or none? What does this do? Bertolt Brecht much admired Shakespeare because of the way in which we not only hear the words of protagonists but frequently hear how others think of  the protagonist. Famously, just before we see Antony in 'Antony and Cleopatra' two men are having a conversation about Antony:  'The triple of the world transform'd. Into a strumpet's fool: behold and see.'  Conflicting and contrasting points of view enable or encourage readers to debate rights and wrongs and whether people are really who they say they are. 'Thick' narratives encourage a lot of this, 'thin' narratives less so, is one argument about literature. 

The focalisation in this part of 'A Christmas Carol' shifts from the 'I' narrator, placing himself at the heart of the opening, to and from Scrooge, to (at the end of this passage) the nephew. Arguably, in the Hamlet digression there is a little p.o.v. shift to seeing things from the p.o.v. of a hypothetical  'middle aged gentleman' turning up in Saint Paul's Churchyard. And following that, the 'son' who has a 'weak mind'. Perhaps this signals the literariness of this story. It will be, it announces, in the tradition of English Literature: look out for antecedents! 

More significantly we have a short foregrounding of 'Nature' who 'lived hardy by, brewing on a large scale'. This flags up perhaps that even though this is a 'Christmas' story, it is also pagan. For a moment we'll see things, the text says, from the p.o.v. of 'Nature' - whoever that is! 

Other p.o.v. shifts happen, say in para 8, when we meet 'blindman's dogs' who have thoughts: 'appeared to know him' and focalise action around Scrooge. In this para there is even 'negative focalisation' ie what people don't do! 'No beggars implored him to...' The write conjures up a scene that doesn't happen in order to indicate something of the main protagonist's personality! As we'll see under intertextuality this is a rhetorical device too. 

All this tells us that the story is going to be wide-ranging in its choice of p.o.v. that it might do this rapidly, or on occasions intensely, focussing in on one protagonist. This is flexible writing, that keeps the reader shifting focus, again one of the instruments of 'realist' writing in that it invites the reader to think that 'everything' is on display, everything can be 'seen' or 'heard' or 'known about'. It's an illusion, but it's part of the game of 'realism'. 

5. and 5a Prosody and sentences- the musicality of the writing. It's possible to run the prosody meter (!) over any passage of writing, but there are several parts of the opening pages which are we might say, more extreme than others in this. 

The opening sentence is deliberately abrupt, brief, sudden, full of a strong beat. Perhaps this was intended as a surprise. It also gives us death in the third word of the whole story. Is this going to be a story about Marley? Or death? We find out later it's not about Marley! Is it about death? In a way, it is about how we might be thought of after we are dead, so we might as well get life right now. But a bit odd that the first word is 'Marley'. Does this signal that Scrooge's downhill path into miserliness starts with Marley? 

Whatever it is, it's very arresting to begin a story with a) such a brief, drumming sentence, b) death and c) a self-conscious 'to begin with'. 

In para 3, the egotism of Scrooge is given to us partly through the prosody of an extreme and excessive rhythmic  repetition of the word 'sole'. It indicates that not only is Scrooge excessive but that he was also on the fiddle. This is confirmed by the ironic commentary on him as being an 'excellent man of business' ie a crook. 

In para 6, we meet a whole range of musical devices. 
It begins with an 'Oh!' (like Beowulf beginning with 'Hwaet!'); a long sequence of '-ing words to describe Scrooge, exaggerated, excessive, extreme writing. (by the way, next sentence would be marked as incorrect by examiners as it has a capital letter, a full stop but NO FINITE VERB! The next sentence switches from 'ing verbs' to '-ed verbs in repetition. In some of the sentences he breaks another rule of so-called 'good writing' he repeats 'and' - partly, I think, to create a speech rhythm. 

In para 7, the writing uses Anglo-Saxon style alliteration, moving from one set of alliterative words to another set: e.g. going from 'w' words to 'b' words and then to 'p' words. This gives the writing strong pulse, marking the rhythm by linking the beats to each other. Perhaps this kind of writing has no purpose other than to feel good and to sound good. Perhaps it is to carry us along with the sequence of phrases, in a lyrical way. I don't know! 

There is another way in which prosody works, which is by a kind of anti-prosody! Dickens, we know, was very fond of deliberately long, 'otiose' sentences. Some have argued that this is almost ironic, in that he appeared to be over-honouring a subject with seeming pomposity in order to diminish it. It's one of the functions of 'hyperbole' (rhetoric). The sentence in para 4, that begins:'If we were not perfectly convinced...' is 65/66 words long! The first sentence in the story is 6 words long. Clearly Dickens could play with his readers' expectations in this respect: one moment being brief and to the point, the next being digressive and discursive. This enables him to switch tone and switch register (see 10). Like the more conventional prosodic features of repetition of '-ing' words, with their ability to be musical, these are perhaps part of Dickens's attempt to catch the ear, make us 'pay attention'. We talk of 'dull' writing, or 'interesting writing' and perhaps the  ability to be musical and to vary sentence length is part of that. I think so. 

6. How are people, places, animals etc 'evoked'? This is a way of looking at such devices as 'incremental detail', 'digression', speed of being 'in' or 'outside' of a person or thing, whether the method of evoking uses many, few or no adjectives and adverbs. We usually describe a lot of adjectives and adverbs as e.g. 'florid' or 'wordy' and sentences that use few or none as 'spare', 'lean', or 'sparse'. 

In paras 6 and 10, we can see Dickens using the incremental detail approach, piling descriptions one on top of the other, linked (as we've shown) by the prosody. Is this 'excessive' in the sense that it offers us some kind of superfluity? One of the techniques of 'gothic' writing is 'excess', excess of emotion, excess of horror, excess of sensation. This writing is perhaps 'gothic' in that it asks of us to follow an excess of sensation (ie appeals to the sense). Is this appropriate? Presumably Dickens wanted to say from the outset that Scrooge is an extreme form of something: at this stage that he is 'cold' - an almost Elizabethan way of describing him, according to his 'humours'. We can see in the writing that there are two forces going on - one 'realist' but also non-realist in the self-conscious narration. Perhaps Dickens is flagging up that this is going to have realist elements but that the core story is a fairy story, or fantasy and like these kinds of stories with their giants and goblins, Scrooge is a kind of mean giant (not because he's big, but because he's gigantically mean, and that needs an excessive prose to capture that.)

Something that all novelists have to do is show attributes through action. In para 11, Dickens shows that Scrooge is mean over the incident(s) of the coal shovel. If Bob brings in too much coal, Scrooge warns him that he will fire him. And in the next sentence we see that Bob therefore has to warm himself with a candle. In films and plays, this is sometimes played for laughs. In the cold (!) light of day, however it's terrible, isn't it? Bob is not cold because there isn't enough coal. It's because his rich employer is not prepared to let him burn enough coal. It's a direct act of extreme cruelty. To be fair on those wanting comedy, the final part of the evocation of this relationship between employer and employed, there is a line of irony (grim? or jokey?) Bob uses the candle in an 'effort' to warm himself, but 'not being a man a strong imagination, he failed.'

The omniscient narrator tells that Bob doesn't have a strong imagination, so he can't imagine himself to be warmer. At first this is a narrational 'put-down'. But hang on - no one can imagine himself to be warmer. Perhaps the ironic narration here is intended to mock the attitude that poor people should just imagine themselves to be comfortable rather than Bob being of low intelligence and/or imagination . As we find out a few paras later, Scrooge belongs to the 'Malthusian' mind set that there are too many poor people in the world, that workhouses, prisons and death are the best things to be doing with them. The book as a whole is a critique of this view point or ideology. Perhaps it is appearing in this para for the first time, first with Scrooge and the coal shovel, and the threat of getting the sack, and then with this idea of the 'imagination' being enough to live off (ie not!). 
Irony, then, is part of how Dickens 'evokes' people and situations.

7. Intertextuality through allusion, motif, trope, rhetoric...

Clearly allusive intertextuality comes to us e.g. through the allusion to Hamlet and 'Nature'. The effect of this is partly positional - it places 'A Christmas Carol' in a continuity with 'Hamlet' and 'Nature'. It says, 'this story is touched by such predecessors and ancestors in literature'. 

It's fun to go 'motif-spotting' in any text to see, if you like how has a write plundered the world bank of motifs in order to construct a story. One classic literary motif or device on show here is the 'pathetic fallacy'. Scrooge is 'cold'. 'The cold within him froze his old features' and so is the weather. 'It was cold, bleak, biting weather.' What does the pathetic fallacy do for us as readers? I often think its function is to be all-encompassing, inviting us to think that there is no escape from the 'fallacy' in question. Cold inside and out. Both in 'wide shot' and in 'close up', there is coldness. It also suggests perhaps there's no escape for the protagonist in question unless they can change in a big way. After all, for them to be 'warm' they might have to change the cosmos! 

A form of rhetoric on display in this section of the book is 'litotes', descriptions of something by what they're not. Para 8 is tells of what 'Nobody' will do. No one will approach Scrooge and 'say, with gladsome looks, 'My  dear Scrooge, how are you?''   There then follows some other examples of 'no'. When this ends, the litotes turns into its opposite 'hyperbole', 'Even the blindman's dogs appeared to know him...' All this has a grand, again 'excessive' way of describing. Is this funny? Comical? Is this 'caricature'? Perhaps. Was this what Dickens wanted or was he a victim of his own ability to write like this ie he couldn't stop himself being over-excessive? Is his writing guilty of creating moments for the reader where we might say, 'Yeah, yeah, we got the point, no need to labour it!'? Some people think so. Another word people have used about this kind of writing is that it's 'self-indulgent'. Is it? Or does it do the job of telling us yet again what an extreme form of meanness is on display here?

Other examples of intertextuality we might 'notice' - it's impossible for someone who knows their nursery rhymes to read 'counting-house' without it linking to the 'king was in his counting house'. 'The fog came pouring in at every chink...' is intertextual with Dickens's own writing in 'Bleak House' no matter whether that comes before or after this book. Intertextuality doesn't alway work on readers in chronological sequence! It's just links across 'space' not time. I suggested that the alliterative prosody was 'anglo-saxon' derived from that kind of rhythmic, non-rhyming, alliterative verse. 

In medieval and renaissance art and literature the idea of Carnival and Lent was personified. Carnival represents warmth, jollity, play, music, food, plenty. Lent was mean, damp, cold, thin, hungry. You can see it played out visually in a painting by Bruegel. Can we say that Scrooge has an intertextual predecessor in 'Lent' and the arrival of the nephew - 'ruddy and handsome, his eyes sparkled', 'he was all in a glow'' etc is at the least a representative of 'Carnival'?  Is this one of the themes of the book that what we need (or should have) at Christmas is less Lent, more Carnival (or its Roman predecessor Saturnalia?). 

'Once upon a time...' is an intertextual device that flags up: 'this is a particular kind of story, because you are familiar with the opening of fairy stories, which begin with these words'. This entitles us to think that this might be a kind of fairy story even though it hasn't felt like this so far. So is this a genre-shift? An example of 'hybridity' in texts when we shift from one genre to another which may create surprise, might be a 'red herring', might cause us to focus in a new way, in order to reflect on what's just been? So, we thought this was going to be a realistic story about a mean guy (OK, gothically described) but in the real world of 'now' with a partner who's just died, who the narrator appears to have known (!) and now it's a 'Once upon a time...' story. Will there be fairies and giants in this story then? It raises this expectation. 

8. The particular narrative device of 'Reveal-conceal' can be done in many ways, and it's important because it is how texts 'drag' readers through. They are 'hooks' which pull on us, resulting (if they work) in us wanting to know more, wanting to turn the page. 

We might argue that the opening sentence does this. It announces a 'fact' and then undercuts it with 'to begin with'. This of course immediately suggests that there's a lot more to come. Is the fact that Marley is dead, enough to feed into 'to begin with' to make us want more? Might this story be about how or why Marley died? Might it be about the consequences of Marley dying or being dead? It's certainly not an explanation in itself, so we might well be wanting to know about reasons and consequences, aided by the reveal-conceal device of 'to begin with'. 

'Once upon a time' is a reveal conceal in the way that I've already described, but of course it's an 'opener' says, 'this is when...but now there's more to come that I haven't told  you yet...listen!' 

Another way to do reveal-conceal is to bring up phenomena that are unexplained, mysterious, (what Freud called 'unheimlich' usually translated as 'uncanny' but meaning literally 'un-homely'). Such invocations to the mysterious are revelations ('here they are') but don't tell alls (conceal). In para 10, 'the houses opposite were phantoms.' A sentence later it tells us that 'Nature' is 'brewing on a large scale'. All this is reveal-conceal: mysterious, not-yet-explained and belonging to the world of the unexplained, inchoate 'nature' at work. Will it be 'Nature' that will have a part to play in this story? Might it be the agent which will help the focaliser, the chief protagonist to resolve his problems? Or will it be the word we met in the previous sentence, 'phantoms'? Whatever it is going on, it's 'brewing', that is: cooking up something not yet cooked.

9. Writerliness - this is the fact of a particular kind of writing drawing attention to the fact that we are reading a piece of writing. As we've seen already, there's a good deal of this going on in these paragraphs: words that indicate story-telling itself: 'to begin with', 'I am going to relate', 'Once upon a time'. We can add in the way in which Dickens conjures up Hamlet and Nature, uses excessive prosody, engages in narrator conversations with himself, talks to the reader as 'you', and so on. These are ways of breaking out of realism, or at least putting realism in tension with writerliness. It positions the reader as someone both inside the text and outside - perhaps at the same time,  being moved by the events of the text, whilst being part of the process of it being told. The argument that some make over this is that it enables us to keep a part of ourselves asking why, being evaluative, thinking about ideas...just as Dickens hopes that we will as he says in the Preface. In Brechtian terms this is 'alienation technique' or in German Verfremdungseffekt', 'estrangement'. 

10. Register. The simplest register switch in texts are between paragraphs of continuous prose description of e.g. action, switching to dialogue, let's say, spoken in non-standard English. Clearly, some of this goes on. But there are other register switches here. The 'I' narrator often uses spoken-word type phrases or words, e.g. 'Mind!' or 'Oh!' and addressing the reader as 'you'. The digressive nature of the 'I' narration is reminiscent at the very least of speech, and the faux 'brings me back to the point I started from' is a classic speech mannerism. The Hamlet digression would be 'highfalutin' 'elevated' stuff, if it wasn't for the way Dickens undercuts it with the observation about 'any other middle-aged gentleman'. The rhetorical and prosodic excess are also issues of register because they are in their own ways, ways of invoking other 'voices', the voices of, say, Greek drama, or romantic poetry. There is a constant dance (!) of figurative language, particularly in the descriptions of Scrooge, metaphor, simile and personification - as with the 'cold' in para 6 that has a life of its own, the weather 'biting', and of course the great opener and mock 'writerly' debate about being 'as dead as a door-nail'. All this takes us into the world of literariness itself, which is a 'voice' too. 

As I've mentioned, Dickens is very adept at switching from 'excessive' writing (a 'gothic' voice, I've suggested) to more action-led, sparer descriptions as with para 11, when we are in Scrooge's workplace: 'The door of Scrooge's counting-house was open that he might keep his eye on his clerk...' It's very direct, unadorned writing, undecorated writing. These switches, we might say, ask us to follow things in different ways. Heavily adjectival, adverbial, figurative language asks us to follow things often in a very 'sense-laden' way. Spare, action-led sections ask us to follow doing. We watch action being revealed. Dickens makes one para do one thing and the next another. It's a stylistic technique. 

11. Dialogue - pragmatics

There is only one bit of true dialogue in this passage, but it's quite significant in one respect. It's interrupted by narration. 

A 'cheerful voice' (synecdoche !) says, 'A merry Christmas uncle! God save you!' In our reading (as opposed to the dialogue) this is interrupted by: 'It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came up on him so quick that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.'
Then we hear 'Bah!' said Scrooge, 'Humbug!'

Why the interruption? I would suggest that it's for the same reason that comedians delay gags, whether in the sentence, or at the end of passages. It's to highlight punchlines, or significant lines, to give the welly or weight. 

Pragmatically speaking, Scrooge hasn't 'replied to what the nephew has said, he's commented on it. He's not returning a greeting or really retorting. He's saying in effect, 'you saying "merry Christmas' is 'humbug'. The exclamation that comes before it is more direct as 'Bah!' is a push-back along the lines of 'rubbish' or even 'shuttup'. 

12 Ideology

En route I've said quite a bit about this. I think there are several key aspects of ideology to highlight though:
1. The role of the 'I' narrator is to say, I think, 'I Dickens, have something important to tell you, I control this narrative, and as I said in the Preface it involves an 'Idea'. It's my Idea. Please listen.'
2. The figure of Scrooge is mythic. He is in the pathetic fallacy, he is described excessively, 'Nature' is invoked in this, and several ancient rhetorical devices take us to a literary landscape. Along with 'Once upon a time...' and 'phantoms' we are  entitled to expect a fairy story or myth or fable or fantasy? 
3. Once into the action, we are significantly in a workplace where the conditions of the employee are crucial. He is a victim of the employer, to the extent that he is not entitled to be warm in the midst of this all-encompassing 'cold'. We might expect this to be at least part of the focus of the drama to come. Will this man, the clerk, survive? Will he ever get what he needs, or will he die? 
4. Earlier there were indications that Scrooge is a crook (over how he behaves in relation to Marley's legacy). Does this mean that Scrooge's crookery will be uncovered? Come back to bite him? Or what?

Do we need 'grammar' to tell us what 'Where the Wild Things Are' is about?

Literary criticism is like an old footballer facing opponents who are schooled in the latest techniques of fitness and tactics. In my lifetime, it has faced the challenge of many new ways of describing and analysing literature and yet, at heart, it is what it's always been, human beings reading, listening, wondering, reflecting. 

Anyone who's read the last few blogs here, will know that I'm a fan of such disciplines as narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality. I believe that if these schools of theory are broken down into 'trigger questions' that books can be explored in enjoyable ways, which both show how texts are put together but also reveal how the person reading is engaging with that text. Anyone who's been round the houses on this matter over the last 50 years will remember that one challenge the old footballer faced was 'semiology'. Various critics 'discovered' this theory of the sign and believed that some kind of objective route could be found to reveal the final truth about literature. Semiology hasn't disappeared but its challenge to 'lit.crit' seems to have faded. I've argued in an earlier blog, for example, that the categories of 'syntax' and 'paradigm' are useful ways of working 'variation' into writing and that this is what Hollywood does in reworking genres like the Even so, semiology hasn't knocked our old footballer out the game. 

The latest challenge facing lit.crit. is an old one: it's 'grammar'. Ironically, this challenge hasn't come from young critics wielding theory. It's come from the bastion of power, the government, informed by such people as the Tory journalist, Simon Heffer, whose book, 'Strictly English' seems to have delighted Michael Gove. The book resolutely turned its back on anything linguistics had to say about language over the last 50 years, reproduced the 'latinate' model of sentence analysis. This was then translated into a glossary, curriculum guidelines, tests at Key Stage 1 and 2, and, incredibly and absurdly, extended into ways of demanding that children should write. The whole thing was based on the false premise that children's 'grammar' is either 'right or wrong'. 

Where does our old 'lit.crit' come into this? Flushed with success over the introduction of 'grammar' into primary schools, there are clear signals coming from government that they want this carried through into the secondary curriculum. Experienced English teachers and advisers, sensing that this is on the agenda are hoping to outflank this by producing documents and books which adopt more enlightened and nuanced ways of 'using grammar' to critique texts, than the Simon Heffer-Michael Gove model. I fear that the reason for doing this is not because there has been a long discussion by linguists, English teachers and advisers about what are the best and most suitable ways of discussing literature. It is, instead, as I've described it, an attempt to outflank the government, cut them off at the pass by showing that it's possible to do this stuff in a better way. My suggestion, as I've written on my last few blogs here, is that if we take a 'holistic' approach to the exploration of literature, then 'grammar' is only one of many approaches and that the approaches I've described will offer up richer responses than the ones offered by 'grammar'. I would also add that if you read the literary criticism offered by, let's say, the broadsheet newspapers, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, their fascinating and highly readable articles hardly ever refer to 'grammar' as a means of exploring books. It is more often than not as I've described it, the old footballer using the wiles of experience to engage readers. 

One text that has come up for grammatical analysis by the new footballers on the scene is 'Where the Wild Things Are' ('Wild Things')This is a book that is of huge interest to me. I've made radio programmes about it, done what I've called a 'marxist criticism' of it on this blog and used it as an example of a three year old's 'interpretation' many, many times on this blog and elsewhere by way of critiquing the crude 'retrieval and inference' model foisted on primary school teachers for the last ten years or so. 

On this occasion I want to look at one sentence (the one that my then 3-year old son drew my attention to) and give it some close scrutiny, without using 'grammar'. 

(By they way, the reason I keep putting 'grammar' in inverted commas is that the grammar applied by the government is one very narrow, limited, inflexible form, which, I argue, is one of the reasons for it offering so little in helping us explore literary texts. It claims to be a grammar based on structure and function, but my argument is that the 'function' here is merely a function deduced from the supposed logic of sentence and paragraph construction, mostly in 'ideal' circumstances rather than actual usage. Again, I would argue that 'function' needs to be widened to social purpose for 'grammar' to be useful. Otherwise, it keeps returning to being not more than a list of instructions on what should be said and written according to the 'rules' of one usage only: written, formal, continuous prose. I'm writing according to these instructions now, but I'm under no illusion that its reach is highly limited, partly as a consequence that it is this form of language!) 

Back to 'Wild Things'. Our three year old drew my attention to what I call the 'elbow' of the story. This is the moment when the accumulated challenges and dilemmas of the story reach their peak, the main protagonist now has the biggest decisions to make. (These moments are 'intertextual' in that the history of story determines that we, as readers, demand that 'story' mostly delivers up this 'crunch' moment. Hollywood has formulas for them and demand that scriptwriters deliver them at a certain exact time in movies. (If ever you want to shred the mystique of literary criticism then look at film script manuals on how to manipulate writing and audience responses!) 

The 3 year old's pointer to the crux of the story is the moment after the 'rumpus'. You'll remember that Max has tamed the Wild Things and they spend several text-free pages dancing. Those who hope that grammar will reveal all about 'Wild Things' will have some difficulty with the text-free pages. However, according to people like William Moebius, Margaret Meek and others who have suggested that the picture book is a remarkable piece of 'multimodal' literature then the 'relay' between text and picture doesn't stop when there is no text. Indeed, it's part of the 'syntax' of the book as a whole, and a key moment in the way in which the book is often read by parents, carers, teachers and children. The rumpus is often 'rumpussed'! The fear of the Wild Things is dissipated in the rave. Aristotle, who invented a syntax of drama and tragedy, would have things to say about this. 

So, the rumpus comes to an end and the text has the famous line:

'And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.'  

Our 3 year old, had 'used' this book many times for deep study and reflection, hardly making any comments, said one day, in response to this line, 'Mummy!' I've written about this as an example of 'interpretation' not 'retrieval' or 'inference' because it is neither a correct or incorrect response.  The text is very open (I'll come back to this) in how we might respond to its suggestions. There is no 'Mummy' in the text. There is a 'mother' whose sole action at the beginning of the book is to send Max to his room and whose 'experience' is to receive Max's threat to 'eat her up'. There is no internal explanation of reason to think that 'Mummy!' is the 'someone' who would love Max (or the reader) 'best of all'. Repeat: 'there is no internal reason'. In other words, the main way you can arrive at 'Mummy!' as a response is through bringing your own experience to bear. It's not 'textual' or 'grammatical' analysis that reveals this truth to you. By the way, at the end of the story when Max is seemingly rewarded with a plate of hot food, again the text doesn't say who has provided this. It is an 'open' text. It invited the reader to interpret the 'gaps'. It repeatedly uses the device of 'reveal-conceal' in order to invite these interpretations. This is not 'grammatical'. It is a literary device that can be expressed using any number of grammatical methods and yet it is the key way in which we are 'dragged' though a story, wanting to know what happens next.

Back to the line. What is going on in this sentence? Can we ask important questions without necessarily going to 'grammar'? 

'And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.'  

One of the instruments of 'intertextuality' is 'rhetoric' - literary devices which grew up originally as techniques for orators to use in ancient Greece because, it was thought, they had 'effects'. Let's apply rhetoric (not grammar) to the sentence. Max is elevated in the sentence as 'the king of all wild things'. It's a reminder of his status as achieved by his cunning plan to stare at the Wild Things straight in the eyes. It tamed them. Phew! Now the text is reminding us of this achievement. Immediately following this elevation, though, Max is lowered: he is 'lonely'. This is a form of 'bathos', from high to low, (ideally as swiftly as possible). Lovers of 'Macbeth' will remember that the famous gatekeeper scene is often cited as 'bathos' across from scene to scene. This is what's going on here too, from 'King of all wild things' to being a 'lonely' little boy. 

Now, without invoking any particular theory, let's look at the rest of the sentence: 'where someone loved him best of all'. Let's ask ourselves a human question: why does it say 'someone'?  Why doesn't it say, and he 'wanted to go home', or 'he wanted to go back to his mother', or any other formula you could come up with which would be 'specific'? I have no final answer for this other than that our 3 year old's response tells us something. I suspect that Sendak wanted readers to ask themselves 'who is that someone?' He wanted the text to be 'open to interpretation'. He wanted active reading. This kind of active reading also invites readers to think about their own lives. As I've said, the response 'Mummy' is not from the text alone. It comes from our three year old's life. It is him saying, 'If I was Max, I would miss my Mummy'. The text doesn't say that though. He does the intellectual work to get to that. 

Another advantage of saying 'someone' is that invites readers to not just think of a specific 'someone' but also of the general feeling of wanting to be loved 'best of all'. It opens the text out to the general. I notice that online, where this line sits amongst 'great lines' from books, someone has added, 'don't we all!' By saying 'someone', Sendak opens up the possibility that this book is not just about Max but has general significance about such things as 'anger', what we now call 'anger management' (!) and resolution. The suggestion here is that there is a loneliness that needs, (demands?) love from 'someone' to help us arrive at a resolution. The book, then, might also apply to us as adults? Possibly. 

What I've done here, then, is not look at the sentence grammatically. I've applied 'rhetoric' (one kind of 'intertextuality'), 'reader-response' by listening to our 3-year old, text-syntax (in my talk about an 'elbow' - again triggered by our 3-year old) and a general speculation about the word 'someone' and what it might reveal. I should add here that again, the 'someone' is part of that literary technique (also 'intertextual') of 'reveal-conceal'. Even as it declared a new idea in the plot (Max wanting to be loved), it 'concealed' who this might be. We might find ourselves wondering, will he find someone who will love him best of all? We turn the page to find out.

I've also drawn attention (through 'narratology') to the way in which texts show how people think. They do this in very different ways. On this occasion the narrator tells us through the word 'want'. '...wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.' 

But there's something odd here, isn't there? If this part of the sentence is telling us 'what Max was thinking' then it's highly unlikely he just wanted to be where a 'someone'  loved him best of all, isn't it? Wouldn't he have wanted to be with a particular person? Or perhaps not? Perhaps all he did want was a general, inchoate sense of wanting to be loved. Is the text saying, 'anyone would do'? All he wanted was a great big chunk of personalised love? Or is this the narrator/author saying that what we (humans, not just Max) need and want, is for anyone, saying to us, 'you're the 'one'  I love'? This is a highly particular and ideological view of how we as humans operate. That is that our means of emotional and psychic survival depends on the specific love of one person. Ironically, the vehicle for this world view is the general word 'someone'! As I say, 'anyone will do'. 

Sendak was informed by Freudian analysis. The book is a playing out of the story of how the 'ego' can conquer the 'id', but in so doing sets up a crisis. (The elbow of the book in this line.) The Freudian model of need is very personalised focussing on the prime relationships of boys with mothers and girls with fathers. It suggests that the rest of life is determined by this 'prime' relationship and how it played out in our lives when we are under five. 

This one sentence reveals how Sendak used Freudian theory and it gave him 'someone' rather than 'go home' or 'go back to his Mother' so that he can open up our response to this highly ideological view that we all need one person to love us 'best of all'. (I'm not saying here whether this is right, wrong, or any other value judgement). The text at the very least asks us to think about whether that is what I, you, he, she, we (any of these) really do want or need.