Reading Literature: A Wild Exorcism of Ourselves

When you buy a book, what exactly do you own? Do you own the words on the page? No, these are the author’s, or, in the event of the author’s death, the publisher’s. What about the actual book in your hand? Great, you own some paper, a load of squiggly lines, and a Waterstones receipt. Do you own the right to read it? Yeah, as much as when you walk the corridors of the Louvre and delight yourself with the right to look at its paintings. You don’t own the Mona Lisa, you borrow it from the institution that houses it; like a Blockbusters for clever people. What’s the difference between the walls of the Louvre that house these works of art, and the covers and bindings of books? You can’t festoon the paper of a book with your ownership any more than you can carve your infinitesimal etchings into a work of art; it seems almost arrogant to try. Why then do we continue with this vainglorious delusion? If literature is art, why don’t we afford Robinson Crusoe, that brave Ikea manual that believed it could make a name for itself, with the same amount of respectful distance we afford to Guernica?

The act of purchasing and owning a book seems to be pure aporia. Regardless, we view our books with a slaveowner’s eyes, they sit in our cabinets (or strewn across the floors of our room, with our chunkier tomes tripping us on our way to the toilet) undoubtedly and rightly ours.

Interpreting literature seems to operate in the darker realm of culture because of this. We fumble messily through books, stripping them of their glory, trivialising their grandeur. We do a great violence to books that we spare the rest of culture from: to read, it appears, is to rape. That’s enough mystification and trite metaphors for one blog I think, and it’s all getting a bit morbid so I’ll get to the answer to this, and it comes from the previous owner of one of my anthologies. I brought my poetry anthology second hand from a third year, and I brought it back to my pristine (honest) Maynard House room and leafed through to read my favourite poem, a Yeats poem called Among School Children. I was surprised to see that, above the title, with a neatness that seemed to suggest that no explanation was needed for it, was an underlined cri de coeur “this poem is wanky”. I disagree with this evaluation of Yeats’ poem, but in disagreeing with it, I affirmed it. He read the same poem, in the same book, but he, like me, owned something that saves us from this terrible fate: an opinion. It’s this understanding that allows us to say that we don’t own the book, but instead own the text. The text is the humanity we bring to the book that the book can’t have, by virtue of being a book, and not a person. We all read the same book, but not the same text.

If you are familiar with the works of Jacques Derrida (if you’re not, get familiar, the guy’s amazing) you might have come across this pearl of wisdom, which has been pounded into the realm of platitude by pseudo-intellectuals (guilty as charged) “there is nothing outside the text”. He’s right guys. Among School Children will never change; it’s a cultural artefact, physical, unchanging, immutable, everything a human mind is not. Why then, do we study English? What is our profit from this endeavour? Because, when you read, you create just as much as when you write. The mind itself is like a palace and not every room is brightly lit and beautiful; there are holes in the floor of the mind. Most people who don’t read never explore these structural flaws and tumble along, leading a life unexamined. Your experience with the text, which is your own, and your own only gives you the light to make these holes magnificently, or grossly incandescent and the ladder to climb down into these holes, holes that you might never really climb out of. A common misconception about reading is that we in some way sit as high priests, with this book in front of us that we “own” finding “meaning” that lives in the text like a daemon, but reading literature is like a wild exorcism of ourselves; the literature in fact owns us far more than we own it.

And that is what makes it so much fun, and is the reason to study English at university. English at Queen Mary is not a stuffy traipse through the canon, that’d be easy, but instead it’s discourse, innovation, challenge. I sometimes listen to my seminar leader, or another student say something, and I feel the new ground crackle and break beneath my feet (or that could be the central line, sometimes I’m not sure). It is sometimes perilous and difficult, but why do the flying wallendas walk the quivering highwire? Because it’s walk that line, or plunge into the deep unmeaning below. Academic life at Queen Mary doesn’t shy away from this difficulty but embraces it, they’re with you every tentative step of the way. You will occasionally stumble, but Queen Mary cultivates an attitude that we do what we do not because it is easy but because it is hard.

But what Queen Mary does best is give you the tools to create your own texts, to actually own a fragment of the books that you buy in a way that passive reading cannot. They teach you to respect books as works of art, and to respect your relationship with them. My favourite line from Among School Children is “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” because it’s a beautiful illustration of the process of the endeavour of English students, which is that the book is the dance, we, in creating texts, are dancers. I’m proud of Queen Mary for letting us dance.

Race, Racism and ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’

Katie Beswick, Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, on her research into race, racism and Theatre of the Ghetto.

One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.

‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).

It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.

I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?

Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)

But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.

What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?

Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.

The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.

The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.

Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.


With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.

Welcome to the QMULsed Blogs

Welcome to All Things SED, the new blogging platform for the School of English and Drama (SED) at Queen Mary University of London.

The School brings together two of Queen Mary’s outstanding departments: the Department of English and the Department of Drama. The School has an international reputation for its high-quality research and its excellence in teaching. The latest REF (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), ranked Drama as first in the country and English as fifth in the country (and first in London) for the quality of their research. The latest National Student Survey revealed high levels of student satisfaction: 100% of Drama students and 94% of English students were satisfied with their programmes.

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