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: 'c' 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. Poing 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'...it 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 rom.com. 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. 


Tuesday, 12 December 2017

13 more thoughts about writing

1. Every genre of writing has a ‘syntax’ and a series of paradigms. (Think eg the rom-com). The syntax is the storyline-structure-plot. The paradigms are the protagonists and settings. Select a story: are you going to change the syntax? Paradigms? Both?

2. An author is someone who plays with genres, motifs, syntaxes, paradigms, expressions, rhetoric and the audience expectations written in to all these aspects of writing. We learn these expectations through reading loads and writing loads for audiences.

3. ‘Audience’ is not just the real reader(s). Every text implies an audience who know/like eg the language it’s written in, the choice of words , the motifs and allusions, the genre, the rhetorical devices, the similarity/alteration in syntax/paradigms .

4. Every time we want to describe a person or thing having introduced him/her/it we can choose whether to use a ‘which/that/who’ type expression or start a new sentence with a he/she/it/this/that/these type. The second is often more informal, more like speech.

5. If you ‘front load’ too many sentences one after the other, with phrases, clauses and adverbs that come before the sentence’s main action, the reader will tire/get lost/get bored.

6. Expressing an ‘argument’ in fiction/non-fiction is greatly affected by whether each sentence is or is not part of the argument. Digression tells more about the person arguing than the argument itself. Fine, if that’s intended! If not, get rid.

7. Surprise in fiction may be that we were reading the story as a genre, which built expectations, but the writer broke from the genre by altering the usual syntax and/or one or more paradigms and/or introducing an unusual motif.

8. ‘Character’ in text is made up of only the ‘signifiers’ we give them through words in the story eg thru speech, thought, description of action, others’ viewpoints. Ultimately ‘character’ in fiction only matters when it ‘engages’ in action, like a cog getting in gear.

9. The Stith-Thompson Index is an index of story motifs. These are scenes, encounters, ‘moments’ selected and classified from thousands of stories. They are a resource!

10. The viewpoint in non-fiction texts ‘hide’ behind phrases like: ‘it is thought that...’ (by whom?!);’many people have said...’ (who? When? Where? Why?); ‘few would question...’ and unproven adjectives/adverbs: ‘improbable’, ‘celebrated’, ‘thankfully’, ‘universally acclaimed’,

11. Seemingly objective narration can slip a p.o.v. in without readers spotting the ‘bias’ eg ‘It was pointless for her to go on.’ Is this her thought? Or the narrator’s? Or both? Or neither? Ie somehow belonging to the story?!

12. In stories, there are events of the past and future we can relate which ‘thicken’ the text, but there are ‘continuous’ states of mind, outlook etc (past, present or future) we can relate: eg ‘she used to...’,/‘might later like to...’.

13. Who is going to help or hinder the progress of your protagonist(s)? Why? What’s their motive?

Monday, 11 December 2017

Writing: how? 19 thoughts.



1. Year 8, Harrow Weald County Grammar School, 1959: we read Browning’s ‘dramatic monologues ‘ and talked about what was told and how. Homework: ‘write a dramatic monologue, long, short, prose or poem.’ And we could!!! Literature that works is infectious.

2. How do writers of non-fiction research, select material? How do we lay that out in sequences? How do we make sure there are as few ambiguities as possible. How do we distinguish between fact and opinion? How do we invite (or not) readers to debate what we write?

3. Why would it be in anyway sensible to take advice on writing from Gove, Gibb and their pals rather than from eg Frank Cotterell Boyce, Philip Pullman, J.K, Rowling, Shirley Hughes, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson, David Almond, Jamila Gavin, Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine, etc etc?

4. Many stories have an elbow or crux, the moment when an accumulation of problems has led to a defining moment which in theory could lead to success or failure, good or bad outcomes. These elbows should be almost painful!

5. The questions, who am I? Where am I? When am I? are often good places to start writing, even if it’s non-fiction: the ‘who’ can be eg the impersonal narrator of a scientific description. It’s still a ‘who’! These questions help define the genre(s).

6. The formulas for ‘expected level’ of ‘good writing’ created by the govt are nonsense and could only have been created by people who don’t write or are lying about how they write.

7. With jeopardy in writing, always ask who or what is causing it? Who or what is it happening to? How does the jeopardised get out of it? (Or not!)With whose help? (Or not!) And why did we choose that cast to display that jeopardy?

8. Writing relies heavily on the writer assuming readers are constantly predicting. Writers create *possible/probable* outcomes and then confirm, disrupt, ruin these...usually done in an unspoken way. Hidden story syntax.

9. Fiction is writing about ideas and feelings attached to beings who readers care about. The feelings emerge out of our varying attachments to what characters do and say with/to each other. Ideas emerge out of a sense of right/wrong, Fair/unfair, in scenes and outcomes.

10. Part of learning to write (which all writers do till the day they die) is ‘finding a voice’( or voices). We find these through reading and listening, saying to ourselves: ‘I could write like that.’ As we imitate, we adapt to suit the purpose. Continuity and change.

11. The ‘cliffhanger ‘ is the most extreme form of ‘reveal/conceal’. In truth, all writing, even reports, argument, non-fiction , Poetry relies on many, many mini-cliffhangers: moments which ‘say’ I’m not telling you all, there’s more to come.

12. Fiction relies heavily on dramatic irony: situations, states of mind etc that the writer creates in which a protagonist appears to know less than the reader.

13. All writing is a ‘con’ in one respect: it pretends to ‘reveal’ but at the very moment it reveals it ‘conceals’. That is: it implies but doesn’t say *yet* what’s coming next. This is what ‘pulls’ the reader through a text, thinking ‘I want to know more’.

14. In writing, there is no such thing as a good or bad word in itself. It always depends on context and purpose. Will it help me say what I want to say? Will it help me say it in the way I want to? Does it ‘do’ humour? Sadness? Nostalgia? Anger? Or what?

15. When writing, we ask ourselves if we want to draw attention to the writing itself eg through ‘self-conscious narrator’, deliberate over-description, heavy repetition of sound or word or the metaphorical. Or aim for invisibility through ‘sparse’ technique.

16. Every part of a sentence or whole sentence has a rhythm. To find it, repeat it out loud several times. When writing, we can ask ourselves if the rhythm ‘feels right’. Sometimes, we might want to accumulate detail = running rhythm. Contemplative might = long phrases etc etc.

17. The moment we start to write we borrow from previous writings:the genre (or mix of genres),the narrative voice,the register(formal, informal, regional, etc),motifs (eg the ‘disruptive force’, pathetic fallacy), rhetoric (eg hyperbole, rule of 3,, story syntax (eg rising jeopardy)

18. If you write dialogue in fiction you make rhythms between eg speakers taking turns, what characters are thinking, descriptions of how they speak, narrations of events, past, present or future. Some texts (or parts of) do all these. Some rely on dialogue standing on its own.

19. Any writer who has chosen a ‘narrative voice’ has them to decide ‘what does this narrator *know*?’ If ‘omniscient’, inside everyone’s head? Specific character(s)? Only what can be seen/heard? Or other narrations? 1st person? Multiple? Crucial decisions for all writing.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Trump, Jerusalem, our MPs and the 'facts on the ground'



Facts on the Ground

How wise and thoughtful the MPs sound
talking about Israel and the 'facts on the ground'!
They have 'reservations about Donald Trump',
they get a few laughs by calling him a chump
Then they add it's such a terrible pity
he's declared that Jerusalem's the capital city
but then on cue they bring it back round
to talk of Israel and the 'facts on the ground'.


Funny they should mention that word 'ground'
'cause anyone who's looked has always found
that that ground, that land, has always had facts:
they are people who, after many attacks
no longer have great stretches of that land
It's almost as if, from the start, it was planned
so if it was 'clever' that I wanted to sound
I could say these people are facts OFF the ground

So a logical, factual, thoughtful little phrase
is used by our politicians to give some praise
to premiers and generals with a serious intention
to uproot, remove, destroy (but not mention)
the ground and the facts where this takes place.
Politicians on TV with solemn face
appear to condemn Trump for what he's said,
but choose to ignore the dispossessed and the dead.

The full 'meaning' of a word is not its 'definition'.


It’s easy to reduce ‘meaning’ to ‘definition’. This leaves out ‘connotation’: the web of connections a word/phrase/whole text has with our experience. This is yet another way in which 'grammar' (sometimes employed by critics) does not explain all!

The words ‘pain au chocolat ‘ and ‘chocolatine’ mean the ‘same’. But they ‘connote’ different meanings via my, your and our experience.

Ironically, some of the most reductive, most non-connotive approaches to language occur when education and exams approach the most connotive uses of language: literature!


Given that a good deal of poetry works through and with such processes we call 'allusion', 'affect', 'ambiguity', 'resonance', 'evocation', and 'suggestion' - again, how ironic that we keep trying to reduce words or phrases in poems to single meanings or definitions.  

Some thoughts on the improvement in 'Reading' in the international PIRLS tests

1. The PIRLS 'Reading' test was a test in retrieval, inference and interpretation. In England, we usually lump all this together and call it 'comprehension'. By making this the 'Reading' test, PIRLS acknowledged that the word 'reading' means 'reading with understanding'. There is a debate to be had as to whether that particular test (or any other test) does genuinely find out whether children are or are not understanding what they're reading but let's leave that to another day. 

2. The test was taken in 2016 by children who were 9 or 10 years old, (what we call Year 5 in England). They received several months - probably at least a year - in instruction of systematic, synthetic phonics. This is a system of reading which teaches the 'alphabetic code'. That is, it isolates the sounds English speakers make when speaking; isolates the letters and combinations of letters  English speakers use to make words; matches the sounds to the letters according to orthodox spellings; uses a variety of strategies to show how words 'blend' letters to make words. However, due to the irregularity of English, some words are taught according to the principle of 'look-and-say'. Some schemes call these 'tricky' words, others call them 'red' words. In other words, this teaching method is not 100% 'phonics'. A small part of it is 'look-and-say'.  The process by which we do phonic reading, most people call, 'decoding'. At the end of Year 1 when most children are 6 years old (though some will be still 5) the children do a 'Phonics screening check', in which they will say out loud words on a list. Most of these will be real words, some will be made-up words. The argument for doing this is that children are showing that they have grasped the 'alphabetic code' and are not 'guessing' parts or the whole of words according to say, what the whole word looks like or what letters it starts with. The reason why it's a list and not a series of sentences or a story or any piece of continuous writing, is because this would bring in to the reading process 'meaning' and children might be, they say, 'guessing' the next words or phrase. 

2. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister for England, has claimed that there is one reason for the improved result shown by English children in the PIRLS test: the stricter demand that all schools teach one particular kind of phonics (there are several phonics methods). 

3, For Nick Gibb to claim this, it has to be shown that this one change - the stricter demand caused the improvement in the result. I'm not sure that Nick Gibb has understood the rules of 'cause and effect' in scientific experiment. The rules involve such things as: 
a) whatever is designated as a single cause, must be the only thing to change in the process leading to the change. In science, if we say that a candle heated some water, (cause and effect), we have to be sure that the water wasn't near a radiator which came on while we applied the candle. What we do is 'hold all the variables constant, while varying the once factor we are testing.' 

The time lapse between the time these children did SSPhonics and taking the PIRLS test was about 5 years. Any scientist would therefore ask, were the variables held constant? Indeed, any teacher might ask of the curriculum and their 'intervention', did we do anything different between teaching the children SSPhonics and Year 5? (Different, that is, from the previous 5 year period.) 

To my mind, several things happened. For example, in that time, Nick Gibb and others are very keen to say that 'schools improved'. They draw on data taken from Ofsted, to say that schools are getting better, more and more schools are 'outstanding'. Clearly, this judgement did not just involve 'standards of reading'. These were school-wide judgements. Can Nick Gibb or anyone else show that this general improvement in schools was NOT a contributory factor in the PIRLS sample of children improving their Reading scores?

Another factor I saw happening was that alongside the introduction of SSPhonics there was a request (demand?) that schools provide a rich diet of rhymes, stories and poems. Purely anecdotally, I saw that in action several times (indeed my school visits are seen by some schools as fulfilling that specific requirement). I also had a strange discussion with a passionate exponent of SSPhonics (a headteacher) who explained to me a) that he had brought in an hour long session every morning with Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, every morning, at which the teachers did 'rhymes, stories and poems' with the children. He also told me that this 'had nothing to do with reading'. I said that I thought it did, because it enabled the children to 'read' as opposed to 'decode'. It enabled the children to read with understanding, and not just say out loud words on a list. 

Unmentioned in the debate around these results is any account of whether schools have or have not instituted such 'rigorous' (!) hour long sessions at which children are free to listen to and interpret rhymes, stories and poems.

This brings us to a problem I predicted would happen the moment the phonics screening check was brought in. I called it 'phonics creep', and it's the process by which people like Nick Gibb describe the reading of 6 year olds as being 'fluent' or 'improving'. The only way he can make such claims is if he uses the improving results of the Phonics Screening Check. I repeat this test is not a test in 'reading'. It's a test in 'decoding'. It is designed precisely and particularly (and quite cleverly) to eliminate 'meaning' (ie 'comprehension). If someone like Nick Gibb describes children's performance at this test as 'reading', he is either ignorant or deceitful. As we all know, it is quite possible to 'decode' without being able to understand what one is reading.  

This leads us to another problem in the matter of 'cause and effect'. Having made a claim that 'a' caused 'b', it's generally incumbent on the person making the claim to explain how or why. We will have to wait, I guess, for Nick Gibb to explain this. He has one problem. SSphonics is a method of teaching the alphabetic code - how letters correspond to sounds (how 'graphemes' correspond to 'phonemes'.) Of itself, it cannot teach children how to comprehend, or interpret. That has to come from other processes. So, let us say, that Nick Gibb can explain how SSPhonics instruction helped the children decode the words in the PIRLS test, he also has to show us what enabled them to interpret a) the questions themselves (that is the wording of the questions) and b) the passages that the children were asked about.

Given that both these processes (decoding and interpreting) were being tested at the same time, it's quite possible that in the five years between doing SSPhonics and taking this test, the children have done some important things to help them interpret better. 

What might they be?

I've already mentioned one: the possible improvement in provision of rhymes, stories and poems with Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. Certainly, the removal of the National Literacy Strategy, in 2009, may have helped teachers to dump the over-use of 'extracts' and return to whole book teaching. Significant? Possibly. 

Here's another: everyone knows the 'familiarity with the test' effect. As teachers and pupils become familiar with a test, it's been observed that scores rise. It's not hard to see why. Teachers see patterns in the wording and methods of the tests and pass these on to the children. They may well coach the children with this, particular the low-performing children who often (in all our experience) find the wording of questions in test conditions difficult. I was in a school recently where the headteacher told me that her KS2 Reading SATS scores were just off 'special measures' levels (for those outside England, that means so low that the school was in danger of being taken over under new management). She implemented a draconian teach-to-the-test regime, with regular 'mock' testing, using past papers, which the teachers got the children to do under the same conditions as the SATs exam itself. She told me she raised the children's scores to 90% at the top level.

Why not? As we all know, doing tests is not some kind of 'pure' assessment of ability or aptitude, but a matter - to some degree - of 'getting' what it is that examiners are asking, knowing the right formulas for answering. Whether this is 'education' is another matter. Whether this method imparts the right or the most useful knowledge and skills is another matter. Whether this really assesses children's ability to do all sorts of other socially useful and desirable things is another matter. And indeed whether this obsession with this kind of testing squeezes out of the curriculum a raft of useful and desirable activities is another matter - for the time being!

In the meantime, we know that plenty of schools are coaching the children to do their Key Stage 2 SATs by teaching them how the questions work. 

I ask therefore, why wouldn't an improvement in this PIRLS test be at least partly down to the incredible hard work that teachers do coaching children in how to do such tests? 

4. The other crucial aspect of 'cause and effect' that Nick Gibb doesn't seem to have taken on board is again a common issue with scientists. Before diving in to say 'a'  causes 'b', they check to see if comparable results are caused or can be caused by another factor - as say, might have occurred in another experiment or (common in medicine)  the 'placebo effect' where patients are given a 'blank' pill while other patients are given the drug. If the improvement caused by the drug is not significantly better than the improvement caused by the 'blank' pill, it's not the drug that's causing the improvement. 

Analogous things happened around the PIRLS test which will have to be teased out. It's becoming clear that improvements in scores occurred with some other countries which used different methods of teaching reading from those used in England. They may well have incorporated some kind of phonics (hurrah for that, say I) but may well have not used SSP. 

So Nick Gibb has a problem there too. He'll have to explain (I'm sure he will) how Ireland, Northern Ireland and some other countries improved their PIRLS scores without doing exactly the same intervention that he is claiming 'caused' the improvement in English children's scores in the PIRLS test.

Or, indeed, how in a previous era, the National Literacy Strategy appeared to have caused an improvement in scores. 

5. I guess much of this will play out over the next few months with full statements from, say,  NATE, UKLA and others when they've had a chance to check the details. However, Nick Gibb jumped in, overruled an earlier statement from the DfE which warned against being too 'hasty' about saying that it was the introduction of SSPhonics which 'caused' the improved scores. 

6. As a PS: I would have hoped that the media could have 'got it' that moving up or down a table doesn't of itself show that performance improves! Arsenal finished 5th last season. If they finish 4th this season, they may have improved. They may not have improved. One cause for the change in place might be that Spurs play worse this season than last. 

As it happens on this occasion, the claim is being made that English children not only went up the table (ie in relation to others) but also that their scores improved in relation to themselves. 

I just hope, therefore, that PIRLS can confirm that this obeys another rule of scientific testing: they are comparing 'like with like'. That is,  you can't say something 'improves' unless you're comparing the same kind of test on the same kind of sample. Another detail it would be good to get confirmation on. 

7. A further observation - slightly tongue in cheek. In the period covered by this test, several writers have sold multi-millions of copies of books: Jacqueline Wilson, Julia Donaldson (with Axel Scheffler in particular), David Walliams, Anthony Horowitz, J.K. Rowling, Nick Sherratt and of course Roald Dahl with Quentin Blake. 

The sales and borrowings from libraries of these books in England have been staggering and readers must have included some (many?) in the lower percentile in the PIRLS test.  (note the sales and borrowings are staggering even if overall it can be claimed that 'reading for pleasure has declined') 

Given that the PIRLS test was a comprehension test, and given that comprehension is hugely aided by reading for pleasure, then I will make the claim that the reading of these books is also a contributory factor until such time can prove to me I'm wrong!