Barmier & barmier: our Kafkaesque approach to teaching storytelling to teens

Trawling through online teaching advice for the now-defunct A-level course in creative writing (with the intention of scavenging the best bits to help design my own fiction writing lessons) is a sad and salutary experience.

England’s last A-level creative writing students will re-sit their exams in the summer of 2019 and then that’s it. All over. 16-to-18 year olds who really want to write their own original stories now have to be satisfied with a short module in another course.

Meanwhile, 16-18 year olds who fluffed their first English language GCSE still have to write an original story as part of their re-sit regardless of how difficult they find it.

My heart goes out to both groups of young people.

During its brief years of existence, the exam board which offered the creative writing A-level, AQA, said this about it: “Creative writing is a distinct discipline in higher education. It encourages the development of skills that are essential for further study and a range of professional careers. This A-level enables aspiring writers to start on the path to professional practice and is equally useful for anyone interested in improving their creative and critical thinking and communication skills.”

Amen to that!

Thousands of teachers and students signed a petition to stop it being axed.

In the past few weeks I, too, have seen for myself how well-thought out the course was, and how different to English language and literature, despite the Department for Education insisting it overlapped both.

Back in my day, creative writing wasn’t an option at school or sixth-form. But then, nor were Netflix, YouTube, Snapchat, What’s App etc. Instead, by 16, I had devoured hundreds of books. The local public library had been my bolt-hole as a child – as for so many fellow writers. Then, collectively, friends and I discovered Middle Earth, and Tolkien became our escape, our go-to safe space when being a teen got too tough.

Today, with the Harry Potter generation grown up, I can’t find a contemporary book that is shared in that same, immerse way.

For films, there are the Marvel franchises. The Twilight series and The Hunger Games also still seem widely known among teens. But a novel? By a contemporary author? So far, when I’ve asked, all I’ve drawn are blanks.

Now, back at that defunct A-level, among the many excellent bits of advice I found in its study programme was a recommendation that students follow authors on Twitter, and discover through them the immense wealth of blogs about creative writing written by professional writers.

In recent weeks, any student who’d followed that advice might well have stumbled across a fascinating discussion initiated by journalist Charlotte Eyre, of The Bookseller, involving two top literary agents, Joanna Moult and the founder of the Skylark agency, Amber Caraveo, along with Waterstones, Piccadilly, and various published and pre-published writers. The subject: a 21.5% drop in Young Adult novel sales last year, and associated marketing issues surrounding younger teen books.

This exchange included one tweet from Waterstones complaining about the dearth of books for the early teen market (!?!). Amber, in reply, suggested that Waterstones could make these books more visible by having a dedicated space for teen readers, which (rather surprisingly, imho) drew a positive response from the Piccadilly branch.

This whole chicken-and-egg discussion (are there too few books written for early teens or not enough exposure to generate a viable market?) reminded me of a debate I heard years ago about motor bikes in the USA. (This is from memory so please take the details with a pinch of salt.) The USA had, apparently, banned imports of smaller Japanese bikes to protect sales of the bigger US models like their famous Harley Davidsons. The trouble was, younger riders couldn’t afford big Harleys, and without access to cheaper Japanese bikes, fewer people became bikers so demand for Harleys fell over time.

Something similar is, presumably, happening with young people’s fiction.

Parents and grandparents still buy middle-grade books for children, while primary schools also actively promote reading for pleasure to these age groups. But then keen readers, who want to make their own choices at 11-to-12 years old, can’t find books to suit them. By that age, too, secondary school is demanding more and more of their time, and the manifold digital lures of our age are increasingly tempting as well.

Little wonder, then, if many of them stop reading for pleasure entirely. Like the USA bikers who never bought a Harley, even when they were old and rich enough to afford one, so these once keen readers are lost to the book world. They aren’t around to discover YA fiction, except if it’s linked to a Hollywood film, profits for which seem to have peaked with Twilight and The Hunger Games, hence we haven’t seen a really big YA novel for years.

I know this isn’t a new or an original argument, not by a long way. But given the well-documented drop-off in reading among teens, plus recent evidence of weak YA sales, it does seem to me that trends in the publishing world have ramifications for young people’s education, and therefore their job prospects.

If, for example, decisions about the content of English language exams rest on outdated assumptions about teens’ reading habits, then GCSEs are in fact far harder than they might appear to adults who come from a reading-for-pleasure generation.

As adults, we might bemoan this lost art of reading; we might even be right to do so. But to demand that young people write 500-word stories under exam conditions (and condemn them to try again and again if they can’t) when we couldn’t dream of flying a drone via our smart phones, let alone how to make a YouTube video out of our drone footage, then rig our phones to relay that film to a PS4 while simultaneously playing music, smacks to me of a highly blinkered mind set.

This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure in February, 2019

Author: Rowena House

ROWENA HOUSE spent years as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and then again in Europe before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, a First World War coming-of-age quest called THE GOOSE ROAD, is published by Walker Books (2018). Her fascination with the Great War, the trenches, and the appalling artillery battles of the Somme and Verdun began at school when studying the war poets, Wilfred Owen in particular. As an adult, she experienced war first-hand as a Reuter’s reporter in Ethiopia, and saw its terrible impact on civilians. Now settled in the English countryside with her husband and son, she holds a Master’s degree in rural economics and another in creative writing, and mentors fiction writers alongside her journalism and storytelling.

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