I am indignant. I am fuming. I had a blog post scheduled for this morning, but it has been obscured by the deep red anger that is clouding my vision.
Are any of you, my lovely readers, speakers of English as a second language? Because if you are, you’ll no doubt agree than the opening paragraph above is fairly inaccessible. Until you’re truly fluent – and even after you have become so – the nuances of English can be hard to grasp.
This fact seems to have slipped, unnoticed, past Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, as he lambastes our Macmillan Graded Reader rewrite of The Great Gatsby.
Let us put aside the fact that, as an experienced journalist, Ebert should first and foremost have done enough research to realise that the Macmillan Graded Readers are not for native-English-speaking American or English students. Let us chalk that down to the eternal tendency journalists seem to have to ignore the full facts of any situation if they might obstruct a good story. (But may I suggest, with his talent for stirring up the angry mob via half-truths, Ebert might consider writing for The Daily Mail?)
You all know how I feel about reading. You all know how I feel about the abysmal state of grammar and punctuation as applied by otherwise intelligent adults across the UK. You all know how much I love books, how much I loved working at the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, at Waterstone’s as a Children’s and YA specialising bookseller, as a volunteer at a local school in Leamington listening to young readers who struggled with their words. I am passionate about reading. Much of my life is spent in discussing books, and much of my income on buying them. I am that Aunt – the one who eschews toys and games in favour of books every birthday and Christmas.
And yes, I do judge people by what they read. I did used to clock the women who came into Waterstones to purchase Katie Price’s “novels”. I would steer Dan Brown aficionados away from the ill-written popularist fiction under B and towards Foucault’s Pendulum by Eco instead. And I would laughingly tell the 30-something woman buying Twilight that no, she wasn’t alone, yes, I too had stayed up into the small hours hooked on the saga, and yes, I did judge both her and myself for it. (I still maintain that Meyer’s novels are absolutely appalling – but there is no denying their addiction factor!)
But sometimes judgement is not an option. Sometimes we have to accept that sharing the canon is about the culture more than the literature. Sometimes we need to hook people in to the story in order to allow them access to the words.
No-one would deny the link between booksales and television or film adaptations. After Channel 4’s Pillars of the Earth last autumn, we sold Ken Follet’s masterpiece by the crateload. Following last winter’s BBC adaption of Small Island, we received and sold more Andrea Levy books than our pyramids could hold. And don’t make me return to the Twilight saga, and the effect Robert Pattinson has had on Dark Fiction across the YA genre.
Yet no-one slates movies for oversimplifying the story. No-one identifies that film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings fail to include the songs and poetry for which Tolkein’s novels are often discussed. It is accepted that films are about telling great tales – and about converting some small percentage of the audience into readers, who’ll go out and either devour the original classic with joy and delight, or persevere with the language of the original because they already know it’s worth it.
The Macmillan Readers are about the story. They’re about allowing an audience with a limited vocabulary – and a limited understanding of the huge complexities the native-speaker can apply to English sentence structure – access to an important aspect of our culture. They’re about opening doors to conversation with natives on intellectual topics. And, as one commenter explains, they’re about encouraging learners to persevere with their studies:
I teach English as a foreign language in Japan , mostly to adults. I give my students these type of novels by MacMillan and other publishers.
Why? Because most of them will never achieve the level of English ability to read the original, but mainly, for the hope that one or two may be motivated to work hard enough and long enough to read the original.
The skill that goes into condensing a classic into an enormously limiting vocabulary of only 1,600 words (there are recognised to be over 1.2 million words in the English language and 8,500 new words added every year. The average person has an active vocabulary set of approx 50,000 words, a college graduate of about 75,000. This 911 word blog post alone employs 471 unique words.) is beyond extraordinary. I urge anyone who doubts that fact to try converting just one chapter of a canon classic into the Intermediate level 1,600 vocabulary set – Fitzgerald, Conrad, Hemingway – their language range is frankly humongous.
Our Readers are not designed to dumb down America students. They are not designed for American students AT ALL. They are no comment upon, nor indication of, the state of the education system in any native-English speaking country. They are designed to provide ESL learners with a gateway to English’s great, varied and internationally recognised abundance of classic literature.
Should we be criticised for such a thing?