Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Not just for the ivory towers

English literature academics are very fond of studying Janet Frame, because they can find in her just about whatever they like really, and sometimes what they discover in her work is quite arcane. It used to surprise her! Frame scholars like to go on about how "difficult" her work is, except for her short stories, her autobiographies, her poetry, and more than half of her novels. But the rest, the rest, is very "difficult"! (Some of her novels do offer many different levels for the reader to engage at, as with any quality literary fiction. If you aren't up to reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Coetzee, Atwood, Woolf, then you probably will find Frame a bit challenging too.)

So there is a Frame industry in the ivory towers, and 'nice work if you can get it'! But the rest of us, ordinary readers, Frame fans, just love her work, either for its poetry, or its humanity, because it is just so beautifully written or because human life and the natural world is just so exquisitely observed. Some like it because Frame is so unafraid to tackle taboo subjects, and she is honest about subjects like death and grief and loneliness. Some appreciate the satire and the class analysis. There is certainly more to her than the riddles and puzzles that seem to obsess some of the scholars.

You don't need a degree, or to have studied Frame, to be able to read her. I think academics forget that. They get so bound up with seeing patterns, and overlaying templates onto her work, that they forget the actual writing. They don't see what each book is actually about, that as well as whatever else it might be in their opinion, it is chiefly art. Fortunately not everybody gets lost in the thin air at the tops of the mountains! In fact many Janet Frame stories and passages and poems are used in schools, and not just in the English language speaking world, Her work is read also in foreign countries, to give children and young people a taste of the very best of world literatures in English. A busy part of my job is handling permissions for educational texts. One such English text book just arrived on my desk this week as the result of a deal done with a foreign publisher. It's an English text book from Norway, called GATEWAYS. The book includes a chapter from Janet Frame's Commonwealth Literary Prize-winning novel The Carpathians. The passage contains an incisive social observation of an intercultural encounter, and an intergenerational one too, and the theme is concerned with the adoption of new technologies and the social change that comes with that. Other famous English language authors featured in the text book include: Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Arthur C. Clarke, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman... 

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