What should children read?

…English teachers across the country…begin to implement the Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12.

The standards won’t take effect until 2014, but many public school systems have begun adjusting their curriculums to satisfy the new mandates. Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction…

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

This and similar comments have prompted the education researcher Diane Ravitch to ask, “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” and to question whether he’s trying to eliminate English literature from the classroom. “I can’t imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories,” she writes.

Sandra Stotsky, a primary author of Massachusetts’ state standards (which are credited with helping to maintain that state’s top test scores) challenges the assumption that nonfiction requires more rigor than a literary novel…

A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature. Even Mr. Coleman erects his case on largely dispiriting, utilitarian grounds: nonfiction may help you win the corner office but won’t necessarily nourish the soul.

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing…

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways…

Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond. David Coleman may dismiss self-expression. Yet he recommends authors, like the surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande, who frequently rely on personal storytelling in their reporting.

Think about this, RTFA for more detail. I can’t easily come down on the side of the author because my own experience was exactly the opposite. My parents taught me to read before I entered kindergarten and virtually everything I read was fiction, fiction of every imaginable kind.

My parents subscribed to two monthly book clubs. And the centerpoint of Saturday was the 4-mile roundtrip my mom walked with my sister and me to and from the nearest neighborhood Carnegie library. A building I worship to this day. About the only non-fiction I read was autobiographies – a suspect category if there ever was one.

Tom Wolfe shortlisted – again – for Bad Sex in Fiction award

Novelist Tom Wolfe is among the list of nominees for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award 2012, having won the dubious accolade eight years ago…

The tongue-in-cheek award is designed to discourage badly-written sex scenes in modern novels…

The full shortlist is: The Yips by Nicola Barker, The Adventuress by Nicholas Coleridge, Infrared by Nancy Huston, Rare Earth by Paul Mason, Noughties by Ben Masters, The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills, The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe…

An excerpt from Wolfe’s nominated Back to Blood reads: “Magdalena woke up in a hypnopompic state. Something was stroking her. It caused no alarm, however, just a semiconscious bewilderment amidst her struggle to turn her lights on.”

Barker’s Man Booker-longlisted novel The Yips contains the passage: “She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard…

In a reference to EL James’s best-selling Fifty Shades erotic novels, The Literary Review said this year’s shortlist came “in a year in which the country’s obsession with mummy porn, red rooms of pain and Christian Grey has reached fever pitch”…

The purpose of the prize “is to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

The prize excludes pornographic or expressly erotic writing. There would be an abundance of gold-plated riches if it didn’t.

Generally, the prize-winners take the award in the humor intended. Though most – in my experience – resent criticism of any portion of their writing – considering it all to be handcrafted and eternal.

Award exposes this year’s best authors of the worst sex

Alastair Campbell’s depiction of a gauche sexual encounter in his debut novel All in the Mind has won him a place on the shortlist for the literary world’s most dreaded honour: the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.

Campbell would join luminaries including Tom Wolfe, AA Gill, Sebastian Faulks and Melvyn Bragg if he wins the award – a plaster foot – on November 25 at London’s aptly named In and Out club. Run by the Literary Review, the bad sex awards were set up by Auberon Waugh “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”.

The former spin doctor may take heart from the implication that his debut is an “otherwise sound literary novel”. Campbell of course has some earlier practice in depicting sex, having written pornography for Forum magazine under the pseudonym the Riviera Gigolo early in his career, but a passage set on a bench has catapulted Campbell onto the list: “He wasn’t sure where his penis was in relation to where he wanted it to be, but when her hand curled around it once more, and she pulled him towards her, it felt right,” Campbell writes. “Then as her hand joined the other on his neck and she started making more purring noises, now with little squeals punctuating them, he was pretty sure he was losing his virginity.”

But Campbell’s prose is considerably less purple than some of the other contenders for this year’s prize, including new age novelist Paulo Coelho for his novel Brida, in which the act of sex – on a public footpath – is described as “the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation”.

Fun reading. Including, perhaps, the works referenced, eh?