When Christopher Bantick’s opinion piece appeared in The Age on Thursday, criticising the inclusion of Gabriel García Márquez’s classic Love in the Time of Cholera on the VCE syllabus, it was easy enough to laugh off as the opinion of a senior Literature teacher demonstrating why they should perhaps retire.
The article garnered much attention, and I had initially thought it was harmless (though admittedly depressing) clickbait, disappearing as quickly as it had reared its ugly head in the pages of my newspaper. Passages such as this:
Any teacher abrogating their duty of care and who is misguided enough to teach the book will face this question from a student: ‘What is your view on sex with a child?’ If they say it is unacceptable, then a student can surely ask, ‘Why is the book on the course?’ There is no defence.
But with the news on Friday that the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority has decided to review its decision to include the novel on the curriculum, the issue becomes more serious, and I find myself wanting to respond.
Bantick’s piece was provocatively titled ‘Sex with a child is not the stuff of the school curriculum,’ and 3AW followed it up with their own rousing effort: ‘Book with Paedophilia, Incest & Suicide on VCE Reading List’ — both titles as ludicrously reductive as that old mock-summary of The Wizard of Oz:
A young girl travels to a psychedelic landscape where she kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.
The reduction of a complex, beautiful, intricate novel (by a Nobel prize winning author no less) to a crude summary of its plot is not worth arguing over. It devalues the power of a text that is fundamentally about, amongst many other things, the forms of love, desire and devotion. The motives of its older male protagonist are as tangled, inescapable and unsettling as that of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert – and like Nabokov’s classic novel, anyone coming away from Love in the Time of Cholera with a belief that it is little more than descriptions of paedophilia reveals more about themselves than Márquez’s text.
Bantick suggests that teenage boys will thumb through the book looking for smutty passages: “the novel is likely to be a bit of a perve for pimply faced adolescent boys to show their mates what the dirty old man gets up to with a year-9 student.” Sorry Bantick, but no teenage boy has to resort to scanning through 400-odd pages of magical realism in order to masturbate. There are torrents of pornography far more effective and freely available. Youporn is a thing now.
But I wanted to examine the wider issues and allegations raised in Bantick’s piece.
Bantick’s outraged objection to Márquez’s work is on the basis that the novel “explores an incestuous sexual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a 14-year-old girl,” and, therefore, “promotes carnality, [and] excuses illegal under-age sexual contact.” The problem, of course, is that Bantick is conflating representation with advocacy. Simply because a text represents a wrong – and I feel as though I’m in Literature 101 here – doesn’t mean it advocates it. Surely this is something even primary school students learn to differentiate between.
To rule out those texts that include transgressive acts would be to eliminate almost the entire history of classic fiction. Literature has always been provocative, always teetering on the edge of acceptability. Some of the greatest literary works have been banned, or brought their authors to trial. The reason they endure is precisely because they challenge acceptable standards. Like all great art, they are a way of imaginatively exploring the limits of experience. To deny high school students the opportunity to examine these texts is to fundamentally misunderstand the point of literary studies. It would leave nothing but the most anaemic of books, and obliterate everything from Shakespeare to Capote and beyond.
In my time as a postgrad I’ve tutored a Melbourne University subject Art/Porn/Blasphemy/Propaganda. Because of the sexily illicit promise of the title it is a notoriously popular subject, always gaining some of the highest enrolments in the School. We look at banned or censored literature with texts such as Story of O, Picture of Dorian Grey, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, American Psycho, The Satanic Verses and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yes, they are older, tertiary students, but they are still made to analyse often highly confronting material. In each class, I’m always astounded by the level of maturity and insight students bring to these texts. I can offer Bantick my reassurances that my students understood I was not suggesting they go on a Manhattan killing spree or have affairs with their gardener.
What these novels allowed us to explore were questions such as: Should we set limits for fictional characters? Should they be subject to the moral standards of real life? Do novels need to be moral in order to be valuable? Should a work be censored simply because of the uses to which it might be put?
Perhaps the most offensive aspect of Bantick’s piece, however, is his utterly condescending assumption that students uncritically absorb everything they read and automatically reproduce it in their own lives:
And for girls, it sends a perhaps more damaging message still. This is that it is OK to lose your virginity at 14 to an older and experienced man who will make you feel a woman. Oh, your grades will suffer along the way and you’ll probably kill yourself when he dumps you.
If teenagers really were such mindless receptacles enacting fiction, then every single boy in my year 12 literature class would’ve stolen an African American slave and set forth on a raft.
My argument against the removal of Love in the Time of Cholera from the VCE syllabus, and claim that it will not have a negative affect on year 12 students is not to suggest that the novel itself – and literature more generally – has no power over its readers. It is precisely because it is potent, that we do become intertwined in the lives of its characters, analysing their motives and actions, that it shouldn’t be banned.
Bantick concludes by arguing that the book is offensive because “it says repeatedly that screwing – yes, it’s an ugly word – a child is for art’s sake, well excusable [sic]. Is it? You decide.” I can’t help but feel that it is Bantick’s words – especially in his position as a ‘senior literature teacher’ – that are ultimately more offensive and ugly than those of Márquez.