When critic Christopher Bantick took aim at 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. 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.
Bantick’s piece was provocatively titled “S-x with a child is not the stuff of the school curriculum”, and radio 3AW followed it up with its own rousing effort: “Book with P-edophilia, Incest & Suicide on VCE Reading List”.
The reduction of a complex, beautiful, intricate novel (by a Nobel prize-winning author no less) to a crude summary of its plot 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 p-edophilia reveals more about themselves than Márquez’s text.
Bantick suggests teenage boys will thumb through the book looking for smutty passages. Sorry, but no teenage boy has to resort to scanning through 400-odd pages of magical realism in order to m-sturbate.
Bantick’s outraged objection to Márquez’s work is on the basis the novel “explores an incestuous s-xual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a 14-year-old girl,” and, therefore, “promotes carnality, [and] excuses illegal under-age s-xual contact”. The problem, of course, is 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/P-rn/Blasphemy/Propaganda. Because of the s-xily illicit promise of the title, it is a notoriously popular subject. We look at banned or censored literature with texts such as Story of O, Picture of Dorian Gray, 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. 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 important questions. 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 are mindless sponges, uncritically absorbing everything they read and automatically reproducing it in their own lives. If teenagers really were such mindless receptacles enacting what they read, then every single boy in my year 12 literature class would’ve stolen an African American slave and set forth on a raft.