It is a popular assumption that literature students are good at writing because they have an interest in (other people’s) writing. But perhaps this statement makes you feel slightly anxious: you – or your teachers – may well have questioned your ability to write in a way that you have not questioned your ability to read. What is the defining quality of literature students then? Is it that they are good at reading books? Or that they are good at writing about books? I have said that this book is about the reciprocity of reading and writing. This chapter will consider the boundaries between reading and writing, how they were erected, and how we might dismantle them. In doing so it will consider the social value of literacy, explain something of its history and contemplate its future. It will consider the explorations of reading and writing, creativity and criticism that have taken place within literature itself. But first it will invite you to think about reading and writing in your own life.

If you take a moment to look back, you may find that a division between reading and writing was established in your early childhood. Reading is an activity that has traditionally been more visible at home. Perhaps a family member read you a bedtime story or encouraged you to look at picture books. You may remember parents reading a magazine or newspaper in their leisure time. Your strongest early memories of writing, meanwhile, may well be associated with school. In her survey, Literacy in American Lives (2001), Deborah Brandt found that parents often lacked the confidence to tutor their offspring in writing, although they might have assisted or initiated the process of learning to read. She found that the parents’ own writing was associated with employment, probably occurring outside the home, or with chores: writing shopping lists or paying bills. She found that where writing was nurtured at home, it was often connected to loss and sadness: for example, children wrote letters to a parent who was absent through separation, incarceration or war. In
summary, she found reading had connotations of warmth and community within the home, while writing was associated with secrecy (hidden diaries expressing angst or sadness) and even chastisement. From their handwriting to their verbal expression, people remembered their writing as receiving harsh judgement at school. It was sometimes even a source of displeasure at home: a surprising number of interviewees had been punished as infants for scrawling rude words on books and walls. Although Brandt’s survey was carried out relatively recently, it is possible that from this point forwards, the responses of her interviewees would be more positive, certainly different. The explosion of new technologies such as the World Wide Web and mobile phones has already changed approaches to writing, and that writing (typing?) has become more visible in leisure time. Sending text messages to friends on mobile phones,joining chat rooms and sending emails are ways in which relaxed and informal writing practices have been introduced into the home and to some extent employed by family members of all ages.

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