Learning from Literature


Herman Hesse once wrote that the third dimension of history is fiction. And it is history which we are told to turn to when we are in need of sage advice, mistake-preventing insight and some wisdom from those who have gone before us. Would it matter if these were fictional stories? Does it matter that despite best efforts to strip something back to facts, there will always remain a small touch of embellishment? No, it doesn’t, which explains my fascination with literature – fiction, stories, make-believe, embellished histories – because they provide much from which I have learned; they provide, in the case of good literature, insight just as profound as if it were to have really happened.

Novel studies are profoundly hated by students because they seem pointless, so frankly why should they bother? They aren’t done for no reason, as education isn’t just some fun lark to keep kids of the streets. There is a depth of meaning, a purpose. The fact is, you learn from books. I have learned from books, you have probably learned from books – but only from good books. Bad books are like bad teachers: often exciting, often fun, but totally hopeless when it comes to imparting knowledge; you might remember them but not because of what you have learned.

In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell speaks of his deep, inexplicable motives for writing but makes it clear that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” Orwell adds that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some horrible illness.” Orwell hypothesises that the only reason such a thing would ever be undertaken is because a writer is driven by some unexplained demon. I think that the only reason anyone would ever embark on a book is because sub-consciously they have got something to lay out, in the hope others may learn.

It is readily apparent when a book does have something to offer and something from which the reader can learn. There are books written for different levels of learning, too; this is why children are enthralled by children’s books, but older readers returning to them find them full of obvious outcomes. While I have drifted away from young adult fiction, it is interesting to see my friends remain totally enthralled by it. Adult books still have an air of the foreign about them, in their eyes. But it is to adult books I turn when I’m looking for something edgier, more engaging – and, ultimately, more educational. This is not to say that I find young adult fiction to be bad; indeed, there is some high-calibre story-telling going on, but I find myself wanting more where my peers didn’t.

There is the right book for the right time. One of my teachers once told me to read Lord of the Flies by William Golding, but then stopped himself and said that I should wait a year before I did. Dutifully, I waited a year and then read it. He was right. If I had read it a year earlier I wouldn’t have understood half of what was going on. There was a lot that occurred in that year that I saw reflected in the novel, and there was, therefore, more I learned from it. One shouldn’t rush reading. There is time to get around to it, to build up to it, otherwise it becomes merely words – which good, educational literature is not.


I have read a number of books which I have learned much form. Among them:

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell;
  • The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse;
  • Eucalyptus by Murray Bail;
  • The Plains by Gerald Murnane;
  • My Brother Jack by George Johnston;
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham;
  • Accident by Nicholas Mosley; and
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Of course, there have been others, but these are the examples that stick in my mind.

They are all novels interestingly, even though some are quite experimental.They are all very different – the subject matter varies wildly. There are also three Australian writers – Bail, Johnston and Murnane – which perhaps reflects my Australian heritage; and perhaps these authors would not have as profound an impact of readers overseas.

From these books I have learned about manipulation, beauty, love, absurdity, fortune, misfortune, desire, tragedy and blasphemy. There is so much encompassed in these books that I would offer the list above as a reading list – a difficult one, but one worth embarking on. (After all, there is always the urge to share books which have had an impact on you, hoping that the experience can be replicated and shared – producing a common bond.)

But what have I learned about writing? The styles of the books are wildly different. Some are punchier than others. The Glass Bead Game is much slower than Accident, but you could tell this from just looking at the books: The Glass Bead Game is nearly four centimetres thick, Accident is just one. These books, though, are the lengths they need to be: they are comfortable in their clothes, they’re well-tailored. This is the common thread. All of the books which have ever had an impact on me are well-tailored: they are all the right length. W. Somerset Maugham said that there were three rules for writing a novel; nobody knows what they are. Indeed, it would be difficult to define what the right length for a novel is, because it seems to be more like a feel you have to have. This is a significant lesson I have learned about writing: make sure it sits well in its form.

All of the books I’ve listed show that writing must be comfortable in its own form. This is the secret, I think, to good writing: it must be comfortable telling the story it’s telling.


When it boils down to it there is no way to tell if something really did occur before you were born. There are accounts of course, but it could be a pack of concerted lies. The German word for history is the same as the word for story. Where lies the difference? Fact morphing into fiction morphing back into fact. Fiction happens in the mind – just as history has to be conjured – and if you can enter it fully, there is much to learn, as I have always found. But only if the reader is willing.

This blog post is a part of the Teens Can Write Too December 2014 blog chain. The (thankfully open-ended) prompt was, “What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?” The other participants in the chain were:





















25th – [No posts today!]





30thhttp://maralaurey.wordpress.com/ and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/


O! Silly Shopping Season!

It is the second last shopping day before Christmas; the day before Christmas Eve. In a cheap shop which people are walking out of with piles of cheap wrapping paper and novelty, Santa-adorned boxes, a young boy is visibly upset. His mother, burdened with department stores bags and a haggard face, is sheparding him through cramped aisles.

“You’re not getting it,” she yells at him, as they boy walks around and stamps on the spot, not able to express his immense frustration at this joyous time of the year.

“You’ve got enough stuff already. You don’t need anything new.”

In the mall at large, the escalators transport a constant line of consumers. Sunglasses perched on the tops of heads, hands holding bags, they crane their necks, looking at shops they’re being mechanically moved past. Have I remembered all the presents? Would I find something for Richard down there?

On the floor it is a matter of the quick and the dead. The quick are in and out, weaving around, ducking past the slow; they are narrowly missing gaps between poles and trolleys. They smile as they move with their head: they feel ever so efficient, pleased with themselves.

In front of me in a line for an ATM that snakes along, two young women – 18? 19? 20? – are discussing their upcoming party. “Last time I was at your house,” one was saying, “I don’t think we bothered with shot glasses. We were just drinking straight from the bottle!”

“You know why that is? Because I don’t have any shot glasses.”

“Well, we’d better get some, hadn’t we?”

They both look at each other, laughing.

In the newsagent’s, they are wearing elf hats. Excited regulars come in brandishing lotto tickets, their expressions giving away their secret hope of a life-changing Christmas windfall. Behind the counter they are sick of it and just want to get to the end of their shift.

Looking at frying pans, two middle aged women are pondering presents. “What about this for Brenda?” They puzzle over the handle, the non-stick surface and finally the price tag.

“We’ll find something better somewhere else.”

In the car park, tinny, worn-out speakers are belting out jazzified versions of Christmas classics. If the desired effect is to impart Christmas cheer, it isn’t working. Profanities greet the ears of unsuspecting young children like lumps of coal thrown down the chimney.

One family, lead by a frustrated mother, has found a spot and is heading in to see Santa. The youngest, a girl, is excited. The eldest, a boy, couldn’t give a rats.

“He isn’t even the real Santa,” the older brother is saying.

“Shut up. Don’t ruin Christmas,” the mother tells him.

Back inside, Santa is looking hot and tired behind his beard. His eyes are working to remain open for outrageous gift requests – a pony anyone? – and for countless photos. Each flash half blinds him, his eyes stuck open.

Perhaps Santa is frustrated, stuck here in a spending palace, as the big day is only two sleeps away.


The Story-teller Under The Choir

A Story For Christmas

The cold, dark night is singing. Some fifty miles south-west of Tehran an almost forgotten old man sits on his steps in an almost forgotten town; he is sitting under the choir. Every year he sits there. Each year he tells the story.

“Many, may years ago,” he begins with a deep, gravelly voice, “a star appeared in the sky. Three Magi set out to honour the king who had been born under that star. The three Magi – Jaspar, Melchior and Balthasar – became the worshippers of Fire.

“They took three gifts on their journey to find the king. If he takes Gold, they said, he is an earthly king; if he takes Incense he is of God; if he takes of the Myrrh he is a healer.

“The three Magi journeyed for days, each night stopping to see the new born king’s star rise, ensuring they were still following it. It came to pass that they arrived where the Child was born. The spriteliest and youngest of the Magi went in first to see the Child. He found the Child of his own age. He marvelled. The Middle Magi followed and did the same. The eldest Magi went in last, pensively. He marvelled, also. The three gathered outside and agreed to go in together. Doing so, they found the Child of his own age – thirteen days old.

“The Magi adored the child and presented to him their gifts, watching to see which he would take.

“The child accepted all of their gifts.”

The story-teller sits back and looks to the music.

“The child’s mother gave the Magi a small box and they headed towards their own land. As they journeyed home, the star that had guided them sank and faded.

“When the Magi were close to their own land, they opened the box and found in it a small, grey pebble. They were disappointed.

“The youngest Magi picked up the pebble between the tips of his fingers and threw it behind him without looking. The other Magi didn’t stop him – they too believed it was useless.

“But the pebble landed in a puddle left by almost forgotten rain. The Three Magi, still walking towards home, felt a flash behind them. They turned to see the puddle had been consumed by light – the pebble had turned to fire.

“The Magi took the fire with them and it burns, still, to this day, not far from here.”

The story tellers feels exhausted. The story his father and told him and his father’s father had told his father had been spoken. Once every year, as it always had.

“That’s impossible!” one of the bright, young ones in the audience says, rolling his eyes and looking to his friends for support.

“It isn’t,” the story-teller says.

He stands up slowly on his step, pulls a matchbox from his coat pocket, extracts a small, grey pebble and throws it with his wrist across, over the heads of his audience into the town’s crumbling, stone well.

Enveloped in music, there is fire.


A return the story of the Three Kings with a different, broader focus, based on a tale Marco Polo brought back from his travels. It was written for, and spoken at, a Christmas Festival in Canberra on 11 December 2014.