The Politics of Reading, Writing, and Form: Ken Worpole interviews Raymond Williams (1979)

Originally published in The English Magazine in the spring of 1979 and titled ‘Making it Active’, we are delighted to be able to make available this difficult to find interview with Raymond Williams, thanks to the generosity of interviewer Ken Worpole. It’s the first of four interviews to be published as monthly blogs as the society concludes the centenary celebrations ahead of Williams’s birthday in August.

Ken Worpole: First of all, I’d like to ask you about the relationship between theoretical developments in literary criticism and study and the way this seeps down into English practice in schools. Leavis’s militant advocacy of literature profoundly influenced at least one generation of English teachers. Is there not a vacuum?

Raymond Williams: Well there’s not the same kind of confidence, but this is a positive development rather than negative really, although at first it may seem like making things harder. The great advantage of the very early Leavis influence on education was that it was a mixed influence. On the one hand it presented this, as I think, very simplified view of literature as carrying a body of values, which would humanise and refine and so on. The great difficulty of that was that with the literature came the values, which had some notion of a rather specifically English perception of what it was to be a human being. But on the other hand it also urged the mobilisation of that kind of attention to language against forces which were quite evidently affecting it, like the language of the commercial press and the language of advertising. When I first encountered Scrutiny and Leavis these two things were so mixed up together; the values of literature which would be presented as humane and English and the values of these contrary institutions which we were resisting in different ways. It was a more accessible kind of resistance than simply saying it was the capitalist press, because you could do something with the newspapers themselves and show what sort of distortions of experience and what confusion of thought and feeling were actually happening and so you could go beyond it.

Now I think that the two things were linked together but that they really didn’t belong together. You can’t just counterpose literature to what is going on in the present like advertising, because if you do you get to the stage where you’re simply counterposing the literature of the past against all the writing of the present. You’ve got no notion of what active communication would be in your own time, either in literature, or, which is just as important, in all the things that really do need to be written about and that are very much in the hard contemporary world of people writing their ideas, arguments and experiences. And in its late – and I think in educational terms very reactionary-phase – the Leavis influence is saying to people: “here is the great literature of the past. This will not just give you an idea of what these works are but it will armour you against the present”. And this was a fatal thing to be armoured against. The present had to be there, either at the level of people wanting to do their own writing or at another very important level of really working out what good uses of language were in our own world. That late Leavis position had nothing left to offer and what it survived as was this notion that if you had learned values from the great literature of the past you could, as it were, be above the battle.

To read that older literature you have to put it back into the conditions of its production which means reading a lot of the other kinds of writing going on at the time. In any case when you’ve read the George Eliot or the Conrad novel or whatever it may be, if you’re an active person in your own time you want to be something more than just a reader of those novels and with that it didn’t give much help; it became a very consumerist attitude in the end, that you just got these values by reading these texts that were there.

KW: What would your approach to literature – the things you’ve been working on for these past twenty years – imply for English teaching practice in schools? For instance, how do you think we bring young people to literature, how do we work with books in the classroom?

RW: I think that the most important thing is always to be able to relay literature as active. I think this implies the way the texts are selected, although I don’t think there should ever be any sense of the soft option on this, because people can be very open to a whole range of literature and it shouldn’t be just what will immediately connect. But whether it connects immediately or not as a work, the main thing is to see it as active. I remember when I was doing adult classes in literature. You got adults with a quite unspecialised interest in literature and no exams to pass; there weren’t the pressures you have in a school situation. You always had to find ways in which it could be realised that this thing had at some point come out of nothing or everything, whichever way you cared to put it. It hadn’t just, so to say, occurred as a text which was finished. I found that I immediately got more response and involvement when I offered people drafts, for instance. They worked for a long time with the Blake drafts and we simply went through various drafts from the notebooks of certain well-known poems instead of taking the finished poem and then explicating it or criticising it or whatever. The drafts showed how it had been built up – the different possibilities that were there, when it was after all a man with a pen and a piece of paper and it had been built.

Now you can go on from that to certain drafts in other cases. I don’t just mean the technique of working with drafts, but the whole idea of showing that this was a work in the making, which then can be read in the same active sense as a kind of project, as it was for the writer. I think that this gets over the biggest difficulty which is taking these things as if they were exhibits in museums which simply had to be explained and understood. There is still a lot of that work of explaining and understanding to do but I think that you don’t read literature in the same way again, once you’ve got this notion of the conditions of its production and that it was something that was produced. And this connects much more easily with people seeing writing as an activity which they can then relate to their own activity. Unfortunately the examination system often directs people precisely towards taking these things as finished and simply responding to them in certain fixed external ways.

KW: Do you find the A-level English syllabus and approach in any way adequate to what you feel to be the purposes of a university course in English?

RW: The biggest problem, and this exploded among students in the ‘60s, was that to a really rather terrifying extent people could produce responses to and descriptions of works of literature with great fluency which had almost nothing to do with them. The more highly trained they were the more often this was so, and there was a long moment when one suspected that there was quite a difference between what they could all write in the examination room and what actually went on in their minds when they were reading a book or talking among themselves about it. And then at a certain point in that characteristic mood of the ‘60s, which was a very mixed mood, people started admitting this. After all, if you go back in the history of Cambridge English, this moment had been reached before, for instance when Richards simply gave undergraduates who could all do that sort of thing, a different kind of test. If he’d asked them to write an essay on Donne or some magazine poet, they would have written the right kind of essay on Donne and the right kind of essay on the magazine poet. He gave them the poems on which presumably these judgements have been based without the cues of the author’s names, and of course what happened was that not only was there a certain helplessness, but their judgements were often the reverse; they actually preferred the magazine poem to the Donne poem.

Now, that’s very disorientating, and it can give you a sense of “my God English studies have become difficult”, but it wasn’t that they’d been easy before, it was only that people had learnt what you can learn easily if you’re a clever kid, what you’re supposed to think about the works, the mound of information which was hopefully accurate. Well, this moment came again in the ‘60s and some people were upset about it but to me it seemed like the condition for getting back to the real work which is, after all, trying to work through from what are often very confused or inadequate first responses to something that is a bit more defensible. At the same time, the other thing that I found was that because of the development of certain techniques of teaching English, people did assume that there was the work and then there was them responding to it and you got this very weak kind of practical criticism in which the works of the past were, so to say, brought before you and you had a critical response to them. I think this in the end produced a very trivial state of mind because it just meant people saying, I think this poem is a success or I think this poem is a failure, without involving themselves in questions of what any kind of success or failure would be. And this was very unhappy and I think once people starting admitting it, we started getting back to more real situations, but it gave the impression that a period of good, steady education had ended and that all you were left with was difficulty and confusion. Now I think that a period of a certain mutual self-deception had ended and people were facing the actual difficulties again. I find, certainly, with students from that time on, that they’re not confident in those old ways, and they’re continually worried about the distance between what they think an English course is going to be and what on the surface it presents itself as. They’re worried about the distance. The questions that come out of that sense of a distance, once they’re admitted, are very difficult to resolve, but at least that’s the educational process.

I had a brief period of serving as the university representative on the Cambridge Examinations Board, and of course you’re quite helpless because although these things are done in the name of the university, you are just a temporary representative on what is a very professional board which is actually rather superb at ways of running examinations. But I remember a particular row about East Africa, which came under the Cambridge Board, where the teachers there had proposed a course which would have as one of its papers some current East African writers of whom there are a great many good ones, in English after all. The question that was put by the examiners and teachers’ representatives was: “how can we examine these when we haven’t read them?” Well first, there’s a simple answer to that; they are published and they can be read. But second there’s a problem about judgement which immediately came into focus. In the end that battle was won and they got their syllabus, but it was indicative to me of the way in which the examination board, having set up a very good professional system, knowing the questions to ask and knowing how to mark the answers in an equitable way, when something as inconvenient as a literature turns up somewhere, that doesn’t happen to fit the system and the prescribed modes, had a great tendency to say, “well never mind that, the system is more important”. Well now, in English teaching it never can be more important.

KW: Children’s writing has usually been seen in much the same way as some people see children’s painting, that it’s naive dreaming in a separate world, a small world. Because the children don’t fully appreciate the mature forms of writing, their writing can only ever be ephemeral. Do you think it might be possible that young people’s writing is something more than that?

RW: Well, there’s this very strange fact that what is done in some of that writing is very interesting to someone who takes an active view of literature and writing, I mean you see the imitations, but the younger the children, the less is the pressure of the conventional forms. I’ve noticed that you see very active writing, which is real writing and not just children’s writing. But of course this is very difficult to sustain, and hence characteristically the short pieces. In the longer things the other received forms push in. But no-one must ever look on it as an odd childish thing because it is still a very curious phenomenon that more people write well, I would have thought, before 16 than after. Few people go on and really go on working at writing and do things which children couldn’t. There’s a much wider spread of writing activity among children than before, and what happens in that transition? The answers to that are very complicated, I think. Of course, it is also true that much more writing goes on among adults than would appear from conventional publishing. As an adult tutor I never went more than a few weeks without somebody bringing poems, novels, plays, autobiographies, the whole range. In terms of achieved quality they were very varied. But I have read autobiographies brought to me by people in adult classes whose lives were interesting because they had been what is called ordinary. Now if you compare those with the autobiographies that do get published, which are typically of people who have had some worldly success which encourages the publisher to think people want to read them, the difference isn’t in the quality of autobiography, the writing, neither as a matter of fact is the difference in interest. Few things could be more boring than the average ghosted biography of a sportsman or the politician’s memoir. I have read accounts of what it’s like to live the sort of life dismissed as ordinary, which are fascinating, and really much more to the point for readers than these other things which get published in droves every year.

KW: Can I ask you why it’s important for you to write fiction as well as critical theory?

RW: Well, I’ve always written more fiction than anything else but I’ve always been very unwilling to let it move into the kind of fiction that was there waiting for me, so to say. My first novel, Border Country, I wrote seven times and this was because the first three or four times it came out like several books I’d already read, although much of the detail was different. It was a case of finding a form which was a different one, which seemed to me to answer to it. I’ve published four novels, but three of those were written and re-written over long periods because I wanted them to be what I wanted. In two or three cases it took a long time to discover this and so I think there are certain things that I wanted to write which could only be written in novels. However, it happened that the other kind of book got more widely read earlier so people tried to relate the novels to them – although really they’ve always stood on the same level in my mind and they interact with each other and there are things in the novels which I couldn’t have written any other way. Fortunately I’ve been able to take my time over them and not feel I’ve got to put it out until I feel reasonably satisfied with it.

KW: What are the certain things that you could only write in fiction?

RW: Somebody pointed out to me in one of the novels that the one word which comes up every few pages is ‘settlement’, ‘settlement’, ‘settlement’. I hadn’t noticed this but I knew that the novel was about that so it didn’t surprise me. Now after all, I’ve written about that sort of thing in a general way and I think that’s quite useful. There is a great problem about the mobility of contemporary society, and this mobility has all sorts of mixed elements. It’s a great thing that people are able to move and look for the right place and the right activity and there are so many more opportunities. I’ve benefited from these and I don’t underestimate them. On the other hand there is an undoubted feeling within that mobility of the lack of mobility, of the lack of ‘settlement’ in a very broad sense of being sure of yourself, of some significant relation of a community society, whatever it’s called, to your values. And the way these two things interact, you can write about generally, but some of the cases are going to be much sharper when they’re taken in some actual place, some actual life. The way you can write about that in a novel is quite different from the way you can write about it more generally. I don’t see why one shouldn’t have both; I think all these forms need to be used.

KW: It wasn’t that you felt impelled by your own literary theory to write?

RW: No. It’s bound to look like that if you look at the dates of publication but the truth is, such literary and cultural theory as I have, I learned from my own writing, and of course from study. But all the argument I’ve made about literary forms and how literary forms relate to the conditions of production, I learned from my own experience of writing which I then took across into the problems of other writers and tried to see what had been so there. I learned the theory more from that, because I don’t think it would have been a problem in the same way if I hadn’t hit something really so difficult. For example, I was trying to write over a period of about twelve or thirteen years what seemed like, what even now may read like, a simple story in that novel Border Country, about a son who’s passed through education, who is still relating to his father in the working class and is doing this at the point of the father’s death. I kept finding that coming out as either the story of the adolescent breaking away from his father – which had been written, and the form was there, and a lot of the experience flows towards that form – or I found it coming out as the more general thing, of which I’ve read some good examples post-war, of somebody as it were breaking away, and in flight, from the working class. You know, there’s the old home and there’s this new life which replaces it. And I kept having to work it until I could find the form in which really the father’s life was there in an independent autonomous way. After all, working-class life doesn’t alter just because some son of it has gone out into the world and got an education. It may change in its internal conditions, as society changes, but I had to find a form where the father’s life was there absolutely in its own terms, and equally the son’s life was there in its own terms. So eventually after all these re-writings I got a form which seemed to me to put those two things in tension with one another. At first I thought, “I just can’t write this”, but the problem was not not writing it but the form which was already there which carried another meaning, and which was the one into which all the writing followed; I learned more about the theory of literary form from struggling with that than from just studying academic accounts of literary form.

KW: How does that then relate directly to classroom practice? The children must write in order to be able to understand the forms?

RW: Well, I’m sure this is true. In the end the questions are very difficult because sometimes you find that a form is there and that learning to write is learning to write that form. And you know a good many forms continue and they’re still available, but in any case the practice has got to happen. If you feel dissatisfied with the practice when you’ve done it, it takes a long time to establish that it’s maybe a problem of the form. It’s very important at that moment that in a teaching situation there shouldn’t be any pressure from the mistaken conviction that all the literary forms are already known and that therefore anything that is going to be a successful piece of writing has got to correspond to one of those forms. This isn’t ever how writing has worked.

KW: What do you think of contemporary literature? Who do you think is producing important writing?

RW: It’s very interesting that there have been so many problems about the novel and a good many writers have turned to smaller forms like television, drama, radical theatre and so on, which I think is much of the best work, but on a small scale. I think that science fiction is producing a lot of the liveliest contemporary writing as well as an enormous amount of rubbish – there is probably a majority of science fiction which is sea stories written in spaceships or the history of the Roman Empire re-written as the history of the ‘Galactic Empire’. But there is some science fiction which is really getting at the experience of disorientation, discontinuity, break – not just in a negative way either, because a lot of it is exploring what it would be like to live in a different world. So I’m very interested in that. I think there are considerable problems about the realist novel, which I still think is important. But there are all sorts of problems including quite banal commercial problems. For example, a writer I admire very much, a Welsh writer called Emyr Humphreys, who is the best writer, I suppose, of Welsh-speaking Welsh life, and is a very distinguished novelist, he has to write what is really a series of novels, four or five which are linked with characters which reappear in situations and so on, whereas a 19th century writer would have been able to weave all those things into one, big novel.

Now there may be some advantage in this. There’s no point in just going back to the old three-decker, but I think there is still need for being able to track through what happened next in a rather more profound sense than just what happened in the plot. Because it’s the movement through time as well as the very sharp sense of a moment, which is also in the end important. I think people are under a lot of pressure now, but some of the interesting stuff is happening where it’s not much looked for – like, in a minor way, in television drama and science fiction.

KW: And poetry?

RW: Well the poetry is very active, by working in smaller forms which don’t hit some of these problems of action and narrative and consequence. There’s been quite an extraordinary range of what it’s simplest to call ‘voices’, where different voices can find particular rhythms and the different relationships poets have or want to have with audiences – writing to read aloud and those sort of things. Some of the rhythm and diction characteristically seems to me much more of a general achievement than anybody’s individual achievement, and that goes on into some song.

KW: It seems to me that there hasn’t been a very well-worked out theory to fuse literary production and book distribution – as was envisaged by, for example, Lissitsky, Benjamin and Enzensberger, who really saw amazing possibilities for new forms of book-making which in fact materialized; all over the country – literacy schemes, small locally published authors – there’s a whole change of relationships. It does seem to me that this is happening in rather a theoretical vacuum.

RW: I think this is right and that we still are lacking a proper history of print. Some of the French writers about the early stages of the book are really beginning to give us some of the materials for it. But what happened was the stabilisation of a central book market, somewhere from the 1830s through to, I suppose, the period of the first war, which has had an appalling effect ever since because the theory followed from that limited period of historical practice. It then was a revelation to find how people were pushing beyond this theoretically. I mean the work of Benjamin and Lissitsky and all this new practice. If one could ever write the history, it needs to be related first to a period of social change and then to certain technical-change possibilities. The press happened when it did and broke out into a popular form because of steam printing, and there really was a different kind of distribution with the railways. But to say that the cheapening of different printing techniques in the ‘60s suddenly created the demand, would put it the wrong way round. The technology and this altered social perception came together and from now on that’s the theoretical perspective in which we should look at it. The trouble is that while the book has neglected this, it has been captured by the commercial press, which gets cheaply available reading material around with the most remarkable effect. The newspapers, right from The Sunday Times plus supplements through to The Sun, they’ve got everything there except any content. They really haven’t got content with this incredible machine of printing and distribution at their [disposal]; they have virtually nothing to say. The emptiness of newspapers compared with even 15 or 20 years ago is very striking.

KW: They have become more like magazines.

RW: But the more they move towards that, the more the emptiness is apparent. At least when they were the football results, or when they were the court cases, or when they were the political reporting or whatever, that was the only way people got them, okay, there was content. But now they know themselves that people will already know the football result and know the political news. They are not writing on a level that will engage anybody. It is amazing the kind of disgusting print that surrounded the lorry drivers and dustbin men’s strikes, when what was crying out to be written and distributed at the time was not the stuff at the level of the national attitudes and endless ideological campaign, nor even what it was like to be a lorry driver or a dustbin man on strike which is still too general, but just simple reportage of what it is really like to be in that place and that place, all the places where real things are happening. One felt that at that time. It will probably come in a couple of years –  probably someone is already producing the book of reportage – but a lot of that reporting could have flowed at the time because that was how people were wanting to relate. Eventually a reporter from the Daily Mirror went down to talk to some people in Oxford and then the thing came alive; it was an actual person and you got this whole situation and the way this action presented itself to him. Then the other thing is these new American writers going out for real events that they’re transcribing in a form that isn’t quite journalism and isn’t quite fiction but it’s somewhere between them. The flow of that would find an audience very quickly but the institutions stand in the middle of it and there’s this vast distribution of print which really has nothing to say because it’s only saying it at the level of generality. For the generalizations you’d have to have something very different, you’d have to have serious political/economic analysis which they can’t do either.

KW: The proposal in the last section of Culture and Society was that we must with urgency move towards some notion of a common culture because there was a sense in which at the beginning of the book you felt that change was so rapid, that there was a crisis. Change is still very rapid, and it was an idea that was taken up, wasn’t it, the common culture?

RW: Oh sure.

KW: Do you think things are in fact working towards that without there any longer being a conscious movement? A lot of younger people may not have known that idea of a common culture?

RW: Well I think what happened was it was an aspiration then. You could see that it was a necessary stage that society had to move to if it wasn’t to go very bad indeed. Then what happened was that a whole series of self-organising, self-starting initiatives got going partly in relation to different technologies and different kinds of organisation. The great problem now is to see the extent to which that can for long co-exist with or eventually replace what is still a very powerful sort of minority culture. Actually it’s not minority in the old sense, but that of a few very large scale institutions which really do capture the big audiences and have become skilled in supplying them. At the moment we’ve got two sectors, which get expressed as official and alternative, and the only thing which belongs to the notion of a common culture is the alternative sector. And then what you learn – it’s a weakness in the original phrase – is that although it’s common in the sense that it’s open and not restricted, it’s not going to be common in the other sense that all’s going to be similar. It’s going to be very diverse; that we’ve learnt from the ‘60s and should welcome. It’s going to be common in the best sense to the extent that it’s quite specific and autonomous in all its actual forms.

KW: Do you think schools are doing in any way an adequate job in countering the assumptions of the mass media that people meet when they go home from school?

RW: I don’t really have enough direct experience to say, I hear reports of good work and I’m sure that a lot more people are involved than there were and that’s bound to be an advantage. But, I mean, the most helpful things seem to me to be where you’ve got a generation now in the schools which is really quite at home with these media. The interesting developments are where people are beginning to learn these things for themselves or to see ways in which they could learn to use them for themselves. I mean, just as in literature criticism is a better thing to have than not to have, and it takes you a small part of the way, so critical attitudes towards the media are good things to have. But until you really get the sense that these are media that you can learn to use you’re not really into the new situation. I notice this even in theory now. There’s a lot of extremely interesting theoretical work on television and film going on. But there’s such a block on practice, people are having to do this from such a distance and such a height, that it doesn’t even much connect with the problems of television and film production.

One would hope that theory and practice can be integrated in education and that people are getting some, not just familiarity as viewers but understanding of what is involved in production. Then one would also hope that with the technology continuing to change, you have a lot more people pushing to use it – that’s the real thing. And it’s already happening in writing. But against that, the pressure of the press at the moment is much more terrifying than it was when I wrote Communications, including its political pressure. Actually the political distribution of the press has gone through great changes since the ‘60s so that it’s now worse. I mean I don’t think the most pessimistic of us would have predicted in the early ‘60s that a newspaper like The Sun or the new Star were coming up and taking the circulation. And when you see the tie between that kind of substitute popular journalism and very right-wing attitudes about the society, then it’s pretty alarming, I think.

Ken Worpole is a writer and social historian whose most recent book No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the Land in Wartime England was published by Little Toller Books in 2021. It was on his invitation that Williams delivered the lecture ‘Popular Forms of Writing’ to Hackney WEA and Centerprise in 1982, recently published for the first time in Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism. You can read Ken’s reflections on that evening here. For more on Williams and education, listen to the podcast ‘Education is Ordinary: Raymond Williams and Critical Pedagogy’.