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On the production line


“Kafka has become a place, a condition, a boundary to which it is perceived only the pretentious are drawn and only total lunatics will cross.” – Jeffrey Ford

“Name one of the great writers of the 20th century.”

My hand went up a full three seconds before anyone else and Mr Carter realised his mistake. There would be no ignoring me.

“Err, … Michael?”

“Franz Kafka.”

My English teacher winced but his relief was palpable. I hadn’t caused an uproar by nominating “William Burroughs” or “The Sex Pistols”. I hadn’t ridiculed his premise by answering “Barbara Cartland” or “Sidney Sheldon” because “lots of people read them and they make heaps of money”. I hadn’t shown him up by saying “Samuel Delany” or “J.G. Ballard”, unknown to him but familiar to some of my classmates. I hadn’t taken a shot at the syllabus by fawning “William Golding”, then holding up my ‘paws’ and lolling out my tongue like a good puppy waiting for his reward. (Everyone in the room knew my real opinion of Golding.) I’d given him the chance to agree and move on without eliciting reasons.

“Yes, Kafka. A great author. Thank you Michael. Now … Julie.”

I was at war with the English department of Woy Woy High. Mr Carter wasn’t my true nemesis; that was Mr Kennedy the Master. But he was ‘one of them’ and the most convenient target.

Third rate dead-enders the lot of them. Banished to a nowhere swamp school dumping ground for the useless and hopeless. Like me.

Not a fucking ounce of passion for literature in the entire department. They couldn’t afford any. Their job was to force feed a dumbed down authoritarian curriculum into a gaggle of teenagers who lacked the interest or life experience to appreciate it for themselves, then reward them for regurgitating the pre-digested analyses provided in a chewed but recognisable form. Turning reading and writing into soul-destroying exercises in hypocrisy. That’s how you teach English.

And they presumed to tell me how to suck a sentence. A voracious devourer of multiple literary forms. A published author at 15. Someone who actually fucking cared about the written word. Being told what to think and what to say and what to write by a bunch of numbed no-hopers who probably had their own capacity for literary appreciation destroyed long ago by schoolteachers just like them.

I knew my answer would lose me a chance at a modicum of revenge, but it was truly how I felt at the time.
I was having a Kafka kind of day.

Franz Kafka once called his writing a form of prayer.
He also reprimanded the long-suffering Felice Bauer in a letter: “I did not say that writing ought to make everything clearer, but instead makes everything worse; what I said was that writing makes everything clearer and worse.”
Joy Williams

From → autobiography, rant

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