emagazine editor, Barbara Bleiman, on all the competition entries
We had a bumper crop of entries this year, which suggested the appetite of students for reading and writing about literary texts, as well as their enthusiasm for competitions like this. So many students gave it a really good shot and the best of the entries were truly excellent! The winner, runners-up and shortlisted students all wrote about the text convincingly and with genuine engagement.
As in previous years, we felt that there was quite a big gulf, however, between the best entries and the rest. What distinguished the best close readings was actually quite simple – the ability to convey a good strong sense of what’s most important about the passage, what’s special, and specially significant about it. There were lots of pleasing observations across the board about small aspects of language but often that’s all it amounted to – interesting little comments that weren’t connected to a bigger sense of what was really at stake in this stunning piece of writing by James Joyce. We’d have loved to see students saying a bit less about the sounds and the use of the senses, the use of rhythm in a particular sentence or the imagery and more about important ‘big picture’ understandings about the extract – its attempt to get inside the head and experiences of a child who is at boarding school, longing to go home for the holidays but trapped there by falling ill. Too few students ‘nailed’ these basic facts before talking about the detail. The complexities of narrative voice, the shifts between memory, dream and reality, and the gradual revelations to the reader by implication and suggestion rather than explanation, all make this a very special kind of narration of this set of events. Pinning down what’s happening and the fact that it’s done in this particularly evocative way, has to be at the reason for exploring howthe writer achieves this.
Victoria Atkin – Alder Grange School, Rossendale
Oskar Bishop – Bristol Grammar School
Lily Fowler – Marlborough College
Connie Higgins – St Paul’s Girls’ School
Polly Jones – Parkstone Grammar School
Ellie Smyk – Bristol Grammar School
Sophie Webber – John Mason School, Abingdon
Ben Knights’ comments on the shortlist and choice of winner
The emagazine editors compiled the shortlist. Professor Ben Knights chose the winners and runners up. Here’s what he had to say about the shortlist and his reasons for choosing the winner.
It’s a difficult task you’ve undertaken. You had to make precise observations about the text while exploring their significance - suggesting (but not over-egging) an argument within which your choice of details makes sense to your reader. This requires a level of integration where the reader doesn’t feel you are simply listing things you have noticed about the passage. So you have to balance precise observation against thematic argument, without letting one swamp the other. I was impressed by your ability to do this. Sometimes details may jar the smoothness of your attempted interpretation. Then you have to decide whether to pick up on enigmas / mysteries and question their significance: ‘It knew’: what did the train know? the heavy bird flying low through the grey light; several of you touched on Cardinal Wolsey / Leicester Abbey but could have developed further how ‘official’, school knowledge like this feeds into Stephen’s hallucinatory sense of impending doom – Wolf Hall, anyone?
Generally, I was impressed with the way entries were attuned to questions of style and the significance of stylistic choices. Yet, while some got close, I was surprised that writers didn’t say more about the representation of consciousness. One way in might have been via formality / informality: Stephen / Daedalus, given name vs surname. Touches of rhetorical apparatus were awkwardly handled, and I felt that ‘polyptoton’ and ‘epizeuxis’ hindered more than they helped.
Again, though some entries started to explore this, I felt that more could have been made of Stephen’s dutiful desire to belong, to adopt the camouflage of his peers’ vocabulary - (‘fellows’, ‘peach’, ‘foxing’).
A few (including one of the runners up) bravely tackled the question of the narrator: the linguistic trail left by Stephen’s implied observer.
Most of the pieces I read recognised and developed the contrast between the two parts of the selected passage, noticing the turning point with ‘Noises … There was a noise of curtain-rings ….’ What was particularly good about the more sophisticated readings (especially the winner) was that they acknowledged the contrast between journey / home / school, but then went that bit further. They had a go at integrating what they observed about both home and school scenes - for example by touching on Stephen’s compliant desire to fit in, to use the register of his peers, to do as his father advised him. The winner and runners up gave us thoughtful arguments fed by precise observations.