Literary Representations of a Society in Crisis: the Students’ Point of View

Graffiti on the building of the National Academy on Panepistimiou Avenue Photo: Julia Tulke/aestheticsofcrisis.org

Venetia Apostolidou, University of Thessaloniki

In winter semester 2013-14 I taught a seminar at the School of Elementary Education of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki entitled “Representations of society in Modern Greek fiction”. My aim was to introduce the students into the discussion which is being held for the last five years on whether contemporary Greek literature has depicted and scrutinized the crucial economical, social, political and cultural problems of Greek society or, on the contrary, it has focused mainly on individual, psychological and narrow family affairs. My assumption had been that a topic like this would be interesting for the students, the majority of whom face severe economical problems, would motivate them to read some good novels and therefore become familiar with contemporary Greek literature.

The organization of the course was the following: in the first three or four meetings we discussed theoretical issues such as the relation between fiction and society, author’s and reader’s ideology, realism and plausibility techniques. I suggested a list of about fifteen books, novels and collections of short stories, which were published from 1972 (Alexandros Kotzias, O Genaios Tilemachos) to 2013 (Makis Tsitas Martis mou o Theos). The books were supposed to be read by groups of students and presented to the class. The students suggested some more books and finally twenty four groups of students read twenty four different books. The total sum of students involved was eighty seven. In each class meeting two groups of students presented their books (there was time for only fourteen to be presented in class, the rest of them were turned in as written assignments) after, of course, close collaboration with me during office hours.

At some point I decided to keep a record of students’ opinions because I found interesting the fact that a bunch of young people were talking about literature, crisis and their interrelation. Therefore, at the end of each class, I handed out a questionnaire on the books presented in the particular day and asked them to fill it in anonymously. In our last meeting I handed out a final questionnaire which took under consideration the whole course. Not all students were present in all meetings (unfortunately presence is not obligatory in undergraduate classes) and not all present students were willing to fill in the questionnaire. I have gathered about 25 completed questionnaires on each book and 31 with the overall conclusions. Here I will present and discuss the students’ answers on the final questionnaire. It is a multiple choice questionnaire. I realize that the particular formation of the possible answers may not express accurately the views of each one of the students and, from a certain point of view, the proposed answers can be considered as imposing a particular interpretation. Yet, those are the limitations of this kind of questionnaire. The other choice I had was to pose open questions but then the danger would have been either lack of answers or dubious and vague answers. In any case, I tried to suggest views that have been repeatedly discussed in class.

Final Questionnaire

  1. Having read the book you chose and having participated to the discussions on the other books, what are your views as far as the relation between modern Greek fiction and society is concerned?
Modern Greek fiction has depicted all serious problems of Greek society and makes us think about them  39%
Only a few books help us to know Greek society. Most works give an abnormal image of society or they depict totally personal and extreme problems.  26%
I realize that literature had pointed out the social problems that are now considered symptoms of the crisis, long before the crisis burst out.  48%

A good percentage of the students realize that literature had pointed out the social problems that are now considered symptoms of the crisis long before the crisis burst out. Specifically, two older novels made a strong impression due to their deep analysis and the complex image of a corrupted society they create. Those were O Genaios Tilemachos (1972) of Alexandros Kotzias and Eis ton pato tis eikonas (1990) of Maro Douka. The students found out with surprise that all issues that are presently being discussed in the public sphere (see below) were not only evident to certain authors but they have been the object of literary elaboration in a quite sophisticated way. However, a considerable percentage of students think that literature talks mainly about personal and extreme situations and does not give any reliable image of society. I guess that those were the students who were keen on discussing thoroughly characters’ psychology and their motives but unwilling to see social and cultural structures; however, we have to admit that they represent a considerable part of the reading audience, perhaps not the most experienced, that looks for answers in personal matters. In any case, this is an existent stance in reading literature.

  1. Out of all social problems depicted in the novels and short stories, which one did impress you the most?
The corruption of the state administration 32%
The social discrimination and social exclusion 23%
The economical scandals 3%
The family problems and the decay of welfare institutions 32%
The lack of reliable political leadership and the confusion of values and ideologies 32%

It is impressive that students’ choices are distributed equally to most answers. Quite right they didn’t pay any attention to the economical scandals such as the Koskotas affair in 1989 since novels (for example Eis ton pato tis eikonas by Maro Douka) see the scandals as symptoms of greater problems. I think that this distribution of the answers shows that the readers are not preoccupied with the elaboration of certain social problems while reading literature. Moreover, they comprehend larger images of society or, to put it differently, literature makes them to conceive society itself as a problem.

  1. What do you think you gained from the course as far as your relation with literature is concerned?
I want to read more literary books 45%
I have learned to pose questions while reading and look for answers 65%
I realize that interesting literary works are being written today in Greece and I want to get to know them better. 26%

It is comforting that 45% of the students have been motivated to read more literary books since my colleagues and I have had many opportunities to notice that our students are not systematic readers of literature. The part of students (26%) which sees positively modern Greek literature in particular and wants to get to know it better is surely low. This is perhaps due to the ‘academic’ way in which the answer is formulated. We have to take into consideration that my students study to be elementary teachers, therefore they see literature not as literary experts but in the way that ordinary readers see it: as food for thought and resource of enjoyment. Last but not least, the high percentage (65%) of students who think that they have learned to pose questions while reading indicates perhaps that students, at the most, look for reading strategies that may lead them to answers on (no matter general or personal) hot and widely discussed issues.

I realize that this is a small scale research which took place under very specific circumstances determined by an academic course with its own aims and limitations. We should not jump to conclusions. If I may at this point add a few remarks from my experience I would say that I was happy to see that students with little experience in reading Greek literature found difficult books interesting and made sense of them. They discussed passionately about different social characters and images of society and they understood very well that literature has much to say to us in difficult times. Actually, the idea that dominated the whole course after all was that literature sees always, even in good times, society as a problematic structure and thus helps us to be prepared for bad times.


Image: Graffiti on the building of the National Academy on Panepistimiou Avenue, Julia Tulke/aestheticsofcrisis.org

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