July 14, 2015 Garneau Pub, Edmonton, Alberta
Part Twenty – The Value of the English Degree
Question – Today is the day that Harper Lee’s “other book” is being published for the wider world. She, of course, is the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, now a classic of American literature and probably world literature and film as well. You are a graduate of Carleton University, who majored in English. Did you study “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
Answer – No, not formally. I read it sometime later and really enjoyed it. It was engrossing.
Question - I read it later in life too. Perhaps actually studying it in school is more of a U.S. thing. Canadians are more likely to study one of our Nobel Prize winning authors, like Alice Munro. But that’s not the point of the blog. What do you think of the English degree, as preparation for writing fiction, especially the novel?
Answer – As degrees go, it’s as good as any and maybe better than most. It does force you to read a lot of novels.
Question - And what is so great about reading a lot of novels?
Answer – It exposes you to different writing styles, and especially styles of people who are considered “good” writers. My philosophy of how you learn to write, is to read a lot. You find people whose style you like and you re-read them. And you try to figure out how it is that they do what they do, that you like so much.
Question - Ok, now I will be a data scientist and say that’s too vague for an evidence based thinker like me. What do you mean by “a style you like” and how do you figure out “how they do what they do”? For example, what did you like about a good writer that you studied at university or high school, or even a good writer that you came to later? Was it character, setting, plot, mood…?
Answer – Here’s an example: murder mystery writer Dorothy Sayers. I loved what she did and one of the things that she did was incorporate humor into the stories. I don’t necessarily try to imitate her, but I was fascinated by the fact that she made detective stories so entertaining on a personal level, where character was central. You felt like you were hanging out with these people and you enjoyed their company. The murder mystery was important, but the “whodunit” wasn’t the main thing. I admit that is something I wanted to do with my own writing.
Question - So, it was the author’s voice that caught your attention, not the details of the plot or the intricacy of the “whodunit”.
Answer – Yes, it was character that was key, and the interaction between characters.
Question - Does the writer reveal his or her character primarily through his or her invented characters, or through the plot?
Answer – Usually through character, though some people (readers and writers) demand an intricate plot and perhaps place a higher priority on that. That’s ok - those readers and writers can find each other. That’s not to say that plot isn’t important to me. I want the story to hang together and make sense, not just be a framework for banter or romance.
Question - Though those are good too. Getting back to “university English” or “proper literary fiction”, often plot isn’t considered all that important in those works. So, you must have enjoyed all those high-fallutin’ literary classics that you studied.
Answer – No (choking on her wine at the very idea). As a matter of fact, it almost made me quit wanting to read, let alone write. As an example, I was supposed to write an essay on Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure”. I couldn’t bring myself to do it - I wrote on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” instead, without even clearing it with the prof. The latter book was slightly less depressing than the former, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t depressing.
Question - Ah, “Jude the Obscure”, reputed to be the cause of more literary suicides than any other book in the English language. Would you say that “depressing” was a common attribute of the literary canon that you studied?
Answer – Yes, a lot of them were like that. You had to go to one of Shakespeare’s comedies to get some relief.
Question - Any comedy in particular?
Answer – “As You Like It” was a lift.
Question – Ah, yes, some gender bending in the Forest of Arden. Always good for a laugh. Your concentration was in the British novel?
Answer – Yes, I missed out on the 20th Century American novel for the most part. I signed up for a course in it, but the prof didn’t show up, so I went to the 20th Century English novel instead.
Question – The first one was so depressing that the prof bailed out?
Answer – Well, it was a bad omen. I ended up reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Wolfe’s “To the Lighthouse”, some George Orwell, that sort of stuff. Not much fun.
Question – Agree with you on “To the Lighthouse”, mixed feelings about James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
Answer – I liked Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Maybe the “Night Town” section. The rest of the book, not so much.
Question – I liked how the British TV show “Blacks Books” did a satirical version of that.
Answer – Yeah, that was clever. I think what saved me from saying “the hell with literature” was that sometime after graduating with my BA in English, I came across the Science Fiction novels of Andre Norton in a used book store.
Question – Used bookstores saved a lot of people from giving up on reading - cheap prices and eclectic selection. Now, I suppose Indie writers on Amazon are doing the same thing.
Answer – Nice plug for Dodecahedron Books.
Question – Well, plugs are a tradition. Anyway, Andre Norton revived your interest in reading, writing and literature. Andre Norton wasn’t depressing, I take it, and SF as a genre wasn’t depressing.
Answer – It was hopeful. It made me remember that reading could be fun, the way it was before I did my BA or even before the later years of high school. So, I went back to being a voracious reader, which I had been as a child and returned to the decision to write.
Question – Why do you think books had to be depressing, before they were worthy of the attention of the higher education fraternity? Was it just your personal emotional response, or do you think the content naturally and logically led to that state of mind. Maybe your age had something to do with it? That can be an emotionally difficult time of life.
Answer – That’s true, but I think there is more to it than that. I think the status quo wants to direct your thoughts a certain way, and a population that is vaguely depressed is easier to control. Especially the section of the population that goes to university - it is important to tamp down their expectations of life.
Question – I assume that you don’t mean a conscious conspiracy, but rather that the elites of society have a shared interest in a pervading sense of hopelessness or alienation among the people.
Answer – The young that are being prepared for positions in the power structure, or who could oppose the status quo, have to be taught that their options are limited and life is ultimately a drag, so there is no point in kicking up a fuss.
Question – Thus “Jude the Obscure”. The theory is oddly compelling. But another possibility is that people, especially the erudite variety, just think that serious things must be depressing. And if writers don’t write about depressing stuff, in depressing ways, then they are just engaged in wish fulfillment, which can’t possibly be mature or serious.
Answer – That would be wrong. It is not until you break out of that silly tautology, that you discover that there is much more to being “deep” than being sad and existentially depressed. Life can be fun, full of laughter and enjoyment and meaning. Those aren’t shallow observations or shallow feelings - they are the essence of living a life of deep meaning.
Question – So, you think that people, and writers in particular, should take an existential stand and choose optimism.
Answer – When you choose optimism, you choose sanity. Depression can’t stand optimism. Just ask Kati of Terra.
Question – Nice plug yourself. So, in conclusion, do you recommend an English degree for the aspiring writer?
Answer – As I said earlier, it’s as good as any degree and maybe better than most. But keep your wits about you. Don’t let the great writers get you down.
And here’s an XKCD comic that gives another spin on the matter.
And of course, here's a link to Kati of Terra and Helena's other books: