Monday, March 24, 2008

learning by example

Reviewing Gerald Graff's Professing Literature (a history of English departments in American universities) in The Nation, William Deresiewicz mentions that scanning the postings on the Modern Language Association Job Information List is a good way to see where English departments are headed.

"The most striking fact about this year's list is that the lion's share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the 'service' component of an English department's role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you've got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge."

Ah yes, that things about kids wanting to write, not read. And I'd actually extend that comment to people in general. Writing, writing everywhere, and no one to read all those words! I'm not sure there's anything an MFA program could teach that could not be learned by reading intensely. And I mean reading fiction, not essays or memoirs. That applies no matter what you want to write, whether it is journalism or a novel. When I'm in a position to interview people for writing or editing positions, I always ask them about their favorite authors. It's not meant to be a trick question, but appallingly many applicants treat it as such.

It's simple: If you don't read enough, you won't realize that what you write is banal garbage.

While trying to mend a ligament a couple of weeks ago, I engaged in chit-chat with the physical therapist. Upon hearing that my job involves trying to fix other people's sentences despite the fact that English is not my first language, he asked me how I learned it. "School at first, but also listening to music in English, watching films with subtitles very early on but especially reading—lots and lots of reading." He acted surprised, as if reading was an odd choice. The real surprise is why this would come as a surprise.

2 comments:

Rose said...

amen to that!! there is far too much banal garbage around, elisabeth...so right....list some of your favorites, btw...

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Oh so many and for so many reasons: Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, Carson McCullers' The Eye Is a Lonely Hunter…