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Degrees of difficulty

Filed under: Careers

Is studying English at university a help or a hindrance to a writer? The RSL asked Fellows for their opinions

In preparation for the RSL’s ‘What’s the use of English?’ debate, we wrote to all our Fellows asking whether or not they had read English at university, and whether they felt with hindsight that they had made the right decision. The answers were surprising and fascinating; sometimes curt (‘No, I didn’t study English literature at university. I read books instead,’ wrote Ian Jack) and sometimes expansive. Of the Fellows who replied, barely half (55 per cent) had chosen English as their subject – and many of those felt ambivalent about it.

Some respondents had never had the option: P.D. James, for example, left school at sixteen, while Alan Judd confesses to having failed A-level English twice. Others recalled a time when English was not considered a proper discipline, among them Roy Strong: ‘In my time (1953-6) it was regarded as woolly and an easy option – unlike history, which I read.’ William St Clair, meanwhile, did ‘old-fashioned classical Mods and Greats…Actually we didn’t think Eng Lit needed to be “studied”. Surely you just read Jane Austen? We thought it was an excuse for sitting around reading – and a way of impressing girls, who were very rare in those days.’

Fay Weldon was equally sceptical: ‘Coming to London from New Zealand at 15 it was a totally new subject, which I found completely baffling. Still do. Asked what a paragraph meant, I could only reply, “What it says.” How presumptuous of them, I thought even then, to think otherwise. I believe it was introduced on to the curriculum by a master at Eton in 1923, when searching for subjects to examine unfortunate pupils on, thus spoiling reading for future generations. I wrote a book called Letters to Alice, on first reading Jane Austen, in protest at the teaching of Eng Lit, which – since one can never win – is now itself studied as “literature”, leading to a Sydney schoolboy burning it publicly on YouTube last year, with which gesture I had every sympathy. I teach creative writing now and find ex-Eng Lit students have a hard time with invention: they are so accustomed to analysis they can’t do synthesis – they put everything they’ve ever been taught together and think that is all that is required. But wasn’t it Goethe who said you can take a fly to pieces to find out how it works, but when you put it together again it doesn’t fly?’

The fear that reading English might be ‘a spontaneity-killer for a writer’ (as history graduate Tom Stacey put it) featured in many of the replies. Kathleen Jamie chose philosophy, because ‘I aspired to be a writer and felt in my bones that “English Literature” would only damage that.’ Carol Rumens followed the same course, for slightly different reasons:

‘I chose philosophy deliberately instead of English, because I wanted to be able to read the books I wanted to read, and have my own ideas about them. Philosophy turned out to be a mistake. Then I tried to transfer to English, but I was turned down. So I dropped out of higher education till many years later, when I did a PG Dip in writing for the stage, followed by a Teaching in Higher Education diploma.’

Other Fellows had reservations about the teaching on offer. Richard Davenport-Hines ended up doing history at Cambridge: ‘I thought of doing English, but found the teaching too joyless, doctrinaire and priggish (not just by Leavisites).’ Tim Heald, pragmatically, gravitated to the same subject at Oxford: ‘Eng Lit had fewer places and was judged by my school to be more tricky. The tutors, though, were relative rubbish and the history ones great. So no regrets in the end.’

Two respondents were keen to remind us that English was not the only subject concerned with writing. ‘My subject was classics, but that’s still literature to a considerable extent,’ wrote Fleur Adcock, while William Dalrymple objected, ‘Seems to me the question presupposes that all literature is fiction and that English is the natural subject for writers. As a historian and travel writer, history was a much better training.’

Equally, some of those who had read English pointed out that their degrees embraced more than the study of great authors. ‘I read English Language and Literature at Oxford, back in the days when the “Language” element was still quite major, and we all had to do some Greek (Homer) or Latin (Virgil) in the first-year exam,’ wrote Katherine Duncan-Jones. Trevor Tolley had deep reservations about the non-literary part of his own studies at Oxford: ‘My tutor was Wallace Robson of Lincoln College. He was an extremely good critic and I benefited from studying with him. In contrast, I felt that the curriculum, a third of which was devoted to philology, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, was stultifying, to say the least. I have made my career in universities, but have never found what was studied in those subjects of any use to me.’

One Fellow with no regrets at all about her English degree is Miranda Seymour: ‘I went at the age of 28 to University of London (Bedford College: the incomparable Inga Stina Ewbank’s period as principal tutor) as a full-time mature student after publishing three novels.  In other words, my choice was made in full maturity, based on maximum regret for opportunities missed. It was a choice of course which contributed a great deal to my life as a writer, and to the way in which I learned to write. My first non-fiction work emerged from my postgraduate work on Henry James and Edith Wharton.’

At the other end of the spectrum were Philip Pullman and Jan Morris, who echoed each other in their dissatisfaction: ‘I read English Language and Literature at Oxford, and it did me no good at all’ (Pullman); ‘I did read English Literature at Christ Church Oxford, and regretted it ever after!’ (Morris).

The fullest response came from Robert Fraser, who detected two conflicts as an author/academic, but found some hope of resolution: ‘I certainly read English Literature at university, at BA, MA and PhD level, and I have taught it on and off for 40 years. I have, however, very mixed feeling about its advantages. Pamela Hansford Johnson FRSL, a prolific novelist who left school at sixteen, once remarked that “many a promising writer has been ruined by a course in English Literature,” and Doris Lessing has said much the same. There are certain moods in which I agree with them, and as someone who has struggled to reconcile academic with freer writing for much of my life, I have always felt the tension. The situation has, however, been complicated by the widespread introduction over the last few decades of courses in creative writing (we have about 2,000 students who take these, at one level or another). Some people think that this has made the situation better; others that it has made it worse. Again, I am in two minds. However, one thing I will say: the Iron Curtain between these two pursuits is gradually being lifted. As late as the 1980s academics who wrote poetry or drama in their spare hours were often made to feel that they were playing truant, or at the very least doing

Literature at Oxford, and it did me no good at all’ (Pullman); ‘I did read English Literature at Christ Church Oxford, and regretted it ever after!’ (Morris).

The fullest response came from Robert Fraser, who detected two conflicts as an author/academic, but found some hope of resolution:

‘I certainly read English Literature at university, at BA, MA and PhD level, and I have taught it on and off for 40 years. I have, however, very mixed feeling about its advantages. Pamela Hansford Johnson FRSL, a prolific novelist who left school at sixteen, once remarked that “many a promising writer has been ruined by a course in English Literature,” and Doris Lessing has said much the same. There are certain moods in which I agree with them, and as someone who has struggled to reconcile academic with freer writing for much of my life, I have always felt the tension. The situation has, however, been complicated by the widespread introduction over the last few decades of courses in creative writing (we have about 2,000 students who take these, at one level or another). Some people think that this has made the situation better; others that it has made it worse. Again, I am in two minds. However, one thing I will say: the Iron Curtain between these two pursuits is gradually being lifted. As late as the 1980s academics who wrote poetry or drama in their spare hours were often made to feel that they were playing truant, or at the very least doing something irrelevant to their careers, even if they were given some insight into the creative process as a result. (I even have a crusty contemporary who shall be nameless who frequently states, “I believe in uncreative writing”). Now if I am working on a story or a play I feel that I am fulfilling an important aspect of my role for which I will be given some credit. Long may this tendency continue.’