I like English Departments. I’m a member of one, in fact.
But English Departments, English classes, and English teachers pose a particular danger for inexperienced writers.
Principally this is because the study of literature—at least, in high school and at the undergraduate college level, when writers are in their formative years—can conceal, minimize, or warp an understanding of the creative process that produced the works under consideration.
This isn’t true in all cases. Generally, however, inexperienced writers may be taught to worship established writers instead of seeing their work in context.
I’m a product of such experience.
My English teachers always seemed to talk about Great Books as though their authors created the work out of whole cloth without help from anyone—not friends, not editors, not other writers.
The image of the author alone in his or her study created a gap that seemed unbridgeable, and I found myself lionizing this vision without realizing that advice, input, and personal connection with other artists was the overwhelming rule of literary production rather than the exception.
How many aspiring poets study “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot without learning that Ezra Pound played a significant role in its development, and that the poem might be better conceptualized as a collaborative work as I described in a prior post?
How many students read Romeo and Juliet without realizing that it’s basically a rip-off of the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe, set down by Ovid in The Metamorphoses in 8 CE?
Maybe things are different these days, with the rise of easy-to-reference Web sites such as Wikipedia. When I was going through high school and college, however, we didn’t have so many online resources. Connections and relationships were not apparent on first glance, and my teachers didn’t bother to provide them.
If I’m ever a professor of English, I will endeavor to teach a class that covers all the things I had to learn on my own, a class entitled something like “Dirty Secrets: The History of Literature for Creative Writers.”
I would cover all of the above, including the whole Raymond Carver-Gordon Lish affair; Yates and his Celtic Twilight buddies; Samuel Beckett and the fact that he was James Joyce’s personal secretary for Finnegan’s Wake (many people don’t know this!); the rise of MFA programs and their impact on literature, etc., etc., etc.