I'm currently teaching Creative Writing to a group of American students in Cambridge. It's a real delight because Cambridge is a beautiful town and the students are highly-motivated young people.
They're also incredibly polite! In fact, I've had to dissuade them from calling me Doctor. I don't think I'd feel terribly comfortably with that even if I did have a doctorate. But I don't - just a first degree in English that I picked up more years ago than I care to remember. The reason I believe I'm qualified to teach the course is not my academic credentials; it's the twenty-nine years I've spent as a professional writer.
One of the questions I asked in the initial tutorials was what books they'd enjoyed reading recently. One of the students looked down at the ground. 'It's a bit embarrassing,' she said, shuffling awkwardly in her seat. I didn't know what to expect. Was she going to own up to a secret porn addiction? I waited anxiously. Finally she looked up. 'I don't know if you've heard of A Game Of Thrones,' she said.
Just in case you've been living on Mars for the last fifteen years, A Game of Thrones is the first in a series of colossally successful fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. It reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list last year and the series as a whole has garnered a raft of awards. Deservedly so, in my opinion, because it's a terrific piece of storytelling.
So what exactly is going on here? How is it that an intelligent young woman is ashamed to admit that she has enjoyed a good book? Of course, there can only be one reason: it's because it's popular and that has to mean it's trash, right? She clearly imagined I was expecting her to say that she'd been curled up with Proust for the last six months.
Actually, I understand all too well this young woman's thinking. Somebody asked me recently whether studying English at university helped me become a writer and they were surprised when I said that I didn't think it had. Yes, I learned a lot about how literature works but I also acquired a lot of unhelpful notions about high art along with a great deal of reverence for the canon of literature. Those notions and that reverence had to be unlearned in the years that followed because all it did was make me feel inadequate and come between me and the enjoyment of a great story.[image error]
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