All Booked Up, With No Place To Go: The Problems with BA English
If, like me, you fell in love with the magical art of storytelling from an early age and haven’t had your head out of a book since, then your choice of subject at University may have been a very simple one. That’s certainly how it was for me. Though I have numerous interests, I couldn’t imagine studying anything other than English Literature and Creative Writing when it came to filling in that UCAS form.
Nor do I regret my decision – I think it’s important to point that out from the outset. This article is not intended to deter anyone from studying English! It was a tough journey, but I honestly wouldn’t trade it for anything.
However, there a few things I wish I’d known before I started – things I’m willing to share with all you lovely people, if you have a minute…
Thought You Liked Reading? Guess Again!
Booklists. Be warned, they are the nemesis of English students everywhere. I know, I know, you don’t believe me. At first, the idea of lining my shelves with dozens of new volumes filled me with absolute glee, too. It was like guilt-free knowledge shopping! Little did I know that my love of reading was about to be tested to the absolute limit.
Now don’t get me wrong – some of the assigned texts were an absolute joy to read, and a couple even changed my life. Of course, that can’t be said for every book. In fact, you may find yourself reading nothing but tosh for weeks on end (I, for example, have an adverse reaction to Austen and the Brontë sisters).
Another factor to consider is the actual amount you have to read at any given time. At one point, I was crunching through five books plus additional essays every week – a blistering pace for anyone to keep up. However, you do have to keep it up… an English BA is an endurance race, and trust me, it will require all of your stamina.
My advice? Keep on top of your reading. Even better, try to get ahead of the game. It may seem like I’m stating the obvious, but the set reading for classes has a way of sneaking up on you when deadlines are looming, and when you’ve done a hard day’s graft it’s all too easy to put off. Ignore it at your peril. Even a slack week or two will leave a pile of backdated work big enough to send the most dedicated bookworm away screaming!
Drowning in the Sea of Literary Criticism
I’m going to say another thing that might surprise you: when it comes to the English BA, there is such a thing as reading too much. There is more critique of literature available out there than one person could possibly read – particularly when it comes to Shakespeare – and no one tends to agree. Trying to incorporate all those opinions into your work only serves to muddle your ideas. Moreover, trying to read it all tends to turn you into a crazy person.
From experience, I would say choose quality over quantity… and never, ever rely on Wikipedia if you can help it! It can end up making you look very silly indeed. If need be, purchase academic breakdowns of difficult texts and study them carefully.
At the end of the day though, your lecturers will want to see your own interpretations of each text rather than you simply regurgitating the opinions of other critics. Show that you understand the intricacies of the book you’re studying and you will be rewarded. Trust me – my highest marks (significant firsts) were earned this way!
So, You Want To Be A Writer?
Once you’ve reached the end of the line, there are a few things still to consider. What you’re going to do, for example. The choices for a career directly involved with literature are limited: you can teach, you can write, or you can try and get into publishing.
If the idea of writing appeals to you, then you should know that you’re not alone. Truth is, everyone – the people in your class, that lady sitting next to you on the bus, the local postman – has aspirations of writing a book of some sort. Of course, that’s not to say that it can’t happen. There are writing jobs out there for those willing to look hard enough, and who knows? You could be sitting on the next great literary masterpiece.
I don’t want to be disheartening. However, we all need to take off our rose-tinted spectacles for a minute. Writing is often mistakenly viewed as glamorous; a career for the lazy and the brilliant-minded. Don’t be fooled. To get on the ladder, you may initially have to volunteer your services (yes, that means working for free). However, these opportunities are worth their weight in gold, as they can provide you with both professional experience and an impressive creative portfolio.
The same goes for the editing side of things. Freelance proofreaders and copy-editors may decide when they work, but most still end up doing 60+ hours a week – far more than in the average desk job. Writers, too, often have to fit their creative time around a paid position in order to make ends meet (and there are no real guarantees that, once written, their book will find a willing publisher).
Again, this is not to say you can’t do this kind of work – just that it requires patience, tenacity and a very thick skin. Waiting for your dream job to fall into your lap rather than putting in that all-important legwork may leave you all ‘booked up’ with no place to go. Make sure that the blood, sweat and tears you’ve shed for your English BA aren’t in vain!
This article is also available to view via http://blog.grads.co.uk