I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I was a pretty lousy English major. I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life (or my self-respect) and I would not read anything that bored me, which was nearly everything (I arrived at class early to eavesdrop on my classmates, from which I gleaned enough details to pass quizzes). I did well on essays because, despite reading precious few of the assigned pieces, I could hone in on some key point and belabor it with zeal. I attended class faithfully, wrote well, and had an excellent memory for the few things I learned along the way. Those few things have not served me well.
Only now, in retrospect, can I see how majoring in English has hamstrung my fiction writing. If any of the professors ever mentioned this, I wasn’t paying attention: the classics are not an example to follow if you ever want to sell fiction. When they assigned Flannery O’Connor, I surmised that people wanted to read depressing things that made absolutely no sense. When they assigned William Faulkner, the take-home lesson seemed to be that 118-word sentences were a fabulous idea. When they assigned Moby Dick, it was an endorsement for novels that spent ten pages describing different kinds of nautical rope (or ten pages describing anything relatedly only in the barest sense to the plot). Books like The Great Gatsby and everything by Jane Austen convinced me that readers wanted to hear about the foibles of the wealthy. And when, eventually, someone said we should eschew passive verbs I wondered if I could beat them to death with the nearest copy of anything written by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I did realize, a long time ago, that there is a gulf between what gets praised in the classroom and what sells in bookstores. I did piece together the fact that modern book-buyers are after something very different from what professors assign. What I didn’t understand until recently was just how strongly my formal study of literature had influenced my writing style. Despite reading only the bare minimum of the classics assigned to me, I had yet taken some of their examples to heart and was relying on long sentences and over-description. It’s a style I’m now forced to reevaluate and to change, and the process is far more challenging than I expected. (I suppose, at the very least, I should be grateful I did not develop a penchant for writing about the foibles of the wealthy, or trying to end stories with people wandering around in gorilla suits.)