Tufts Magazine logo Tufts seal
The online edition of Tuft's quarterly publication Contents Back Issues Subscribe Contact Us
Selected Features
Professor's Row
Magazine cover photo
Talk to Us
Send a Letter
Send a Classnote
Update your Records
Related Links
Tufts E-News link
Tufts Journal link
Tufts University link
link to Alumni Office
Tufts Career Network link
Support Tufts
Summer 2003
photo by Justin Allaroyce Knight  
The Rhythms of Prose
For Jonathan Wilson, teaching English is about generating a more sophisticated consciousness about life and culture.

When it comes to teaching English literature, Jonathan Wilson has the best of both worlds. Chair of the Tufts Department of English, Wilson teaches literature and creative writing, combining his love of reading with the craft of writing. While helping students understand the “rhythms of prose,” he has found time to publish his own work, including four books and numerous short stories and articles that have appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and Ploughshares. His new novel, A Palestine Affair (Pantheon), was released in June and chosen by Barnes and Noble as one of their five Discovery books for the summer.

Can you actually teach someone how to write fiction?
No. Although I teach creative writing, I am somewhat dubious about the whole enterprise. Great literature was produced for a couple thousand years without anybody taking a creative writing class. Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, there is an entire canon of literature by people who never took a creative writing class. What you can do in a creative writing class is heighten people’s sensitivity to language and how it works. In that sense it’s enormously valuable. The people who are terrifically talented don’t need a creative writing class. Nevertheless, there is something very useful about improving writing that can happen in a workshop situation and for a lot of students it’s an important class.

There are a lot of complaints today that people cannot write. Do you think that writing skills get overlooked early on in school?

I think it’s a cultural issue. We live in an increasingly visual society, and writing is intimately bound up with reading. I think that is at the base of the deterioration in the quality of the writing. I don’t think it has anything to do with the way writing is being taught in universities. Without reading, I am not sure that writing is something that can be taught. For example, I am a notoriously bad punctuator so I always rely on the kindness of strangers. But the rhythms of prose, how sentences work, you don’t need to know the laws of grammar in order to write well. There are a lot of great writers, Joseph Conrad for example, who wrote wonderfully while being poor grammarians. It didn’t matter, because they had been readers. And that is what is lost now, the reading. Everyone wants to be a writer and no one wants to be a reader. But you can’t be a writer without being a reader, in my opinion. That’s what the contemporary culture has lost.

Given what you just said and the fact that so many students are concerned about finding a job after school, why should people still major in English?

I am not in the business of preparing people to enter the business world. I am in the business of generating a more sophisticated consciousness about life and about culture, and if books can mediate that, then my job is done. At the end of the semester I tend to ask the seniors what they are doing next year. Generally, anybody majoring in economics has got a job, and most of the people who have majored in English say they are going to New York. So actually all I am doing is preparing people to go to New York. Yet all of them end up doing things that are very interesting after they finish doing whatever it is that they do in New York. An English degree prepares you to be an intelligent and sensitive and interesting person. I’ve been here for more than 20 years now, and I have a lot of students who still keep in touch with me. One of them is a professor of comparative literature at NYU. Another writes the style pages for the Washington Post. A third was in the Army and now he runs a button factory in New York City. So my answer would be, if you think the point of a degree is to prepare you to enter the business world, then go to business school. Don’t get a degree in the humanities.

In addition to teaching writing, you teach a class on contemporary Jewish literature. How different is teaching a writing class compared to teaching literature? Do you prefer one over the other?
I actually love doing both. I am happy and glad that I can do both. One is not easier than the other; they’re very different. In the literature class you’re focusing on texts by terrific writers, and the discussions grow out of those texts. I let the discussions be as organic as possible. We’re trying to understand those books and the writers and something about the genre that they’re writing in. In the creative writing class, I’m trying to improve the stories that the students are writing, to help them write better stories. Sometimes people write stories that are so good that I have very little to say. It’s much easier to talk about the lousy stories. The two things are very different, though not any easier.

There is no MFA in writing at Tufts. Do you think that this will change?
The English department has been trying to put together an MFA in writing. It’s something we’d very much like to do, and we have gone a long way in setting up a business plan. We hope in the next few years that the MFA will come into being here in our department. Creative writing is one of our strengths, and we have some wonderful writers and poets.

In addition to teaching your classes, you are the chair of the English department. With all of these responsibilities, how do you find time to do your own writing?

That’s a very good question. Luckily, I have the summers, and I try to do it on the weekends. It hasn’t been easy this year but I try to write a little every day in the mornings. I had a sabbatical after my first three years as chair. That’s when I finished both of my new books, the novel and a book of short stories. I try to find as much time as I can because I have to write. It has been harder as chair to find the time to write, but it’s very important to me so I make the time.

Writing is your first love. What from teaching complements your role as a writer?
Everything is part of the piece. In other words, I’ve always taught literature, and I have had a big part of my life devoted to reading and writing and thinking about literature. And I still write a lot of book reviews for the New York Times and other places, and cultural essays and so on. I can’t separate it; I can’t isolate anything from my teaching that goes into my writing, or vice versa.

Your new novel is the story of an Englishman living in Palestine after World War I. You yourself are an Englishman who lives in America. Even though you’ve been here a long time, has living in a different country affected you as a writer?
It has probably played into the themes that I’ve chosen to address and I guess that the issues of a blurred identity have always fascinated me. One of the central figures in my novel, Mark Bloomberg, is an Anglo-Jewish painter who has gone out on a commission to Palestine. He’s a Jew who doesn’t feel at home in Palestine or in England because he feels that he lives in a somewhat anti-Semitic environment. But he feels more at home in England than he does in Palestine. There’s also in my novel an American woman who is not Jewish but who feels very much at home in Palestine. So I am interested in the complexity of these issues. When I go back to England most people, including those in my immediate family, tell me I have an American accent or that I act like an American. When I’m here people allude to my English accent. I am home but not at home in a number of different places, which I suppose for a wandering Jew is good enough.

Today, in this time of so much uncertainty in the world, can we turn to literature for comfort?

I don’t think literature is a panacea for anything. I think we turn to literature not as therapy but because without great art we’d be absolutely bereft, and we wouldn’t know who we are.