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The Rhythms of Prose
|photo by Justin Allaroyce Knight
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
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
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
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.