Debut YA author Amanda Sellet stops by today with a guest blog about the pitfalls of being an English major. And as someone who was also an English major … well, yeah, I can sure relate to her woes. Be sure to keep reading to learn more about her debut novel, By the Book, in stores now!
The Perils of Being an English Major
By Amanda Sellet
Maybe it happens to everyone who tries to make a career out of a childhood passion. The aspiring architect puts away her Legos and learns to build skyscrapers that will stay standing. The would-be pilot trades paper airplanes for the real thing. A budding geologist still digs in the dirt, only now they know the names of all the rocks and sediments. And the bibliophile goes to college and discovers that books are only part of the story.
Or at least that’s how it seemed to me as an undergrad English major inundated with critical essays of mind-bending obscurity. It’s not all fun and games over here in the liberal arts, the reading list insisted. We are putting in serious work. The other message coming through loud and clear: my way of thinking about books was immature and unsophisticated. All opinions about novels now needed to be backed up with a reference to the literary theory du jour. The book itself, that amalgamation of language and plot and characters, was secondary at best. Marxism, structuralism, post-modernism … there was an ism for every mood, and woe to the student who loved stories more than abstract philosophical treatises.
Also uncool: assessing literary characters as if they were real people. This was particularly challenging for me because a) I’m judgmental by nature and b) that was a huge part of the reason I fell in love with the classics. What are 19th-century novels about if not examining the consequences of human behavior? The tension between individual conscience and societal strictures, morality and honor, justice and fate: These were the big-picture questions characters grappled with on the page—some more successfully than others.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the old argument over whether all characters (but especially the female ones) should be “likeable.” Many of the sickly-sweet women in Dickens make me want to hurl. The question was whether I understood a character’s choices. Forget walking in someone else’s shoes. Reading novels meant slipping inside a fictional person’s skin. Occupying their thoughts. Seeing the world through the eyes of another.
Writing all this down, it seems obvious I was destined to be a writer rather than an academic, though it took me a few decades to work my way around to fiction. In a lightly autobiographical twist, my debut novel pokes gentle fun at a girl who takes 19th-century novels a little too literally. Mary Porter-Malcolm isn’t exactly like teen me, but she does use books as a way of understanding people—including herself. Sometimes she gets it right, and sometimes she gets it spectacularly wrong, but she never stops loving stories, or believing in their power to illuminate the world. And since I am the boss of this fictional realm, and apparently still have scores to settle, Mary never has to put down the books and pick up a primer on literary theory.
The moral of this story is not that you shouldn’t be an English major. Some people’s brains are undoubtedly wired to enjoy untangling twisty knots of esoteric language. And while I love novels because they’re stories about people, there are as many different ways of being passionate about books as there are books to adore. Whether you turn to them for work or play, I hope you find what you’re looking for in the pages of a story.
She knows how all the stories end, except her own.
As a devotee of classic novels, Mary Porter-Malcolm is a walking encyclopedia of Mistakes That Have Been Made, especially by her favorite literary heroines. So when some new friends seem in danger of falling for the same tricks employed since the days of Austen and Tolstoy, Mary starts compiling the Scoundrel Survival Guide, using archetypes of literature’s debonair bad boys to help signal red flags in the dating department.
But despite her best efforts, she finds herself falling for a supposed cad—the same one she warned her friends away from. Without a convenient rain-swept moor to flee to, Mary is forced to admit that real life doesn’t follow the same rules as fiction and if she wants a happy ending in real life, she’s going to have to write it herself.
Amanda Sellet has strong opinions about books, movies, and baked goods, which led to a previous career as a professional critic. These days she channels those feelings into YA novels about smart girls who still have a lot to learn. She has lived in many different states and a couple of foreign countries, but now calls Kansas home, alongside her family and assorted cats. Visit her at amandasellet.com and on Twitter @amandajsellet.
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