Blog: ‘How does one get a job with an English degree?’ Charul Patel reflects on life, literature and the LRB

profile 2aA Reflection on a Career Talk by Christopher Taylor of The London Review of Book

By C. Patel

Charul (Chuckie) Patel is a PhD student in English at Lancaster University

 

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to a talk delivered by Chris Taylor, Commissioning Editor for the London Review of Books. I was there because, like most of the members of the audience, the talk was marketed towards English literature students who are trying to figure out how they can make their degree useful once they enter the “real world”.

Two things occurred to me during Chris’s talk. The obvious: how does one get a job with an English degree? The answer seems to be that someone of Chris’s persuasion – an English graduate that has managed to create a career solely on reviews – is rare. Anyone wanting to write for a journal will probably have to supplement their income with a “real” job. Although, I would like to stress that Chris did emphasize that editors were always on a lookout for new talent (the talent, I gather, stop producing reviews once they find a real job, so there will likely be a lot of turnover). To be a writer, a real writer, Chris recommends that you would have to move to the Big City. London. New York. The hub of all things.

Why? (the question from the audience), why does a hopeful journalist or reviewer need to relocate to the city, when things like the internet and accessibility with email should make writing from abroad so much simpler and easier? Because, like in any job or career, the writing game is all about networking, all about who-you-know, and, based on Chris’s comments, on nepotism. If you want to get a foot-up in this world, it’s not about skills or certification level; it’s all about having the right connections.

cpatelWhich brings me to the second idea that Chris highlighted in his talk: who has the authority? Who has the authority to write a critical book review, to make a judgement about its aesthetic or value? Do we, as academics, have a higher authority than the market industry? As Professor Sharon Ruston (Chris’s interviewer) noted, if you review a novel, that’s a lot of power. And the LRB is “the cherry on top of it” (Taylor). But the game has changed for the market industry now. As Chris suggested, it’s not like it was in the mid-80s, when cultural power came from only four TV channels. There may exist niche cultural authority on a specific topic, but no one can feel they are speaking sensibly when criticizing cultural products (Chris again).

The eternal dilemma of the academic: how can we ever know enough to speak sensibly on a topic? Chris’s answer is that middle ground: the point of writing is to start a conversation with a reader. With a reader of a book review, you want to have a conversation about the craft of the book, how well made is this object that they are looking at? The writing style should be humorous, taking the stance of a critical expert without being pretentious or patronizing. Any reader with thinking and reasoning skills should be able to participate in the conversation that you create through your writing.

And so we are back to our naive, idealized aspiration of academia from when I began my student life: of writing and words forming a conversation with like-minded thinkers, of the desire to be heard, of the power that our speech and writing will carry into the world; idealisms that have very little to do with market forces. Ah well. Good luck anyway to all of you would-be academics and writers out there. Don’t let them beat you down.

 

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