Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Do You Do with a BA in English?

Last night, I saw a post on Twitter that made me shudder. It came from the illustrious Ron Charles, the book critic for the Washington Post and quite possibly the most entertaining reviewer working today (his video reviews are enough to make him the first person worth consulting on a book's merit, not counting the lovely folks at TK.) @RonCharles had tweeted, "Fascinating & depressing story in @ (Feb) about sex workers in NYC. 9% of the prostitutes work in publishing during the day...." (The story is on stands today, and hits the web in February.) Feeling snarky and put out by that statistic, I responded to him, "If that's the case, then why don't we have better wardrobes?" He responded by citing a specific sex worker's $2000-per-month shoe budget, proof positive that if you want fantastic (expensive) options in your closet, you should seek out supplemental income, and not just from freelance proofreaading. I wept for the future, tweeting, "What do you do with a BA in English, anyway?" His response: "Use that BA to get an MA in English. Then teach. Good life. Best job I ever had."

I get emails all the time from aspiring publishing folks--sometimes soon-to-be-graduates from my high school or college--who have steeped themselves in a love of literature. They want to know about publishing, if it really entails sitting around all day reading to your heart's content, if you're discovering the next Toni Morrison around every corner. We've discussed this several times on TK, and I think we've pretty much dashed our readers' hopes on that one: no, not every manuscript you read is a gem. You spend far more time understanding the mechanics of publishing, of promotion of an author, of the ways in which readers are fickle and particular and easily turned off, than you do reveling in a deep love for the written word. That's not to say that you won't be satisfied or even thrilled in your work, and many people develop a passion for the ways pursuing literature through publishing is different than pursuing literature through an academic or critical setting. But it is definitely not just the life of curling up in an armchair with a good book, and no one should paint it as such.

I've only recently discovered that I was an anomaly among my fellow college graduates in that my English (and Sociology) degree led me into a field directly related to the process of reading and evaluating. Looking through Facebook and my college alumni association, I see some of my fellow English majors are in law school, some are business school, some are in banking and film and media studies and photojournalism. A few of them are doing ground-breaking journalism, though not on the subject of Jane Austen and Herman Melville. Not all of them went on to be writers, editors, or even teachers. And very few are pursuing advanced (MAs and beyond) in the study of literature. The musical Avenue Q asked the question, "What do you do with a BA in English?" and the answer seems to be "Don't guarantee that your career will involve reading for fun."

But it seems that the skills you learn with an English degree have less to do with a very detailed skill set, but instead the inculcation of a love of reading and conversation. With the proliferation of blogs and social forums for reading, if the way you make your money doesn't involve good books, you have a multitude of ways of staying in the cultural conversation. The great beauty behind Goodreads is not just that it's like a Netflix queue for books, but also that it becomes a dialogue, a viral syllabus of what's worth reading. The community of informal book critics out there is just as thrilling to read as the legitimate critics in print publications today, and surely Charles knows that as he churns out yet another insightful, hilarious video review. (And when he took time to live-tweet his reading of Snooki's A Shore Thing, it seemed the only way worth reading the book at all.)

So yes, a BA in English guarantees you...four years of reading good books. And maybe, if you end up being part of that 9% of sex workers that spend their free time reading manuscripts, you get a really nice big shoe budget as a bonus. But either way, you carry with you passion for the written word. Whether that's how you make your money is up to you. As for me... I'll stick with proofreading for the extra bread, thanks.


  1. 9% of sex workers work in publishing during the day, right, not the other way around as in the final paragraph?

  2. Four years of College and plenty of knowledge has earned you this useless degree :D