The write stuff
Dr Alexandra Harris, Lecturerer and Director of Graduate Studies, University of Liverpool, discusses becoming a New Generation Thinker and the importance of university research.
Firstly congratulations on your book, Romantic Moderns, winning the 2010 Guardian First Book Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, and, more recently, becoming one of BBC3’s New Generation Thinkers. How would you describe these past 12 months?
Astonishing: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. All sorts of things that I’d dreamed might happen eventually over the course of a career have happened all at once. I’ve found myself turning down opportunities I would have fought for a year ago. The work has been varied and exciting: festivals, interviews, essay commissions. But the best bit has been the privilege of meeting people whose work has long interested me.
How on earth do you juggle all of this with your lecturer work?
Precariously, and doubtless leaving a trail of chaos in my wake. I’ve been doing two full-time jobs really. My colleagues have been wonderfully forgiving, and the response of students has been very important to me in setting out my priorities. I usually assume they’ll be cursing me for being late with their essays, but it transpires that they’re far more interested in spotting their tutor in the newspaper. Obviously there are limits, but I do think students like to feel the connection between their subject and the wider world.
Your specialist subject in the New Generation competition is how the weather, and especially being cold, has influenced English art and music through the ages. What is it about the weather that allows it to have such an impact on the human psyche?
Partly we want to control the weather. We have made a science of observing and measuring it: we design waterproof lives for ourselves. But partly we yield to the unknowable weather. Coleridge used to go outside to enjoy thunderstorms, and Wordsworth is famous for imagining what it might be to wander like a cloud.
As a lecturer of English, what are your particular bugbears about mistakes people make using the language?
‘Eliot’s poetry is littered with allusions’. If they were litter, he would have cleared them up. And I wish students wouldn’t hide behind the passive tense so much: ‘it could be said that a reader of Middlemarch might feel that…’. If it’s worth saying, say it.
What’s your favourite word in the English language and why?
What an indulgent question! I used to keep a notebook full of evocative words, but I seem to have lost it. If you bump into someone using lots of lovely words it may be because they’ve stolen my book.
Moving onto your role as a New Generation Thinker, what sparked your application?
I’m often very admiring of people on radio, both the specialist contributors (how do they sound so unflappable on ‘In our Time’?) and the producers/presenters who cover a huge range of subjects. I wanted to learn from them.
How important is it that university research is celebrated in mainstream society?
The distinction between ‘university research’ and the ‘mainstream’ can be invidious. We mustn’t keep assuming that there’s a barrier to be crossed. Intelligent and well-written books will find readers if the readers know about them. But that means spending serious time and money on publicity, which not every academic or publisher will be willing – or financially able – to do. The idea that scholarly work needs to be watered down for public consumption (and that a popular book must be therefore unscholarly) is a very dangerous one and gives academics a bad name. Some of the fiercest and most insightful questioning of my own work has come from phenomenally well-read members of that ‘mainstream’ public.
What do you think can be done to improve this?
Number one: allow academics to have flexibility in their lives. If universities lay down a 9-5 Monday-Friday timetable, they will not be hearing their lecturers on the radio anytime soon.
Number two: increase publicity avenues. It’s a shame that most excellent books from university presses cost around £50. You can’t do a publicity tour if you’re not going to sell any books. Or can you? I’m certain that festival-goers would love to hear an eloquent and learned lecture on Langland or Pope, even if there were only extracts of the book available to take home afterwards.
What are you looking forward to most during your time on BBC Radio 3?
I’m not sure what will beat sitting in the studio while Petroc Trelawnay records ‘In Tune’, but I’d like to propose a series of literary essays in the 10.45 slot. ‘The Essay’ is radio at its simplest and best.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing some reviewing at the moment. It’s a whole new art form. I’m learning what can be done in 400 or 2000 words; what you do with a bad book; how to talk about plot without giving it away. This is my treat before my book on Virginia Woolf comes out in September. And then there’s a millennium of English weather to think about…