Believe it or not, there was a time when I was quite normal. I was well-adjusted, with hardly an evil thought in my head (except when waiting to be served by someone whose conversation with a colleague is more important than their customers).
And then I took the American Gothic course at the City Lit Adult Education Institute in London. You can infer from the photo how it’s affected me. Before the course I looked like this:
Now look at me: unshaven, greying hair, and a haunted look in my eyes.
Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed the course immensely.
But first, what is American Gothic?
The most succinct description I can offer is American literature that contains a psychological or psychic disturbance of some kind. Think Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and you’ll get the idea.
In the American Gothic course, we looked at a different writer each week, focusing on one or two stories each time, with background notes on the author, and commentary on the works. Despite the size of the group, some great discussion was had, involving everyone.
So what was so great about the course?
First, the tutor, Julian Birkett, is excellent. Indeed, knowing nothing about American Gothic, I signed up for the course only because the previous (and first) course taught by him was so good. That was called The World’s Greatest Short Stories, which I hope to write about on another occasion. He has great command of the subject, organises the lesson well, and provides good background notes and further reading. I’ve already signed up for his next course, The Golden Age of Russian Literature.
Secondly, the course has introduced me to authors I’d not heard of before (Shirley Jackson), works I’d heard of but (shamefully) never read (The Turn of the Screw), and reminded me of authors I’ve enjoyed but forgotten about (Edgar Allen Poe). It’s been a brilliant education.
Thirdly, it’s rekindled my love of English Literature. I enjoyed the subject so much at A Level that I toyed with the idea of doing it at university, but opted for Economics instead. Well, I’m back, and all I can say is: better late than never!
Finally, as a writer I think it’s crucial to read widely, even — or perhaps especially — works in genres other than your specialism(s). Mine are education technology and writing non-fiction, and I’m English, so studying American fiction that sometimes gave me nightmares could not be more different from what I’m used to or what I write about.
But how can one enjoy such dark writing? Partly because it’s so different (for me), but also because it has helped to sharpen my somewhat blunted powers of literary criticism. Although I have jokingly dismissed The Turn of the Screw with “The governess is a bit intense; she should have taken Rescue Remedy”, and D. H. Lawrence with “He really should have got out more, then we’d all have been better off.”, I have been trying, and to some extent succeeding, to work out why a piece of writing has the emotional or psychological effect it does.
In my opinion. this process of reflection and self-reflection is essential for any any writer wishing to improve their work.