Writing instructors come in different shapes and sizes, just like any instructor. They can operate from a myriad points of view, so if the student isn't encouraged to develop their own point of view, they will unconsciously adopt the instructor's. In this selection, Orwell responds to a letter written from a journalism instructor to her student. The assignment was to write about something of interest, but when the student wrote about coal mining--her husband was a coal miner--the instructor warned her about writing unpopular material because it didn't sell as well as popular material. Further, the instructor critiqued the validity of selecting coal mining because there are other vocations which are more difficult, like being a soldier in the second world war.
The tension between writing for an audience and writing for the self has always, and will always, be there. The critical author's biggest obstacle seems to be society, since society is a critical mass of values, traditions, and customs, and critical writing is about selecting one particular facet and exposing it. Sure, one can write from the standpoint of the critical mass--which is called Popular literature--however that's not the only valid form of literature. Well-crafted writing goes far beyond the limits of what the critical mass is willing to hear. (My last entry, featuring Andrew Vachss, delved deeper into this).
This journalism instructor laced her response in a bias, because the student fulfilled the subjective terms of the assignment, yet was met with a critique, which is a different set of terms. If the terms of the assignment were "Explain why your interest has worth, not just value," then critique away, however instructor's impulsion seemed to demonstrate a bias waiting in the wings.
Writing for money certainly occurs. I'm not going to claim writers are a special breed that have superseded material comforts. I went to school with plenty, whose eyes were solely on making money. If that's the writer's goal, then so be it, however that category has its own set of boundaries, as all categories do. In Popular literature, the writer must be careful not to offend or challenge general social values (or do so very sparingly), or critique what is commonly accepted as true. This doesn't leave much room for creative, productive insight, but again, Popular literature--like the type the journalism instructor advocates--wants to allow the audience to maintain their set course and simply use literature as entertainment, rather than enlightenment. The latter entails one to break down and analyze not just their thoughts, but the validity of their thoughts and beliefs, which is why it's ironic how the populace-pleasing instructor claimed coal-mining isn't as valid of a task as soldiering in a conversation of vocational sufferance. The instructor is willing to critique the validity of the writer's personal beliefs, but unwilling to critique the populace's general beliefs because doing so wouldn't bring in money.
Establishing role models, mentors, and authority figures isn't a passive task, but an active, critical one because they reflect us as much as we reflect them. The writing student knew something was awry with her instructors response, which is why she sent it to Orwell in the first place. Good for her for trusting her instincts.
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