Magazine article Times Higher Education


Magazine article Times Higher Education


Article excerpt

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia, and author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby. She has served as a judge for the Women's (then Orange) Prize for Fiction and the David Cohen Prize for Literature, and this year was named a judge of the Man Booker Prize 2014

Where and when were you born?

Technically I was born in Virginia, while my parents were briefly living there for my father's work. But I was raised just outside Chicago, where my mother's family has lived for many generations.

How has this shaped you?

How has it not? I'm not trying to be evasive but being from the Midwest, and my sense of my family's connection to Chicago, has a great deal to do with how I perceive my place in the world. I love Chicago, although ironically I don't know it very well any more.

Do you have a personal set of judging criteria that you use for literary prizes?

Yes, but they're not codified or quantifiable. I don't like books that don't like language - it's their medium, and I want them to revel in it. There are many other ways to measure aesthetic value, and most judges take them into account in my experience, but I think language gets lost too often these days. I can't stand when judges suggest that something difficult or challenging will be inaccessible to "normal" readers, whoever they are: I think that's snobbish as hell. I also have deal-breakers: I will not put books forward that have multiple, serious grammatical solecisms, for example.

What would win your academic Booker of Bookers?

You mean books by academics? I mostly hate books by academics. Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of An American Masterpiece is pretty fabulous; let's give it to him.

You're a prominent media figure as well as academic. Do you think more of your peers should engage with the public via the media?

I would never tell other people what to do with their careers, and it's important that we uphold standards and write scholarship that depends upon expertise. My worry is that without sufficient academics being willing to put that expertise into the public sphere, the gap is filled by journalists and producers and members of the public who don't have that expertise, leaving us with misconceptions, myths, outright errors. …

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