I can quote John Keats, I have good chunks of Hamlet memorized, and I once wrote a fictional book about Jane Austen (really I did, check it out). Seriously, they rarely get more English Majorally than me.
I get that there is little a person can do with such a degree. With my added MFA in Creative Writing, I live it. We teach (creating more English Majors and creative writers in the process) or we attempt to write or we edit the work of others, possibly those more successful. That’s pretty much it. We are part of an ever-growing cycle that doesn’t fit in the business world at large. No one in a financial board room has ever shouted “Quick! Get me an English Major! This report is missing symbolism!”
Yet, each week, Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion brings forward the “lunacy” of the idea of being an English Major and mocks it. Just listen to the audience laugh each time Garrison steps forward to help someone in a skit or woo by saying he is an “English Major.” Laugh, audience, laugh.
Ever since he has started this running gag, I’ve had to use fake smiles when people bring it up to me (and they do all the time). Everyone is in on this “joke,” and we that love literature and books are the brunt of it. It is at our expense. So this would be my first negative for Garrison.
Why is it wrong or a joke for people to want to study and spend their lives around something that they love (books)? Yes, business major, for example, would have the best potential for success, but that is if you only define success in financial terms. Most of us that go into the arts don’t do that. Is this counter to the American dream of big houses and multiple cars and that is why people laugh at us as if we are foolish? Whatever the case, as a writer and lover of books, Garrison should be on our side. Not on the side of the other majors, presenting us as foolish.
Oh, and this also goes for librarians too. Since he seems to mock that field just as much and plays off of the stereotypes of them. Yeah, I’m going to give him a second negative for that. (So far he is at negative 2.)
Besides the super popular A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor also hosts The Writer’s Almanac, a daily show that should get more air time around the country than it does. I actually check it out as a podcast from time to time.
While each episode is only about five minutes in length, each is a “love song” in a way to the artform of writing. He shares interesting facts about literature and poetry in each short installment. The emphasis is strongly on the idea that this is an art and that it is something to be recognized each day, celebrated, and respected. (He definitely gets a plus for this.)
On A Prairie Home Companion he will also have writers and poets on. Many times these artists will even take part in the skits. (“Hey look cowboys, it is famous American poet Billy Collins!”) Treating our American writers like celebrities, worthy of notice and recognition like this, is just awesome. And it is something that is not done on television or really anywhere else (save some other NPR shows, of course).
(So with this second plus, he comes out at about even).
Let’s throw some other positives into the mix:
- In 2004 for he embraced liberalism creating a book arguing for it when it wasn’t popular to do so. Granted, this is my own political bent, but I find it worth a point in his favor (and I am giving the points here).
- His film A Prairie Home Companion is actually a really nice movie and a fitting conclusion to the amazing career of director Robert Altman. I also dig the playful ending of it. (So there is another positive in his court.)
- Plus, his radio show calls back to a time when radio drama ruled America. I love old radio shows and used to collect them. (Heck, I wrote my own comedy radio series that was produced by Mind’s Ear Audio and was heard on many NPR stations, which you can learn about and listen to here.)
This brings him up to a positive three.
I used to enjoy A Prairie Home Companion. Yes, I had to switch the station when the songs would get a little too folksy for me, but I would still tune in each week. However, this changed for me a few years ago and Italy was to blame.
Not the entire country, but my experience in it. My wife and I had planned a tour and for the long bus rides I thought it would be a good idea to grab a bunch of paperbacks. Since I enjoyed Garrison on the radio, I figured his books would be the perfect choice. I imagined that I would be discovering a side of this American literary icon I had not had a chance to do so before. I grabbed three of his books, Lake Wobegon Days, Wobegon Boy, and WLT: A Radio Romance.
The first book I read was Lake Wobegon Days. While I may have enjoyed such stories on the radio, this felt almost like reading scripts (skipping the tales I already knew along the way). And I fell asleep a few times in its pages. I couldn’t blame Garrison for that, the book is exactly what you would expect it to be.
It was however with Wobegon Boy that things fell apart for me. It felt so meandering, with a plot that really didn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder through it that if anyone but Garrison wrote it, would it have even found publication? Cruel to say, I know, but really it was that wanting overall.
I then started my third paperback but a few chapters in I had to give up, finding the same issues there. Those novels soured my view of his storytelling ability and that has not been repaired since.
I ended up giving my books to another tourist in exchange for her Dan Brown novels. There was just little else for me to pick from. So, yes, because of Garrison I had to read Dan Brown. Let me repeat that- Dan Brown.
I think that is worth a negative two, don’t you?
You can always sense the love that the audiences have for the show during the broadcasts. They laugh at every joke, no matter how bad, and it sounds like every musical performance gets a standing ovation.
There is something to love in the familiar. It’s one of the reasons people love traditions so much around holidays, especially Christmas. It adds a timeliness to a day, making it feel more special. And for those audiences, hearing the cowboys and the “mysteries” with Guy Noir (yes, I put that in quotes intentionally), does that for them.
But for me, I find it all so predictable. Everything about the show feels very predictable from the skits to the storytelling around his little hometown.
I remember once I was out with friends while in grad school and I did an impression of Garrison coming up with a Lake Wobegon story. I started with a man in his eighties, who had a war wound he got in his leg in WWII… which was the exact same wound his dad got on his leg in WWI… and how when his son was to go to Vietnam, he gave his son protective gear for his leg and kept writing to him asking about how his leg was doing… over the years, it became the only way he could say I love you… and it turns out he used to own a restaurant (he sold it years ago) where he had hung up his medals, and everyone would come to the restaurant to talk about their troubles like the local Lutheran pastor who was dealing with a sick dog that he would have to put down who also had a limp just like the man did…. and so the man took the dog in and…
You see what I mean? Seriously, I could build on that for twenty minutes. And the same goes for other bits in the show.
The fact is I like to be surprised in my stories, and I have not been surprised by anything on that show in quite some time. So, while some would argue that that familiarity is what they like; for me, I ain’t buying it. I find it just lazy writing. I give it a negative, but only one (which is kind since I could, if I wanted to, give one for each of the different set pieces from rhubarb pies to detectives).
In my final tally I come up even.
Someday Garrison will probably retire from his show and even The Writer’s Almanac. I don’t know if we will feel a massive mourning in our NPR listening. We really didn’t feel grief around Car Talk and they haven’t taken a call in years, but you wouldn’t know. I’m certain that A Prairie Home Companion will be the same way, with each re-broadcast carefully edited and presented as if it is still current, not something from five years ago.
Yet, there is one thing about Garrison I feel, and probably always will.
He has been able to find his niche in the American literary landscape, and is recognized by other writers and readers, no matter how truly successful his books are artistically. That is not an easy thing to pull off in our field.
Seriously, do you know how many English Majors dream of doing that? Including this one?
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Great post, Scott! I’ve listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” from time to time and have definitely heard what you’re referring to here. But he’s made it work, hasn’t he? As another English major-turned-writer, I also understand the reverence for someone who has earned his place within the collective literary consciousness of our country. I wonder if the fact that Keillor was an English major himself allows him more leeway in his jokes? Either way, you’ve given the rest of us something to think about!
Thanks Becky! Glad you liked it!
I guess he earned the opportunity to make the jokes, but how many English Major laugh along? It’s done in such a way that everyone gets to laugh at us, as compared to us laughing at ourselves. It seems when people bring up the ongoing skit to me, it is usually as a playful dig. “Did you hear what Keillor did about English Majors last week? Ha. Ha.”
Keillor jibes English majors with much affection. Alas, apparently you never took the class that taught us English majors how to take a joke.
How long is a joke still a joke? This has been going on years.
Thanks for writing!