I would have been a rock critic if I hadn’t become an English lecturer

Pam Thurschwell

Dr Pam Thurschwell is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Doctoral Studies in English and specialises in adolescence in literature, the modernist and contemporary novel and the work of Henry James.

As a child growing up in the USA, I was stuck in a book all the time. I loved stories in which magical things would happen to kids who were quite ordinary. I read all the E. Nesbit stories, and the Narnia books too, but I also loved bolshie girl heroines like Harriet the Spy.  

As a kid, I thought I was going to be a novelist and was always writing short stories, but by the time I got to college my creative writing had trailed off. I was getting excited about literary criticism and theory, especially psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and feminism. I could see that there were all these new ways of thinking about the world as well as literature.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale I did a semester abroad in London, discovered pubs, and saw Elvis Costello play. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to come back to the UK; I managed to get a two-year fellowship at Cambridge, and then did an MA at Sussex in the heavy theory days of the early 90s.  I came back to Sussex as a lecturer in 2008 and it felt like coming home.

At 13 I was listening to The Who’s Quadrophenia album all the time, so coming to Brighton was a big thing for me.  Sussex was an intellectual hotspot, but for me it was also the pull of being where the album was set. I organised a conference on campus a couple of years ago, which looked at masculinity, crowds, Englishness, violence and nostalgia as well as being a celebration of the music, the fashion, and scooters!

I am writing a book on adolescence, and teaching a third-year undergraduate class on it called About the Young Idea. In the book I argue that the 20th Century adolescent is a kind of time traveller, unsatisfied with his or her current historical moment, always looking to jump into another.  I’m looking at how adolescence is portrayed in works from 1890s novels to 1980s American high school movies.

I inevitably think about my own adolescence sometimes. I took part in a Cringe  event organised by the Mass Observation Archive, which involved reading out embarrassing excerpts from my teenage diary. In some ways growing up is not a bad thing! 

I don’t like to make pronouncements about the English novel or the American novel, but Ali Smith is one of my favourite contemporary authors. Her writing is experimental but accessible, politically astute, and funny.

I’m organising a conference for the 100th anniversary of the death of Henry James, which will take place in Rye at Lamb House, where he lived. It will focus on the last years of his life, when he wrote his amazing late novels with his amazing long sentences. And I have given a talk about an archive of Doris Lessing letters, which the University has just opened for research after 23 years.

I think I’m a fan before anything else. I would have been a rock critic if I hadn’t become an English lecturer. But actually at Sussex I can write about great literature and great pop music. David Bowie was another of my heroes and I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books after he died.  I still tear up every time I hear Drive In Saturday.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 9 March 2016

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