Oct 15 2010 11:42am

Intergalactic Autodidactic

In science fiction and fantasy, some really great authors have been autodidacts. Terry Pratchett chose not to go to a university. Same for Alan Moore. Philip K. Dick’s college days were short lived, as were Andre Norton’s, though for very different reasons. Dick refused to comply with the university’s mandatory ROTC training; Norton could not afford to continue. Money troubles also cut short the schooling of Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl. Pohl’s fellow Futurian H. Beam Piper was also self-educated (and possibly Damon Knight as well, though the bios I’ve read aren’t clear on this).

Let me define my terms. Anyone can be an autodidact, whether they have three doctorates or never passed third grade. For the purpose of this post, I’m focusing on those who have some formal education, usually up to high school, maybe a quick taste of college, and then chose to self-educate thereafter.

Being an autodidact has worked pretty well for me. I don’t consider my education inferior to that of many university-educated people I’ve known. Different, yes. But not inferior. That said, I don’t romanticize it. It sure isn’t a fast track to a high salary. And there are gaps in my knowledge that a classroom, curriculum and a good teacher could have filled. But I don’t regret the course I’ve taken.

Just to set the record straight right away, I am not speaking against traditional higher education. Some autodidacts consider it their duty to disparage schooling but I have never taken that position. The fact remains, however, that for some people, colleges and universities don’t work out. But simply because traditional classroom experience cannot fulfill every student’s needs doesn’t mean that a great education is no longer an option.

Learning differences—I don’t like calling them disabilities—can lead to students being misunderstood, burning out early or never really learning much in school. Some simply feel they’re better off on their own. Cost can certainly be a factor as well.

Some people drop out of high school and never give another thought to education. Some people go to a university and emerge intellectually dead. These are worst-case scenarios. Some receive great educations in all levels of schooling, igniting a love of learning that never ends. That’s wonderful (and I suspect this is the case with most sci-fi and fantasy authors). Whatever the details, curiosity and a passion for learning matter most; the methods are secondary.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being an autodidact in place of going to college. Advantage: The student-teacher ratio is tough to beat. Disadvantage: No diploma. Advantage: A library card is cheaper than student loans. Disadvantage: A number of professions are closed off to the self-taught (and not without reason). Advantage: You can study anything in the world. Disadvantage: Some subjects are very, very difficult to study alone.

I’ve seen it suggested that because of the internet and the massive amount of information contained therein, we could be entering a “golden age” for autodidacts. I’m cautious, perhaps a little pessimistic, about this idea. Yes, the internet is the autodidact’s friend. It can be a profound tool for research. But it’s just that, a tool. Libraries are also tools, but access to info alone does not make an education. The responsibility remains with the individual, whether they attended the greatest university in the world or are like Abraham Lincoln, who had few educational resources but utilized them to the best of his ability. While slaying vampires, I am told.

All of that considered, I think autodidacts in sci-fi may be a dying breed. None of the authors I mentioned earlier are new or particularly young. In all honesty, I’ve had a hell of a time finding one born after 1960.

Ray BradburyI think the reason for this gap is, in part, monetary. Several of the authors mentioned couldn’t afford college during the Depression. As Ray Bradbury once remarked: “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (Side note: Bradbury lives a few blocks from me and our local library has a community room named after him. I have seen him there only a couple times, but I am told he is a regular.)

I also suppose that more employers now expect to hire college educated people than in earlier years. Though you don’t need a degree to write a book, it certainly could help when it comes to putting food on the table when the writing doesn’t pay all the bills.

Another possibility is that such authors are out there but don’t advertize the fact. You don’t see author bios reading, “Two-time Hugo nominee Sally Genre attended community college for twenty minutes. She lives in Hartford, Connecticut with two cats, also self-taught.”

If you know of any autodidact authors, especially recent ones, I’d be most grateful if you mentioned them. Given that science fiction and fantasy authors tend to be very well educated, I’m always pleased to learn of those who went it solo. I say pleased because I’m I’ve had to defend that path many times against those who equate “self-taught” with “poorly educated.”

Jason Henninger works near the beautiful Santa Monica Public Library and thinks it must feel really cool to have a community room in a library named after you.

John Coulthart
1. John Coulthart
Michael Moorcock is a writer I usually mention in conversations about this subject. He left school at 15 and worked as an office boy until he started working on Tarzan Adventures at 17 or so.

On a lateral note, people seldom apply the term "self-taught" to writers and musicians yet regularly do to artists who miss art school. I've never understood why this happens.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
For the post-war generation, post-secondary education became both more accessible and more affordable. This undoubtedly contributed to a general decline in autodidacts. As the affordable side of that equation continues to vanish, we will probably see an increase again.

The only other names I can offer you are HP Lovecraft (who may not even have graduated high school) and Neil Gaiman.
Jason Heller
3. JasonHeller
I'm with you, Jason. I dropped out of high school halfway through 12th grade. Before high school, I'd been a straight-A student placed in gifted classes--but emotional problems (I won't bore you with tmi) hampered me as soon as adolescence kicked in hard. So I got a job in a warehouse, moved out at 17, and started playing in punk bands, drawing comics, writing about music, and reading as many brainy-looking books as I could get my grubby hands on.

It was liberating and exhilarating to take my life into my own hands, but soon I started fearing for my future. I got my GED when I was 20 and enrolled in college. Throughout my 20s, I served three separate stints in college, none of which lasted more than two semesters. After years of on-again-off-again frustration--not to mention a burgeoning debt; I had to borrow most of my money for school--I gave up for good when I was around 30. Technically, I was still a measly sophomore, and I feel I had learned very little for all that time and money spent. And although I was far more emotionally stable than I'd been as a teenager, I still found myself very intimidated and stressed out by the demands of school. The work itself wasn't hard. It was the pace, structure, red tape, and expense that I couldn't handle.

I had another incentive to quit school for good: I was studying English and journalism, and during my last stretch in college the music editor of my city's local alt-weekly paper offered me some assignments. It was totally out of the blue. She'd read some reviews I'd written in a little Xeroxed punk 'zine a friend of mine used to publish. Within a couple years of that first professional freelance assignment, I'd started doing so much arts-and-entertainment journalism that I was able to quit my retail job and become a fulltime writer.

It's eight years later, and I'm still a fulltime freelance writer and editor. I decided to jump into fiction about three years ago and wrote my first science-fiction short story when I was 35. My first pro-level story sale came about nine months later. Now I've got a contract with Quirk Books/Random House and two books--one's nonfiction, one's a novel--on the way.

I don't say any of this to boast; if I'd been really smart, I would've figured out how to overcome my personal difficulties long ago, and I wouldn't be sitting here at the age of 38 trying to play a desperate (if exciting) game of career catch-up. Being self-taught has been both a blessing and a curse. I've been able to follow many of my passions in life--and quite a few vices. I've got a juicy abundance of life experience to draw on. At the same time, as you mention, anything I've learned, I've learned the hard way. Sometimes very hard. And I most definitely have gaps in my education, too. But overall, I'm happy when I look back at my weird, roundabout, self-navigated path to become a writer.

Luckily, being involved in punk rock for so long (hell, I still play in punk bands) gave me a thicker skin when it came to people looking down on me for my lack of formal education. The only person who's really beaten me up over the years has been me. But at this point, I really can't complain.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful piece!
Chris Lough
4. TorChris
@1. Interesting. I've found that the term "self-taught" tends to be assumed for artists in the same sense that it is for actors and musicians.

@3. Jason, amazing response. Thank you for posting that. I hope other bloggers will speak up about their educational (or non-educational) experiences.

(Also, for our readers here, if you're not reading Jason's "Frequency Rotation" column you're missing an amazing aspect of science fiction that Jason is covering very dutifully and very thoroughly. Expect the latest iteration of his column later today.)
Ashe Armstrong
5. AsheSaoirse
I just went back to college. Let me say immediately: I hate college. I hate the structure, I hate the process, I hate how your first two years consists of a lot of shit you took in high school. I hate how it's mandatory. I hate how you have to do very specific things on most (especially writing) assignments that end up feeling stifling. I hate how until you're a junior, you don't really get much in the way of class discussion (and I hate that even in junior level classes, sometimes it still doesn't happen).

But, I went back with a goal to get my English degree and then go to grad school and get my Masters to be a librarian. As a day job. I really dislike the education system as a whole and that started around the 7th grade when I hit a wall. There were a couple of classes I was still learning in but at that point, I started getting bored and started getting curious on my own. I even opted to just get my GED (although there were circumstances leading up to that) and go on to college. I don't regret the decision at all. I hated high school. Once I started college though, I discovered just how much I'd rather teach myself or work on my own with access to someone with more knowledge and experience than my own.

There are times where I will get on wikipedia and waste a couple of hours looking up things and following links. I've sat in classes before and flipped through the textbooks reading on my own. You know the drill. I could rant about education for hours, especially with my mom working in the field. It's ridiculous. College is basically 4 years and a shit ton of money to prove you can jump through hoops to your future employer. I'm highly in favor of tech schools after attending one (it was a year program for broadcast & sound engineering). Colleges need to restructure or we need to embrace "alternative education" more widely.
John Coulthart
6. N. Mamatas
I was susprised to see that Delany wasn't mentioned in this article—I forget whether he completed one semester at City College or dropped out before the semester was over, but he's done pretty well for himself, even as an academic, since then.

Of course, it's possible, and indeed even likely, to be an autodidact in college these days—you get access to great libraries, and plenty of time do read/do your own thing while doing time in this or that giant lecture hall while a professor tries to lower your IQ with PowerPoint.
John Coulthart
7. jharris
Very interesting article. I would tend to agree for the most part but I have to say that while I think being self-taught is fantastic and in many professions is useful and adequate--unless you are going to be a writer, musician, artist or possibly own your own business, it's often no enough.

It's not just about being able to pick up books, read the information and then know stuff. You also need to be able to thinking critically, write well, take criticism from peers and those who honestly know more than you do, debate, problem solve, and any other number of things that you can't necessarily learn by reading about it. That being said I don't think that being self-taught means you can't learn these things: participating in many aspects of society will help you learn these skills too, but it's a little scary to me to hear AsheSaoirse be so negative about formal education. She wants to be a librarian and gets information (in a quest to be self-taught I assume) from Wikipedia but a librarian or library student would NEVER get their information from wikipedia because it isn't a reliable source of information. (btw, I'm a librarian) I'm not saying this to be a jerk, but the point is--how do you know what your reading off the Internet is true? What if you don't even have the skills to know if what you're learning about is accurate? That's why there are rules and standards, professors and Ph. D's, annoying formatting requirements on English papers and the grading system--you need to 1) be able to identify that what you're learning is accurate and true 2) be able to prove your knowledge and understanding of a subject. What if you read something in a book but completely miss the concept? This had happenede to everyone at some point in their education--multiple times in their education. That's how you get things wrong in school--but in school someone will say to you "You're wrong, here is the right answer." If you teach yourself and have no accountability you'll never know if you truely understand the material you're reading/learning about.

I'm self-taught on several topics--there are many things you can learn that way. But don't bash the education system, because its there for a reason. If you are self-taught and its working for you--that is fantastic and I'm with you 100%. But if you are simply mad at a system that isn't perfect--your not an autodidact, your just rebellious.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
8. pnh
"Pohl’s fellow Futurian H. Beam Piper was also self-educated"

I'm fairly sure H. Beam Piper was never a Futurian. The idea that he was seems to trace back to the Wikipedia page about Damon Knight, which for whatever reason has been copied and reposted in several places on the net. Piper's first sale was in 1947, and in the 1950s he was a member of the Hydra Club, as were some of the Futurians, but I don't think he was ever part of the earlier group.

On a different note, I myself neither finished high school nor went to college, so I guess I qualify as one of SF's autodidacts. We are everywhere...
Jason Henninger
9. jasonhenninger
Thanks for all responses. And I certainly second the recommendation for Jason Heller's Frequency Rotation posts.

Gaiman? Really? I had no idea.

@3 Thank you for the thorough response. Your story resonates with my own in many respects, though my high school grades were generally shit and I have no musical ability.

I wanted to mention Delany but I wasn't sure, since I'd seen him mentioned as a professor. I wondered if maybe he'd had a college education that I just hadn't read about. I should read his autobiography.

Thank you for the correction. Also, do you know if I am right in considering Knight an autodidact? What I've read implied that, but it was never stated outright.
Jason Heller
10. JasonHeller
@9: Just to clarify, Jason: My grades were total shit by the time I got halfway through high school, too. In fact, that's why I dropped out halfway through senior year: At that point, I was going to have to repeat 12th grade before I could graduate, and for someone who used to be a "smart kid," the thought of being held back was mortifying.

Most of my Fs were due to my attendance (or lack thereof). I still completed enough homework and performed well enough on tests to have had at least a B average, but there was a three-strikes-you-fail policy at my school when it came to unexcused absences. The irony? I was ditching school at least twice a week to hang out at the public library four blocks away and read books! I wanted desperately to learn. I just couldn't stand sitting through, for instance, the exact same American History class I'd been subjected to every school year since I was 8.

I could blame the school system, of course, and surely it was partly to blame. So was my family (won't go into that here!). But I pretty much stopped playing the blame game years ago. Was my education handicapped by certain situations and institutions? No doubt. But I found my way around it. The best I can do now--being someone who has no kids himself--is to vote for politicians who might actually do something to help out the public education system. Not to open that can of worms!
David Levinson
11. DemetriosX
Re: Gaiman - Near as I can tell, he has no university level education. He was definitely working as a professional journalist by the time he was 21 or 22 and I can find no mention anywhere of him having a degree at least.
John Coulthart
12. N. Mamatas
Yup, Delany had a semester or less of college education as is still a professor. He explains what happens a bit here:
John Coulthart
13. TrishB2
This is the type of discussion that always makes me laugh, due to my dad's job and his background. He dropped out of high school to get away from his parents. He then started work on the NYS Thruway, received his GED, got a job at GE as a draftsman, worked his way up to engineer, got his college degree, and is still working on repair design for jet engines and gas turbines at 68.

My story isn't quite as interesting, but I did prove that it was possible to flunk out of a college where that isn't supposed to be possible, despite just off from perfect SAT scores. Although I studied art history in college, my last job was in IT, focused on statistical analyis and project managment.
Wesley Parish
14. Aladdin_Sane
Speaking facetiously, autodidactism is a part and parcel of research - research is after all, asking the universe silly questions and getting silly answers until neither question nor answer are silly any more. Viz., the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, etc ....

I myself am an autodidact in neuroscience, having been invalided out of Uni during my first year as a BA in Classic (Latin) due to a bicycle accident (I went through a green light while a motorist was going through the red light; he tried to go through me, leaving me for dead) that resulted in an extra-dural haematoma. Since I knew nothing about neuroscience beforehand, I thought the only way to get on top of this before it got on top of me, was to research it, and bought up books like AR Luria's The Working Brain - to find out why my brain wasn't working properly - Dr Muriel Lezak's Neuropsychological Assessment, and Guyton's Basic Neuroscience: Anatomy and Physiology, with Springer and Deutsch's Left Brain Right Brain thrown in as well. All due to picking up Dr Oliver Sachs' The man who mistook his wife for a hat, and finding out there actually was a well-defined scientific (as well as medical) discipline dealing with my situation.

The interesting thing is that when I mention my reading list to people in the neuroscience field, I get treated as an honorary peer. According to at least one of them, I have read more in the field than their graduate students.

I owe much of what control I have had over my situation, to Oliver Sachs' book. You should give him an interview on - because far too many SF writers are happily ignorant when it comes to neuroscience, and I get sick of reading absurdities such as the brain of the Pak Protector expanding after eating Tree-of-Life ...
Elizabeth Bear
15. matociquala
Me (Elizabeth Bear): -- no college degree. Cory Doctorow, I believe. I was going to mention Neil and PNH.

There's almost as many of us as there are Ph.D.s *g*
Karen Lofstrom
16. DPZora
I'm ABD (All But Dissertation) but I feel that most of my REAL education has been self-taught ... first with libraries and book purchases, then over the net. Reading academic blogs, editing at Wikipedia, and proofreading at Distributed Proofreaders have deepened me in a way that my wretched years in grad school never did. Learning from the net feels like drinking from a firehose.

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