Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Production Line Novelists

Matthew Wright investigates UK Creative Writing courses for Education Guardian. This bit struck me:
Novels by faculty members count as publications towards a department's research exercise. [Philip] Hensher [professor at Exeter] says there "may be some awareness in departments that employing a busy novelist, publishing a book every two years or so, is not going to do their RAE scores any harm."
Well now. Some prolific novelists are great. But not all great novelists are prolific.

Can you see where this could be leading?


Vanessa G said...

I worry terribly about the moves by the Universities to 'academicize' writing.

I have absolutely no problem with Philip Hensher, or his work at Exeter University. They seem to be nurturing real sparks, among them, Luke Kennard . The editors of the new literary short fiction publication Riptide are both students there.


I attended the first couple of terms of a creative writing certificate at a different university when I first wanted to write, five years ago.

A few quotes:

"No, we don't like our students focusing on short stories. There is no market for them, anywhere. Why don't you cut your teeth on a nice novel?"

"W. G. Sebald, who is that? Can't you study a writer with a record?"

I left.

Of the fourteen others who saw the course, not A SINGLE ONE is writing.

What is going on? And a better question, what is going to be the result of this academicisation of writing?

Writing is not an academic pursuit. It is a craft, pure and simple.

I was told that, at one of the top University CW courses, there was such friction between the English Department and the Creative Writing staff and students, that in the end, CW was moved out.

The English staff saw CW as a lesser being to their literary criticism.

I think they have discovered that CW students are a neat source of cash. Thats all. And plug a 'real writer' or two in to the system, thats easy, as they all need a bit of extra cash, n'est-ce pas?

So sure, people chucking out novels, thats fine and dandy. But I do think that you have to look very very VERY carefully at the courses on offer.

There are some very good, grounded, inspirational ones. Those places come up again and again on writers' CVs.

But there are some bad ones.

I found out after I left that my 'tutor' during those few terms was a person who was unpublished apart from a second prize in a popular magazine competition. She had been awarded an MA in creative writing, by the same university who then employed her to TEACH me how to write. Her own stuff was drab in the extreme, from what I saw.

Haven't we all met people with MAs in CW who we wouldn't publish if they were the last writer on earth? I certainly have!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Mm, a lot of this sounds pretty familiar. I wouldn't agree though that writing is just a craft. The craft aspects of writing CAN be taught, I think, but the other things - insight, inspiration etc - can't.

Vanessa G said...

I take your point, but in this argument, the niceties seemed to be between writing as an academic pursuit, and a craft based one.

Sure... excellence in writing in the world I aspire to needs spark, inspiration, insight. And it needs excellent craft skills. And yes they can be taught. I was taught... certainly wasnt born being able to write OK.

But. You can teach all the craft in the world, and without the sparks, the originality, the work will be soulless.

Frances said...

I have been put off applying for an MA course by what I regarded as the poor standards offered by the tutors on an undergraduate course which I took.

I agree with Elizabeth that the 'creative' part of 'creative writing' can't be taught but unfortunately some courses seem to be doing quite well out of trying to persuade people otherwise.

Charles Lambert said...

Italian universities make a great fuss about the difference between sapere (knowing), which is good, and saper fare (knowing how to do), which is less good. Essentially, the distinction protects pure academics from the risk of dirtying their hands, and not only metaphorically. (I heard about one foundation course on IT conducted without the use of a single computer!) Language teaching, of course, is seen as saper fare and the status of language teachers is suitably downgraded as a result. Unfortunately, one doesn't necessarily follow from the other. In a valid academic environment, learning to think in a rigorous and interrogative fashion (i.e. doing philosophy) or analyse information (i.e. doing history, or geography, or biology) are just as hands-on as learning to speak Chinese (and considerably less demanding).

I'd agree with Vanessa that learning how to write is skills-based, but so is learning how to read. And some people are better at it than others and will learn more effectively. So I think the problem is elsewhere.

There is a massive issue about the way British universities are forced to fund themselves. I did an MA in linguistics some years ago and was fortunate to go to one of the relatively few places where MAs of this type have any real value (other than on a CV), but even so there was always the sense that we'd paid. We were students but also customers. The selection process could have been more rigorous, and would have been if there weren't accountants hovering behind the academics, and quotas to be filled, and so on. Universities employ poor people and allow untalented students onto courses for the basest of reasons, because they have no choice. And that's a far more worrying situation than whether CW can be taught.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I think this is getting back to the point in my post: ie it's a poor situation if universities end up choosing their CW staff on the basis of how likely they are to attract funding, and this likelihood is determined chiefly by how prolific they are.