Monday, May 04, 2009

Forget the Money, or Even the Publication

Two letters in today's Guardian defending 'creative writing' courses in response to the article by Ian Jack which I discussed below.

In fact, in doing so, they both strongly endorse Jack's case that the possibility of writing books for a living is becoming ever more a pipe dream. The first is from Neil Nixon, Pathway leader at NW Kent College who, he says, started the UK's first full-time HE course in professional writing in 1999. He asserts that his course 'require[s] students to back up career decisions with substantial research of the hard realities of the market' and that other degree courses are 'moving many undergraduates to understanding changing markets, concentrating less on declining areas of writing and more on the realities of turning ideas into money' [my italics]. He ends by sounding a death knell: 'This, put crudely, is where the future lies for those who, in Jack's day, saw themselves as writers.'

The second letter, from John Petherbridge, seems to me to offer a better defence: that creative writing is a discipline to be learnt for its own sake: 'Those same critics think there is nothing odd about the fact that most students, who study history, for example, don't become historians.' This has certainly been the principle behind those Creative Writing BA modules on which I have taught, and I'd add further that practice can be a useful element of a proper study of English Literature. But that first argument is weaker in a climate where universities are moving towards vocationalism (and the departments of 'pure' disciplines are being closed down or starved of money). And I have to say that of all the many people I know who have done Novel-Writing MAs I don't think there are any who didn't do it without hoping to become professional writers as a result (let me know, any of you, if I'm wrong!) and whenever I've talked to MA groups - or for that matter, any workshop groups - the thing they're always most keen to know is how to get published.

And the thought of paying those fees just to have the 'hard-headed agents and publishers' shipped in to the City Lit by John Petherbridge to be 'frank about the problems of getting work published'...

14 comments:

Bournemouth Runner said...

We should probably request there be warning stickers on any books from any writers who have been unfortunate enough to drift through NW Kent college's creative writing programme.

As you know, Elizabeth, you're absolutely right in that MA students all want to get published. I guess though I was well aware that becoming a "professional writer" was a little of a false positive. I didn't imagine books alone could pay a living wage (they take too long, they earn too little). But then again, having spent 9 years as a full time computer programmer, (so, ironically, a professional (code) writer!) any vaguely creative job was going to be a privilege. (Still not found one, but there you go.)

Elle Scott said...

Great post! I think that all it takes for would-be writers to know if they are writing for love or money are a few rejections from publishers and/or agents.

mike duron said...

It's impossible to make a living writing books. Just ask all those people writing the thousands and thousands of Romance novels being bought at malls across the world on a daily basis.

Poor novelists. Who wants to break the bad news to them? Let them know they should take up accounting ... or (gulp) IT work....

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Elle. But I think some things need teasing out here: first, there's the idea of writing for money. Then there's the idea for writing for the love of it. Thirdly, there's the idea of writing to communicate (the one Jack holds up as the supremely serious reason), and for this last you need to get published somehow. The question at issue then is: do you publish without remuneration?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Can I introduce my two guests to each other? Mike, Adrian; Adrian, Mike.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

I taught on the University of Glamorgan's MPhil programme. In my experience most writers were hoping to get published but it wasn't just about that. Some wanted the MPhil to become teachers themselves; some who'd just graduated and got proper (ie boring) jobs wanted to keep a toehold in academia and writing, and some just wanted to motivate themselves to finish that novel - yes, they'd like it published too, but the act of finishing, for folk who may have a drawerful of half-completed novels, is more important that I would have thought.

A lot of our ex-students have been book-published, and even more have had some magazine or competition success. But some have become teachers or gone into editing and publishing work.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for this, Sheena. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Elizabeth.
I enrolled on my MA because I have always had an urge to write. Having strayed on to doing a BA in visual art theory, I really wanted to explore creative writing. For me, I needed the structure that deadlines and workshops would bring to make myself get into the practice of writing. I am currently writing up my dissertation (a collection of short stories) and I feel the course has been a massive help to me. After hand-in, I am going to start developing my novel. Writing is something I need to do and something I love doing but I am under no delusions; I will always need a 'day job'.

Emily

Elle Scott said...

Point taken, Elizabeth. The idea of communicating is very important, and I hadn't thought of it quite that way. I had always figured this to be a part of the love of writing. But now I understand that a person could love to write yet still not be interested in publishing. Thanks for clarifying.

Elizabeth Baines said...

It's great that you've found it so useful, Emily. And good luck with your dissertation!

Melissa Lee-Houghton said...

I couldn't possibly comment on the merits of academic creative writing courses, as for me they are at least an impossibility financially and in respect to the life I lead- but having done nothing else worthwhile but write all these years I have had to consider what publishing would mean to me and if writing is a 'career possibility.' I don't work, or have much of an income, and perhaps nobility and stupidity are becoming one and the same thing...BUT..But bloody-minded literary-ness makes me expempt from any market that is likely to make me any money or commercial success whatsoever- it's a harsh reality but I wish more people would accept it and sit at home reading and writing and loving literature rather than studying success and an industry which is making those who adore real literature hard to access- there are exceptions, there are some fabulous independent markets etc. and incredible talents who would flourish under any circumstances, but I'm saddened, not just by writers, but all types of artists, who believe courses, and putting tremendous effort into work they don't hold dear will put them at the forefront of what is essentially a competitive free for all. Yes, I'm old fashioned. And I sound like an indefatiguable grump.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Melissa, a lot of people will agree with you - including me: as I say, I'd rather publish the things I really want to write and earn little or no money for it than compromise and write something commercial...

Anonymous said...

I have an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Worksop and have since published 7, soon to be 8, novels. I did not attend Iowa because I wanted to write novels, I wanted an MFA as a sort of union card that would enable me to teach at a university, because I did not expect to be able to earn a living as a writer. My first novel was published the same year I graduated from Iowa, and it turned out that I was able to mostly make a living from writing without having to teach.

That is what I think is the only real value of academic programs in writing -- the need to get a job. In fact, if one wants to write, almost anything is better than spending time in writers workshops -- pumping gas, putting up hay, selling shoes, driving a truck ... .

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hey, congratulations, Donigan - that's wonderful! Interesting though that you don't see your writing success as related to your course.