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Liberated zone or pure commodification?

When I was at Murdoch University in the mid-1990s, I enrolled in the two creative writing electives offered to arts students. I took those subjects knowing that afterwards I’d have to cut it on my own. It seemed only fair: a writer’s education, after all, came not from study but life. Ernest Hemingway travelled to Montparnasse where he met the ‘lost generation’ of artists. There he and James Joyce raged through the night on their alcoholic sprees. George Orwell lived as a hobo before he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London. Later he fought in the Spanish Civil War, which inspired Homage to Catalonia (just as it inspired Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls).

The writer’s alma mater was not the academy but authentic experience. Or, at least, so I thought back then.

Today, things have changed. Visit almost any university and you find students discussing their short stories in the cafes and food halls, or lying on the lawns composing poetry. Dreaming of becoming the next Helen Garner, Les Murray or Peter Carey, they pour into the creative writing courses that have multiplied in the last fifteen years. Where students once studied Virginia Woolf or Graham Greene, now they’re busy trying to emulate them.

Last year, the Australian published an essay by the inaugural professor of writing at UNSW, Stephen Muecke, celebrating the great groundswell of creativity at the universities. Australian literature now had, he suggested, a base on which to stand, a kind of liberated zone from which it could venture forth into the wider culture.

Malcolm King, former head of writing programs at RMIT, responded with an excoriating critique. When ‘university teachers and marketers talk about creativity or creative writing,’ he argued, ‘what they are really talking about is another C-word: commodification’ – the use of the ‘social cachet’ of creativity by university marketers:

Historians will look back at this period in Australia’s literary life as the time universities made large amounts of money [out of] becoming dream factories for budding writers and others. Too often, the dream has proved an illusion.

It’s true that, if they pursue creative writing as a career, students will, in many cases, end up like itinerant workers of the 1930s: perpetually insecure, roving from employer to employer, from job to job. Should we conclude, then, that creative writing courses are nothing but sirens, their seductive calls leading students onto the jagged rocks of the contemporary publishing industry?

Through a series of interviews, I set out to discover how writers, academics and publishers understood the changing relationship between writing and universities.

In every creative writing class you find students inspired by a romantic notion of creativity. They want to express, as William Faulkner once described it, the human heart in conflict with itself – but they also often want their courses to provide them with industry contacts.

Jeremy1 wore a close-cropped beard and the boots and black clothes of the inner-city artist; there was something about his soft-spokenness that immediately endeared him to me. He had published a tiny chapbook of experimental fictions: short cut-up pieces, which owed much to the avant-garde. I expected him to have copies of André Breton and William Burroughs in his bag. Dedicated to the ‘art’, he said he wanted to ‘write what I want to write … with a real passion and authenticity, and not pander to what I think will be published’. But then he immediately contradicted himself: he aimed, he explained, ‘to sculpt his work, to make it more publishable’.

Here is the conflict that every creative writer feels: the desire to search out authentic expression compared with the lure of the commercial. It’s not an invented contradiction, but one implicit in the very fabric of our society.

Not long after, I spoke to a young academic called Kerry, who has taught at a number of institutions. A part of the underclass of sessional teachers, Kerry is wildly intelligent. Her thoughts ranged across the cultural field: she talked as easily about Frederic Jameson as she did about Virginia Woolf. She came, I imagined, from the same social circle as Jeremy, yet she was ten years older. She described the attitude of her students:

We just had an open day and one of the questions I was asked repeatedly was ‘What will this qualify me to do? What can I do after this?’ … I was a little perplexed by it, because this is the Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing), so as the title suggests it’s not learning how to be a dentist or a lawyer. I sometimes see an almost problematic hunger for the idea that getting published is the absolute endgame.

The concern with vocation encouraged, she thought, a sense of entitlement in many students. If courses aim primarily to develop professional writers, many thought, then surely the institution should provide a smooth pathway into a career. Students should be connected with publishers, their work championed by their teachers. Some even expect their teachers to act as their literary agents.

Later, I talked with an international Masters student called Jasmine, whose ambition could be heard in her voice. ‘As someone paying for the school,’ she said, ‘I would expect more “I have a concept; you help me market this concept” instead of sitting in a class of twenty people where [tutors] talk in general about … “how you have to sell a concept”.’

Kerry, who taught in Jasmine’s course, observed, with some resignation, that students believed that, once they paid their fees, they would ‘emerge with a book contract’:

There are probably three ingredients in that: the profile of the course and how it was marketed, the age and economic background of the students … and … the sheer cost of the program. There’s a sense that to get your money’s worth you should be getting published.

Many creative writing academics seem, at one level, to reject this vocationalism. Kerry spoke with conviction:

I would rather that creative writing courses cultivated … a kind of ethical sensibility about writing, encouraging students to find a purpose in their writing … [They should] attract students who are interested in politics and ideas … It’s important to recognise the ways in which actually, creative writing in the academy is a challenge to those neoliberal ideas and … pragmatic ideas.

Yet teachers are often also keen to support their students, and that means that many do act as literary agents, informing publishers of promising student work.

Sam, another widely published writer working at a university, explained:

Publishers … always say … ‘creative writing has been fucking terrible for us because we have all this work coming out of universities … and they’re all technically very good but they’re too clever and they don’t know how to plot, they don’t know story, the traditions of good story’ … they often forget to mention [the successes]. But more importantly, I get asked … every time I run into a publisher … ‘Have you got any postgrads who are doing something worth publishing?’

Meanwhile, academics within the field face their own problems, often related to the discipline’s perceived lack of scholarly legitimacy within the traditional university system. Maxine, an older academic and the author of a number of ambitious novels, explained, her voice tightening, that creative writing is considered less valuable than other disciplines at her university, and that creative writing pieces do not rate in research terms since ‘a novel [is] worth less than a refereed journal or article in a good international journal’. Moreover, creative writing teachers are seen as ‘some naive blind primitives … just working on instincts’, despite the fact that she has tried to encourage ‘a dialogic relation with theory and contemporary philosophies of textuality and so on’.

Kerry, on the other hand, became slightly exasperated telling me how, while undergraduate level students were engaged with literary studies and traditional academic elements, ‘at the Masters level, students weren’t interested in the theory or the history at all. They were interested in strategies for writing and opportunities to be published.’

Many editors, too, entered the publishing industry primarily because they saw it as producing something authentic. Like the writing students and teachers, the editors I spoke to tended to cleave to the romantic notion of writing. They enthused about books, noting that they love it when a ‘wonderful’ manuscript comes across their desk. But unlike students or teachers, editors work for the industry, where the demands of business usually prevail.

I met Errol on the top floor of a major publishing house, his window overlooking the inner suburbs of Melbourne – the closest I got, in my investigation, to the romantic vision of a Manhattan publisher with views of Central Park.

Errol had a commanding presence, and the certainty in his voice suggested a man who had battled his way to success. We sat at his meeting table and he remained almost perfectly still for the duration of the interview, eyes blazing intensely.

He expressed ‘delight’ that the demand for creative writing courses is ‘generally being met at a very good and high level, and the work being done in those courses is … a significant contributor to the quality of our literature’. Like other editors, however, he did think that writing was primarily about talent.

‘What comes out the other end,’ he said, ‘won’t be because of the course, it will be because of the [writer’s] talent … the course will have helped bring that talent out if it’s there, or conversely indicated to the person that they actually don’t have that talent, which has its own value.’

For publishers, academic creative writing courses transmit a number of important techniques. Emily, a confident younger editor at a medium-sized publishing house, explained that:

[These courses] are making people aware of the importance of things like plot development – it sounds basic but that’s really useful. And the workshopping … good workshopping is incredibly valuable. In those courses you can find people who become your group of trusted readers for the rest of your writing career.

Editors and publishers also appreciate the editorial work done in creative writing degrees, work that once would have been performed by publishing companies themselves. Deborah is a small-press publisher who has experienced some recent successes:

There’s a sense in which publishing is quite happy to take these [pieces], because of the work that has gone in. It means that there’s a de facto early editorial process … which makes publishing these things cheaper.

In that sense, then, creative writing courses have become part of the literary production process, reducing publishers’ costs – in effect, a subsidy. This well suits the demand that universities be relevant to industry needs. Errol explained the broader context:

[I]n the 1970s, there was a much smaller pool of authors … fewer publishers [and] no literary agents. We were more inclined to take on things that were perhaps a bit rough around the edges in the hope that we could work with the author and polish them up … We used to do more work in those days. All sorts of things have happened since then. Literary agents have come along … creative writing courses have given people much more technique and sense of the marketplace and what’s required and so on.

Beyond this practicality, some editors also take enrolment in creative writing courses as, in Emily’s words, a sign of commitment. ‘Whenever anyone comes with trappings,’ she said, ‘[such as saying] “I’ve had stories published” or “I’ve just completed a Masters”, that suggests to me that they have that drive and that motivation and that dedication.’

Deborah, however, had a different view: ‘One of the things that I find frustrating is when people submit to you and they give you their examiners’ reports, because it’s a bizarre notion that you would take an examiner’s word over your own enjoyment of the text.’

For her, work coming out of university courses is still too weighed down by the traditional demands of academia. ‘It’s very difficult to [meet] academic requirements and also write a book that people really want to read. That sounds a bit harsh, but I just don’t think that the academic requirements are necessarily always leading you towards a book that is going to be published.’

The biggest problem, in Deborah’s opinion, is:

Where it seems [to work] on a micro-level, but not overall … where there isn’t much plot, or … where character … and writing [are] strong, but plot hasn’t really been considered; and where you feel as though the research is extraordinary but it’s just incredibly dull. You feel as though you’re learning something rather than enjoying something and … learning something along the way.

Another common criticism from editors is that there may now simply be too many creative writing graduates. Interestingly, this is a view shared by Sam, an experienced writer and teacher:

If I were in charge of the university … I would have quotas on the subject and I would probably have, certainly after first year, something like folios and interviews … to encourage students who were really … genuinely interested in doing the subject. [It would be] about trying to get students at least to think seriously about why they would do a subject like creative writing.

By the time I’d finished, I’d interviewed over thirty people. What had I learned about this new world of creative writing at universities?

It’s already clear that an increasing number of Australian books – particularly literary novels – are being produced as part of creative writing degrees. Deborah guessed that ‘a reasonably high percentage’ of novels submitted to her publishing house come from creative writing courses; Emily claimed to publish more manuscripts from academic courses than ones coming from outside the institutions; Errol said that while he cannot quantify the influence of writing courses, he is ‘absolutely certain’ that they are having an effect:

Not only are we seeing more work coming through, but I think that [these] courses [have] lifted the quality considerably. I don’t think it’s changed … the top layer … our very best writers and writing. I think it’s made a big contribution to the next level down, where we’re not seeing … as many really poorly presented, poorly thought-through manuscripts. Our job has become harder, which is great. The selection process has become more challenging, more competitive.

What, then, is the impact on literary culture as a whole? Are the courses significantly influencing the styles and subjects of published books? In the US, it’s been alleged that academic creative writing develops writers who are close to the world of their readers – a world of mass higher education and white-collar work. Is a similar process likely to occur here?

It’s certainly possible that a vocational emphasis will produce increasingly derivative books, a situation Maxine warned about:

I see it as contradictory within the academy to try and hone marketable work, because that means just joining the ‘already written’, and if you’re encouraging work to fulfil expectations of the status quo then you’re not really encouraging anything new.

As if to illustrate, Frances, a student from a wealthy background, explained that in her course she was schooled to think about her work in marketing terms:

We had to take this fledgling novel or screenplay or whatever and write summaries, chapter summaries, market analysis etc, which is quite difficult … [Initially] I freaked out a little bit and started trying to retool my book to make it a bit more commercial … [W]e did some screenwriting stuff early on, and the teacher said, ‘If you want to explore your creative side, go somewhere else.’

Interestingly, as students flood into writing classes, the literary novel that most of them seek to produce arguably occupies an increasingly attenuated place in contemporary culture. According to a study by Nicola Boyd, in 1996, only one creative writing PhD was awarded throughout Australia and New Zealand.2 By 2004, that figure rose to twenty-five and then, by 2006, to thirty-five. By contrast, Mark Davis, in an article noting the decline of what he calls the ‘literary paradigm’, pointed out that in 1996, sixty literary novels were published in Australia. By 2004, the figure had declined to thirty-two and, by 2006, to only twenty-eight.3

In other words, the rise in students writing novels (for that’s what most creative writing PhDs entail) seems to correlate with a decline in such novels actually being published.

If Davis is correct, the social role played by literature is increasingly being replaced by reality television, vacuous ‘society of the spectacle’ Hollywood blockbusters and cricketers’ biographies perfect for ‘dad’s birthday’. This is a culture whose primary aim is to take us away from the world, to feed us degraded ideological constructions and images of the lives we secretly yearn for but will never have. It is a culture of distraction and consolation.

But the future is not yet written. For one thing, universities are not fully commercialised; there remains a countervailing logic of education that will be difficult to entirely erase. What’s more, the literary field itself is a site of struggle, in which differing aesthetic conceptions challenge each other. The decline of the literary paradigm is as much a political process as an economic one. The McDonald’s culture has risen because the defeat of the Left and the increasing commodification of all areas of life – or, more properly, the defeat of the Left in the last thirty years has enabled that commodification, both in the economic sphere where market logic reigns uncontested, and in the cultural sphere where social values have been jettisoned for individualism. In this sense, some creative writing academics are fighting a valiant battle, arguing for old liberal or Left notions of what education should be, as opposed to pure vocationalism.

It’s possible, then, to imagine a countercultural movement that argues for a literature that takes us back into the world – that thinks about the issues that surround and affect us – rather than away from it: a culture of engagement rather than escapism, of reflection rather than consolation.

Of course, that’s a long-term project. In the meantime, Australian literary production is already changing – and the creative writing course has become a major factor in this change, for good or for ill.

  1. All names have been changed in this article to preserve anonymity.
  2. Nicola Boyd, ‘Describing the Creative Writing Thesis: A Census of Creative Writing Doctorates, 1993–2008’, TEXT, vol. 13, no. 1, 2009, http://www.textjournal.com.au/april09/boyd.htm, accessed 6 July 2009.
  3. Mark Davis, ‘The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing’ in David Carter and Anne Galligan (eds), Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2007.

Rjurik Davidson is a freelance writer and Associate Editor of OverlandUnwrapped Sky, was published by Tor Books in 2014. Sci Fi Now claims it can 'go toe-to-toe with China Miéville’s best.' Kirkus Reviews calls it “Impressively imagined and densely detailed.” PS Publishing published his collection, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. Rjurik’s screenplay 'The Uncertainty Principle' (co-written with Ben Chessell) is currently in development. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets at @rjurikdavidson

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