Creative writing courses are still on the rise. Why are they so popular? Do they breed cookie-cutter writers, or can they develop a deeper social and political power?
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students attending ‘imaginative writing courses’ has steadily increased over the past ten years, from 2745 students in 2003, to 7455 students in 2011 – and that number doesn’t include people who take additional modules in CW… though I am very interested to see how the higher course fees this year will affect the number of students who pay to study CW at university.
And that’s just higher education. Arvon courses, the Faber Academy and hundreds of adult education/recreational courses are flourishing.
Recently, The Guardian posted an article by writer Jeanette Winterson on teaching creative writing. This is something I’m deeply interested in, as a student of HE writing courses and as a potential future tutor myself.
Winterson first muses at how the role of writer has changed from solitary craftsman to social and communal tutor.
Writers are out of the study and on the road – and when they are not entertaining readers they are invited to enlighten would-be writers. The most solitary of pursuits has become communal, organised, live, extrovert and competitive.
Is this because writing has become a commodity – “cult cargo”, as Val Mcdermid puts it?
I wonder if there has been a genuine rise in people’s interest in creative writing, or whether people’s interests were always there and universities and companies have simply been increasingly filling the demand.
The creative writing moment/movement baffles me and it intrigues me. What does it signify, all this creative longing? And why through language? Specifically fiction, poetry, memoir?
If you keep a notebook or blog or even tweet, you call yourself a writer. Is it about recognition? Contribution? Identity? It can’t be about money, because it costs more to go on a good course than most people will ever make back from their writing. It isn’t about fame in any obvious X Factor way either. Few writers are well-known. Almost none of them are stopped in the street.
I think there is a direct correlation between the development of the internet and social media, and the amount of people who want to be writers. Blogging and writing forums provides immediate platforms for writing with immediate potential for engagement with readers and other writers. Social media has suddenly made a solitary profession incredibly social, allowing writers across the globe to connect with each other while they sit at their desks tapping away at their latest novel or blog post.
The crazy part of it is that we are breeding professional, competent, homogenised writers who will go on to teach writing that is professional, competent and homogenised. The intriguing part of it is whether this movement towards creativity and self-expression is really the start of a kind of Occupy – that it could be dangerous and confrontational, not homogenised at all.
Creative writing at university is often criticised for producing cookie-cutter writers who go on to be tutors instead of writers – creating a incestuous and self-cannibalising cycle of writer-clones. I don’t believe in this notion. If creative writing is taught correctly (and the definition of that is widely debatable – as it should be) then students should be provided with a space to breathe and take risks, where original thought and academic challenge should be encouraged.
Is the world of work plus the leisure offerings of mass entertainment now so banal and unsatisfying that creative writing offers a fight-back? If the society we are making – that is, the society unelected big business is making for us – is both soulless and soul destroying, then micro solutions such as creative writing could return some sense of both individuality and community. And if learning to communicate goes beyond talking to yourself in a private language, then it might become an instrument of change.
I like this idea. I like the idea that creative writing is not just a banal hobby, but can be political, powerful, an instrument of dramatic change.
The arts are responsive to social change. Writing isn’t something handed down from a big brain in an ivory tower – that’s the academy, not the rough and tumble of creativity. Writing is a conversation, sometimes a fist-fight. It is democratic.
If the new writing phenomenon is to be positive it needs to be bold. I believe that we are all part of the creative continuum, but I am sure that there are different doses and dilutions of creativity. We are not all the same and we do not have the same aptitudes or talents. I can’t make you a writer. What I can do is show you how to strip a piece of text like dismantling an engine – and put it back and see why it roars or purrs.
Teaching creative writing is not just about transferring knowledge from one mind to another. It’s more about teaching the skills to assess writing, deconstruct and reconstruct, challenge and discuss. It’s through these methods that creativity is nurtured and writers become powerful.
It is a very interesting time for publishing. A while ago, I wrote a post called Self-Publishing 101 in which I discussed why my thoughts on self-publishing were changing, and my observations on how to self-publish well, and self-publish badly.
The Catalyst of Technology
Technology is the biggest catalyst in the publishing world. The internet has never been more powerful. Bookshops are crumbling beneath the power of Amazon. In a global economical crisis, people are more likely to buy discounted books online than spend time travelling to and then searching bookshops for the same book at a higher price. The rise of social media has created an immense jump in word-of-mouth marketing, with thousands of review blogs, websites such as GoodReads and people chatting on Twitter and Facebook. It means as soon as we hear about a good book online, we’re only a few clicks away from buying it for ourselves.
As for ebooks, who knows how they will eventually change the face of publishing. In May 2011, Amazon announced that ebooks outsold paper books. The future of ebooks is uncertain. Will they continue to rise in popularity because of their (usually marginally) lower price, instant deliverability, and easy portability? Or will they fade away once they hype has gone and people miss the smell of good ol’ fashioned paper?
The Development of the Publishing House
The last time publishing had such a shake-up was probably with the invention of the printing press. Before publishing houses existed, books were printed and sold by the vendor. Before the 1960s, the book publishing industry was predominantly owned by mostly independent companies whose only business was books. Growing profits made them attractive to larger corporations, and eventually these big corporations also started buying out independent book shops. With the immense growth of a few major companies, the smaller companies vanished, and the big companies gained control over the publishing industry.
While corporate profits have increased (which is good news for the shareholders) the type and scope of books have decreased. Instead of risking the publication of new titles by unknown authors, these corporations tend to stick with known authors and past success formulas. This, of course, makes it difficult for new authors with new ideas to enter the marketplace. (Source)
Self-Publishing Over the Centuries
Self-publishing has been around a lot longer than recent years, and held a lot less stigma. At first, before large corporations rose up to take control of the publishing process, those who owned or had access to printing presses because their own publishers. Then, self-publishing became a means for self-expression without censorship.
In 1644, John Milton published Areopagitica, in which he notes that writers can sidestep the censorship of the church and government by publishing their own books. In 1843, Charles Dickens feuded with his publisher over low royalties and goes on to publish A Christmas Carol by his own means. In 1917, Virginia Woolf and her husband set up their own publishing house in their home. The famous writers’ bible, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White was originally self-published in 1918. (Source.) There is a very long list of famous and successful writers who are self-published.
Power and Control in Publishing
But as the publishing world changes, the power shifts. Publishing houses churn out millions of professionally developed books, and bookshops liaise exclusively with publishers. Both the publishing houses and the bookshops develop the book market as a precise science, giving readers quality products in a highly accessible way, therefore making the biggest profit. This model remained unchanged for a long time, and has become ingrained in society’s mind as the normal and correct way the publishing industry should be set up. Publishers become the trusted experts of the industry, and readers are happy to put their faith in them without a second thought.
However, when you are a passive consumer and are not immersed in the industry, it is easy to forget that the publisher’s main goal is not to bring you wonderful books, it is to make money. Publishing is always first and foremost a business. When the publishers hold all the power of the book industry, and independent book shops are swallowed by superpowers, we get a network of superpowers that hold all the control. And we still accept this as the norm, as how it should be.
Diversity is a Strength
Diversity in the arts is always a strength. Freedom of self-expression is a human right. In theory, the rise of self-publishing in recent years, made possible by the development of technology and the social media boom, is a good thing. However, inevitably a large proportion of self-published work is of a much lower quality than the traditionally published work we are used to. It had not been through the same channels of quality assurance, it has not been produced in-line with market trends, it has not had money spent on promotion. This, understandably, is how self-publishing gets a bad name.
Self-publishing, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Many of the products are poor, and this taints the better products before they can be judged on their own merits. It is a shame that self-publishing has such a stigma surrounding it. However, with a good product and tactful marketing, a self-published novel can be a success. Again, it comes down to technology. Print-on-demand is often expensive, but the production of an ebook is minimal. As ebooks continue to rise in popularity, and social media and the internet continues to be the most effective way of spreading word-of-mouth recommendations (the most effective marketing tool, in my opinion), self-publishing has hope.
For the author, self-publishing brings a level of control that would otherwise be stunted by a publisher, and the freedom of expression. For the reader, it expands the market. Some may say that filling the market with sub-par material is more damaging to the reader’s experience, but I have never found myself drowning in a sea of crappy self-published material, unable to surface to the good stuff, have you? Because of the way the market is set up online, we search for things that we want to find, or are automatically recommended items via clever coding. If a product is bad, it will sink and will not be visible. But if a product is good, it had a chance to rise to the top. Expanding the product range means only that there is a wider range of material that may rise to the top, and as I’ve said before, diversity is a strength. Self-publishing expands the consumer choice that superpowers have the ability to suppress.
The publishing industry has a diverse history. Its future is incredibly unpredictable. Technology today is the catalyst for its change, but the power for that change is in the hands of the reader. To me, that’s pretty exciting stuff.
Further reading: The History and Development of Book Publishing by Dr Ron Whittaker - The Early History of Books, Puritans to Pirating, Censorship and Consolidation, The Future of Books (Part 1), The Future of Books (Part 2).
I was going to write a post about how my dissertation is progressing, since that’s the thing that’s been taking up most of my time lately (as many of you will have seen from Facebook and Twitter feeds) but I’m going to write about social media instead.
I recognise that I have a compulsion (annoying to some – perhaps many) to post progress reports and word counts via social media. To me, this is motivational. I justify and celebrate my progress by putting it ‘out there’ in front of viewing eyes. I think this is akin to the mentality I have with biscuits and chocolate: if no one sees me eat it, the calories don’t exist. Likewise, if no one sees me progressing with my word count, it might as well not exist. Obviously this is ludicrous, and probably says a lot about my mental state, but you get the gist of the psychology behind it.
Anyhoo, I was flicking through a copy of Grazia (May 2011) this afternoon (a very rare thing, and don’t worry, I didn’t own it) and I came across an article entitled ‘HELP! I’m a Facebook Faker!’. Needless to say, I found this probably the most intriguing thing amongst the many pictures of vomit-coloured dresses and adverts for shampoo in which the model’s hair had clearly been varnished, and decided to give it a read.
It was about a very sad individual who constantly lied on Facebook and Twitter about her social life, to the extent of saying that she was hanging out with celebrities and getting front row seats at London Fashion Week. The compulsion began as an innocent exaggeration, endorsing an average night out as ‘WILD’ etc, etc.
Many people do this, to a certain extent. And the reason behind it is obvious, yet a hard one to admit. According to a new survey, the article goes on to say, we now see social networking as one big competition. Who has the most amount of friends (to confirm that you are a cool person)? Who has the most ‘likes’ or re-tweets on their statuses (endorsing that what they’ve said is amazing)? Who has the most drunken photos (as evidence of having a good time)…? The constant feed of updates and photos paints a false sense of reality, and one that is in the control of the user.
But why do people do it? Why are people so desperate to be seen in a certain way? When it comes down to it, it’ s about in security.
‘You’re doing it for other people’s approval, but you’re also doing it to reassure yourself that your life is exciting’
…say psychologist Judi James in the Grazia article. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that approval of a lie doesn’t exactly create a sense of self-worth.
Don’t get me wrong, I think social media is a great tool. I’ve made many friends online, I use it to stay in the loop about industry news and discussion, and I feel part of a large community of international writers – something that would be difficult to achieve without the use of social media.
And I think social media has revolutionised marketing in a good way, too, not only by providing a platform for direct engagement with companies and professionals, but by providing a platform for the most reliable and effective marketing tool in existence: word of mouth.
Even so, a part of me agrees with character Hank Moody from Californicaion:
People… they don’t write any more, they blog. Instead of talking, they text, no punctuation, no grammar: LOL this and LMFAO that. You know, it just seems to me it’s just a bunch of stupid people pseudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people at a proto-language that resembles more what cavemen used to speak than the King’s English.
Look at Facebook and look at Twitter. For the most part, if all those feeds and statuses were put together in a room and represented by the users that posted them, you’d have a room full of people shouting non-sequiturs, or pointing to things that interest them, or maybe waving a photo of a cat. Sometimes, one of these users will pick up on what another is saying and, thinking it pretty good, shout the same thing. In the midst of this, a few will be wandering around patting people on the back who are saying things that they like. Is this what communication has come to?
From an aspiring novelist’s perspective, we are always being told that we need to ‘build a platform’ for our work, even before we have work to show. Though I enjoy maintaining my site and writing my blog, I’d be the first to admit that I could be spending that time writing creatively.
So I guess this is basically a cautionary post. Because, as with all new technology, we should take a moment to reflect upon our usage of it. Now, if you like what I have to say, while I’m standing here alone on my cyberspace soap box (aka writing my blog), feel free to pass the message onto others with a re-tweet, or perhaps pat me on the back with a Facebook like. Better still, leave a comment and lets have a chat.
(But don’t come round my house for a chat because, well, y’know, that’s a bit creepy.)