Kent University Creative Writing Centre stumbled into a Twitter storm over the weekend when a section of their prospectus was circulated online:
It’s a master class in literary snobbery, and offensive to genre writers. Once again, it’s a case of literary fiction versus, well, everything else. A Proust covered two-finger salute to that nasty horrid publishing industry, and their nasty horrid genre rubbish. The Kent University Writing Centre had the good sense to apologise and alter what they claimed was a badly worded online piece. Ironic that, from those “world-leading” writers. Ahem.
I’ve had a memoir published about working in the fashion industry. It has a pink cover. I’ve experienced my fair share of dismissive assumptions about my writing capabilities first hand – most recently: “You have a degree in literature and you published this?” I am used to encountering academic or literary book snobs. I find them dull. I love literary fiction, and I love genre fiction, I love YA and I love non-fiction. My tastes, as I’m sure with a lot of readers, are fairly wide ranging. How sad to limit your life to one flavour? The idea some books are intrinsically bad because of their genre is ludicrous. Reading is great. Inflammatory material and grammatically incorrect output aside, we should be happy people are reading.
I don’t want to be one of those people who disparage another’s work by asking how it got published? This particular thread of snobbery seems almost unique to literature. I may see someone wearing a dress I wouldn’t wear, but I’d never say ‘That dress shouldn’t have been made!’ I’m not particularly fond of red cabbage, but I wouldn’t proclaim, ‘This cabbage should never have been grown!’ Yet book lovers, and often writers, can be brutal and damning in their condemnation of things they see as beneath their art form. Phoey! Your reading material is a personal choice, like whether you want red cabbage for supper. It is not our place to police what others ingest.
Some writers, and some creative writing courses, perpetrate the idea anything “mass-market” is dirty. A sell out. A failure. A friend of mine asked the Creative Writing MA class she teaches who wanted to get published? Only half her students raised their hands, while the other half audibly scoffed. Wanting to be published and wanting to get paid for your work has a PR problem in the writing world. Of course you’re welcome to take a course of study just for the pleasure for it. You are free to write purely for the feeling of contentment and satisfaction a well-crafted piece can bring. But no one should disparage others who seek an audience, or payment for their work. Unless you’re lucky enough to be independently wealthy, you’ll need to earn money to feed, clothe and house yourself. Why shouldn’t you seek to do that from the thing you love?
Which brings me round to the danger of creative writing courses ignoring the realities of the publishing industry. All the terms used with such derision in pieces and conversations like those quoted above, “mass-market”, “genre”, “children’s fiction”, “thrillers” etc, are all vital components of a working publishing industry. A beautifully written manuscript just isn’t enough anymore. You need a strong concept, hooks, pace, audience, marketability and a whole host of terms I hear frequently used by agents and editors, but virtually never by anyone teaching a creative writing class. For all those taking courses for the joy of writing there will be all those taking courses to increase their chances of being published. They’re investing their hard earned money and time on something they hope will launch or further a career. Ignoring the vagaries of an increasingly difficult market will leave many writers labouring for years on work they cannot sell.
The laughable idea that a “genre” book is somehow easier to both write and publish ignores the thousands of current unsigned, unpublished authors who are out there slaving away. I know many good writers, and several excellent writers, who are still the wrong side of a publishing deal. Getting published is hard. Creative writing classes that disregard how the publishing industry works, by indicating they’re somehow intellectually above all that messy money stuff, not only do their students a disservice; they also do down those who are published. Authors have not sold out to get there, they have worked hard, they are doing what they love, paying the rent, feeding their kids, earning a living (or something close to it).
I’m not suggesting writers should only set out to write those mass-market thrillers everyone loves to name-drop, far from it. Creative writing courses are an excellent place to develop and progress your artistry, and sculpt your craft into that of a master (though you’re perfectly welcome to do that at home on your tod as well). But, if you want to sell your work, if you want to get published – whether you’re writing literary fiction, young adult, sci -fi, or any book – then you need to know what the publishing industry wants. If creative writing courses feel they are above teaching that, then they should be transparent and honest about it. Yes, they will help you write a book, but you’ll need to look elsewhere for your day job.