Why Creative Writing Courses Need To Face Up To The Reality of Publishing

| Writing

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Kent University Creative Writing Centre stumbled into a Twitter storm over the weekend when a section of their prospectus was circulated online:

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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.


13 Comments on Why Creative Writing Courses Need To Face Up To The Reality of Publishing

  1. Kath McGurl
    04/12/2013 at 5:57 pm (4 years ago)

    Great article. I’ve written and published short stories for women’s magazines and as a result, have come across plenty of literary snobs who assume that because those stories are easy to read it follows that they are easy to write. To whom I say – try it yourself and see!

    I think the objective of all creative writing classes should be to develop their students as far as possible in whatever their chosen genre is. Students should be encouraged to try all kinds of writing, but when they find a genre they like which suits their writing style, they should be helped to become a master at it. Whether that’s lit fic, chick lit, womag, crime, erotica, romance – doesn’t matter. Everyone’s different. We don’t want CW courses churning out endless lit fic clones, do we?

  2. Simon Mawer
    04/12/2013 at 3:25 pm (4 years ago)

    That’s “Angels”. No copy editors here

  3. Simon Mawer
    04/12/2013 at 3:21 pm (4 years ago)

    sorry, in my despair I skidded through what you had written and assumed you’d attached gorgeous to DB’s prose! But he’s still appalling, and so called compelling and interesting stories will not get over the fact that by any objective criterion he writes so badly. I think I managed a chapter (read “paragraph”) or two of the Da Vinci Code and one paragraph (read “sentence”) of Angles and Demons. How can any story make up for writing so badly?
    Incidentally, editing his work might be an interesting task for a creative writing course. I did that once with students, using Jeffrey Archer. We were not allowed to add anything, just cut. Managed to turn a long excerpt from Kane and Abel into quite a good piece of writing. You could probably do a similar exercise with Mr Brown, although you would be left with very much by the end. A novella, maybe.

  4. Simon Mawer
    04/12/2013 at 3:07 pm (4 years ago)

    Come on, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot – Dan Brown’s writing is appallingly bad! “Gorgeous”? Ye Gods!

  5. Alison May
    04/12/2013 at 10:40 am (4 years ago)

    I so agree with you about how snobby some people can be about certain types of books. Us genre fiction writers need to guard against it as well though – I do hear comments from genre/commercial writers about the literary fiction being ‘boring’ and ‘up itself.’ I think the red cabbage analogy works both ways. Not being mass-market doesn’t mean that something has no value at all.

    One thing that seems to have been lacking from a lot of the comments leading on from the Uni of Kent thing, is a consideration of the place of the student. Creative writing students aren’t passive receivers of a course. They choose what course to do. If you’re interested in writing literary fiction then choose a course that specialises in that. If you’re interested in writing sci-fi then look for courses with specialist tutors in that area, or good links with publishers or agents in that field. If you want to write, but don’t really know what, look for something wide-ranging. There are masses of cw courses available at the moment, varying significantly in cost, depth (and probably quality). I think there probably needs to be a little bit of ‘buyer beware’ on behalf of the potential student. Think about what you need and be prepared to ask questions about what the college can offer. And I’m saying this as a writer with a BA in creative writing, and as a current teacher of creative writing.

  6. Sadie Jones
    04/12/2013 at 9:25 am (4 years ago)

    Angela, I enjoyed your blog and agree with much of it. I’m interested by the controversy and passionate feelings it appears to have inspired. It reminds me a little of the working mothers vs non-working mothers resentment that buzzes around the school gates when one has young children. Each camp attacks the other, but I don’t think they are really motivated by hatred, or even legitimate criticism. Do working mothers really think non-working mothers are mindless and spoilt? Do non-working mothers really feel their opposites prioritise money over parenting? No, I think they are threatened by one another, each feeling criticised implied by the other’s very existence. And so it is with ‘genre’ vs ‘literary’ fiction. In a nutshell, writers or lovers of genre feel put down and despised by the literary ‘set’ (not sure there actually is one), and the literary ones are, probably, frankly, jealous of the money they think the genres are making, and frightened that their own more rarefied work will find fewer and fewer readers – even, somehow, as a result of their rivals’ popularity. The Genres feel they are the victims of snobbery, never allowed to join the club, or gain respect, however very hard they work. Literaries feel hemmed in and squeezed out by formula and the ‘popular’ work they themselves don’t enjoy or see the merit of, fearing that the standards of quality that mean so much to them are being broken down and degraded. To my mind, in truth, there is no real battle. What is Good is an ever shifting standard, an ever evolving argument – not because there is no standard, but because art, thankfully, cannot be so easily dismissed by glib judgement. It is not that there is no Platonic ideal, no God-like perfection against which we can measure – I believe there is, and that it is essential to us – it is that we are human, and the discussion of what that perfection is, and how to get it, and if it matters – is the answer in itself. I should like us to be able to find pleasure and rigour in that discussion, rather than taking each judgement as a personal slight or affirmation. And, to return to the poor old University of East Anglia – the spark that set off this scuffle – I do not see that they did anything more than plainly state what it is they want to teach, and with a laudable passion. The words mass-market and children’s fiction are not insults. Writing for a marketplace is not a degraded pursuit, any more than the belief that pure art is something that is separate from and even above the concerns of commerce is snobbish. There is room for all these things. Writers are set against one another by labels, often spuriously attached. The affront is in the eye of the of the beholder.

  7. Angela Johnson.
    03/12/2013 at 2:53 pm (4 years ago)

    I studied Creative Writing at the University of Kent. I was not aware of being in any kind of ‘literary’ ghetto where the nasty real world was viewed with contempt.
    This kind of polarisation of the writing world is really rather depressing. I applaud Simon Mawer’s comments.

  8. iucounu
    03/12/2013 at 2:23 pm (4 years ago)

    “I don’t see how Lee Childs or whoever comes into it. Yes, he sells lots of books, yes, they are probably a good read (chilling term) for many people, but that doesn’t mean that that kind of writing is what the University of Kent ought to be aspiring to teach.”

    You probably need to accept that Lee Child’s books are very good books. Also, that James Patterson’s, and EL James’s, and Dan Brown’s books are all very good books.

    This is because books are multifaceted, multivalent things, which you could (if you were inclined) score on a multitude of different axes. You are not going to score Dan Brown highly for the gorgeousness of his prose or the dimensionality of his characters; but you would have to score him highly on telling a compelling and interesting story.

    Thus I think your insistence on concepts like ‘good writing’ fatally simplifies a complex issue, and also tends to deal rather disdainfully with people who ‘want a good read’. Which, let’s face it, has been the vast majority of readers throughout history.

    The problem with ‘literary’ as a label is that it’s really just a term of approbation that a certain class gets to pin on people they approve of. Books don’t necessarily start their lives with those labels, either – we could mention a few stars of the pulps, who were turning out stuff at a nickel a page, who have since been accepted into the canon. It’s tough to look at a book entirely divorced from its context and say, from content only, ‘this is literature’.

  9. Simon Mawer
    03/12/2013 at 10:38 am (4 years ago)

    I fail to see what is wrong with the original Kent University notice. Why on earth shouldn’t a university, whose dept of literature presumably encourages and teaches the criticsim of great literature, also attempt to teach great… well, at least “fine”, writing? I don’t see how Lee Childs or whoever comes into it. Yes, he sells lots of books, yes, they are probably a good read (chilling term) for many people, but that doesn’t mean that that kind of writing is what the University of Kent ought to be aspiring to teach. If we deny that there is such a thing as fine or even great writing – claim that all writing is more or less equivalent in merit (“so it’s all good”) and sales are the only judge – then we are in danger of throwing out an entire culture, that of great literature. Surely it is the writing of that (OK, hubris, but at least “fine”) that the University of Kent is (oh, dear – was?) attempting to deal with in its advertised creative writing course.

    One of the fundamental problems with this kind of discussion is that it is driven almost entirely by perceptions created by the marketing side of publishing – that there are “genres” and you must target your writing to a particular one. I write what interests me – in fact, I write for myself (writing is a solipsistic business). Whether what I write falls into a particular genre is in the perception of the reader/prospective reader or publisher or reviewer, a potentially deadly judgement because, if there isn’t an obvious genre, books get dumped into the catch-all bin of “literary fiction” guaranteed to put off three-quarters of the book-buying public. All this is because the publishing world is more and more led by sales managers rather than commissioning editors and because all we worship these days is all-consuming Mammon. To the possible detriment of good writing.

  10. Angela
    03/12/2013 at 9:57 am (4 years ago)

    Ha! I think this is a very familiar story, Christina. Sadly. Keep at it though! x

  11. Christina Wellor
    03/12/2013 at 9:54 am (4 years ago)

    This is so depressingly true and brings back memories of my creative writing degree which I loved, but it was equally snobbish and never honest about the perils of trying to get published; be that a book or an article. Because it’s not just trying to get a book published that’s difficult for a writer – unless you happen to be in the right place at the time and know the right people, trying to get published in a newspaper or magazine is just as difficult, if not worse. It’s like trying to infiltrate a private members club.

    Well actually, it’s not that difficult, what’s difficult is trying to convince anyone to pay you for your efforts. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t piss me right off that I wrote columns and features for Conde Nast for over a year and was never paid a penny for it. Neither did it lead to any paid work with them, because people already writing for money aren’t going anywhere, it’s dog eat dog. If you manage to make a decent living from freelancing features or column writing, you’re incredibly lucky

    Writing for nothing is not unusual, for many writers it’s their only opportunity to showcase their work to a large readership. If it’s a choice between that or obscurity and shoving your work in a dark drawer, most will eagerly hand it over for free. That and the fact that if you turn the ‘opportunity’ down, someone else is waiting in the wings to claim the limelight. Publishers know all this and are unscrupulous about it. You get told constantly, ‘this will build your portfolio, get you noticed, lead to bigger things.’ What it leads to are other publishers waiting to take advantage of desperate and completely disillusioned writers.

    I wish someone had told me that at university! Institutions that teach writing should prepare students for the possibility that they’ll probably never leave their day jobs and that they better bloody love writing for the sake of it.

    P.S. I’m not bitter at all 🙂

  12. Julie MCGowan
    03/12/2013 at 8:30 am (4 years ago)

    I agree with every word. At a writing seminar I asked one of the speakers, who represented a small independent publishing house, what was meant by ‘literary fiction’ which they purported to publish. I was told that style was preferred over content, that ideas and feelings conveyed were preferable to plot. Presumably the reading public – who I try to please with my own writing and whose views I cherish – disagreed as the publishing house has now gone out of business.

  13. Aaron
    03/12/2013 at 12:45 am (4 years ago)

    Superb. As it happens, I’ve just finished listening to a BBC programme which was an interview/Q&A with Lee Child, the author of the ‘Jack Reacher’ novels. They’re exactly the kind of thing that this course would scoff at, but they sell in their millions, and are presumably therefore enjoyed in similar numbers.

    Of course they aren’t to everyone’s taste, but that’s the beauty of writing, isn’t it? There’s someone for everything, as it were. I personally would pay NOT to have to read ’50 shades’, or the Twilight novels, but an awful lot of people disagree with me, so it’s all good.

    Imagine how many people would subscribe to a course in, say, architecture, if the selling point was ‘We will teach you to design buildings that everyone will rave about in the trade press but that few people will actually want to spend money on.’ Can’t see it being oversubscribed, can you?

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