Monday, 13 December 2010

Teaching what you can not teach

Neil Gaiman's journal

I'm a little bit of a fan of Neil Gaiman. Not a huge fan - his graphic novels have so far passed me by and indeed, I've only read three of his books, but found them exhilerating and entertaining. I've recently, by way of Facebook, been introduced to his blog... which is a fascinating read.
This item caught my eye. In it he hears from one young man who feels his writing career is stalling -- at the age of 20 -- and then he reproduces the words of a correspondent who has a few axes to grind about a creative writing course she is involved with. Anyone thinking of writing as a career should read this and consider it carefully.
Writing courses weren't really about when I was 16-17, the age when I was trying to decide what to do with my life. I ended up getting fixed on English Lit - and studying a joint honours degree Eng Lit and Politics. I thought it was relevant to a future in journalism, and of this I was both right and wrong.
I regret not doing history. Or, in fact, law. But that's a whole different blog.
Anyway: on Gaiman's blog we have an account of a US writing course geared only for literary novels. Someone wants to write Sci-fi, but they are basically shunned by the professor. There is talk of the students signing a contract: no genre fiction...
One of my pet hates is the whole genre/literary debate. Its an artificial distinction. What these terms are really are labels -- labels that help publishers and booksellers do what they need to do: sell books. It's handy for Waterstones, but it doesn't define the content very well. I particularly hate the idea that literary fiction is somehow more worthy than, say, thrillers, because it is literary. There are a lot of bad literary books out there -- new and old.
I love 'genre fiction'. I also love a good 'literary novel' but I refuse to read either for the sake of it. I'm racing through Franzen's Freedom right now and loving it -- while secretly looking forward to a bit of time over christmas when I can read the second Stieg Larsson thriller. It's been on my shelf for nearly a year, and I can't believe its been that long already.
I agree with the correspondent on Gaiman's blog: writers should write what they have to write.
I'll also repeat an observation that Carmen made when I mentioned this issue to her: why do publishers and readers have such an issue with genre? And yet, when you go see a film, we happily talk about rom-coms or thrillers or action adventures.
(But then there is art house. I guess even in cinema there is a literary pretension.)
Her point is a good one though: the US screenwriting INDUSTRY loves genre. Serious book people, people who want to shift hundreds of thousands of copies of a book instead of just a few hundred to family and friends, also LOVE genre. Because they know thrillers, historical fiction, rom-coms (labelled for some reasons chicklit in books) is what really sells. It is a book business after all.
Literary novels? They are a genre too, of course. They conform to certain types, there are certain expectations. Rules. And some of them sell big - most often when a certain idea or a certain novelist really catches the imagination.
Franzen right now, perhaps.
Other lit writers struggle to cover their costs. That's why, as Gaiman's correspondent says, they end up teaching other aspiring writers how to write creatively.
The problem is: we end up with an entire industry, the creative writing education industry, that is disclocated from publishing and, indeed the real world. An industry that is entirely self referential and self propogating. Indeed, considering most of the professors of creative writing are relatively unsuccessful novelists, you might argue that they are openly antithetical to publishers and publishing. this might not be news to anyone who has seen the film or read Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. But you can now see this trend happening here too, in the UK.
And this isn't good. as developments go, it's pretty damned lousy. A cultural cul de sac. Novels, books, should connect with readers: not academics with tenure.

Having finished this mini-rant I came across a blog/article on the Guardian's website that was talking about similar themes: literary merit versus genre popularity. It sparked off a hot, sometimes foul mouthed debate regarding the various merits/demerits of lit fic, genre writing and Ed Docx, the author who wrote the article (to promote his own new, literary novel). Phew. What a lot of nonsense was ranted. One thing occurred to me: there was a lot of talk about literary merit, and barely a mention of story.

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