Thursday, August 9, 2012

Musing On The Masters

One of the most interesting thing coming out of my Masters studies in creative writing is that I am learning just how... off-centre my expectations were. I figured okay: I'm a working writer. I want to refine my writing, and understand the process a bit better, and I'd like maybe a qualification that might give me some credibility if I want to do more teaching. (Which I probably will, as Jake goes on becoming a better, more sophisticated writer. The schools show no signs of being ready to handle someone who can read far better than most adults, and write narrative fiction with an advanced-adult level grasp of the technical usage of English. Ergo, he's gonna need a bit of outside guidance, and if I'm going to help him, I might as well see if I can find a way to convince the Education Department - or anyone in a similar position - to pay me to handle that kind of thing.)

The more reading I do, however, the more it becomes apparent that University English departments really aren't set up to handle this kind of thing. Look at it this way: if you want to write, you're doing it for an audience. Simple as that. And for most of us, that means we want to be published, and preferably, paid.

Now, every working writer will tell you immediately that if you're going to be published and paid, you have to know the audience you're writing for, you have to know what the marketplace is doing, and it sure as hell helps to know the publishers and the industry too. In other words, the creation of a novel isn't an isolated, writer-alone-in-the-ivory-tower experience, and if you try to treat it that way, you'll probably never get into print. (There's a word for people who write precisely what they like, and expect the audience to magically appear. It's a technical term. In the industry, we call them "wankers".)

I'm not saying you don't create, as a writer. I'm also not saying that you shouldn't write something that you actually enjoy writing. In fact, you pretty much have to enjoy it if it's going to be worth anything. If you hate writing the piece, believe me: your audience will know. The trick is to find a section of the market with which you can enjoyably engage. And so, my buddy Birmo writes explodey books that hover between SF and techno-thriller, and though I've never bothered to ask him, I'm absolutely certain he gets a kick out of doing it.

But the approach taken by English departments, which have been dominated by Literature studies for about a thousand years (You think I'm kidding. You're wrong. The first universities identified as such were founded around the beginning of the second millennium CE. They taught law, rhetoric -- and the study of the classic Greek and Latin literature.) is almost exactly the reverse. You can sum it up with a famous quote from Jacques Derrida: "There is only the text!"

Derrida, of course, is the famous post-modernist/deconstructionist French ur-masterbateur who has bestrode the literary theory scene like some kind of deranged colossus for the last forty years or so. And he has a point. When you're analysing a text, there's not a lot of value, ultimately, in trying to second-guess where it sits in what may be a very foreign cultural context. You'll never know exactly what the writer was thinking. (Even the writer doesn't. That's post-modernism for you!) You'll never know precisely what the work meant to its audience... and if it's old enough, (cave paintings, anyone?) you may know jack shit about the audience for which it was intended. So you study the text.

But that's pretty crippling, in a lot of ways. It's fine for constructing theories and analyses, but it's not much good for creating new work. And, well... isn't that what "creative writing" implies?

There is a very real problem here. It's like a hole in the middle of all the theory and research. Here I am, looking into the way in which Lit Theory of Genre can be used to enhance the production of genre-based fiction... and I'm told that if I want to look at the effects of the publishing industry -- well, that's not English. That's Publishing Studies. Oh, and that powerful community of committed and engaged people who have turned Steampunk from a bunch of books into a huge fan movement with music, costumes, bands, games, movies, conventions, etc? Ummm... no. We don't know what to say about them. If you tell us that they have an influence over the creation of new fiction in the genre... most likely we're probably going to have to cover our ears and go "la la la la la!" VERY VERY LOUDLY until you go away.

My Prof is one of the good guys. He acknowledges and recognises this gap, and he's encouraging me to find ways around it, and to reflect on its effect in my work. But it's getting challenging as hell. It would be nice if I'd just, say, decided to discuss changes in the symbolic meaning of the Catholic Church across Twentieth Century literature, and used that discourse to generate a piece of fiction of the appropriate length which re-constructed that symbolism in a different fashion. That would have been simple.

Also, it would have been fucking boring. So now I'm reading in genre theory, publishing studies, reception theory, and a whole bunch of other shit, and once again, the project is threatening to get Out Of Hand.

Must restrain myself. Do a PhD some other damned time.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm not currently in any educational program (unfortunately). But the idea I get just browsing the bookstore and any "entertainment" magazine (not a gossip magazine, but one that is actually interested in pop culture) is that books are the next "Thing" to use to market to teenagers. Books are the new movies, because that's exactly what they do - when a book is popular, not whether or not its well-written, its immediately turned into a movie. So half of the audience doesn't even have to read the damn thing - they can just wait for the movie. Anything supernatural or a book with a shiny cover is a bestseller. Its become like hair metal bands in the 80's - if you have long hair and play in a band, you'll get signed.

    I'll be interested to see what you discover as you go along. Good luck.

  3. Let it get out of hand. In my very limited universe, epiphany and innovation flow from the effort to create order out of the chaos of projects, like yours, that have gotten out of hand. I suspect your more expansive universe is subject to the same phenomenon. It is completely thrilling to see that your path towards one goal has diverted to another path with a much more potent End Game.