Writing courses are helping new writers to forge connections and networks that live on after graduation, writes Sam Kinchin-Smith
A couple of months ago, Silkworms Ink, the publishing website I co-edit, produced its fiftieth ‘chapbook’ an illustrated anthology of new work. The day after publication, I thanked the poet and translator George Szirtes for his contributions. “Good God!” he replied. “I feel like Baron Frankenstein.” This is a sentiment most writers will have expressed, in one way or another, revisiting work in a new context. But Szirtes’s exclamation was a response to something else; namely, the number of his ex-students’ names he saw on the contents page. Truly, this was a product of UEA’s creative writing school, where Szirtes teaches.
Actually, that’s not quite right. What about the University of Warwick’s writing programme, of which all of our website’s editors are graduates? What about the programmes at universities dotted around the country which also count Silkworms contributors amongst their teaching staff? Our chapbook was a product of creative writing schools, full stop.
I mention this not to boast about our website’s establishment credentials, but because I think our fiftieth publication offers an interesting entry-point into a narrative at odds with several far more prevalent strands of thinking about the contemporary British writing ‘scene’. Such as: one, the new writing (particularly poetry) industry is fading fast, what with the Poetry Book Society’s loss of funding, the Poetry Society’s recent implosion and so forth. Two, it’ll only survive if it frantically embraces new electronic platforms. Three, the mass expansion in creative writing courses at UK universities is a sham, because ‘great’ writing can’t be taught – as Will Self put it, “go and get a job instead”. All three arguments have been allotted column inches in publications ranging from The Bookseller to The Guardian in recent weeks. But that’s not all that links them: each also fails, I think, to acknowledge a feature of the current literary landscape, potentially more significant than any other.
I refer to the ever-expanding network of creative friendship and exchange that is rooted in university writing communities, to the palate of basic online communicative and presentational tools, which have resulted in an unprecedented explosion of writing opportunities and publishing ventures. An explosion defined by principles utterly removed from those which have hitherto defined British writing – born as they are out of university culture, rather than top-down elitism. Principles such as openness, collaboration, experimentalism, non-commercialism and energy always trumping reserve.
As Jon Stone, the non-conformist pamphleteer (and UEA graduate) behind Dr Fulminare’s Queftionable Arts, Fuselit and Sidekick Books puts it, “You immediately recognise in [creative writing graduates] an uncynical, huge-hearted exuberance towards working together, sharing ideas, swapping contacts, taking on a share of the donkeywork and generally making something happen.” Funding isn’t really an issue – a student’s decision to start something at university is almost always based on enthusiasm rather than financial support (just ask Riviere, co-founder of the dazzling Stop Sharpening Your Knives series: “We put together our first anthology as our art school had run out of funding to produce their own”). And techno-gimmickry isn’t the point either – as with Silkworms, the projects I’m talking about make use of the Internet, but rely considerably more upon unfashionable ideas like community and generosity. And questioning whether one can teach creative writing simply misses the point: writers study writing because they wish to do it better, certainly, but I reckon they’re a lot more interested in sustaining their vocation.
So that it isn’t crushed by the eventual necessity of ‘getting a job’, perhaps.
David Morley, director of the Warwick Writing Programme (WWP), has been advocating the concept of writerly sustenance for some time. “One important job of the WWP,” he explains, ‘”is to build and build again a community of writers that, although it originates in a Midlands university, stays strong and together in the real world.” His response to my central argument can be summarised thus: well, obviously. “We believe [creative writing students] can lead the pioneering of new platforms for writing. It would be crazy not to…It would ignore reality. One of the things that [his colleague] Maureen Freely and I discuss every time we meet is the creation of a space and resource that will encourage students to create a new reality for writing…to build practical environments for writing.” He notes, rightly, that “creative writing has always had and always will have a potent existence outside universities”, highlighting alternative writing centres such as The Arvon Foundation. That’s the point though, surely – this parallel structure has always been in place. Whereas I’m not sure that the writing culture which has begun to tumble out of British universities has ever been before.
Morley mentions “practical environments”; one thing we were struck by putting together the latest chapbook was the straightforwardness of getting in touch with gifted friends and friends of friends and new friends, receiving the work we asked for, and editing and publishing a few days later. A straightforwardness born out of the practical networks we quickly realised we had
in place. That we’re willing to admit to this
would suggest that a new publishing climate is indeed emerging: apparently, editors used to spend their time complaining about how difficult their job was.