Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

09/17/2013

Have Creative Writing Courses Killed the Experimental Novel?


“But, my creative writing course says I can’t do that.”

The publishing industry is in existence firstly (purposefully) to make money and secondly (accidentally or as a by-product) to mentor new talented writers/authors.

As such, the agents keep looking backwards to determine profits. “What sold last year is what will sell this year; don’t mess with the formula, even if it isn’t working” — You might think that the rise in self-published novelists getting to the public via print on demand and e-readers would have increased creativity – according to Digital Book World, half of the top 10 bestsellers in April 2013 were self- published – but it apparently hasn’t.

This will be explained later in this post.

What is the difference between creative writing and experimental writing? Try the given links – but, feel free to google these terms and select other definitions.

Key thought excerpts from below featured lesson article:

Experimentalism in the novel virtually died in the 1980s, but was it killed by the rise of the creative writing course, the conservatism of the publishing industry, or are they both linked?”

“…but the industry is dominated by a small number of large publishers and access to them is increasingly through agents. Most publishers are reluctant to even read unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers. Agents have close ties to creative writing courses and their tutors; they also are reluctant to accept manuscripts from writers who have not been recommended.”

“Publishers need to make money to survive, even if they are run by booklovers, and although they have been faster to respond to the digital revolution than the music industry, they have still been hit hard. In 2006 the Booksellers Association listed 4,495 bookshops in the UK, including 1,483 independents – by June 2011, the total number had fallen to 3,683, with only 1,099 independents. Waterstones, with around 350 stores in the UK, lost over £37m in 2011.”

“The corresponding rise in physical books bought online has by no means plugged the gap for the industry. This is no climate for encouraging experimentation. As agents are entirely dependent on the success of publishers, they also need to find, on the publishers’ behalf (they are agents for publishers as much as agents for writers) what they think will sell.”

“And, like the Hollywood film industry, they keep looking backwards: what sold last year is what will sell this year; don’t mess with the formula, even if it isn’t working. You might think that the rise in self-published novelists getting to the public via print on demand and e-readers would have increased creativity – according to Digital Book World, half of the top 10 bestsellers in April 2013 were self- published – but it apparently hasn’t. If anything, it has increased the adherence to popular genres: teen vampire; dark fantasy; choc-lit and so on. Self-published writers don’t want to be self-published; they want an agent and a publisher. So they stick to the advice given in books and online, and, of course, they go on creative writing courses and join writers’ groups — but, “Both of these are forms of writing by committee. There is usually a moderator – him or herself a published writer – and a peer group who regularly review the attendees’ efforts in detail. Peer pressure, and the assumed wisdom of the (published) course leader will naturally tend to smooth down any rough edges as groupthink takes over; regression to the mean kicks in and all the work begins to conform to the same norms.”

Francis Booth writes this for The Guardian (an excellent lesson in experimental and creative writing and how the TP publishing industry responds to and shapes both):

When did creative writing eat itself?

Was the experimental novel killed by the creative writing course, the conservatism of publishing and awards – or are they linked?

Mark McGurl’s recent book, The Program Era, analyses the American novel in terms of its relationship to the explosive growth of creative writing courses in universities, from their beginnings in Iowa in 1936. McGurl writes that in 1975 there were 52 university-level creative writing programmes in the US – by 1984 there were around 150, and by 2004 more than 350 postgraduate courses and around the same number of undergraduate degrees.

The UK is behind the US but rapidly catching up. The university-based creative writing course in the UK arguably began with Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia in 1970, an inspiration to me when I was doing a DPhil at Oxford in the 1980s on the British experimental novel.

In 2012 I decided to publish this as a book. I wondered if I should update it to include experimental novels written after around 1980, but there weren’t any – well, hardly any. Experimentalism in the novel virtually died in the 1980s, but was it killed by the rise of the creative writing course, the conservatism of the publishing industry, or are they both linked?

More novels are published today than ever – around 150,000 books in total were published in the UK in 2011 – but the industry is dominated by a small number of large publishers and access to them is increasingly through agents. Most publishers are reluctant to even read unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers. Agents have close ties to creative writing courses and their tutors; they also are reluctant to accept manuscripts from writers who have not been recommended.

Publishers need to make money to survive, even if they are run by booklovers, and although they have been faster to respond to the digital revolution than the music industry, they have still been hit hard. In 2006 the Booksellers Association listed 4,495 bookshops in the UK, including 1,483 independents – by June 2011, the total number had fallen to 3,683, with only 1,099 independents. Waterstones, with around 350 stores in the UK, lost over £37m in 2011.

The corresponding rise in physical books bought online has by no means plugged the gap for the industry. This is no climate for encouraging experimentation. As agents are entirely dependent on the success of publishers, they also need to find, on the publishers’ behalf (they are agents for publishers as much as agents for writers) what they think will sell.

And, like the Hollywood film industry, they keep looking backwards: what sold last year is what will sell this year; don’t mess with the formula, even if it isn’t working. You might think that the rise in self-published novelistsgetting to the public via print on demand and e-readers would have increased creativity – according to Digital Book World, half of the top 10 bestsellers in April 2013 were self- published – but it apparently hasn’t.

If anything, it has increased the adherence to popular genres: teen vampire; dark fantasy; choc-lit and so on. Self-published writers don’t want to be self-published; they want an agent and a publisher. So they stick to the advice given in books and online, and, of course, they go on creative writing courses and join writers’ groups.

Both of these are forms of writing by committee. There is usually a moderator – him or herself a published writer – and a peer group who regularly review the attendees’ efforts in detail. Peer pressure, and the assumed wisdom of the (published) course leader will naturally tend to smooth down any rough edges as groupthink takes over; regression to the mean kicks in and all the work begins to conform to the same norms.

Continue to read rest of article

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4 Comments »

  1. This was a fascinating read.

    Comment by bgbowers — 09/27/2013 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

    • bg – Thanks for your input. Glad you enjoyed this intuitive analysis.

      Comment by gator1965 — 09/28/2013 @ 9:44 am | Reply

      • I never made the link between Creative Writing Courses, Agents and the traditional publishers. I had a sense of that when I returned to University several years ago with the goal to improve my creating writing skills. However, I found the university system to be utterly void of creativity and focused on theory and structure. There were several English papers and tutors/lecturers who encouraged regurgitated opinions as opposed independent and fresh opinions. It was stifling at times and I quickly learned that I had to tow the party line in order to achieve As. I have avoided doing a Masters Degree for those reasons, yet I understand that the awards and book prizes tend to go to those writers who have completed, or who are undertaking, a Masters in Creative Writing.

        There is a lot to be said for experimental, or intuitive, writing. It is my hope that the digital age and subsequent changes in the publishing landscape will reintroduce and popularize this style of writing/novel.

        Bianca.

        Comment by bgbowers — 09/29/2013 @ 6:26 pm

      • Bianca – Real life can be a bitch sometimes, huh?. Appears like you have connected some important dots and learned some insightful and valuable lessons that will stand you in good stead in the future.

        Comment by gator1965 — 09/29/2013 @ 8:28 pm


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