Kent’s Categorical Imperative

The University of Kent’s writing programme took some heat today over a passage on its website that reads ‘We love great literature and don’t see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it … We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won’t write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes.’ That drew a flurry of comments from children’s writers, complaining that the phrasing of Kent’s prospectus implied that the university sees children’s or YA fiction as a somehow ‘lower’ artform. Whoever’s running Kent’s Twitter feed took the criticism in good spirit, replying that ‘Sorry for the slow response. We were writing adult novels’ and later that ‘We are penitent! The offending passage will be removed. As soon as we can work out how to do it… the author of the offending passage will be paraded through Canterbury in chains, pelted with copies of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.’ The passage has now been changed.

My take is this. The number one objective of a creative writing course is or should be to teach people how to write well. That’s the beginning and end of it in my view. There have been criticisms of creative writing courses to the effect that they take student fees without instructing them in how to write fiction that will actually sell. Maybe. But it’s a bad precedent to demand that university education should teach immediate monetisable skills. Otherwise no one would study anything except accountancy and plumbing. And with a publishing market that is unpredictable and in constant flux, teaching what sells is a fool’s game. There’s an anecdote by top agent Simon Trewin that illustrates this point better than I can, which he relates in the Writers and Artists Yearbook:

I received a mediocre thriller one day and read about 50 pages and sent it back with a note saying I didn’t feel it was going to be a good fit for my list. The next morning a very indignant man called me and told me in no uncertain terms that I was mistaken. ‘Oh yes,’ said I, ‘why is that?’ He then proceeded to tell me that he had read the top ten thrillers of the previous year and had coded each of them onto a graph. Where there was a cliffhanger he coloured in the appropriate square on his chart with a green crayon, when there was an explosion he whipped out the red crayon, and when there was a sex scene he used blue and so on. He then wrote his own novel based on his equation of what constituted the statistically average ‘bestselling novel’ and was amazed that I didn’t immediately snap it up.

Writing, and genre writing in particular, attracts fortune hunters. If you see a front page article about J K Rowling and think ‘I could do that, piece of piss, I’ll write something similar about wizards and make millions’ it’s best if you’re disabused of that delusion as soon as. You’re not going to be a bestselling writer by following a cook. What you do is write what you love. Perhaps sales won’t come. But then again. Look at Life of Pi.

What Trewin’s story proves though, and this is where I agree with Kent’s vituperative critics, the qualities that the prescriptive and obscurantist academics deride in genre fiction – compulsive storytelling, character development, believable and memorable dialogue – are exactly the skills that demand patience, solitude and finesse. This kind of thing can be at least encouraged if not taught, and it’s no more than philistinism to dismiss genre fiction out of hand – particularly with children’s fiction, which has produced good, literary novelists in recent years. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogies were aimed at YA but they are great books and all ages like them.

Sometimes, literature is only a rumour.

Update: There’s a comment from crime writer Stuart Neville, which is just too good not to share:

The mistake made – or at least implied – by the university is to conflate literary fiction and literature. The Oxford dictionary defines literature as being written works ‘of superior or lasting artistic merit’. The writer doesn’t get to decide if their work is such; only the reading public, and the passing of time, can do that.

If a writer sets out to write literature, it’s almost certain his or her writing will be insufferable. We simply write the best stories we can, write them with care, and see what happens. Literature – in the true sense of the word – comes from all genres, including literary fiction, which of course is just another genre [.]

File:Flag of Kent.svg

The flag of Kent. Image: Wikipedia

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One Response to “Kent’s Categorical Imperative”

  1. Stuart Neville Says:

    The mistake made – or at least implied – by the university is to conflate literary fiction and literature. The Oxford dictionary defines literature as being written works “of superior or lasting artistic merit”. The writer doesn’t get to decide if their work is such; only the reading public, and the passing of time, can do that.

    If a writer sets out to write literature, it’s almost certain his or her writing will be insufferable. We simply write the best stories we can, write them with care, and see what happens. Literature – in the true sense of the word – comes from all genres, including literary fiction, which of course is just another genre alongside crime fiction, science fiction, and every other pigeonhole you can think of.

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