TEXT review


Creative writing in a post-book world

review by Julian Novitz

 

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Graeme Harper
The Future for Creative Writing
Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, UK 2014
ISBN 9780470654927 hb
Hb 160pp AUD136.95

 

While creative writing can take many forms and is circulated through a host of formats, the outcome most immediately and tangibly associated with the term is still the print book. Whether prose fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry, a published, book-length manuscript is generally seen as the ideal result of creative writing practice. This attitude is still very much in evidence in university creative writing courses, no matter how innovative the curriculum or the teaching philosophy. Creative publications are generally what qualifies an instructor to teach creative writing, and are usually the ultimate measure of a student’s success within the creative writing field.

Regardless of how and why creative writing might be taught within an institution, creative writing programs are generally judged and ranked by how many of their alumni go on to have their creative works commercially published. This has, of course, been a pretty good way of assessing the quality of creative writing instruction: the best teachers will be those who are able to help or inspire students to complete and publish their manuscripts. However this approach is premised on a number of conditions that are indisputably eroding (rapidly or gradually, depending on who you speak to): chiefly the long-term commercial viability of literary (or, more realistically, any) fiction, and the readership for book-length creative manuscripts of any kind. One can certainly argue that the book is not done yet, regardless of the state of commercial publishing, with the easy production and circulation of e-books making self-publishing a more profitable and less stigmatised option for many writers. But whether it is in print or an electronic format, will the book-length creative manuscript still hold its place of importance for future audiences of digital natives, whose primary modes of narrative engagement may have been with videogame choices and cut-scenes or storified social media accounts?

Graeme Harper’s The Future for Creative Writing takes the innovative step of questioning what the role of creative writing (both as a practice and as an educational discipline) might be in a post-book world, or at least a world where the book is no longer so closely and clearly associated with creative writing as its defining output. Harper notes that even as creative writing programs expand and become more popular with students (and more profitable for institutions), the cultural primacy of the book has started to wane. If creative writing instructors are not training students to produce books then what skills are they really imparting? If fewer books will be published and read then what will constitute the practice of creative writing? As creative writing expands as a teachable discipline and more students graduate with degrees in the field than can ever, realistically, succeed in publishing conventional books, these become increasingly pertinent questions to ask.

Harper does not set out to offer definitive answers, but his inquiry serves as a useful starting point for speculations that may ultimately help to shift or reorient aspects of creative writing practice and pedagogy. His exploration covers a broad range of ideas and approaches across seven chapters: ‘The Age of Creative Writing’ attempts to define the environment within which creative writing is currently situated; ‘Dynamism and the Creative Writer’ examines the experience the activity; ‘Creative Writing Educating’ discusses issues that arise from teaching and learning; ‘Developing Creative Exposition’ explores the contested territory of what constitutes creative writing research; ‘Selling and Buying Creative Writing’ discusses the role of material, saleable outputs; ‘Speaking in Creative Writing’ examines language and how its continuing evolution both impacts upon and is affected by our understandings of creative writing; and finally, ‘Living and Working as a Creative Writer’, which questions what might constitute professional and personal writerly identity in a post-book age.

The topics that are surveyed in all of these sections are interesting though their treatment can be uneven. Harper’s otherwise intriguing examination of the cultural and media landscape within which creative writing is currently situated is hindered by a distracting attempt to parallel the contemporary spread of creative writing with the explosion of zombie media and narratives in the 21st century. While Harper explores how both zombie media and creative writing benefit from the enhanced interconnectedness of digital environments, he overlooks how this comparison could be cast in a negative light, with creative writing taking over and infecting spaces within academia in a zombie-like manner.

Harper’s analysis becomes more engaging in the later chapters, where he more explicitly distinguishes between creative writing as an activity and mindset and the material outputs that it is most frequently associated with. Harper makes the useful point that while habits, activities and professions have been associated with what we now refer to as creative writing throughout almost all of human history, the outcome that we now most frequently use to define success within the field, the widespread publication, circulation and sale of books, has only been possible for a few hundred years. Harper effectively argues that this has been contingent on particular economic and technological conditions that are now rapidly changing, and so understandings of what creative writing entails must change as well, both in terms of the form and purpose of the work that is produced and the process of observation, research, thought and personal reflection that is involved in its creation.

While the case for the inevitability of these changes is convincingly made, Harper resists the temptation to speculate too wildly on precisely what new forms and approaches the post-book age may give rise to, which is possibly quite wise given the speed with which media technology and its attendant literacies are developing (witness the rise of hypertext literature predicted by many theorists in the 1990s that never actually happened). That said, it would have been interesting to have had some more concrete thoughts on how the institutional training of creative writers might develop in the future, given that the workshop model of teaching still has a very strong focus on publication as its desired outcome, to the extent that its principal method of instruction for novice writers is a small scale replication of a publication process within a controlled environment.

These small reservations aside, Graeme Harper’s The Future for Creative Writing takes a bold and much needed look at emerging issues and conditions within the field that many practitioners and educators still tend to overlook.

 

 

Julian Novitz is a lecturer in Writing at the Swinburne University of Technology.

 

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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
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General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
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