TEXT review

Mixing oil and water

review by Josie Arnold


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 OCTOBER REVIEWS:IMAGES:JEN WEBB.jpeg
Jen Webb
Researching Creative Writing
The Professional and Higher Partnership/Frontinus, Suffolk UK 2015
ISBN 9781907076169 (ebook)
ISBN 9781907076350 (pdf)
ISBN 9781907076374 (hb)
Hb 282pp AUD235.00


Academic and imaginative writing can each be seen as creative and researched: this apparent tension is at the heart of Jen Webb’s Researching Creative Writing, a book that provides tools for thinking about researchers in the academy who have creative practicum as well as scholarly abilities.

Initially, Webb shows how research is a way of making meaning that need not be seen as either creative or academic, but as having both elements. It is interesting that the carefully bounded assertion ‘every writer – every maker of any kind of creative work – is a person who is involved, at some level, in research’ is not matched with a similar assertion about academic researchers who have ontological imperatives. This introductory struggle to integrate writer-academics continues with what are sometimes rather conventional exemplars towards ‘defining research’. Webb acts to resolve this dilemma by defining research as the ability to ‘look intensively’ and hence relevant to all writer-researchers.

The introductory tone that is established is one of considerable helpfulness as she continues to worry the differences between academic research protocols, creative writers’ research and the contribution to knowledge of each. This normally understood discontinuity is signalled as the main through line of a book that is clearly meant for an audience of beginning scholars and creative writers: students and early career researcher-practitioners rather than established scholar-practitioners.

The initial proposition seems to be that creative and academic research and outcomes are not – and cannot be – complementary: one leads to fantasy, the other to scholarship. In what follows, Webb begins to consider each as an intrinsic element of scholarship. It is in ‘bridging this divide’ between creative and academic writing that Researching Creative Writing becomes of most interest. The discussion begins with an explanation of ‘spontaneous sociology’ as a form of scholarly investigation. A dichotomy develops in Webb’s claim that the literary or creative writer’s ‘commitment is only to produce a creative work’, whereas the researcher has multiple and seemingly more important issues to follow up on. It is the word ‘only’ allied with ‘creative work’ that I take issue with here, as, to some extent does the writer herself in the next section. It is difficult to propose this point and then try to reconcile it as knowledge production. If all knowledge production is a narrative, then are some narratives inevitably more scholarly than others because they conform to her frequent application of the ‘Frascati manual’ – prescriptive traditional academic guidelines for ‘real’ research?

Creativity is a significant element of human experience. It contributes to the health and the growth of the culture as well as that of the individual. In living our lives, each of us is called upon to be, both directly and indirectly, very creative. This is, paradoxically, discussed by Webb as an ‘everyday creativity’ that is neither celebrated nor recognised by the community because it is the common experience. She states that, whilst there are indeed  many aspects of ‘everyday creativity’, in the dominant Western culture, the term ‘creativity’ is most usually applied to individual endeavours of a high degree of originality in, for example, music, the visual arts, writing and dance. Creative thinking is seen in the sciences, mathematics and industry, but these are generally not the immediate thought connected in our culture to ‘creativity’ itself.

This book struggles bravely – and very often fruitfully – with the current discontinuity between art and knowledge; between narratives that produce creative results and scholarly productions that produce ‘real’ research that contributes to knowledge. This is a difficult path to tread. For example the section on the construction of the research question enacts itself within the mythic representations of reality, so well described, for example, by Gayatri Spivak and Chinua Achebe, and which Eurowestern knowledge models embrace within the academy, whereas Webb seems to see it as emerging in a scholarly sense from logically determined pathways. This remains evident in the section on the literature review that alludes to ‘high quality’ and ‘methodologically sound’ refereed articles.

Given that this is a text for emerging scholars and practitioners, many of these attempts to clarify scholarship over creativity may be necessary. Certainly, axiological, epistemological and ontological concerns are complex and the attempts to define them are usually couched in given Eurowestern academic perspectives, practices and expectations, as they are here. In defining scholarship in this way, the book provides a primer for beginning research that is useful but may act to prevent new ways of knowledge production so that being an ‘objective researcher’ means eschewing ‘magical thinking’ to be ‘serious’ about research (65). Does it? Knowledge models such as Indigenous Standpoint Theory identify and illuminate other possibilities. For example, Lester Irabinna-Rigney and Dennis Foley  in their discussion of  Indigenous Standpoint Theory reject ongoing colonisation of knowledge within Eurowestern paradigms and propose other ways of knowing and doing scholarship.

Webb calls upon a wide range of readings and references in her discussions about conventional and creative research; her reflections, however, are too often limited by claims of accepted scholarly paradigms. Having said that, it is also evident that Webb struggles with this dichotomy and this work opens up some of its intrinsic problems. She endeavours to bring about some resolution whilst still paradoxically operating within the given conventions of scholarly research versus creative production. This is again evident in the discussion on research methodology, with the stale conversation about qualitative versus quantitative research being brought up yet again, and particular standards of validity and rigour being set as talisman yet again.

Writing itself is shown as both demanding and rich, and Webb aims to bring both elements forward as she discusses bringing together research writing and creative writing as ‘synergistic’, but ‘not the same thing’ (107). This claim becomes less certain when I turn it around: is it evident that research writing is not the same as creative writing? It is the same space, she concedes, but moved through differently so as to ‘satisfy different gatekeepers’ (113).

It is indeed academic gatekeeping that enforces certain research paradigms over others, and Webb discusses this fruitfully in the sections on ‘research and other people’ and ‘research and the environment’, showing both the usefulness and limitations of statistical sampling and certain theoretical perspectives.

The primer aspect of this text is evidenced when Webb discusses ‘managing the material’, and there is much here that is useful for the early career researcher and creative writer. I was particularly engaged by her axiom and her examples of the impossibility of editing your own work. This is another strength of this book: Webb never resiles from showing her own experiences in both their strengths and weaknesses. Her experiences are often summed up neatly and pithily such as: ‘begin to publish once you have something to say’ (206), and ‘writing needs a reader’ (213).

The book winds up with ‘writing for academics’ and this audience is the one primarily addressed in this publication. Whilst the dilemma between creative writing and academic writing remains unresolved it is duly considered, and Webb provides a very insightful and useful addition to discussions about practice within the academy.



Josie Arnold is Professor of Writing at Swinburne University of Technology. The author of over forty-five books in a range of genres, she teaches undergraduate literature and in the MA (Writing) that she established in 2002. She currently supervises six PhDs by artefact and exegesis and has had over twenty successfully completed since instituting this in 2004. Her major research interests also include Indigenous Education and online course delivery.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste