University of New South Wales
On 4 August 2009 Catherine Cole hosted the first meeting, at RMIT University, of Australia's Professors of Creative Writing. In the process of inviting people, the numbers kept growing. It turns out now there are fifteen professors and five associate professors across the country. They do not all have the same designation, but they all teach, supervise or research in the field. By way of contrast, there are only two professors of Australian literature, and one of those was already on the list. There are, no doubt, similar numbers of senior people in the visual arts, music, design and architecture.
It is a familiar idea to people in the field that the rise of creative writing as a tertiary discipline in Australia is an instance of a kind of paradigm shift: from reflection on literary works to their production. This has happened along a number of fronts. The information age has increased the overall economic importance of the 'creative industries'; universities in the process of becoming semi-privatised post-Dawkins institutions have become the laboratories, or even the factories, for creative work that was previously unfunded, and then funded by the Australia Council alone. Today the Humanities and Creative Arts are assessable as research under the ARC's Excellent in Research for Australia (ERA), and hence fundable alongside traditional literary scholarship. I want to explore some of these policy-related dimensions and then attempt a theoretical scaffolding for 'creative writing as research', as a basis for taking seriously the writing of literature as research activity.
In terms of Equivalent Full Time Student Load (EFTSL) changes between 2001 and 2006, key creative arts disciplines like dance, graphic arts and design, written communication (including creative writing), fashion design, music, all were boosted by around 50% in terms of student numbers (written communication went up from 2,495 to 3,798 EFTSL, over 52% over those five years) while in the Society and Culture discipline group, the overall numbers went up 16.81%, with sociology remaining stable, and literature increasing by 10%.
Professional writing existed in the College of Advanced Education sector in the 1960s in Australia, then institutions like New South Wales Institute of Technology (NSWIT, 1968) were established as a vocationally-oriented sector in tertiary education and then evolved to become universities; NSWIT became UTS in 1988. When I was employed at NSWIT to teach writing in 1985, there was a full undergraduate major in creative writing, teaching poetry, writing for performance, short fiction, and nonfiction. By the late 1980s the first graduates in a research masters by research in creative writing were emerging from that program, and Graeme Harper was the first Australian to graduate as a doctor of creative arts in writing in 1993. Today most universities offer creative writing courses, and many have undergraduate majors or combined degree programs, masters degrees by coursework or research and non-traditional PhDs and DCAs. I would estimate that about 20 research students graduate every year, many of them with a publishable book, or a book already in the process of being published. University-trained novelists are prime candidates for prizes like the Australian/Vogel Literary Award, since they have had the advantage of up to three years of supervision, possibly on top of undergraduate training in workshops where editorial skills are honed. I think this is the case with Andrew Croome whose novel treating the 1950s Petrov Affair I examined for his PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. The novel, Document Z, appeared in 2009 while the 30,000-word dissertation was one of the best critical pieces I have examined. It deals with 'engaging the archive'; the use of historical records in the writing of fiction, including a discussion of the debates surrounding Kate Grenville's The secret river. These archival issues are a particular concern of his supervisor Tony Birch, so it is not hard, in this case, to establish that a university training was a key factor in the book's success. So that is a preamble that seeks to establish context. But isn't this a concept made to do far more work than it deserves? Isn't it overworked to the point of cliché?
2 The theory bit: what is the shape of context?
At this point it is appropriate to introduce the idea of networked social and institutional arrangements or assemblages to lend a bit of contemporary social theory to the analysis of just how Croome's work is facilitated in its movement in social and institutional space. Croome's progress thorough the university progressively validates his work as scholar and as creative practitioner. No doubt he always did well, but this context retains its pastoral function in that students are nurtured and allowed to experiment, possibly to fail and try again. Then the university articulates with the publishing industry via pitching sessions that happen with higher-level students, attended, in Melbourne, by publishers such as Scribe or Text. Agents sometimes approach lecturers directly or vice versa, as they network to promote talented new writers. The examiners' reports are sometimes quoted in pitches to publishers. Meanwhile the critical or dissertation sections of the thesis are sent off to literary and scholarly journals, on different circuits of knowledge. Croome's book will be accompanied not just by reviews, but by profiles and articles revisiting the Petrov affair in the newspapers, his own website, possible TV appearances, and a circuit of writers' festivals.
Knowledge is thus disseminated to a broad public via these specifically networked institutions. We could call this a knowledge acquisition pathway in which the novel is an event or a performance on the move - rather than merely a commodity or a creative product - shooting out links, or trailing them behind. I want to stress the flow and amplification of knowledge through these institutional articulations, as against a communication model that would have the author speaking, albeit indirectly, to a reader. That telephone line model of communication is just not adequate to the complexities of the interrelations that create the effects of literary art, i.e.: where one text, a novel, a product of the assembling of certain knowledges, certain techniques and a means of reproduction, can then be redistributed and rearticulated in various contexts with readers as those readers in turn are networked with schools, reading groups, or festivals. At each of these levels a certain enthusiasm, i.e.: public feeling, is necessary as an ingredient in creative accomplishment, and that may include creative reading as well as writing.
Now supposing that when a novel comes out it is acknowledged as a brilliant work. I have sketched in a preliminary fashion how it is the product not so much of an individual mind, but of a networked set of social and institutional arrangements that propel it in a position to be judged as brilliant. But now I want to work back from that to ask how it might justify all that social and institutional investment. Various social factors have contributed to this 'investment': students creating a market, universities investing in new professors of writing at the expense of professors of literature, cities investing in writing festivals, high school curricula including creative writing extension papers, readers and advertisers sustaining the public sphere of review sections of newspapers and the publishing houses themselves. The next step, given the involvement of universities in the training of both sophisticated readers and writers, is how creative work can be configured as research and assessed alongside any other Discovery or Linkage Grant at the ARC.
What academics produce as research 'outcomes' in creative arts now rarely takes the form of commentary, critical or otherwise, on others' creative work. More often we are composing our own works. In other words we have shifted from appreciation to production, from critical difference to a sense of progressive engagement from which there is no pause. And yet the critical or technical vocabulary we use to talk about texts has not really caught up with this shift. In moving towards a productive, post-critical research vocabulary, we may have to reconsider our histories in lit. crit., semiotics or critical discourse analysis, and look at contemporary interactions with texts that are not based just on the hermeneutic drive ('what it means') but also on what it does in a nervous, tactile and infectious way, and on how creative texts are dispersed and fragmented in and across digital technologies. I mention the digital sphere because language, the medium for writers of all sorts, is also a database and a social networking tool.
Let's observe the writer writing. She is seated at a multimedia terminal, her intelligence and memory externalised and expanded to a whole world of data, just as it always was with language, but now on a global scale. Her text thus emerges in the interstices of a hypertext environment. It is composed, as always, but now less historically, now more laterally and (dare I say) rhizomically. The anxiety of the influence of the national canon persists to the extent that there are a few paperback editions of favorite texts on the desk beside the terminal, but the filiations can be imagined in all directions, not just in that historical line of descent as if she is standing, as they say, on the shoulders of giants.
We will be tempted then, instead of mining the text for meanings, to follow the pathways and analyse the experience of the writer writing, and the reader reading. This experiential/experimental focus looks for the singular effects we might identify as creating writing partnerships across differences: between figures, allusions, forms (image, text). We write by trying out ideas, words, musicality, and all of these against an otherness that is external to literary domains.
Now let me give some examples to tease out the problems of assessing creative writing as research.
An ex-student, Jane Messer, who now teaches writing at Macquarie University, once approached me for help in writing an ARC Discovery application. She had been interested in writing fiction about the workplace, and we discussed how this has been a blind spot in the body of Australian literature: plenty of drovers, surfers, sailors, prostitutes, artists, criminals and police, but where were the fictional treatments of the article clerk, the convenience store assistant or the corporate executive? These are the places where most of us spend our lives as more or less gainful, satisfied, frustrated, bored or misunderstood. We talked about Amanda Lohrey's Camille's bread where one of the main characters is a public servant, Eliot Perlmann's Three dollars and Anthony Macris' Capital Volume 1. Then we discussed some of the social science literature on corporate organisation in the context of globalisation and precarity of labour. Jane said she has a friend in such a corporation in the CBD, and this would be a main contact to facilitate 'fieldwork.' We were both aware that we didn't how to write an ARC Discovery Project that would elaborate the premise that this research project would simply have a novel as its major outcome. So I found myself, having already uttered the phrase 'fieldwork,' suggesting that under the Methodology heading in Section C, she could be elaborating on an ethnography suitable for corporate environments. We imagined problems with ethics clearance, especially in regard to confidentiality. But under National Benefit we could envisage the enormous value, to a broader public, of a text that spoke to them of their understandings, anxieties and issues to do with living and working in hothouse corporate environments.
3 Public thoughts, public feelings, to remind you of my theme
What we call the public is neither a self-enclosed nor a familiar space of inhabitation, nor unified by an homogeneous language. It is a space where negotiations establish the conditions for inclusion or exclusion from this space. Some of the clearest voices we come to call 'literary', eventually, come from outside this space, an exterior which because of its strangeness is more alluringly real and compelling than that familiar which is constantly being estranged from itself, but more mildly, from within the national literature endorsed by the marketplace for books. It takes either surprise or passion to engender that kind of reality effect.
The example I am thinking of here is Indigenous Australian literature. The new arrivals in this ancient continent were getting used to talking of 'their' literature in English that was a colonial, later Commonwealth, outpost of the metropolis' proudly promoted heritage. Yet here within, and excluded without a hearing, were oral traditions thousands of years older than Homer. It was, and is, a Great Tradition (in Leavis' phrase), hundreds of traditions, in fact, that the new arrivals have always been dialoguing with, but constantly battling with because of what was at stake: national identity, the very stuff of literary canons.
The single greatest means of indigenous empowerment in Australia has been through the creative use of language, spoken or written, from the first conversations in Sydney Cove to learn a few words, in sympathy, maybe love, as a few kisses were also exchanged; more often with blows as swear words were also quickly learnt. After that there were petitions, many of them, letters, poems, songs and eventually stories and novels. This was an outsider literature, compelling in its points of reference and ties to the moral imperatives of justice (another literary bedrock) as the lure of the other which the public institutions, including the literary ones, wanted to bring in to make it stranger and newer to itself. But this estrangement was underpinned by trauma in those intimately violent or otherwise passionate encounters. Let us not imagine that public feelings and public thoughts can have a powerful purchase on that public without a psychic structure to them. And in the colonisation of Australia we know about the repression of multiple traumatic events that haunt the public sphere. They haunt the public psyche rather than any private ones because we know that those who died with colonisation have become the de facto national dead in an unacknowledged war of usurpation of sovereignty.
This excursion was just to demonstrate how those 'public thoughts' and 'public feelings' that are swirling around the trauma of colonisation and the national unresolved sovereignty issue are the shorthand for what I want to be more specific about: that is, knowledge acquisition pathways and affect acquisitions pathways. These connect our institutions and other social groupings so that we can both learn things and feel things. Sounds simple enough, but the domain of literature, the pages of novels and poems, are the places where we can both learn and feel at the same time, and that is the nature of the technology of writing well.
For a thought, or a feeling, to become public, it may not be a question of persuasion, as Michael Warner (2002) suggests. The thought that was sometime private, does it somehow get attached to and carried around by an already existing crowd of people? Or does the thought that becomes public constitute a temporary assemblage that is itself 'a public': This is how Gay Hawkins glosses Warner:
So the singular public that is constituted by the pressure of a matter of concern (Latour 1993) might say that the violent death of the Aborigine Cameron Doomadgee on that gulag that is Palm Island is a loose alliance of publics, indigenous and non-indigenous, justice-minded, literary-minded, or other ones whose alliances we can't yet apprehend. The nonfiction book, The tall man, now multiple-prize winning, by Chloe Hooper (2008), is pitched into this loose alliance of publics and zigzags like wildfire around them, tying up those alliances in temporally stronger way. 'Life springs from every page of this enthralling book,' says the back cover puff by Helen Garner, 'Australians will weep over it. It is first-class reportage.' Public feelings in the literary world are not far from public thoughts, it seems, the objectivity of 'reportage.'
Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary affects is an ethnography of a contemporary broken America where she experiments with, rather than explains or judges, 'what is going on'. She has a vision of the social that assists me in understanding a loose alliance of publics in which shared thoughts and feelings can balloon out and surge:
4 Reading devotedly: The spare room
as I open to page one and begin reading, the book ceases to be a book, as it morphs into a fiction. It starts to exfoliate into the space of the room where I am sitting to read, and thence into the house. I pause in my reading as I begin to think about the two environments as isomorphic; there is a sameness about the unfolding space of a fictional text, and the domestic space of the home. At my place, no doubt at yours too, everything is an assemblage of heterogeneous beings and things. Is it a space for humans? I guess so. Maybe the cockroaches feel they are among the meek creatures that will inherit it eventually, but yes, for the time being, we humans rule.
Still musing, instead of reading, I'm thinking how Patience has cultivated first some marigolds in the window box outside the kitchen window, then, at the beginning of summer she puts in some lettuces, various salads. These will nourish us, and her feelings of care for them, and for us, nourishes her psyche. We love the dog too, and that seems to be reciprocated, certainly at evening walk time; after all these years she still gets excited when her leash is put on. Identifiable feelings flow in and around these different kinds of beings. Then there are the things. So many objects, invested, or not, with nostalgia, care or mere utility.
Our domestic space is not a fiction; or is it? For the moment let us say it is characterised by a constantly changing set of alliances among these beings and things, and these relations are charged with energy. Literal energy pours into the place from the electricity and gas grids, and warmth and light cascade onto the house and garden every day. The language of our conversations is charged with energy, and we know it has to be poetic, that it is not mere informational exchanges. That would kill family life. Humour, word-play, allusions to our shared past, all keep up the momentum of our erotic relations, in the broad sense of 'erotic' of course. This is the life we have to keep on the move, that keeps us moving, because we necessarily approach it with an attitude of devotion, as explained by Etienne Souriau way back during WWII:
With this in mind I turn back, now conscious of devotion, to Garner's book, which is not a mere object in my home like a coffee cup. I approach the words with an attitude of devotion to assist in the creation of its fictional existence. No, this is not out of some pious devotion to the institution of literature, nothing would be more deadly. 'Devotion' is the only word I have found to talk about reading the text in its immanence, just on its own terms. Is that possible? I think this just means to watch it build itself as a work of art, working itself up as singularity, as a thing called The spare room, a fiction that is one thing, but a thing that is also a multiplicity, an assemblage of language, which, through reference to this and that creates on the way an ecology that is quite like my home, an assemblage of heterogeneous elements that are working at getting along well together. At a formal level there is the isomorphism of the text: the consistency of voice, the repetitions of motifs. Listen to the beginning:
Is Helen Garner writing with the idea that the loose alliance of Australian publics that read books would find it of great value to read a book about how someone deals with a dear friend dying of cancer? She might argue (if she had to justify her funding perhaps) that they would learn something concrete, that this is not 'just an entertainment'. What they would learn would flow along knowledge acquisition pathways and also affect acquisition pathways. What they would learn is crafted into character-writing techniques, such that by testing themselves against the otherness that those characters are made to experiment with, they constitute themselves also as virtual kinds of characters.
These characters are destined to become fictional beings, metaphysically different from the beings that inhabit my domestic reading space sketched above. Fictional beings (Madame Bovary, Superman, etc) are immortal beings whose delicate existence is sustained by our readerly devotion and - of course - the existence of the texts with which we bring them to life again whenever we open the pages. To illustrate further, Barack Obama was just a living human being, but once he became president, the 'legendary' partnerships he formed (for instance with Superman as 'Super Obama') began to install his immortal fictional existence. He is now both reproducible, via mass production and endless repetitions, as well as finite like the rest of us in his historical existence.
Thus 'Helen', in taking us cascading through several emotions in her first paragraph, begins to gel as a fictional being. She appeals to the reader's rationality, while demonstrating what a bitch she can be about her friend ('She would think so'). A bit later we learn that her dying friend, Nicola, had found a biochemist who
The moral ambivalence here is precisely the writerly device that secures a reader on that affect acquisition pathway. You can see how it works, pitched as it is to readers who love to grapple with such issues: should she intervene on behalf of her friend or not? It is a little story of moral heroism; Nicola will fly to Melbourne to be looked after by 'Helen' because she 'saved her life' with this intervention. The skill is in the portrayal of the two characters, Nicola as hopelessly gullible because of her vulnerability and screwed up knowledge acquisition pathways (she has New Age ideas), and the narrator Helen as capable, but, in a trademark Garner move, also markedly nervous and self-conscious to get reader sympathy: 'My cheeks were hot. I knew I must be gabbling.' What this does is engineer the transfer of affect from private to public, character to reader, and back again along that pathway. Helen has already asked Nicola, 'how did you feel?' The sentences, 'My cheeks were hot. I knew I must be gabbling' ask the reader to sympathise with the narrator and, in interrogating their own feelings, tip forward the affect transmission.
Back to the research question. Do we have to argue for the strength of a proposal that asks this kind of writing to be constituted as research, over and above its value 'just as entertainment'? In one way, no. Mere entertainments, whatever they might be, are justifiable in market terms. But if the Crocodile Dundee films are just fun, they are still subject to very serious analysis by leading cultural critics for the way they might promote and shape versions of Australian identity and masculinity, inter alia. Crocodile Dundee does not need the support of government funding bodies because it is doing very well with its own network of finance. Maybe Helen Garner is doing OK too.
Will she need ARC research funding to write her next book because it will push the outside of the envelope so far that there is no available public for it yet? Perhaps. What is more significant for research in the creative arts is that a novel as a research output is seen to contribute both to the discipline and to the good of the nation. Gustave Flaubert, labouring to produce a new style, came up with discours indirect libre in the nineteenth century. So now, the capacity to use free indirect discourse is something we teach in writing workshops. New creative research work, by this argument, would propose some new technique (and I will give a list here to indicate a technical vocabulary that is different from the vocabulary of literary criticism) along the lines of focalisation, minimalisation, discontinuous narrative a somewhat thin list. Thin compared to the big theoretical guns that can be mobilised as allies in literary scholarship: psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Marxism, poststructuralism, and so on. I would suggest that these 'partner discourses' assisting in the 'reproduction' (as I like to put it) of literary works, need not be abandoned at all. Works like Peter Brooks' 'Freud's masterplot' (1977), Todorov and Genette on narrative, etc, are apposite as they continue to contribute to the understanding of the literary work of art, and at the same time assist in its workshop production in university teaching.
The education of writers and readers in universities can only contribute to levels of boredom. I mean that as a positive joke. Free indirect discourse did not need a university to invent it, but it needed a writer of genius who was already getting bored with standard fictional representations of speech:
The education of readers and writers will hopefully have the effect of raising the bar and producing technical breakthroughs, as these publics demand more of the literary text. Meanwhile 'writing' is not, never was, fully captured by the literary genres. I have argued that the spark of writing comes from its outside. Even The spare room is uncertain if it is a novel or not. All sorts of people with a matter of concern (a paleontologist like Tim Flannery, an anthropologist like Kathleen Stewart) come to writing with the material, the knowledge content, that is searching for a form that answers to its urgency. It is necessary that this urgent knowledge should be felt as well as known. It is not PowerPoint presentations or shelved government reports 'with all the facts' that propelled the author of The weather makers to Chairman of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Council. It is good writing, by which I mean skillful use of knowledge acquisition pathways and feeling acquisition pathways. But even good writing needs allies to create the publics that are the alliances of publishers, festivals, universities, and suburban reading groups and funding bodies that are sustained in 'political ecologies' rather than, as I have tried to demonstrate, items that communicate.
1. Professors: Professor Brian
Castro, University of Adelaide; Professor Catherine Cole, Royal Melbourne
Institute of Technology (RMIT); Professor Ivor Indyk, University of Western
Sydney (UWS); Professor Gail Jones, UWS; Professor Nicolas Jose, UWS;
Professor Jeri Kroll, Flinders University; Professor Philip Mead, University
of Western Australia (UWA); Professor Brenda Walker, UWA; Professor Michel
Meehan, Deakin University; Professor Stephen Muecke, University of New
South Wales; Professor Phillip Nielsen, Queensland University of Technology;
Professor Jen Webb, University of Canberra; Professor Josie Arnold, Swinburne
University; Professor Kevin Brophy, University of Melbourne; Professor
Claire Woods, University of South Australia.
2. Thanks to Scott Brook for this data.
EFTSL by Detailed Discipline Group: 2001-2006 comparison. Data extracted
from DEST Higher Education statistics by Scott Brook. Prepared by Matthew
Gibbins, 2 January 2008. Source: LOAD and ENROL 2001 and 2006. return
3. An issue with the assessment of creative work as research is how to distinguish between a popular romance that satisfies 10,000 readers, and a 'difficult' literary fiction that engages only the sophisticated reader. With the former the pathways to university knowledge are weaker than the latter. return to text
List of works cited
Brooks, Peter 1977 'Freud's masterplot',
Yale French studies 55/56: 280-300 return to text
Garner, Helen 2008 The spare room,
Melbourne: Text return to text
Hawkins, Gay 2006 The ethics of waste:
how we relate to rubbish, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield return
Hooper, Chloe 2008 The tall man,
Melbourne: Penguin return to text
Latour, Bruno 1993 We have never
been modern, Cambridge: Harvard University Press return
Latour, Bruno (forthcoming) 'Reflections
on Etienne Souriau's Les différents modes d'existence' (trans S
Muecke) in Graham Harman, Levi Bryant and Nick Srnicek (eds), The speculative
turn, Melbourne: re.press Australia. The French version is accessible
on line at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/98-SOURIAU.pdf
return to text
Stewart, Kathleen 2007 Ordinary affects,
Durham: Duke University Press return to text
Warner, Michael 2002 Publics and counterpublics, New York: Zone Books return to text
Keywords: creative writing theory; research strategies; affect analysis; public knowledge
Stephen Muecke is Professor of Writing at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Recent books include Ancient & Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004) and Joe in the Andamans and Other Fictocritical Stories, Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 2008 which was shortlisted for the 2010 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature in the Innovation category.
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Vol 14 No 1 April 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb