Friday, February 11, 2011

Writers and Jobs

A friend said to me the other night that I was the only published poet he knew who didn't work in academia - and by that, he probably meant in literature/creative writing departments. It made me think: how come so many poets are lecturers and academics? There's clearly a monetary impulse, poetry not exactly being a "give up the day job" type of dream, but there's clearly something else as well. The academy seems to take contemporary poetry (or at least, contemporary poets) more seriously than it does fiction writers. There are plenty of novelists running creative writing courses, but they don't seem to dwell in Academia to the same extent. Perhaps its because writing a novel is as similarly overwhelming as writing a dissertation. (My novel WAS my dissertation.) But beyond that, there seems a disconnect in some ways. The majority of poets I've met aren't particularly interested in fiction (except when they turn to it themselves), and simply don't have an opinion on novels. Novelists read poetry but tend to be bewildered by the scene, sticking to a few poems or poets that they've encountered along the way. Generalisations of course. Perhaps the analytical tools that are used in poetry's construction have something of the same qualities as those used in literary criticism? For my part, I'm very comfortable about writing about fiction - its qualities, its structures, its history, its method - but I'm far more circumspect about poetry. I have opinions, likes and dislikes, rather than certainties - whilst with fiction I feel on solid ground.

Thinking back to when I finished my M.A. in novel writing at Manchester, nobody was in a hurry to offer me a university job (I got one, but in a different department); it was almost as if writing a novel was somehow déclassé. Perhaps if I walked into a university now brandishing "Playing Solitaire for Money" and "Extracts from Levona" I'd be expected to give a weekly course on Milton. It seems unlikely. Thinking about it, I've hardly ever attended anything that could be called a poetry "class", either studying poetry or writing it. That legacy of dull school afternoons takes along time to shake off. Talking about novels, however, I seem to come alive, English literature as social science incorporating politics, history, sociology, economics, philosophy.

Writing can co-exist with other jobs, I've proven that over the years. There's conflicts of time, of course, and as I said in a recent posting, the worry that your imagination is being squeezed into ever tighter corners of your day (and night); but as long as both jobs aren't spent entirely in front of a screen, they can co-exist. Given a choice, I'd probably prefer to teach literature, than creative writing, though to be honest, I don't see that there is that much difference - in my approach at least. You can learn by example; and the best critics I've read have tended to be writers - either in their non-fiction work, or their letters. I was at Anthony Burgess last night For Nicholas Royle meets Nicholas Royle, the first the Manchester-based fiction writer turned academic, the second the Sussex-based academic turned novelist. It was a full, fun evening, but I had to leave early. A less academic discourse I don't think you could have imagined; which again makes me wonder about writers in the academy. And, refuting what I'd earlier said, neither of them is a poet.


Tim Love said...

Good questions, and I'd be interested in the answers. I suppose a novelist has more obviously transferable skills than a poet, and can more easily find work outside academia. Very anecdotally (and quite possibly incorrectly) -

Cambridge Univ's English dept hosts some of the "Cambridge School" of Poets. The only novelist I know of used to work in Oceanographics, I think. Cambridge's "other" univ (Anglia Ruskin) has an English dept that does well in league tables (and teaches CW). Staff includes active novelists.

I used to think poets were often school teachers. Doesn't seem to be that way nowadays.

Anonymous said...

You're asking why are so many poets - people who work closely with words - associated with creative writing and/or literature departments - a landscape populated by people who work closely with, er, words.

Gee, that's a puzzle alright.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Litrefs, the trigger for my post was a forthcoming reading from 4 new-ish Salt poets, 3 of which have PhDs according to their biog. ( That struck me as surprising, and a recent phenomenon, worth a blog post about. Anonymous disagrees, but is anonymous so not alot I can add.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous disagrees, but is anonymous so not alot I can add."

And why not?

You wrote that the reason for writing the blog was a friend saying you were "the only published poet he knew who didn't work in academia", not your thoughts on a forthcoming Salt lecture.

But then, if you'd gone with the latter you wouldn't have been able to mention (again) that you've been published would you?

Self-promotion is no doubt an important part of getting one's work "out there" where it can be seen. As is engaging with comment posters, whether they are anonymous or not.

But this is academic - see what I did there? Your blog entry is not a discussion of poets and their relative distance to some form of academic discipline. It seems to actually be you chewing over the merits of becoming an academic yourself in some capacity. perhaps wondering whether it could help in your self-promotion; making it easier to continue "being published" (an expression I might add that is becoming increasingly meaningless in the light of self-publishing technologies, so-called "small presses" who charge their writers for printing their books and the ease with which one can upload work to distribute as ebooks or similar.)

Anyways, a cursory glance at the Salt 'emerging voices at York St John' link would seem to indicate this is quite deliberately an evening of young-ish poets and without knowing the criterium for such a small reading event it is impossible to draw any useful conclusions about possible trends in the make up of contemporary poets.

If you truly think that poetry is being taken over by academics, or not; if you think this is a bad thing, or not... then at least try to be clear about it when you write. Or else readers might be tempted to suggest that it is indeed your own self-professed lack of academic accuracy that lends a slightly jealous edge to your entry as well as the usual lack of rigourous use of grammar.

Signed for and on behalf of Anonymous by Anonymous.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I respond to most posts on my blog even when they are critical, as I appreciated the dialogue. I perhaps should have added that the friend is an academic himself, and was the conversation that led to the original thought. I've no idea whether poets are more based in the academy than in the past, but it seems an interesting development if its so.

Carnedd Jack said...

I agree with your generalisations Adrian. In my experience, most creative writing courses have a poetic bias while narrative and story telling sit on the back row. And writing a novel is much more demanding of one's time compared to writing poetry, which is why most creative writing courses do tend to be dominated by poets. A dose of the world outside academe does help the fictive imagination, while so much of poetry is a little too self-obsessed with language for its own sake. You can sometimes guess how many debut novelists have been on a creative writing course by the titles of their novels: The Colour of X, The Smell of Y, The Taste of Z, etc. They're often not too hot on the storytelling aspects of fiction though.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Carnedd Jack, when I studied MA in novel writing in Manchester in 1998 there were only half a dozen courses in the country, and we had one poet/poety editor and one novelist as tutors, but we were all novelists. What impressed me was that the poet was perhaps more analytical, the novelist more interested in the whole work. There wasn't much talk about structure or form; which I was perhaps expecting, and could have benefitted from. In the taught part of the course we all only got about a quarter into the novel; a poetry course seems more iterative, more about the development of the writer, than the development of the work.