Sunday 8 September 2013

Are creative writing academics also gatekeepers?

A relationship between the academy and the industry

I had an extraordinary experience yesterday. I had possibly the fastest rejection I’ve ever had. Sure, I’m used to rejections but now that I have quite a lot published and also have been an academic for several years, also holding a PhD in Creative Writing, I’ve kind of also got used to being taken seriously even if I am still sometimes rejected. In this case, by return an email came from the agent saying they were no longer accepting submissions. Fine. I totally get that. Yet their web-site was saying they were.
As we all know it takes a while to put a submission together and every one is different as every agent or publisher has varying requirements. I was more irritated about the wasted time than the rejection itself. I complained politely. Again, almost by return – a human being answered this time not a machine – came a polite and sincere apology.

I doubt whether I would have said anything if I hadn’t got a few years of academic experience and experience of the publishing industry behind me. I felt I was speaking on behalf of other writers especially those who happen to be my students. The web-master was on holiday and they just couldn’t accept any more scripts.
The academy has a firm relationship with the industry. We teach our students to understand how it works and to work with it and beyond it. Perhaps importantly for the industry we often pay members of it to come and talk to our students. And we have a voice that it wants to listen to. It also wants us to speak kindly of it.   

Traditional gatekeepers disappearing

Now it is very easy to self-publish and self-publishing is gaining some respect. Readers and writers are circumventing the gatekeepers i.e. the publishers and the booksellers. This does present a problem, however. Much of what is published this way is dire. There are also some brilliant texts – ones which are possibly even better than those that have passed through the hands of the traditional gatekeepers. How does the reader find the latter, though?  We tend to rely on friends’ recommendations and sometimes even books may sell according to how popular the writer is socially. Certainly it was always possible to buy a book produced by a respected publisher and not enjoy that book. But at least one was offered a recommendation by the publisher and the bookseller who were both using literary criteria to form their opinion.   

Gatekeeping in a different way

Somewhere in the middle of the debate about whether Creative Writing can be taught is also the question of  whether getting a degree in Creative Writing actually  helps a writer to get published. I often argue, actually, that sometimes a published text is not good enough to gain its writer a degree. And sometimes we expect our students to work in a way that is too experimental for the text to be commercial. The academy always had, and should continue to have, in my opinion the right to question and the duty to be a pioneer.
First of all, then, we are expecting an excellence in writing. It is important in addition then that that writing should find its way into the world and actually become a leader in presenting a pattern of good writing. Again we come to the fundamental role of the academy. Also important, and it strikes me that the academy is largely embracing this, is that the student knows how the industry works and can use that knowledge as a tool to engage with it.
A prominent feature of Creative Writing in Higher Education is critical reflection. If engaged with fully, progress in skill, craft and art is accelerated. The same process can be applied to industry knowledge and the process of interacting with it.  
The academy then is seen to be gatekeeping by pushing applications and standards on to the industry. It is a symbiotic relationship. It almost becomes, and perhaps we see that particularly in my incident with the agent described above, the gatekeeper of the gatekeepers.           


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