Anatomy of a Creative Writing MA, Part 5

Have you ever wondered who, exactly, sorts through the slush piles of major publishers (those which still accept unsolicited mss)? While it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future in which all preliminary sifting of gold from dross will be computerised, the task still falls to individuals at the bottom of the publishing food chain – which I mention because I had the dubious pleasure of observing one such assistant editor in both courses I attended during my third semester. This slush-pile culler, whom I’ll call Ed, used the word ‘boring’ a lot; applying it, for instance, to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, the second set text of six on our ‘Novel Writing Workshop’ list. Yet, for me, reading that and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary would prove to be this elective’s highlights, though I didn’t know it at the time.

The thing about Jane Eyre (1847), like Madame Bovary (1857), is that it’s still in print more than a century and a half after it was first published. A callow, young asst ed. might well be bored by a Victorian romance about an apparently lower-class orphan – but how many of the mss Ed saves from slush-pile oblivion will still be on uni syllabi in the year 2175?

In a 13-week course geared mainly towards producing the first 30 000 words of a novel in any style or genre, there’s necessarily little if any time to survey the novel’s history. Yet, doesn’t it stand to reason that obliviousness to the possibilities (and I’m thinking of theme, not just form and technique) dooms students to write derivatives of derivatives (of derivatives…)? Isn’t it better to be inspired by something more truly original, e.g., Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice rather than Bridget Jones’ Diary (whose author Helen Fielding had the wit to go back to the source for her formula)?

With intertextuality the buzzword of the day, half of our readings overtly displayed it: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which lets Jane Eyre’s madwoman out of the attic, and two unremarkable if interesting novels by tutors from our uni – one, a pastiche of the gothic romance genre; the other recycling the plot and structure of a 1915 classic (written by, coincidentally, one of Jean Rhys’ lovers). Who knows why class discussion of the latter set text (an entertaining, sophisticated story despite its flaws) retrogressed into abject backbiting? ‘After reading that,’ one student blustered, ‘I feel like my novel stands a chance!’ (Their novel did indeed get picked up: by a much smaller publisher.) Several other students also panned it. The tutor pronounced the book ‘disappointing’, stressing that it had been another tutor’s choice, then asked, as an afterthought, had anyone liked it? ‘C’mon,’ I said. ‘You can’t expect anyone to admit to liking it after that!’ And, predictably, no-one did. So when the tutor announced, at the next class, that the reviled novel’s author would be joining us the following week, most students looked unsure. Stoked that we’d have the chance to pick the brains of an award-winning journo with several fiction and nonfiction books and countless essays to their name, I came to class prepared to ask what I hoped were thoughtful questions directly concerning our guest speaker’s work – unlike most of my peers. ‘Do you make a living from writing?’ was a typical inquiry; as if a ‘yes’ would prove that maybe the average student could, too.

This attitude comes under scrutiny in Rjurik Davidson’s Overland 200 essay, ‘Liberated zone or pure commodification?’ According to one young academic Davidson interviewed, who’s taught creative writing at various institutions, students believe that, once they pay their fees, they’ll ‘emerge with a book contract’. Furthermore, ‘at the Masters level, students weren’t interested in the theory or the history at all. They were interested in strategies for writing and opportunities to be published.’

How can novel writing be taught, or facilitated, in just 13 weeks? A prolific novelist adept in genres as diverse as ‘thriller’ and ‘historical’, our tutor grouped us in threes, which got reshuffled every three weeks, enabling me to workshop with slush-pile Ed, whose feedback proved more consistent, clear, comprehensive and useful than the tutor’s. After nine weeks in trios, however, we were obliged to pair off. I evaded an approach from a pushy student who kept calling my narrator ‘You’ (given my narrator’s dysfunctions, the assumption seemed not just naïve but insulting), and in consequence wound up with the one student no-one else wanted: P, who treated all assignments as afterthoughts (proving that you can buy, rather than earn, a masters). I read and critiqued P’s chapters three weeks running, although P failed to reciprocate, because our reports on each other’s work would count for 20% of our final assessment, and I knew the tutor, unlike P, wasn’t impressed with my novel. ‘The best thing I’ve read in years,’ gushed P, ‘the best thing since Hunter S Thompson!’ – an odd if charming comparison no more apt than P’s report, titled ‘review’ (though our specific task was to write a ‘critical assessment’). Here’s a relatively lucid sample:

‘The language used in this book is undoubtedly Australian. There is much more showing than telling. And the dialogue, whether in conversation or inner voice, is very believable Aussie vernacular. I have thought about the use of Australian slang in relation to my own story – and if something daggy like a list at the end or beginning of the book of what some of the words mean would assist in the acceptance of a wider audience?’

Note the lack of focus. The line about showing vs. telling seems to have strayed in from somewhere else. With such clueless beginners gaining admission to postgrad level, it’s no wonder that the tutor, when not presiding over group diss sessions, did little more than regurgitate how-to manuals. So who can blame those students who, according to Rjurik Davidson, ‘even expect their teachers to act as literary agents’? I hadn’t paid $1616 (less 10%) to emerge with nothing but 2½ pages of waffle from someone who’d never heard of a glossary. As for what P got from me, the tutor wrote on the copy they marked, ‘should be very helpful to [P] in redrafting’ and ‘Could you email me a copy to use as an example for future classes?’ I did, if only because I had no reason not to (other than ingratitude): the tutor ’s scrawled assessment of my fiction project – while suitably critical – was too brief and general to be useful, based on a cursory, discontinuous reading of one third of the required 30 000 words. To read more, the tutor had informed us all, they’d need to be paid more.

During that course, one night in the break, Ed had bitched about slush-pile contributors; how ‘pathetic’ they are, and even ‘crazy’ on occasion – an observation that springs to mind now because, some time today, my ms – a later draft of the one referred to above – will have arrived by snail mail at the publisher where Ed still earns a wage. For obvious reasons, I made a point of calling to ask for the name of the editor who’s currently fielding unsolicited mss, and breathed easier on hearing that she’s a total stranger.

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