Invitations for gifted cousins

June 7, 2002

Mandy Garner meets an organiser of a literary festival with ambitious goals.

Michael Schmidt is a bit of an internationalist. Born in Mexico, he has been running Carcanet press, the literary publishers, since his university days. With the Commonwealth Games coming to Manchester in July, he is organising an international literature festival to increase awareness of Commonwealth authors and to raise funds for students to come to study creative writing in the UK.

He also plans to highlight a system that allows relatively wealthy students from Europe to pay almost a third as much in tuition fees at UK universities as students from Commonwealth countries such as Uganda. "We talk about level playing fields," he says, "but it is very hard under the current system to attract anyone but the most wealthy to the UK."

Schmidt, head of Manchester Metropolitan University's creative writing school, acknowledges that the British Council offers some scholarships and that it is supportive, but he says the little money there is is mainly aimed at science students.

He hopes to raise about £30,000, which he says will allow the writing school to offer five bursaries. And he believes the publicity the festival generates might spur local business people to contribute to a fund that would provide similar bursaries on an annual basis.

The idea for the festival was the result of a conversation two years ago between Schmidt and Australian writer Les Murray about the fact that Britain has always followed US writers and has tended to ignore those from Commonwealth countries. "Many fine writers are not available in the UK, while a lot of second-rate US ones are," Schmidt says. "It is outrageous. It is as if the whole of the non-Anglo-American world were not worth a candle."

In the poorer Commonwealth countries, it is hard for writers to get published at all - and Schmidt says that even in Australia and New Zealand the publishing base is shaky. If Africa has a publishing market at all, it is generally for education textbooks, adds Schmidt. For literature, writers have to turn to the west and then they often fall victim to the expectations of western audiences. Many Commonwealth countries lack any independent fora, such as literary magazines, where a critical dialogue on literature can take place and new young writers can be identified.

Schmidt got into publishing in the late 1960s at Oxford University, where Carcanet was a literary magazine. He agreed to take over its running. Only two weeks later did he find that he had in effect agreed to buy it, when he got a bill for 73 guineas (about £76). After publishing a few literary pamphlets, he was going to call it a day. But they were a success, so he published a book and then another. Carcanet went on to publish the first English translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Fernando Pessoa. It also published Octavio Paz and Natalya Gorbanevskya's poetry and many others, including several Commonwealth authors.

Alongside the publishing and the writing - he has a raft of books to his name - Schmidt has his teaching. He came to MMU just over three years ago, after a spell at Manchester University, teaching novel writing and poetry. Part of the deal in swapping universities was the creation of the writing school. There is a strong vocational element to the course, whose teaching staff include poet Carol Ann Duffy, with a focus on issues such as copyright and negotiating a publishing contract. Schmidt's role as head of Carcanet press also acts as a spur to students. Carcanet not only gives students work experience, it has also published some of them.

As the MMU has moved more to the practical side, Schmidt says Manchester University has sidled more towards theory, particularly since the arrival of theorist Terry Eagleton, from Oxford.

For Schmidt, the key to being a good writer is to read widely. He finds it worrying that "slightly more people seem to write than read". He adds that some people think writing courses are an easy option. "They think they can base a story on existing texts, but they find they have to create their own discipline and plot."

He rails against the idea that creative writing courses are just there to churn out literary clones. What he is looking for in potential students is surprise, rather than an efficient writer whose responses may have been thoroughly "laundered" by the academic process.

"They have to write with some sort of magic and use language in a different way. We are not looking for people who want to cash in and write the next Bridget Jones' Diary . We want people who want to write literary novels. People who write well and surprise themselves."

He hopes the festival will take the older well-known figures, such as Tariq Ali, Margaret Atwood, Les Murray and Nadine Gordimer, "into the company and consciousness of younger writers" as well as raise money to encourage a Commonwealth exchange between writers of the future. The aim, he says, is to create "a republic of equals".

Literature of the Commonwealth Festival runs from June 17-23. For more details, visit www.commonwealthwriters.com/festival

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