It hasn't yet sunk in, but hippy is no longer chic

May 12, 2006

Why don't creative writing courses engage with the avant-garde 'naked' form of English today, asks Sara Wajid

Globalisation and the internet are radically altering English, according to David Crystal, a leading authority on language. The number of English speakers is rapidly approaching the 2 billion mark, with non-native speakers now outnumbering native speakers by three to one, suggesting the steady growth and increasing non-standardisation of "new Englishes".

In "Into the Twenty-first Century", a paper that will appear in the Oxford History of the English Language , published next month, Crystal writes:

"Editorial involvement represents the biggest difference between speech and writing. The internet is changing this balance, especially in blogging, where the most 'naked' forms of writing appear. There is no single style... In all genres, from web diaries to fantasy games, we will expect to find writing which reflects the speech rhythms, regional and class backgrounds, ages, personalities and educational levels of the participants. There has been nothing like it since the manuscript era of Middle English."

However, this massive shift in the nature of literary form has had a negligible impact on the average English literature BA course. In fact, current reading lists are likely to leave students ignorant about most cutting-edge developments, avant-garde genres and experimental interdisciplinary work in contemporary literary production of the past two decades.

Fay Weldon, appointed chair of creative writing at Brunel University in April, feels academics are in no position to challenge the homogenising forces of commercial publishing. "Booksellers tend to dictate to publishers what they publish. It has decidedly got worse; a lot of novelists I know simply aren't publishing any more because they're not getting the sales.

But this puts a pressure on writers that is not totally unhealthy. The real challenge is getting readers as there's no imprimatur to produce books that no one wants to read."

Others disagree. They say literary studies should embrace the avant-garde.

Artists' books, for example, are increasingly being adopted by contemporary writers, but fail to register in literary studies in the UK. Such volumes, though produced by artists, are books as artworks rather than books about art. They are deliberately experimental and seek to cross the boundaries of literature, criticism and illustration.

Maria Fusco, a senior lecturer in visual arts publishing at the University of East London, explains the appeal. "There's something to be said for the experimental nature of artists' books, not so much in their form and content, but rather in that more established writers and artists can use them as 'test' spaces, non-commercial in nature, with small yet devoted audiences... But in terms of critical theory in the area of artists' books, there is very little serious writing."

Some literary academics have embraced the multimedia platforms provided by the visual-arts sector. For example, Sukhdev Sandhu, writer and professor of English literature and Asian/Pacific/American studies at New York University, has within the past year collaborated with sonic artist Scanner for the Artangel online project Nighthaunts ( www.nighthaunts.org.uk ) and with the painter Usman Saeed for an artists' book.

"A large part of it is structural; books are expensive, slow and costly forms. With both those projects I could work in a more speculative, ludic mode," Saeed says, "Nighthaunts is like a blog - a series of works in progress that you can just put out there. It will come out as a book, but I don't think of the book as a legitimisation of the project, it's just one of many remixes. Students from around the world have been getting in touch about it, so it is making it on to reading lists, which is testimony to some blurring between the critical and the creative, but they tend to be on metropolitan studies or sociology courses, not literary studies."

Online publishing has created new literary forms, including digital poetry, hypertext and online novel serialisations. TrAce, the ten-year-old online writing centre based at Nottingham Trent University, reflects the interest in this area, as does the plethora of literary e-zines.

So is literary studies inherently conservative? Philip Tew, newly appointed to the English and creative writing department at Brunel, thinks so. He has conducted a survey on teaching the contemporary novel of 16 literature departments around the UK for a research project at the Higher Education Academy's English subject centre.

"Literary studies is taught overwhelmingly by liberals who like to think of themselves as radicals; there does seem to be something inherently conservative in literary studies. One or two voices (from each marginalised community) gets canonised and that's it. Too many people think they're making an intervention by teaching black writing, gay writing or women's studies, but that's such a natural part of culture now we should take it as given.

"Some of us do want to radicalise how literary studies is taught but there are difficult forces at work. People decide what to teach on the basis of the availability of books, and critical material, student dispositions and their own literary paradigms, which are often about 20 years out of date.

"Also there is a time lag. People periodise 'the contemporary' quite strangely. For some it means 1947. Imagine telling Virginia Woolf that literature produced in 1870 was contemporary to her work. Perhaps this is due to the hippie generation that runs departments and still associates the 1960s with youth culture. We should now be thinking in terms of pre-millennial and post-millennial work."

A new MA in contemporary literature and culture designed to fill this gap in the market (exclusively covering the post-1970 period) will start at Brunel next year. William Watkin, head of English research and postgraduate studies at Brunel, says it is the first of its kind and that he sees no evidence elsewhere of "any interest in the UK in avant-garde or experimental contemporary literature at an institutional level".

He adds that Brunel's "Archive of the Now", however, supports non-mainstream publishers by holding 45 contemporary British experimental poets.

Creative writing programmes have traditionally offered students the broadest exposure to contemporary literature, a tradition started at the University of East Anglia and continued around the country.

For Weldon, though, being at the cutting edge is not necessarily what creative writing courses are about. "When they asked me at the job interview how I'd respond to experimental writers, I said: 'We should be so lucky!' But I'd also have to say bad experimental writing tends to be worse than bad traditional prose writing. Sometimes I worry the students are just in training to become arts administrators so they can refuse grants.

"We are training a generation of commercially savvy writers, which is a mixed pressure. I've just returned from the US where they now teach creative non-fiction, so they are very skilled in talking about themselves, but here I hope we try to foster innovation. I hope to enthuse my students with a little anarchy.

"The internet is great, but it seems the book goes on winning. I tried to write in serialisation on the internet but I gave up and found that the book is more than the sum of the parts. Editors, typographers and designers have combined to produce something readers like to read and people respond to the whole context. The blog remains the blog: it shouldn't be taught.

People will read it and it will go on. But it's a triumph to get people to stay with a novel all the way through."

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