Why the lack of female first in Cambridge is down to more than PMS

September 22, 2000

A ground-breaking study into student performance has come up with new findings on why boys do better. Paul Surtees reports

Ihave just learned that Gallimard wants to publish Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov wrote to his friend Morris Bishop from his lecturing post in the United States. "This will give her a respectable address. The book is having some success in London and Paris. Please, cher ami, do not read it to the end!... Frankly, I am not concerned with 'irate Paterfamilias'. That stuffy philistine would be just as upset if he learned that at Cornell I analyse Ulysses before a class of 250 students of both sexes."

Thanks to works such as Brian Boyd's excellent Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years and publication of Nabokov's selected letters, in which this extract appears, Nabokov has become one of literary history's best-known "writers on campus".

Another is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He become known as more than a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, when he took a boat trip, on "a golden afternoon", July 4 1862, with the daughters of the dean of his college - and so launched Alice and the March Hare into literary history and himself as Lewis Carroll.

But the university lives of many other notable writers remain largely unwritten. The stories of Nabokov and Carroll are the tip of a long and frequently secret history.

Carroll was deaf in his right ear and preferred people to walk on his left. This one-sided deafness should not exactly be taken as a metaphor for the condition of the academic creative writer, but it comes close. Clandestine creative writing lives are not unusual on campus, for even declared campus writers worry about their academic status.

There is a reciprocal history to this, of course. Some of our greatest creative writers have only glanced academe, spinning off in an opposite direction, only marginally influenced. Jack London's single semester at Berkeley hardly qualifies him for the title of campus writer, any more than recent writers' residencies in London Zoo will produce a new breed of poet-zoologist. But for every writer who briefly visits a university, two or three times as many return regularly or take up day jobs there.

Indeed, it would be easier to list the number of contemporary British writers who have never had close contact with a university or college than it would to list those who have. In fact, it is extremely difficult to chart accurately how many teach, write or research in universities and colleges around the world, part or full time. It is this that the research programme "Creative writing and academe, 1890 to the present" has been investigating since 1995, trying to locate the public and private records of creative writing undertaken on campuses during the 20th century. But the research still has some way to go because the number of writers involved is almost certainly several thousand.

In the past 50 years, the spread and influence of higher education has provided an impetus for creative writing, which has become as much a part of contemporary university life as that body of academics who are at the pinnacle of arts and humanities research.

We are witnessing in Britain an interest in university creative writing unsurpassed in modern history and the strongest movement ever to establish for it a practice and theory-based research profile. This movement has been supported by the major UK arts research funder, the Arts and Humanities Research Board. But such success has not come without a struggle.

An alarming number of people continue to believe creative writing is of subsidiary importance to the critical study of literature, drama or media. Some argue that the subject exists largely as a "student drawcard", rather than as a serious academic pursuit. Others are inclined towards the old chestnut that "those who can't do, teach" and therefore campus writing courses are staffed by would-be poets and washed-up novelists.

Travelling across American campuses, you wonder where this last idea came from. Imagine, for example, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a faculty member at Princeton, busy writing her most recent novel Paradise (1997). Not that Morrison had to wait until her Princeton appointment to combine her creative writing with teaching. Earlier, appointed to the Albert Schweitzer chair at the State University of New York at Albany, she spoke of the pleasure she felt in nurturing new writers through two-year fellowships, so they could "put their writing at the middle of their lives".

This kind of nurturing has its own secret history. The story of significant student creative writing is a literary history in urgent need of writing. It would include the work of Cambridge student Christopher Marlowe, the founding of Graham Greene's career (he published his collection of "student poetry" Babbling April in 1925 as he finished reading modern history at Balliol), the early work of Caryl Churchill, Ian McEwan and Jane Smiley.

Marlowe began Tamburlaine between his studies in divinity. He is one of Britain's most influential playwrights and tragedians, but this piece of "student creative writing" is the only one to have been published during his short lifetime.

How influential universities have been on Britain's day-to-day literary culture is only beginning to be recorded. The influence of creative writing courses easily slips back into the literary wallpaper. Nor do we know how much those with writing careers continue to draw on student experiences - though we can start by investigating the biographical notes in the work of relatively young writers such as Suzannah Dunn, Brooke Biaz, Toby Litt and Trezza Azzopardi - all creative writing graduates.

Indeed, an increasing number of contemporary writers have masters degrees and PhDs in creative writing. Take Jane Smiley, a graduate of the University of Iowa, and T. Coraghessan Boyle. Boyle's University of Iowa doctorate was awarded on the basis of a collection of short stories. His first collection, Descent of Man (1979), evolved from that time and he has since taught creative writing at the University of Southern California. The change from writer working on campus to writer studying creative writing on campus is one of the most pervasive contemporary literary movements, yet it remains unacknowledged.

If academic life does leave a trail in our literary culture it is perhaps in satires of intellectual life by writers such as Mary McCarthy and David Lodge; and, more generally, in the characters and situations that occasionally surface elsewhere.

Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, who once wrote a paper "entitled 'The Proustian theme in a letter from Keats to Benjamin Bailey'", needs little introduction; while his "editor", John Ray Jr, PhD, is a familiar campus caricature. Likewise, Joyce Carol Oates, a colleague of Morrison's at Princeton, dedicated her novel American Appetites (1989), the story of affluent "academic" couple Ian and Glynnis McCullough, "For my Princeton friends - nowhere in these pages". Ian McCullough's "volunteer work" later takes him to Short North Rehabilitation Centre where the course he teaches "is advertised as Remedial English for Native Americans".

It is difficult not to hear that familiar campus ring in a campus writer's work. Take Oates's novel Black Water (1992). Here the narrator writes of "that tall big-shouldered balding light-skinned black man of about 35, a fellow of some kind at MITI" And so it goes, intellectual and creative enterprise consciously and unconsciously propagating. Malcolm Bradbury - never one to accept the meeting of the creative and the intellectual uncritically - brilliantly examines this in his new novel To the Hermitage. His commitment to writers on campus could well have provided UK literature with a contemporary literary backbone sturdy enough to take it through this new century.

In To the Hermitage, Bradbury's "encyclopedic academic", aptly named Professor Verso, says: "I'm saying the categories you're using don't exactly work. You see truth statements and fiction statements. I see different ways of systematising thought and language." It is a joke but it carries a serious point: with all this cross-fertilisation, creative writing should never really have been labelled as some "other" category of higher education.

Graeme Harper is director of the Development Centre for the Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Wales, Bangor, and of the UK national research programme "Creative writing and academe, 1890 to the present".

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