'If my book isn't published, I'll weep...'

April 7, 2006

Ibut as an original thesis it will still have been worthwhile, says Richard King in defence of his creative writing PhD

I'm earning a PhD in creative writing. Wipe that smug look off your face and let me defend myself. I'm tired of fellow academics asking about my research as if I were a child, as if my thesis were a diorama.

Sure, I want to publish my thesis, my novel, but, like you, I'm not striving for a bestseller. I'm pushing for quality, depth, something unique. I could write my book in a ratty flat somewhere but, like you, I prefer access to a library, a scholarly community and the proximity of people who know a lot more than me. My supervisors provide editing and experience, guiding me through the years it takes to write a novel. I get up each morning, eat breakfast, then write and revise until it hurts. When I don't know something, I read the masters, seek advice, search the web, conduct interviews, visit physical collections or go out into the field.

No, I don't take classes on creativity and, yes, good novelists need talent. Albert Einstein famously said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Are creativity and talent taught in astrophysics? No, but they're essential in any field. Do I have talent? I take comfort in knowing that sometimes a lot of hard work helps if you're not particularly blessed.

If my book isn't published, I'll cry. I'll weep. I will. It will crush me.

Getting this degree takes all the courage I can muster. Few seem to mind if a philosophy student spends four years of her life engaged in scholarship and doesn't end up being the next David Hume. Yet if I finish my PhD without a publishable novel, some will say I have wasted my time.

Like some of you, since I can't yet make enough money writing, I teach. But I won't teach creative writing courses unless I become a good, recognised novelist. I am, however, as capable of teaching English as other young PhD students. Where one colleague is an expert on Dorothy Wordsworth's influence, I'm well acquainted with the process of writing a novel:Jthe struggles, the decisions, the research. I help students analyse and appreciate a master's methods and results.

Writing programmes are valuable to the university community. When my fellow writers and students of criticism sit in a seminar together, we keep each other honest. I'm interested in criticism, too - and my astute colleagues want to know my process. Furthermore, novelists are interdisciplinary thinkers who help to connect the schools. I've already sought the help of staff in the schools of biology and modern languages. Do I need to mention, too, the amount of student fees and staff prestige that these increasingly popular programmes bring?

Assessment can get prickly. There is evidence of purpose and consistency of form and style that allow a reader to distinguish rubbish from earnest effort. I can't deny that there is subjectivity in judging fiction, but there is subjectivity in the analysis of any thesis. Every reader in every field has prejudices. To aid assessment, my programme requires a written analysis of the process: the "introduction" is the summary of my literature search and influences, the "methods" is how I approached the project and the materials used, the "results" is the novel and the "discussion" is what I've learnt, what further endeavour is required and what is my unique contribution, however humble, to the field of literary fiction.

If my thesis turns out to be a dust-gatherer, I know I've toiled in what I believe to be most meaningful. I don't want to spend my time solely studying the work of another. My novel is my independent research, my self-designed experiment. So when I take a break from writing, I walk the cobblestones of the university, an institution founded to allow space for the liberal pursuit of knowledge.

Why is a PhD in creative writing less worthy than a PhD is other subjects? And, by the way, how's your thesis selling?

Richard King is taking an overseas research scholarship for his PhD in creative writing at St Andrews University and is a visiting lecturer in literature of the sea at Williams College and Mystic Seaport in the US.

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