If you can't join them, just write about them

June 30, 2006

Jaded academics who failed to see why writer Michael Collins wanted to teach wound up sowing doom in his novel

There is something strangely disconcerting about being asked point-blank by a potential employer: "If you are successfully published, and have all these movie deals, then why would you want to teach at our university?" The question is delivered with an air of suspicion, as a challenge, as though I am lying through my teeth about my credentials. It strikes me as odd in the first interview. But coming no fewer than five times in the next nine, it alarms and unnerves me. What the hell are writing programmes looking for in a potential job candidate?

I gather that the prevailing attitude is that anybody who teaches is basically biding his or her time to escape the slog of academe and enjoy the freedom of being a real novelist. Droves of famous writers have followed that path, shouting for apparent joy as they get the cash that enables them to depart the corridors of academic life. The remaining damned settle into an uneasy and oft despairing tenure punctuated with recuperative sabbaticals at, say, madhouses. Okay, I'm being petty - but my interviewers seem to be of the despairing order.

Bizarrely, I am left defending my desire to put my doctorate in creative writing to use at a university, and having to justify how, having failed to get a job in academe after graduation, I went on to become an accomplished programmer. I'm challenged immediately: "How does this computer programming relate to teaching?"

"It was a day job to make ends meet," I reply, "although, you might have duly noted, sir, I wrote award-winning novels while at Microsoft, The Keepers of Truth being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I did all this while at work, using a pencil, absurdly hiding from the internet, from Microsoft, from Big Brother, feeling like... you know, Winston Smith in... in that Nineteen Eighty-Four book."

I'm struggling for answers here, for metaphor, or literary allusion or illusion... for whatever the hell they want. I'm met with exhaustive, dismissive boredom. As things progress from bad to worse, I ramble on about "giving back", about "community" and "institutional allegiance" (whatever that means). Then I stop abruptly and let loose with a barrage of insults.

I spit in the face of a self-righteous bore, before being duly escorted from the hotel by security under threat of prosecution. In the end, I get no job offer, and return home jobless.

The experience of that winter weekend continues to dog me, not least for the reaction it elicited. But it has made me ponder what a university job offers a writer. Let's consider the benefits a university might afford, say, a chemistry professor. Well, there are the labs and the institutional wealth of equipment costing millions. Then there are the doctoral candidates who can work under him, candidates directed toward the same goals, a team discovery of this or cures for that.

There is no shame in collaboration. In fact, it's an essential component of most academic work. That is, excepting most of the arts and probably not at all in creative writing departments. Have you heard of the breakthrough-patent-pending collaborative novel produced after much toil at x university? You haven't! Novel writing doesn't work that way. Nix the doctoral grunts as benefiting the creative writing professor in the pursuit of the great novel. Nix also the institutional wealth of labs. All the writing professor needs is a pencil.

So what is the essential advantage of being tenured in creative writing when splendid isolation seems the natural state of the novelist? I could (and did) argue that with tenure comes security. The solace of a pay cheque can embolden a writer to work outside the vagaries of the marketplace, to take risks, to be experimental, to play outside genre.

However, this reason is viewed with suspicion by my interviewers. One jokingly wants to know: "Have you had a book recently rejected?" as if this is the reason I am sitting here in a professorial wool jacket looking for a job. It all contributes to the heightening anxiety and the spitting episode.

As to the question, "What are writing programmes looking for in a potential job candidate?", maybe some academic reading this can enlighten us all.

Until then, I remain outside the academy, though I got the last word and took a bit of the academy with me. The jaded professors who interviewed me morphed into the central protagonist of my latest campus novel. His is a world where academic jealousies and pettiness prevail behind ivy-covered walls, unveiling its apparent dysfunction to anJaudience wider than just one incredulous writer sitting in an interview.

Michael Collins's latest novel, The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton , is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £10.99.

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