Profile: Fay Weldon

September 22, 2006

It is not often that a world-famous author submits her work for "marking" by a panel of academics.

But this is exactly what Fay Weldon, professor of creative writing at Brunel University, faces now that she has been entered for the 2008 research assessment exercise.

At the very least, it will make an interesting change for members of the English language and literature research assessment sub-panel.

Professor Weldon's latest book, What Makes Women Happy , includes her thoughts on faking orgasms and how to keep men happy. The book, which has caused a considerable media stir, is far removed from the feminist pedestal upon which she has been traditionally placed.

"I think (the new book's) a hoot," she says. "Everything I write is RAE-able, but I would do it anyway because that's my work," she says.

"I don't suppose having one's work evaluated by RAE assessors can be any worse than having it assessed by Amazon or critics from The Times Literary Supplement . Writing is about putting your head above a ditch to be shot at anyway."

With more than 20 novels, collections of short stories, children's books, non-fiction works, magazine articles and plays to her name, the acclaimed author, who turned 75 today, has taken up academic reins late in life.

And, true to form, Professor Weldon has strong opinions on higher education - and students in particular. Sitting at her kitchen table in rural Dorset, she bemoans the death of critical thinking among her students.

"I was worried I would have to fend them off when they were criticising each other's work but, if anything, they're too nice. All they do is emote and feel rather than think," she says.

She became Professor Weldon in March, and so far her new academic chapter has been a sideline, but she loves it, especially the licence it gives her to tell other people how to conduct their lives.

"If you're a professor and, what's more, a chair, then you're in charge.

Having never been an academic it's really interesting to see what it's like," Professor Weldon says.

"The typical student has changed so much from when I was one. Now they turn up half-way through (the lecture) or read their notes over the phone to you, but what they read is very striking. The thought and the work has gone in. I'm terribly impressed."

There is real talent around, she says, but students can come unstuck.

"What happens to a lot of them, especially the ones who have studied English literature, is that they're terrifically ambitious and try to write a great novel. When they write their first sentence they are taken aback.

"You write because you think you know something that others don't, and you read because you are hoping to find out something. Writers have to provide that - they have to add something. It has to be more than just a story - it has to have purpose, meaning and point.

"It's easier for me now, but I remember when I began how simply exhausting it was translating ideas into words on a page. It's like exercising a muscle that you start without and build up until it gets easier."

Can creative writing really be taught? Yes it can, according to Professor Weldon.

An "inborn sensitivity to the meaning and power of language" is needed but "probably a glimmer of a gift will do to work upon", she says.

Professor Weldon, who studied economics and psychology at St Andrews University, confesses to not knowing "the rules" of writing, as she has never studied it as a subject.

Before anyone told them what to do, writers wrote the books they wanted to read. While that sentiment should still animate writers, she says, the craft can be improved upon.

"Much of creative writing involves multiple choices about what the next word is going to be and the edifice you're trying to build by using it. That you can help people with.

"I personally develop events and characters as I go along. But I tell my students to do what their other teachers tell them because that way they'll pass their exams and that's really why they are there, not, on the whole, because they want to write a novel," she says.

The most useful thing she is able to do, Professor Weldon says, is edit students' work as she would her own and explain the process of producing an individual style. Editing is what she enjoys most.

"I have this split personality consisting of the creative part that's over the top, stupid and embarrassing, and then the editor part, deciding 'you can't say that', which alters everything. It's a fight between them so that you end up with something that's acceptable to you and the reader."

Brunel approached Professor Weldon, and she took the job because she has always liked being in employment. She had a successful career in advertising and was credited with the iconic slogan "Go to work on an egg" before taking up writing.

"[Employment] carries with it a weight of responsibility, respectability and sense of obligation to the community, and I like that. It makes me very cheerful," she says.

I GRADUATED FROM St Andrews University

MY FIRST JOB WAS being a waitress. Eventually I got a job as a temporary assistant clerk in the Foreign Office for £6 a week (my rent alone as £3)

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS answering e-mails

WHAT I HATE MOST I am not given to hate

IN TEN YEARS retirement might be nice but is not likely

MY FAVOURITE JOKE "Mr and Mrs Pidfucker and their son Stu". That makes me laugh for some reason

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