Re: your REF impact request

Paul Magrs was flabbergasted when an institution he hadn’t heard from in years asked if it could use his work to show impact. Here is his reply

April 25, 2013

Paul Magrs

To the person at the University of East Anglia responsible for the Research Assessment Thingummy, or whatever it’s called nowadays:

Thank you very much for your email this afternoon, requesting information about sales of the book I co-edited in 2001 while I was a senior lecturer in the English department at the University of East Anglia teaching on, among other things, the “world famous” creative writing MA course.

I am delighted to hear that you “have finished writing this particular impact case study on behalf of my UEA creative writing colleagues”.

Very well done! I know these box-ticking exercises to do with “research outputs” (or “books” as some of us still like to call them) can be extremely tiring to write. Writing can be quite hard work, can’t it? And it needs lots of time and energy and quiet too, doesn’t it? I hope you’ve had plenty of that while working on your case study.

I know I need lots of space in which to write anything, even this email, for example.

I have to say, I am absolutely cock-a-hoop to hear that “We have listed your Creative Writing Coursebook as one of several distinguished and successful books about writing that have come out of UEA in the last two decades”.

I am so gratified to be on that list of “distinguished and successful” authors from UEA. How marvellous!

And to be seen as successful, too!

It’s funny because, really, I haven’t heard much from UEA since I left, nine years ago. Back then I was teaching and/or organising all the creative writing courses from undergraduate to PhD level. I also invented courses on writing creative essays, and on surrealism and fantasy, and the novel in the 1960s. I was publishing at least one novel of my own a year. I was working pretty hard, really. Very hard, in fact. I think it would be fair to say that by 2004, after seven years there, I was completely burned out.

Sometimes I suspected that someone, somewhere, who had something to do with workloads, might have been taking the piss, just a little bit.

It was in the midst of all this activity that a colleague and I (who were already inventing extracurricular stuff for our students such as readings in pubs, day trips for writing practice and a campus-based publishing initiative) made extra time to outline, construct and pitch The Creative Writing Coursebook to several publishers. Macmillan decided it would love to publish it, and we commissioned 40 authors to write essays about their writing practice, and about their favourite writing exercises for drawing work out of their students or out of their own subconscious. It was a grand undertaking - working through the various stages of producing work in any genre - from first inklings to final drafts. Yes, it was rich and generous and detailed. And yes, people are still using it and buying it and talking about it now, 12 years on.

I have found that UEA hasn’t been terribly keen to remember that I ran those courses for all those years. Last year, when it (self-)published a book about creative writing on campus and its illustrious history, I was completely left out of its roll-call.

I kicked up quite a stink about it on my blog. It was about this time last year and I was so miffed! Funny to think I could be so miffed. Sometimes, though, I suppose even writers with the most integrity still hanker after inclusion in a list of “distinguished and successful” practitioners.

It would just be nice, wouldn’t it? For an instant.

I once said that to my lovely friend at UEA, the late Lorna Sage. This was back in 1998. “Well, if I can’t be a huge bestseller maybe I could just be whatchacallit…distinguished.”

“What?!” she said, laughing uproariously, like she often did. It was Sunday lunch and her bloke Rupert was chuckling away as well at my silliness. “Distinguished?! Oh, you don’t want to be that. I know lots of distinguished people and some of them are just fuckers.”

Yes, yes. Momentarily there, I’d forgotten that, back in 1998. I was hankering after a bit of respectability, you see?

But I knew that respectability and distinguishedness and all that stuff would never come my way.

And that was because I always wrote exactly what I wanted to. In exactly the way I wanted to.

It’s the only way that this writing stuff can happen, you see?

It’s the only way that “outputs” can be “put out”.

And I’ve continued in that way. My own merry, sometimes maudlin, sometimes disastrous, sometimes mildly successful way, in all the years since.

Maybe UEA hasn’t been in touch much in recent years because I once said in an interview that there was a lot of pretension and privilege in the place.

This was shortly after I left, feeling wrung out and used. Feeling exhausted from being made to feel grateful just for having the post.

I’m taking too long in this reply. It’s a good job I don’t get paid by the word, isn’t it? Or by the hour?

Where was I? Oh, yes. The crux of your request.

You write: “It would be especially helpful if we could define exactly how successful [The Creative Writing Coursebook] has been by specifying numbers of sales. If you don’t know the details of sales to date might you be able to ask your publisher?”

I might. I might be able to find out by asking them. I might even be able to look up one of my own royalty statements. I might be able to find out - purely in terms of sales - how “successful” that book has been.

But I won’t.

You see, I don’t think that’s where that book’s success is to be found. Or any book’s.

Not in sales.

Nor in distinction by prizes or third-hand repute or by any of the measures imposed by, on the one hand, your shitty middlebrow literary culture or, the other, your titting assessment exercises.

I had more than enough of your bullet-pointed lists and your grids and graphs when I was still working in academia. I didn’t get my head round them then - when I was still salaried - and I certainly won’t now, when I’m outside that world and getting along as best as I can, just trying to write on the time that I have bought for myself.

I don’t think your measures are any good at all. Your impact and your sales and your bogus respect.

These measures just don’t work.

You see, what this stuff really is…It’s like this:

It’s intangible. It’s impossible. It’s about the imagination and magic and the things you read in books. It’s about time spent reading and writing books. It’s about subjectivity.

It’s about every workshop and lesson I have taught before, during and after my time at UEA. The ones I taught with all my energy and heart and soul.

This is quite hard to quantify. Quite hard to impact assess. Quite tricky to evidence.

Same with the love, imagination and craft that I pour into my books. A lifetime of study and practice. All of that is in my novels and stories.

In short, the answer is no. I will not help you to find a way to evidence the respectability, the distinguishedness and success of the coursebook.

Its success is actually in the magical business of encouraging people to write. Its success is in the business of enlarging the heart and recreating the world. Its success is there in the fact that we and our contributors knew what to say and how to say it - in our unquantifiable, obtuse, seemingly chaotic and diversely creative ways.

As for citing me in your list of authors who have contributed to the culture of your university?

You didn’t care back then. You haven’t cared since. And I strongly suspect you don’t really care now.

So you can stick that in your tick box and smoke it.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Magrs

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Reader's comments (3)

Hahaha! I've loved it! Take that, bibliometrics! Take that, impact assessment! Oh, how good to see such an unhibited opinion about these new absurd systems to measure research in the Humanities! Good for you, Paul Magrs!
Brilliant article, and in response to MAVAN ATAPATTU, if you don't think writing these studies is a good way way of evaluating anything, why don't you do something about it instead of moaning?
I agree with Mavan Atapattu about the smugness of this piece, and notice also that Paul Magrs seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to measuring things. When someone wants to measure things he doesn't want measured, he turns into a petulant teenager: "It's intangible. It's impossible" and "This is quite hard to quantify. Quite hard to impact assess". Yet the first half of the article is full of Magrs's enumerations of his own efforts: "I was teaching and/or organising all the creative writing courses . . .", "I also invented courses on . . .", "I was publishing at least one novel of my own a year . . .", and organizing "readings in pubs, day trips for writing practice and a campus-based publishing initiative". Why does he list all this? Because his efforts were NOT being counted properly: ". . . someone, somewhere, who had something to do with workloads, might have been taking the piss . . .". You can't have it both ways: either this stuff is countable or it isn't. The smugness is also remarkably parochial, as when he refers to "'research outputs' (or 'books' as some of us still like to call them)". It doesn't seem to have occurred to Magrs that not everyone's work results in books and that 'research outputs' is a neutral term that tries to cover without prejudice what we all produce.