LITERATURE TEACHERS AND LITERARY PRODUCTION: WHEN A MERIT IS NOT A MERIT

Back when I was a doctoral student and computers where starting to be the sophisticated tools they are now, I asked my MA dissertation supervisor whether she would contemplate the idea of my submitting a novel for my PhD dissertation. I was thinking of producing something hypertextual because I had then read that William Faulkner wanted to have his masterpiece The Sound and the Fury (1929) printed in inks of different colours, depending on whose internal monologue we read. Fancy that, I thought, it would be wonderful to produce a text that benefitted from all the digital advances and that would go much, much further than the two-tone fantasy Faulkner entertained.

Understandably, Faulkner’s publisher talked him out of what would have been a high-cost operation and today we’re still stuck with boring black-on-white books; hypertexts have not really taken off, either, I’m not sure why. My own supervisor initially encouraged me, even though I had never written fiction at all, but finally decided no tribunal in Spain would be ready for the experiment. This was 1993, before anyone had heard of creative writing here, although the famous programme at the University of East Anglia had been established by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson back in 1970. “The UK’s first PhD in Creative and Critical Writing followed in 1987”, the website of UEA proudly claims, whereas “Creative Writing at undergraduate level has been taught informally since the 1960s and formally since 1995”.

No, I have never got around to writing either a publishable short story or a novel, which now and then (like today) worries me. The nagging question at the back of my head is whether a university Literature teacher should be able to produce Literature in the same way, say, a Chemistry teacher must be able to produce suitable experiments leadings to advances in his/her chosen field. The consensual answer is a rotund no, as we, Lit teachers, are in the business of producing literary criticism and not Literature.

This comforts me except on the days when I feel green with envy considering the pile of money our Murcia ex-colleague, María Dueñas, has made out of her very limited literary talent (she used to teach Language, I’m told). On other days, I feel completely floored down by the case of my neighbour in the Department upstairs (Spanish), Carme Riera, who is not only a prestige writer but also a full professor. (I wonder how it feels to sit as a guest through a conference about your work, as she has done–can you criticise the papers presented as an academic, too?). The question is that, as another well-published colleague from the upstairs Department, David Roas, tells me, publishing Literature is not regarded as a merit by the academic authorities that be. It is very odd. David confirmed to me he did not know whether his own CV should include his short story collections and his novels…

As happens, two of our new MA students have also tentatively asked whether they can submit fiction for their MA dissertation, a tricky question since we don’t run a Creative Writing programme. We have not really, then, progressed much from the days when I had the idea of shaping my PhD dissertation as a novel.

If I had never written fiction, where did the idea for the never-written thesis come from? I am thinking of John Scalzi, the rising US SF writer, who wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars (2005), as he candidly explains in the acknowledgements, simply to learn how it was done. That’s it. It is not the best possible strategy but I find Scalzi’s modest approach quite refreshing and I wish many more writers followed his lead, instead of claiming they were possessed by the need to tell a story or make it into the history of Literature.

In my own case, I can always say that I simply don’t know whether I can write a novel, as I have never had the time to try and, besides, a novel requires investing precious time that I need for my academic career (for the proper items that count). Some days I think I will take one year and see what comes out, but I know it will not happen. Either you feel the urge to fabulate from the beginning of adulthood or you do not and, besides, Literature teachers tend to be too self-conscious about the possibility of writing a mediocre piece. I wonder nonetheless what my imaginary novel would be about, though one thing I do know: it would NOT deal with a university Literature teacher. No way.

Translation, by the way, doesn’t count either as an academic merit in this country, no matter whether what you produce is a fine translation of, say, Paradise Lost. We used to have a teacher in the Department, Prof. Josep Maria Jaumà, whose main academic task consisted of translating poetry and I’m sorry to say this was never acknowledged as a serious pursuit by either Ministry or university; translating poetry seemed to be classed, rather, as a highly eccentric hobby. I believe he never tried to apply for a personal research assessment exercise on the basis of his translated poems but I do know of someone else who did try and was flatly rebuked with a hint more or less covert that this was an attempt at cheating. Research is research and it consists in our case of producing literary criticism, as I said. Of course, if you are a writing scientist, as my good friend Carme Torras is, things are even worse as colleagues tend to think that Literature is a waste of time in a scientist’s career. Prizes or no prizes, as it is her case.

An infinite variety of writers are, of course, also teachers, and viceversa, at least in the Anglophone area. In civilized countries they even have this intriguing figure, the visiting writer, supposed to draw his/her inspiration from staying at a particular university (mine would surely inspire some Ballardian entropic tales…). I learned to distrust the idea a bit when Lucía Etxebarría was appointed visiting writer by the University of Aberdeen, but, well, I’ll take this as proof that all systems have imperfections. And, yes, Creative Writing abounds as a degree-awarding discipline at all levels (BA, MA, PhD), though I’ll quote Stephen King again when he says in On Writing that a programme of this kind can help if you’re talented but cannot supply deficiencies if the talent is missing. Also, I’m told that many of the students in Creative Writing programmes tend to be writers who do not read, which partly explains the limited impact they (the programmes) have on truly outstanding Literature. But I ramble…

I have no answer then to the question of why the production of literary texts is not considered a merit in the academic career of a Literature teacher, beyond the suspicion that at heart Literature is not taken to be a serious affair. At another level, when I complained that I was fed up with having to pay the texts I teach out of my own pocket, a Language teacher told me, quite bemused, that he did not see why the university should pay for novels. That’s a good one.

As for students’ demand that literary production can be part of an MA called Advanced English Studies, the truth is that, even recalling my own naïve wish to submit a novel as a PhD dissertation, I don’t quite see it. It is not just because we are not Creative Writing teachers but rather the impression that we should have to learn from scratch how to judge the work submitted. There is quite a tight consensus on what constitutes good academic work, but would we agree on the merits of a novelette or a novel? Not without important changes in our training.

And, yes, it would have been foolish of me to attempt to write a novel as a doctoral student. Or maybe I missed then the chance to be a writer/teacher? I wonder, to finish, who will be up to the task of supervising the proposed MA dissertations if we greenlight them…

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