Wednesday, April 22, 2015

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #2

When Words Collide – How Creative Writing Programs Address Popular Fiction: this panel was among the first offerings at AWP 2015, scheduled at nine on the opening morning. Convened by Edinburgh Napier lecturer David Bishop, a panel of four discussed the place of popular fiction in Creative Writing programmes – still a rare topic at conferences like AWP.

David had invited three contributors with diverse experiences and energetically polemical views when it comes to teaching aspiring commercial novelists - Barbara Duffey from Dakota Wesleyan University, Nicole Peeler from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, and Vicki Stiefel from Clark University in Massachusetts.
Barbara Duffey, Dakota Wesleyan

David kicked off the panel by describing the Edinburgh Napier ethos: our defining love of ambitious, boundary-troubling genre fiction, and our abandonment of the traditional peer-review workshop in favour of intensive teaching in craft, technique and professional practice.

Nicole Peeler, Seton Hill University
A wide-ranging exchange followed in answer to three questions posed by David: Why is there such a distance between Creative Writing teaching and the practice of popular fiction? Are academic Creative Writing and popular fiction in fact different disciplines, requiring different teaching methods? And does popular fiction attract a different kind of Creative Writing student?

Barbara Duffey and Nicole Peeler both spoke about the ideological inheritance of Creative Writing as a university subject. On one hand, the adherence of traditional literary studies to the Romantic notion of authorship, which views genre conventions as anathema to “creativity”, and on the other, Creative Writing teaching as a practice still rooted in the Modernist experiment.

David Bishop limbers up
Against these tired but largely unquestioned assumptions, the panel offered quick-witted statements of the obvious. The galvanising relationship between constraint and innovation was described: the demands of genre necessarily force a higher level of originality.

Vicki Stiefel, Clark University
For panellists who successfully write both, high quality genre fiction is much more difficult to achieve than plausible “literature” in their experience. In any case, all agreed that “literary fiction” was quite clearly also a genre – one mischievously defined by Nicole as “non-popular fiction”.

On the topic of teaching methods, Nicole brought an unabashed vocational ethos to the table. She wants her students to make money, and expects strong business awareness and reader orientation. For her, the key to professionalism is finishing the novel – the defining requirement of Seton Hill's MFA.

Regardless of individual inflections, there was vehement consensus that writing a decent novel is absolutely nothing like practising literary criticism. Vicki Steifel pointed out that to write a book you need a toolkit that works, and recommended Techniques of the Selling Writer as a useful primer.

Barbara wondered whether toolkit-based methods shouldn’t work equally well for all kinds of fiction. She noted the important thing isn’t the differentiation, but understanding the systems of power that define the literary within the academy, and legitimate the privileging of this genre above all others.

Then followed Barbara’s masterstroke: unattributed extracts from one novel defined by the critics as pretty much chicklit, and one hailed as an “American Chekhov”. She asked the audience which – sentence for sentence – appeared to contain most well-crafted writing? And which did we think was which? Put to the vote, the canny audience got both answers right.

A brief analysis of genre students' tattoos and facial piercings followed, along with consideration of their arguably more singular focus and vocational commitment. As the session’s defining metaphor for the work of editorial mentors reached its peak (“picking the corn out of a great, steaming pile of horsecrap” – thanks, Nicole!) the discussion drew to a close.

Final score: Popular Fiction 1, Unpopular Fiction 0.

No comments:

Post a Comment