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|
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|
|Vicki Stiefel, Clark University|
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.