Books

Writers: graduating by the bushel, but can they find readers?

The Globe and Mail

Here come the writers: hundreds of them, liberated from their garrets and suddenly overrunning the country, going from invisible to omnipresent, like a hatch of mayflies, as they cluster in the bright lights of Canada’s fall literary festivals.

But where do they come from? More than 100 local and international authors are crowding the schedule of this week’s Vancouver Writers Fest, and many of them will be joining almost as many more in Toronto for the start-up of the International Festival of Authors, which has become so big it now stages more than a dozen satellite events in towns across Southern Ontario. The book trade may be shrinking, but the supply of authors continues to swell.

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The answer is that they come from creative-writing programs, which have emerged in the new century as the indispensable nurseries of literary fiction in North America. Half of all published authors in Canada have studied creative writing, according to a 2010 survey, and enrolment in postsecondary creative-writing courses is booming even as interest in traditional literary studies declines. Graduates dominate the festival lecterns and lists of award nominees every fall, often competing with former teachers for honours once reserved – at least in the public imagination – for self-taught outsiders in the embrace not of approving institutions but a thankless Muse.

Victoria author and teacher Bill Gaston exemplified the current trend this week when he launched his new novel, The World, in a joint event with former student Marjorie Celona, who began writing her first novel, titled Y, in a creative-writing workshop at the University of Victoria and finished it at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop, birthplace of the concept. Himself a creative-writing graduate, a creative-writing teacher since 1989 and current chair of the U Vic writing program, Gaston is convinced that the spread of professional training has elevated the stature of Canadian literature.

“I really do believe that,” Gaston said in an interview. “And I know that some people will wince and yell at me.” But few critics today are still asking what he calls the “age-old question”: Can writing that is truly creative actually be taught, as if it were an engineering problem solvable by ironclad equations? One look at the reigning elite of literary fiction, from Ian MacEwan to Annabel Lyon or Nathan Englander, moots the question: If teaching creative writing were impossible, 21st-century literature as we know it would not exist.

“Virtually everybody who has been through a program would say it helped them,” Gaston says. “It’s the people who have never been near one who say it doesn’t help.” Studying creative writing is not yet a prerequisite for success. “But it sure streamlines your progress,” Gaston adds. “You learn a lot about what not to do.”

The big question today – “a question we’re all asking ourselves and not doing a good job answering,” according to Gaston – is what the trained-up new writers will do with their skills. “We’re pumping out all these graduates while the readership for literary fiction is shrinking. I think everybody knows that.”

That disconnect is a growing concern, agrees fellow writer and teacher Greg Hollingshead, director of the Writing Studio program at the Banff Centre. “There’s always this anxiety about people being educated in something there’s no market for,” he says.

The “huge proliferation” of creative-writing programs, first in the United States and more recently in Canada, has created a subsequent “huge proliferation of graduates looking for jobs,” according to Rishma Dunlop, a poet and professor of creative writing at York University in Toronto. American universities have responded by training creative-writing graduates to teach creative writing themselves, “because that of course makes them more marketable,” Dunlop says. York has followed the trend with a new graduate course in creative-writing pedagogy.

Critics of the discipline will perceive what Hollingshead calls “the danger of the closed system” in such an arrangement. Incest, even. On the other hand, it ensures a reliable supply of competent instructors for programs that continue to proliferate despite what “everybody knows” about the fate of literary fiction.

If that’s a contradiction, it doesn’t register where author Linda Svendsen teaches at the University of British Columbia, now in its 50th year of creative-writing instruction. “The program has just grown and grown,” she says. Eighty-two undergraduates are currently enrolled in creative writing at UBC, while 222 graduate students are studying for a creative-writing master of fine arts.

“I hear the book industry is suffering and all of that,” says Svendsen, whose new novel, Sussex Drive, grew out of her desire to join her students while she taught them. “Yet because of the digital revolution, people are writing more than ever.”

And publishing: Recent award winners and nominees coming out of the UBC program include Writers’ Trust prizewinner Lyon, now a full-time member of the faculty; Giller nominees Sarah Selecky, Lynn Coady and Zsuzsi Gartner; Charlotte Gill, a multiple award winner, and author of Eating Dirt; novelists Michael Christie and Steven Galloway, the latter also a faculty member.

“I don’t know if it’s the Pacific Ocean or the mountains or some particular alchemy we have on our campus,” Svendsen says, “but they’re publishing.”

Even the majority of less-fortunate, often-unpublished graduates benefit from the training, according to the teachers. “I really believe that the skill sets developed are useful no matter what job market a student enters,” Dunlop says. She and her colleagues have a firm answer to students who worry they are fated to starve. “We tell them no, and we’re the perfect examples.We are professors who write and teach and do research.” The York program includes regular visits from alumni who describe how they have applied their skills outside traditional literary occupations.

Learning to write is “an excellent discipline,” Hollingshead says. “I have never encouraged expectation of any significant economic reward from it.”

But enrolment in creative-writing courses continues to grow – in part because of the academy’s retreat from traditional literary studies, according to Hollingshead. By moving away from studying literature as an art form and toward a theoretical deconstruction of “texts,” English departments have “created a hunger that’s not being satisfied,” he says.

The number of students studying English in university hasn’t changed since the 1970s, according to Antanas Sileika, director of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. “The thought is that all these people who used to study English have moved into creative writing because it’s more old-fashioned in a way,” he said.

Creative-writing courses, which generally follow the “Iowa model” in which small groups of students critique one another’s writing in workshops, are popular as the last redoubt of personalized, small-group instruction in the modern multiversity. Just as valuably, they provide aspiring artists with a literary milieu. “And that’s just so lacking everywhere,” Gaston says, adding that the greatest benefit of his own experience as a graduate student at UBC was talking to peers about writing. “That’s how I learned most of what I did learn there.”

One now-traditional criticism of such processes is that they produce homogenous results, often identified as “workshop stories” or “Iowa novels” by skeptics. Most teachers deny it, naturally, pointing out that creative-writing courses have broadened access to the art and are in part responsible for the new diversity of Canadian literature. But the taint remains.

Fictions that carry it tend to be “highly competent but dull,” according to Hollingshead. “The rule is the telling detail,” he says, “so you get all this surface information, but to no effect. You have a kind of aesthetic sheen on the prose but you’re not getting enough ideas and you’re not getting enough dramatic energy.” He is confident in the prospect of literary renewal, but doubts such a thing will emerge from the creative-writing academy.

“What feels rough and wild and almost too strange for consumption – that’s what is going to show the way to the next phase of things,” Hollingshead says.

But that, too, will ultimately prove teachable.

Literary festival

Although it spans 10 days, Toronto’s International Festival of Authors offers a concentrated dose of world literature in its final weekend. Here’s a guide for total immersion.

On Friday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m., science-fiction authors Cory Doctorow and China Miéville explore the outer reaches of the “new weird” in readings from their latest novels, followed by a discussion of the fast-mutating genre of sci-fi.

A more grounded alternative at the same time is the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction “Spotlight,” a discussion hosted by 2012 Taylor Prize-winner Andrew Westoll (above) and including novelist Richard Ford.

On Saturday, Oct. 27, beginning at 3 p.m., artist, illustrator and author Leanne Shapton teams up with equally multitalented cartoonist Seth to present her latest book, Swimming Studies, which is based on her training as an Olympic-level swimmer. Artist Joanne Tod moderates.

Also on Saturday, at 5 p.m., seldom-seen Brooklyn novelist and filmmaker Paul Auster presents his memoir, Winter Journal, followed by a discussion with Toronto novelist Antanas Sileika.

As if that weren’t enough for one day, all five finalists for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize will be appearing Saturday at 8 o’clock for an evening of eclectic readings, hosted by the CBC’s Carol Off.

Beginning at noon on Sunday, Oct. 28, Booker Prize-winning British author Howard Jacobson reads from his latest novel Zoo Time, satirizing the publishing industry in a style that crosses Philip Roth and Woody Allen.

Later the same afternoon, beginning at 5, Minnesota-based author Louise Erdrich takes the stage to read from her glowingly reviewed 13th novel, The Round House, followed by a discussion with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel.

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