Out of the Garret and into the Tower: Why the Myth of Isolation is Bad for Writers

Alex Pheby

There is a myth that has been very difficult to shake: that the writing of novels, poems and stories is done by a writer in isolation. It is a myth that some writers and academics have had a hand in perpetuating, and it is one that has consequences for those studying creative writing and for the state of literature in general. The consequences, broadly, are that student writers working within an academic environment are not taken seriously, and that university staff are stopping short of developing their teaching practice and failing to provide an alternative to the prevalent commercial domination of literature.

To quote from a recently published article by Andrew Cowan, a senior lecturer in creative writing at UEA, asking whether postgraduates studying in creative writing are justified academically or creatively: “do you sometimes suspect that those who remain [in education] tend to be the most institutionalised, the most dependent on feedback, group situations, structures and support, and perhaps, the least committed to succeeding or failing as writers, opting instead for the security of supervision over the insecurity of writing’s necessary isolation…?”1 He is not alone. There is an endemic anxiety within academia as to the legitimacy of the project of creative writing teaching and outside academia there is the worry that, by allowing influences other than the author’s into the creative process, the individuality of what is produced is diluted and that the writing becomes formulaic. There is a clear suspicion of creative writing teaching from both sides and a re-iteration of the idea of “necessary isolation.” Before I go on to address why this suspicion is unnecessary and, more importantly, acts as a limit to the possibilities for literature in a cultural and commercial climate which is already narrowing the field of possible writing, I would first like to look at the idea of “necessary isolation.”

It would be easy, in the first place, to undermine the possibility of “isolation” as it relates to the process of writing – for reasons that anyone with a passing familiarity with deconstruction or discourse theory (to mention only the most obvious theoretical positions from which what is essentially a solipsistic position could be attacked) would find obvious – but such a move would be redundant for one obvious reason – the writer, in a very concrete and practical sense, is never isolated in the first place. Rather, the ‘isolated’ writer that Cowan proposes as an archetype - one who operates independent of an academic department - and whom the non-academic world regards as the producer of authentic literature is, in fact, operating within a system, and a system in which people other than the writer have a say over the writing that becomes produced.

Firstly, and perhaps most appropriately, this system includes the writer’s peers. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Beckett’s apprenticeship to Joyce on his work, for example, or to imagine the Bloomsbury group working in isolation, or that any of the other canonical literary circles weren’t sources of inspiration for their writers. Indeed, it is more natural to argue that writers come together precisely so that they might influence each other and so develop their practice. In the article cited above Cowan cites “the other writers he knows” 2 and it is, perhaps, illuminating to know that his wife is also a novelist. Even if the relationship the ‘isolated’ writer has with other writers is not as immediate as the examples given above, it is rare to find a writer who has no significant contact with other practitioners. It seems that writers have always surrounded themselves with other writers, shared their work and operated as support for each other. If this is isolation it is isolation of a very unusual type – a type with more than a passing resemblance to the kind of community of writers one might find in an academic department.

For the sake of argument, let’s say this tendency of writers to seek each other out was not the case and that, prior to the commercial exploitation of a writer’s work, they maintained a hermetic self-reliance. The moment their work is submitted for commercial consideration other influences within the system become unavoidable. In the modern publishing market the primary influence is the agent. Where it might once have been their role simply to represent the author to the publisher, freeing them from the onerous task of eating expensive lunches, now the agent is much more hands on. As my own agent David Smith puts it in his contribution to Edinburgh University’s Handbook of Creative Writing: “The chances are your novel is not quite ready for submission to publishers. You may think you have perfected it but it’s quite likely that your agent will suggest revisions. These are not so much aesthetic considerations as responses based on her experience of whatever consensus or prejudice is at large within publishing. Remember that your agent is talking to editors all the time – finding out what they’re buying, what they’re not buying, what they love and what they hate – and this enables her to build a fairly reliable picture of how any new novel might be received. So if your agent advises you to simplify a split narrative into a single voice, it’s probably because split narratives rarely find favour with publishers.”3 An agent is, at least in my agent’s opinion, in a position to dictate revisions of the text and not, importantly, on aesthetic grounds.

Where the increasingly crowded “isolated” writer was once only influenced by their muse and then perhaps by the other writers surrounding them, as soon as the commercial world is approached – as a writer must always do if they are to meet Cowan’s, and the public’s characterisation of the successful isolated writer – there is unavoidable influence, not simply from the agent. If and when the manuscript reaches a major publishing house another layer is added: judgement is passed by an editor, and then another layer: that of the marketing team, and lastly that of a senior editor who controls the funding of any publication. They all have something to say about how the manuscript is written. And if the role of the editor is not always as interventionist as it was when Raymond Carver’s editor Gordon Lish completely rewrote the ending to his story "One More Thing"4, if a book is to get published it must meet the requirements they have of it and, in a market which commodifies its literature, the push towards commercial viability is unlikely to revolve around such esoteric concerns as literary worth.

So we can see that while the writer might want “isolation” there is certainly no getting it. Rather, there is an overabundance of influence, most noticeably from the commercial world. What, then, is at stake when the mythic existence of a writer’s isolation is peddled? What effect does the elision of external, particularly commercial, influence have? One answer, the most worrying, is that it serves to mask the process by which books are eventually brought to market in order to anxiously maintain the authorial brand by which the words that are written are represented to the buyer of books. A book, after all, is rarely bought after it is read and thereby on its merits. It is bought on the promise that it will fulfil whatever the buyer buys it for, and this promise is largely carried by its commercial positioning which, in the case of established authors, is carried primarily by the author’s name. It might be argued, then, that the myth of isolation serves the function of shoring up the pre-existent conditions of the market, vouchsafing the integrity of certain named brands (the authors) at the expense of allowing the writing to stand for itself. If this is true, then there is a clear problem - it limits the possibilities for literature to what has been done before and preserves the voices of those who occupy the market against the intrusion of new forms and even new writers.

What is the alternative? Should it be admitted that the writer, rather than being a discrete and unalterable producer of their own brand, is instead as open to influence as any other human being? This would certainly seem to be what the teaching of creative writing presupposes, at least at undergraduate and master’s level. The aim of creative writing in an academic setting is precisely to influence the writer. At an undergraduate level it exists to provoke writing and in a small way to mould what is written. At the MA level this provocation and moulding is used to develop voice and style and technique, to suggest appropriate areas of interest and to provide group support through the seminar system. There is no supposition that it is necessary to be isolated – quite the opposite. The position is taken that informed feedback from a community of writers with whom an individual surrounds themselves is, if not absolutely essential, then at least very helpful. The informal and unpredictable associations and friendships that writers may have made between each other independently are replaced by a reliable and maintainable academic community.

Where the academic system begins to become unsure of itself is at levels more advanced than MA, where, importantly, commercial concerns for the writer become a factor. The doctoral and post-doctoral support a university offers its students tends back towards isolation, drawing on the model of the non-creative research student who works alone under the supervision of one or perhaps two senior academics. Rather than offer an alternative to the commercial influence that we have seen is inevitably placed on the writer approaching publishing, there seems to be a tendency post MA to enforce an isolation (which is a de facto enforcement of commercial influence) and to withdraw academic influence.

There might have been a time - when the publishing industry had more invested in the notion of the literary than it does today - when this withdrawal was a necessary manoeuvre, encouraging the fostering of authors by sympathetic editors and publishers, but today, when the industry is more concerned with celebrity and franchising than it is with writing, it is a tacit admission of failure, an abnegation of responsibility, leaving the arbitration of literary worth to people who have increasingly little invested in the quality of the writing and worse, as we have seen, by relying on the isolation myth, limiting the literary field by tacitly reinforcing the brand-name model of literary production.

If academia, and the writers that work within it, are to have a role aside from acting as an editorial adjunct to a mass market dominated industry, there must be a point at which those things that are valuable in the writing, but which are not taken up by commercial interests, are fostered and protected by academia. I would include in this list radical forms of writing, marginalised voices, hybrids of critical and creative writing, new forms in prose and poetry, difficult and intellectual writing, but there is also a case that academic involvement can arrest the slide towards illiteracy that threatens commercial literature. If academia reclaims its right to act as arbiter of quality in writing and demonstrates its commitment to an endangered notion of literary excellence it can act as a contrary influence to the homogenising tendency of mass marketing. I would argue that this movement is presaged in much of the MA teaching that takes place within universities, but that it is always compromised by the focus on commercial validation and the failure of academia to provide a viable alternative to the commercial model for material that is too difficult for the current market – the consequence being that there is no available alternative toward which even commercial writing can tend.

To give an illustration from my own work of how academia might compete as an influence in literature: I am writing on a novel based on the famous schizophrenic Daniel Paul Schreber, a patient of Freud’s. I chose to study for a PhD and to write this book as part of the thesis. The most obvious benefit to the novel is the supervisory help I have been given in the area of psychoanalysis, a key concern and something that is not within my field of expertise. Another is in the creation of the book’s setting – the German and history departments being particularly useful. It would be difficult to imagine how I could have received this expert advice outside of academia. I do not conceive of this work as being particularly experimental or difficult, but it is certainly rigorous in its use of ideas and it is this rigour, a characteristic of academic work which is not a typical requirement of commercial writing, that could become part of a competing literary trend if the academic creative writing community chose to become engaged with the fostering of literature as opposed to its archaeology.

As another example, I am working, with Paul Stanbridge also of UEA, on the possibilities open to creative writer tutors of using genetic criticism - the study of how texts are written by use of early drafts, alternative drafts and how those drafts relate to what we treat as the finished work – as a tool to develop writing process, hoping to elaborate ways in which the understanding of the production of other texts, particularly canonical works, can contribute to a writer’s engagement with their own praxis. Again, outside an academic environment – where most, if not all of these early drafts are held and where the expertise in interpreting them is concentrated – this kind of work would be either prohibitively time consuming or outright impossible but it offers enormous potential for the development of interesting forms of literature.

The characterisation of the writer who remains in higher education as someone who essentially requires a crutch and who cannot function externally is only accurate if the institution within which they are institutionalised provides them nothing other than that crutch. If a university provides its students with nothing but the community of other students and the reluctant supervision of practicing writers who would rather be doing something else, as Cowan puts it: spending “energies [he] might otherwise be directing to [his] own writing”5 then it is doing something worse than institutionalising its own students, it is, by failing to take the opportunities that are open to it and failing to take the practice of teaching and research seriously, complicit in the degrading of writing which will eventually see the production of literature as generic and commodified as any other object that might be bought in a supermarket.

What is required in order to address this commodification is that universities find ways of disseminating material produced under their aegis, by-passing the commercial environment - in the same way that many science departments publish non-commercially funded scientific research - and rather than bemoaning the commercial failures of their students, develop a genuine research culture within creative writing acting as a genuine influence on what is written. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that there might come a time in which new literature was published by university presses in the place of what is now occasionally produced: anthologies of material pre-judged to be of the most commercial interest - making academic staff an unrewarded editorial team for the publishing industry.6

In summary, the adherence to the myth of a writer’s isolation is a handing over of influence to a commercial environment, which has no interest in literature more overweening than that it can be used to sell the paper upon which it is written. To characterise as ‘institutionalised’ those writers who might wish to do something more ambitious than the market demands of them, and who seek inspiration in academia is short-sighted. They are only “the least committed to succeeding or failing as writers” if the environment they look to for inspiration, and the writers it employs, are incapable of offering anything more than that which the non-academic world can offer, and if the yardstick of their success is commercial acceptability. If that is the case, it is inappropriate to blame the student, who acts in good faith. It is time that universities, and their staff, stop making excuses and attempt to fulfill the role that is expected of them – that they should foster and develop alternatives to the stagnant publishing market, provide space for genuinely interesting and innovative forms of writing, and stop acting as if they have no responsibility for the current moribund state of literature.


1 Cowan, A. (2007). "Questions, Questions." Writing in Education (41): p.59.
2 ibid p.58
3 Smith, D. (2007). The Literary Agent (Novel). The Handbook of Creative Writing. S. L. Earnshaw. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press
4 Stull, W. L. and M. P. Carroll. (2007). "Raymond Carver, 'Beginners’, The Original Version of 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'." from [http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/Carver.pdf].
5 Cowan, A. (2007). "Questions, Questions." Writing in Education (41): p.60.
6 I should here point out that there is something of a personal contradiction here. My own work was published in just such an anthology and it was this anthology that bought me to the attention of my agent, who in turn negotiated a deal with a publisher. My book ‘Grace’ is due out in January 2009 from Two Ravens Press.

Copyright Alex Pheby 2008



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