Cant or Create? Why the PhD in Creative Writing is a Buridan's Ass

Nigel Robinson

The purpose and design of the PhD in Creative Writing programmes have been topics of debate in academia for more than twenty years. When I began my MA in Creative Writing in 2004 at the (then) University of Luton, I came to the debate from a lifetime in industrial training. I knew that, if a commercial employer or client pays a trainer, they envisage but one goal: a greater profit (or its corollary, the prevention of loss). Howsoever ancillary the training topic might be (eg. health & safety), its outcome must figure on a balance sheet, and positively, and preferably in months not years. Not surprisingly , I found the ethos of academia as alien to me as Arabia must have seemed to John de Mandeville in the 14th century. Here be hippogriffs.

Not only could I find no clear agreement on what return a candidate might expect after his/her investment of three years of hard labour and of risk capital (if self-funded) that mounted well into five figures. There was also no statement that remained persuasive to me, once shriven of its rhetoric, as to why the university – other than to help its contribution to overheads – was providing the programme. Why, indeed? To turn people into better creative writers? (Does the grant-funding taxpayer really need them? Given a choice, would it fund them? And is there any evidence whatsoever that a PhD programme even produces them?) Or to develop students of superior competence in the teaching and nurture of creative writers? (Ditto.) Or to equip postdoctoral researchers to explore, all the better, the theoretical aspects of creative writing? (Ditto.)

It seemed to me that, just as it was left to PhD students (at least, at most universities) to devise their own programme of work, so students were supposed to define its outcome in whatever terms best satisfied their fancy or their funding source. This process appeared to me unsatisfactory. (Pre-2004, I would have written ‘damn foolish’; post-2009, my preferred term will be ‘aporetic’.) I can imagine presenting a proposal to a commercial client in my training years for a workshop on, say, The Rhetoric of Salesmanship. The client would predictably ask: ‘But what’s it for?’. As a client approaching the third year of my PhD, I continue to ask the same question. ‘Utility’ is a notion seemingly as incomprehensible and/or irrelevant in humanities departments as female suffrage was to 16th century man. Yet as creative writers (whether in academia or not) usually profit – or hope to profit – in the commercial world by virtue of the utility of their craft skills, and more such writers embark on PhD programmes every day, the question can no longer remain a hippogriff. Writers are feisty people; we won’t put up with it.

Unhappily, the question is endurably encoded in the equivocal structure of the PhD itself. Most universities require a creative work to be submitted alongside a theoretical dissertation in a diptych-like opposition which, by the linear process of its engagement, is more confrontational than dialectically interactive. It is presumed that the creative work will be written first so that it can, in some manner, be reviewed by a thesis written subsequently. However, so hospitable is the wording of many a PhD prospectus to any interpretation whatsoever, it would be conceivable for a thesis to be written first, and then parodied or burlesqued by a creative work written afterwards. (And very interesting, if unpublishable, the result might be.) Two questions would then arise: which is the ‘creative’ aspect? And when is any competent thesis in the humanities not ‘creative’? One starts to suspect a desperate expediency in the diptych construction, and the evoking from the grave of some medieval thesis/antithesis archetype, plausibly academic at a fast glance, to justify a synthesis – of what? – at the oral presentation.

Not least, a diptych is impractical. It doubles the workload for candidates, supervisors and examiners alike. Whereas our more scientific colleagues might acceptably offer a corpus of some 80,000 words in total, it would be a rare CW submission that could squeeze into that word length. My own novel is 115,000 words plus a 20,000 word glossary , and my thesis will not be less than 80,000 words itself. How can examiners realistically do justice to a 215,000 word submission? Or read every word of it? (Or even lift it?) They will sample random passages, I suspect, and my finest phrases will languish, forever unadmired, like the inscriptions on unvisited tombs.

The present diptych structure does not bear examination, I suggest, but then neither does its sine qua non: the process of examination itself. Several writers before me have discussed the futility of subjecting a creative work to the rigour of academic interrogation. What criteria can examiners apply? And what consensus in standards do they share? Only that consensus convened upon the day, which – unlike the standards in most other disciplines - is unknowable by the candidate in advance. The only equitable judge of any creative work is the interpretive community (pace Fish) engaging with the work in successive generations. That is a community larger than three viva examiners meeting on a random occasion in one chronotope (pace Bakhtin) and masquerading, bravely but hopelessly, as model critics (pace Eco). Whether the creative work ‘works’ is none of their business. If, by their subjective criteria, it ‘fails’ ‘tis no matter: the wider community might well overrule them. Nor, for the purposes of the PhD, might it matter either. An outstanding thesis would carry the day, I suspect, regardless.

So what point is there in submitting a creative work in a PhD programme?

Not only is the diptychal opposition of practice and theory tiresome and unnecessary, it is also potentially deformative of the creative work. Few candidates could proceed with their novel (etc) wholly innocent of thought for their thesis which subsequently (or even simultaneously) must examine it. So there is a temptation quite irresistible to sink into the novel (etc) elements conceived solely for later academic discussion that might otherwise be rightly excluded as self-indulgent or discursive. My own novel pullulates with intertexts, allusions, arcanae, cryptic anagrams and even (although not obligatory for all candidates, I concede) wicked parodies of every redundant critic who has plagued a student of English literature. (Some might say these allusions are, like myself, a little over-determined. So copious are they, that I believe my novel alone could be submitted for a PhD. My thesis is superfluous.) But even if a writer wiser than myself resists such ridiculous extremes, the result is inevitably a ‘writerly’ work (pace Barthes), richly woven, that yields its full significances only upon a re-reading. Which no examiner has time for.

There is nothing wrong with a ‘writerly’ work, of course. Umberto Eco did rather well with Foucault’s Pendulum, which remains opaque to me (and doubtless to most others who have misguidedly bought it) even after three readings. However, the PhD process is ineluctably defining a new genre: the PhD novel. Thirty years from now, it will have attracted its own canon of criticism. Our opus magnificus, conceived in hope and sweat and doomed to wilt for a generation upon the shelves of university libraries, may finally be mined for quotable allusions by students as assiduous as ourselves. Sweet, is the grave’s revenge.

Meanwhile, we (and the funding taxpayer) might wonder if that is a defensible outcome for a PhD programme.

It returns me to my first question: what is the programme for? The present absence of clarity in objectives is evidenced by the lack of any coherent templates for CW doctoral theses. Having examined several successful dissertations from universities in Canada and Australia (inexplicably, theses are less accessible in the UK), I could find no consistency of approach. Some – rather unconvincingly – followed a loose scientific model: the literature published to date, questions to be investigated, methodology, conclusions, and suggestions for further research (an intriguing question in a CW thesis). Others explored, with psychoanalytical copia, the writer’s childhood influences and current confusions. The one was engineering; the other, therapy. Neither seemed appropriate to a PhD in this topic area. If there is no consensus in methodology, how can examiners apply any rigour to their evaluations? Or candidates to their submissions?

I propose that the Gordian knot can be resolved at a stroke: simply, remove any ‘creative’ aspect entirely from the PhD prospectus. Most candidates will have amply proven their competence in the craft skills of writing through their MA and/or published works. Any further demand for demonstration is, quite literally, impertinent. It wastes the limited time of candidates and examiners alike. Instead, I suggest that the PhD should focus upon research into the theory and praxis of the transmissible techniques of literary creativity. (If the techniques are not transmissible, the project has no utility, so nobody should be funding it.) Much useful work has already begun in this area, of course, but I am not aware of it greatly informing the direction of UK PhD programmes, as yet. That must change. Not least, vast realms of documented experience already exist, eager to be explored, in my own pragmatic field of industrial training. While this is still, admittedly, dominated by the medieval models of lector and workshop, many radically different models – apparently unheard of in academia - have been developed that are highly efficient, more stimulating of creativity and less labour-intensive.

For example, one process I used to good effect in my advertising copywriting classes was to present a successful direct response advertisement ie. one that was being endlessly re-run, so obviously it was working. Students were asked to examine every element in the ad in fine detail - its layout, graphics, copy, etc – and then to ‘reverse engineer’ each component to discover the principle at work. They then substituted their own product proposition, design and copy. Paying fastidious regard to copyright law (plagiarism being even more painful in the marketplace than in academia), the students were then asked to publish the ad they had produced. Invariably, those who did so reported a greatly improved response. ‘Reverse engineering’ in itself is hardly a new concept in CW pedagogy, of course. The innovation here was not in asking why, aesthetically, does this text work? (A question that in itself should be irrelevant, I contend, to the teaching of CW.) But how, pragmatically, can we use its principles to enhance the reader ‘response’ to our work? (And so increase the number of readers who buy it?)

To move from the tactical to the strategic, I hosted many so-called ‘Super-Forums’ to develop in my delegates creative thinking in the solution of marketing problems. These forums broke all the ‘rules’ of conference structure. I would sit as many as 250 business owners in a hotel ballroom from 8.30am to 9.30pm: a total of thirteen continuous hours with only the briefest of comfort breaks. And I had them work together to apply certain principles of creative problem-solving to their own marketing situations. The result should have been mutiny. Instead, many could be observed still brainstorming of their own voilition – ecstatically – at 1am. I asked them to send me back their results, ideally attested by their company accounts, a year later. Very many did, and with auditors’ reports. ‘This was the most important day in my business life,’ one wrote. ‘I doubled my profits within six months.’ Some 1400 delegates attended these forums; the results are documented.

If such a process – unknown in academia, I believe – can demonstrably enhance creative thinking among business people who are not sui generis ‘creative’, how much more might it achieve on academic programmes among creative writers?

I am not arguing for a redirection of the PhD towards an insular and self-reflexive heuristics of current CW pedagogy but for the ultimate replacement of ‘pedagogy’ by techniques, like those above, rather more attuned to the diversity of today’s milieux than those of the medieval Trivium. Such is my thesis (pace Robinson). Meanwhile, I fear, a myriad hopeful candidates are shambling even now toward the viva chamber, to present their syntheses and to be tiresomely confuted by antitheses, and to be re-born as doctors. Of what? For what purpose? With what utility? Here still be hippogriffs. Nothing has changed for a thousand years. We should remind ourselves: another word for hippogriff is ‘monster’.

Copyright Nigel Robinson 2008

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