Creative writing is well established now as a discipline in Australian universities. And that means creative writing academics face the same problem academics in other areas of research confront: publish or perish.
We’ve long heard of the pressure on academics to publish journal articles in their fields. And they must do this amongst their teaching, lecturing, supervising, administrating and promotional work for the university. If they can publish books, all the better. But creative writing academics, who are often fiction authors, are under more pressure to publish books than other academics. After all, what creative writing student joins a course in order to be like their lecturer and publish a couple of stories? No, they want to be like their lecturers and publish books.
Full-time creative writing academics (disclaimer: I’m not one) are as time poor as other academics. There often isn’t the time, ironically, to be creative. And neither is there much time for the drafting, crafting and editing that all quality creative work needs. They might be able to bang out a couple of poems or stories – and a blog or two – but a book? Maybe over a period of many years. And when they finish (if they haven’t taken short cuts) that thing absolutely has to get published. That’s where the university publishing house and/or paid publication comes in.
It’s unlikely a creative writing academic who gets an offer from a university publishing house to publish his or her manuscript will turn it down. Why should they? Even if the academic knows their work may not face the same editorial scrutiny as other publishing houses, they are still likely to accept the offer. (I say may not. It may well.)
Some of these university publishing houses are disguised: they don’t carry the title of the university, but observers will notice that it publishes only people who work at a certain university. That’s by no means a comment on the quality of work that may emerge from that publishing house, only the crest the author wears.
Then there is the more awkward situation – either at a university publishing house or another small publisher – in which the creative writing academic, in a deal not revealed to the public, pays the publisher (sometimes a significant amount) to ensure their work is published. We are in a different publishing age, for sure, but this used to be called (and still is by some publishers who name the arrangement up front) vanity publishing. But, again, can you blame the time-harried creative writing academic for paying some of his/her hard-earned cash on getting the necessary publication in order to promote their job security?
Maybe some will blame them. Students, for instance, might say, “Hey, you tell us publication is all about quality writing, but now I see it’s all about forking out cash!” Perhaps they have a point. But if they’ve been in creative writing departments as students for long enough, they’ll know only an infinitesimal percentage of Australian authors make their living from creative writing alone. Some of those writers choose academia to pay bills. And they must also be able to put pictures of the front covers of their creative writing endeavours on the university’s walls. And sometimes they’re prepared to pay to keep their pay.
As well as working as a communications consultant, I have worked as a sessional tutor and writing workshop leader for almost a decade. And, even though I don’t have a permanent role (job ad right here!), I have still felt the pressure to publish. I’m glad my novel is coming out without me having to pay. I couldn’t have dealt with that kind of pressure – on my bank account or my sense of myself as a writer. But I understand the pressure creative writing academics are under. And why they might reach for their wallets to alleviate it.
While the creative process is sometimes helped by certain kinds of pressure, I’m not sure it’s ever helped by pressure to publish. Full-time creative writing academics are by nature split beings: they’re supposed to be turning other people into writers while being writers themselves. The two don’t go hand-in-hand, due to the amount of time both the art and the job require. And if they have families, it’s a recipe for emotional breakdown. So, in an age of diminishing returns for literary fiction, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lengths creative writing academics go to in order to maintain what are essentially two full-time vocations.
Paul Mitchell has published three books of poetry and a short fiction collection. He has a novel coming out through MidnightSun Publishing in 2016.
Photo used under Creative Commons by Sholeh (via Flickr)