Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 7

The first night's keynote was given by Greg Hollingshead, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who now runs the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. It was a tri-partite address that began with the ritual of kvetching. Independent booksellers now account for 10% of the market, while a single individual chooses 45% of the fiction offered by Indigo/Chapters. By the end of 2012, e-books will account for 25% of sales, which will influence the royalties of the authors who actually get royalties. Writers of fiction can expect to see four reviews of their work if they are lucky: one in The Globe and Mail (if it gets by the book review editor), one in Quill and Quire, one in Literary Review of Canada, and one in those rare local newspapers who continue to offer the readers in their audience book reviews. (These facts—and I hope I've got them right—come from a “Report on Business” article Hollingshead cited.)

In spite of these facts, many of us are noticing that Creative Writing classes are full—if they aren't over-subscribed. Hollingshead feels that many readers have a strong aesthetic sense, one that is exercised in creative writing classes. The creative writing classroom, he argues, (and he'd have to argue with me about it, because I don't think his impression is entirely accurate, though I see his point) is one place in the academy where students actually study literature as art, satisfying that aesthetic hunger as well as an urge to create something entirely their own.

Creative writing classes, Hollingshead emphasized, provide a place where students meet the models they need to solve the problems they find in their own texts: reading is a creative writing student's “daily nourishment.” As teachers, we need to be careful, though, that the writers we encourage students to read aren't presented as Titans that none of them will finally be able to emulate but rather, (I use my own language here) as fellow-travellers offering one another a hand up, a hammer or a saw—or whatever tool is needed.

Hollingshead closed by wondering if the current model for literary fiction suggested to the reader that “This is good for you,” and if so how effective that strategy is. He pointed out that we go to movies completely unself-consciously; we aren't second guessing ourselves or wondering if we really know enough to be able to understand the artwork before us. He implied—but did not quite say—that the “read me; I'm good for you” voice, persona, or style, is perhaps not a good for creative writing—or any art.


  1. Sounds like an interesting discussion, Kathleen, though as you do, I am hesitant to subscribe to all his ideas. Particularly the comparison of literature to film. While, it seems to me, most film offers us a place to escape from ourselves (to disconnect), literature is a place where we are forced to log-in and face our own thoughts, values, and selves. I'd comment that it's not the "read me; I'm good for you" voice that's working against literature, but rather a general fear of self-reflection, in the current generation especially. Meanwhile, self-reflection is highly practiced in creative writing classes, which I imagine contributes to the feeling students have of "satisfying that aesthetic hunger".

    You've left me much to think on for today. Espcially in examining my own experiences and sense of satisfaction from past creative writing courses.

  2. Tara, your comment on the difference between movies and books (there are some films that demand we engage rather than disengage) is quite insightful.

    I've come to feel, in an age where we're emailed and tweeted and Blackberried to death, that we've become a society that simply reacts rather than reflects. I was recently trying to convince a Vice President Research here at U of R that we needed the humanities because it was a place where reflection continued to go on. Sadly, he didn't even understand what I was trying to say. But let's keep writing books that tell good stories as well as make people reflect.