IRON Press Editor, PETER MORTIMER Steps (temporarily) into the World of Literary Academia
What a wonderful institution is the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts! I have in front of me their current brochure of events and courses (Oct-Dec 2018).
It’s unlike the brochure of many arts organisations such as theatres or arts centres where the programme of work has shrunk alarmingly. The good news is that those aforementioned brochures are the same size as ever. The bad news is they now cover a whole year’s programme where previously it was three months. The slim brochure of my own local ‘theatre’ - once showing a regular programme of drama - is now made up ninety per cent with tribute bands.
Happily, the NCLA’s seasonal brochure includes fifteen separate readings featuring twenty-two professional writers and what’s more, all events are free. There’s also one week of intense creative practice exploring poetry with four writer/tutors.
And all this at a time when, with the relentless march of social media, apparently no-one reads books any more, even though someone blogging about false eyelashes is likely to attract thirty billion followers. Living online has de-intellectualised us all, so a small hurrah for this NCLA flag gallantly raised.
But enough of the free plugs.
Reading the biog notes of the writers involved, two main things strike me. One - considering these words are penned by imaginative creative minds, they are outstandingly dull and predictable. Not a vestige of wit, humour or irreverence therein and an over-insistence to cram in the titles of as many published books and literary awards as possible.
It is as if each and every one of these authors had been told that should they drop the po-faced purely factual approach for a single moment, they will not be taken seriously. After reading the first six, my eyes began to glaze over as I yearned for a touch of invention, nonconformity or the iconoclastic.
My reaction could be partly explained by the fact nothing depresses a writer more than reading of the success of other writers, but this not it entirely. All published writers’ lives, reduced to a few paragraphs come over as unblemished success stories (very few are). Accepting that, the odd touch of irony, wit or self-deprecation would have been welcome.
Maybe it is to do with my reaction to the life of the literary academic, a world which gives some shelter from the storm for a whole clutch of writers while the rest of we poor scribblers are tossed unmercifully on the exposed seas elsewhere.
Naturally I am jealous of the partial security such tenures afford (though chasing security is a dubious pursuit). But I also realise I would be hopeless in such an academic environment Not that anyone is remotely likely to offer me a post. I settle for taking my chances as a scribbler out here.
Studying again the list of writers in the NCLA brochure, leads to my second point; that the majority indeed are literary academics and several who aren’t, are the products of academia. Given the programme is funded by Newcastle University, maybe this is inevitable.
The risk is a self-perpetuating world of literary academics, incestuously reviewing one another’s work, swanning round the globe to drink together late night at various literary conferences (usually as dry as dust and jargon-heavy) and bagging most of the slots at literary festivals.
To be neither an academic, nor live amongst the close-knit literati of London is a double sense of being an outsider a status many of us enjoy. I am though slightly wary of the term ‘outsider’, used as it often is by people failing to recognise they have no talent.
It may soon be the case that in our increasingly hi-tech, lo-intellectual world, literature will exist only as a university course and non-academics will no more think of picking up a novel, than they would a technical reference book on structural engineering or astro-physics.
Meantime, we lot struggle on, striving hard to get our latest magnum opus published. We are fortified by the knowledge that should such a happy incident take place, with a bit of luck the book could well be read by roughly the number of readers you could fit into a small church hall.
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