A really good reading event at The Scottish Writers’ Centre in the CCA last night. Lots of Gaelic was on the bill; as I’ve said before, I don’t understand the language, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy listening to it. Perhaps it’s the musicality of the rhythms, but I think readers in Gaelic are generally much more proficient that readers in English, with beautiful changes of pace and tone and register. The Gaelic group run by Catriona Lexy Campbell – which seems to be thriving – has prepared work for this event on the theme of glass. Campbell herself reads a gorgeous poem which is just as effective in English. Other star performers are Maureen Macleod and, especially, Alison Lang, who reads a story about a grandfather with a love of Sherlock Holmes with real verve. Lovely too to see some Gaelic drama in progress.
But the readers in English are great too. Douglas Thompson, a novelist and prose writer, reads some poems themed on Glasgow weather just to prove he can write across genres; wish I could, I can’t write poetry to save myself. He’s witty and perceptive and gets tons of laughs.
It’s always a pleasure to hear J. David Simons, a writer I respect and a thoroughly nice bloke. His coming of age tale of typing lessons in 1919 Poland is really lovely, with pin sharp characterisation and beautiful detail, and it’s read with a gentle authority. Of course, the novel I’ve been wrestling with for six years is set in the same time and place, and it’s always disheartening to hear other people do it better than me. Such is life.
As for myself, I read an extract from “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, a story which is due to be published in New York gay literary magazine “Chelsea Station” later this month. I decided to try it without the crutch of a script tonight; I find I rarely refer to a script anyway, and it gets in the way, so, given I only had time for a five minute extract which was heavily edited from the original anyway, I thought I’d just stand there and tell the story. Other than one moment when the neurons almost failed to connect, it all went pretty well, and I was surprised at how easy it was. My shocking American accent didn’t seem to be too off-putting either, and it’s always nice to be able to say things like “She has nipples like coins of strawberry mousse” in public and not be slapped.
So it seemed to go well. David Manderson – another great writer and good guy – reckons I should tour New York with it and become a gay icon. Mmm… we’ll see…
I’ll be reading at the Scottish Writers Centre SpeakEasy, a members only event, on Thursday 19th July. I’ve been really busy lately, so it’s my first visit to this great new initiative to support Scottish writing. I’m looking forward to it, especially as it’s held at the CCA, one of my favourite Glasgow venues. The line up looks interesting, with a healthy dose of Gaelic writers – and even some Gaelic drama! – on the bill.
Gaelic Drama: ‘Daolag’ (‘Bug’)
Reading: DOUGLAS THOMPSON – 3 Poems
Reading: J. DAVID SIMONS ‘PALESTINE 1919 – DECISIONS, DECISIONS’ [extract from novel, The Land Agent, forthcoming (Five Leaves, 2014)]
Reading from the Gaelic Writers’ Group; DAVID EYRE, ALISON LANG
Reading: RAYMOND SOLTYSEK, ‘The Beauty that Brendan Sees’
Reading: ANGELA BLACKLOCK-BROWN – 3 Poems
Readings from the Gaelic Writers’ Group; MAUREEN MACLEOD, CATRIONA LEXY CAMPBELL
Reading: JACQUELINE SMITH, ‘Dumbie & the Devil’
I’ll read an extract from the story about to be published in “Chelsea Station”. It requires three accents - New York, French and Russian – so we’ll see how badly that goes!
Day 2 of the Write Now conference is devoted to panel discussions and research papers. The first I attend is on Fact, Fiction and History, with three historical novelists talking about the process of writing. All – especially Sally O’Reilly talking of her research into a re-imagining of the “Shakespeare legend” – are really interesting. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with this form of reflection on the methods of writing, not because it is not useful but because it seems to me to perpetuate a monolithic university structure that actually has more to do with a self-referential and self-perpetuating academic culture than it has to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. More of that later.
My own session goes well: however, with my “little often” approach to stimulating writing of teenagers at school, fellow presenter Maeve Tynan worries that we are in total disagreement, given her “strategic imitation” approach that is based on using the work of “master” writers to hone craft. Of course, we’re not: I’m absolutely in favour of learning from exemplars and models as essential practice in school or university. She describes her own practice, which sounds fantastically stimulating; it’s a far cry from the practice I’m trying to change, whereby school teachers spend two weeks forcing every child in their class to complete a twist-in-the-tail story “for their folio”, and giving them no other opportunities to write creatively for the rest of the year.
The Scottish Writers Centre also announces itself. It’s a relatively new venture driven forward by lovely people like Gerry Loose and Ron Butlin. They are absolutely passionate about providing a non-academic forum for writers and it is, I think, much needed.
A lot of activity now revolves around university creative writing courses: magazines are springing up as undergraduate projects to provide outlets for students at particular universities to publish their work (Octavius, for example, will, in its own words, “feature a range of prose and poetry written by student writers from colleges and universities across the country”); many of the fine new publishing houses have close links with universities; and live events such as the excellent From Glasgow to Saturn (linked to an online journal) and Words per Minute (along with some other quite dire live projects) arose from university student activity. This, I have to say, makes me worry about access, diversity, inclusion and democracy.
While no-one who works in the university sector has any intention of excluding anyone – I know and respect hugely a great many individual university creative writing teachers, and they all have the very best of motives in everything they do – nevertheless, the structure of universities is essentially hierarchical and elitist. Looking at person specifications for posts in any department, the prime consideration is research. Therefore, to become a university creative writing teacher, you first have to be a researcher, second a creative writer and third a teacher.
I have always suspected that what this does is fuel activity which supports an industry of academic articles, peer refereed journals, conferences and promotion structures leading to professorial chairs based on research “output”. Many researchers I know and respect in the education field blithely talk of “playing the REF game”, and it is a game in which the rules and access to play are made up and controlled by those who are already at the top of the leader board.
Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this: if it is what universities do, it is what universities do. And there will always be a demand for acknowledgement, accreditation or certification by those who learn in that way. But by collaring the market – and let there be no doubt, universities are interested primarily in the bottom line – then those who have no access to universities will be excluded. In addition, courses which become “unviable” or which are deemed not to fit with a university’s strategic plan may find themselves “disinvested” or even closed, and the corresponding infrastructure can be drastically affected; if it can happen to courses in nursing and community education, it can certainly happen to creative writing.
The end of the conference is marked by talks from three big guns in Scottish literature, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Zoe Strachan. Strachan ably defends the notion of universities being involved in creative writing programmes, and points to her own course which, she says, was populated by a mainly working class cohort (although David Kinloch, at the SWC meeting expresses concerns about the demographic of creative writing courses). However, she also casually admits that publishers and agents like to build relationships with writing departments because they have access to a pool of talent which is already developed, already edited, already vetted. That worries me, because in a world in which publishing opportunities become more and more scarce – Morrison paints the bleakest of pictures of a so-called “democratized” industry – it may soon be the case that a creative writing degree is the minimum qualification to even get into the slush pile.
At events such as this, I am often asked, “And where are you studying creative writing?”, as if a graduate qualification is the only worthwhile mark of a writer. On a couple of occasions, eyes have glazed over and gazes have swept the room for more worthy and interesting contacts when I say I have never studied creative writing at university; on one occasion, someone came back to me and breathlessly said, “Raymond, I didn’t realise you had a BAFTA!”. The first magazine I was ever published in was Rebel Inc.: it wouldn’t have been seen dead in a University department. At that time, there was a vibrant community group culture (magazines like “Cutting Teeth” from the Castlemilk group was another great publication) that I am worried may now wither as a result of swingeing public sector cuts combined with the rapacious acquisition of creative writing activity by universities.
I speak as an academic, and as someone who may in the near future embark on a PhD, not, I hope, because I need a job in the university creative writing sector or because I want to call myself a Doctor, but because I want to have the support to help me develop my writing and my novel: and I am absolutely sure that is why everyone does a PhD. But, as I say, I worry about the culture that is being created, simply because universities are the biggest kid on the block. Only proper government funding for community arts activity in general and writing in particular through organisations like the Scottish Writers’ Centre can prevent what would amount to a privatisation of cultural development.