Creative Writing as a subject that's taught in universities is more popular than ever. In fact, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, it's something of a growth industry, bucking trends, and giving the lie to the current government's view that the humanities are not worth funding. That isn't, however, to say that the idea of teaching Creative Writing doesn't meet certain prejudices – even within Higher Education Institutions. Not so long ago, I received a salutary insight into – that is to say, was on the receiving end of – public misconceptions about the relationship between creative writers in the academy. The Guardian newspaper recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of Cambridge-based literary press Salt, run by Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery. The occasion prompted a flurry of blogs on the Guardian's ‘Community’ pages. Salt, as it happens, are the publishers of my 2009 poetry volume, Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair – a fact noted with suspicion by the blogger ‘Asgill’ in the context of his or her larger complaint that many of Salt's authors were in the pay of colleges and universities, or else belonged to Salt’s ‘plethora of ex-CW course poets’. This unholy demographic, according to Asgill, proved that Salt’s commissioning process was a stitch-up, since academics were clearly looking after their own while excluding genuine – that is, non-academy – writers. After ‘exposing’ a number of Salt poets who, like me, had the temerity to work for Higher Education Institutions, or to have studied at them, Asgill concluded:
‘I think it would be good for presses like Salt to also outreach into other communities other than relying so heavily on top academic circles. Meritocracy anyone?’
It was, of course, flattering to be included in ‘top academic circles’; but I think there’s a larger, and unsettling, issue at stake here. Asgill speaks for many by suggesting that any writer who exists ‘safely’ (if that’s quite the word in the current climate of cuts) within the academy cannot be a 'real' poet, one who has succeeded on his or her own merits. The truth is that such qualms - and you hear them expressed in a variety of guises – can be traced to a fraught epistemology that took shape in the Romantic period. Asgill’s argument is tangled up in what in the academic trade is known as 'Romantic ideology'. It's worth thinking a little about how the category of ‘author’, as well as the relation of writers to the market-place, and also public perceptions of the role of the professional writer within the academy, have been passed down to us. It turns out Romantic poets have a lot to answer for.
Romanticism was obsessed with the conditions of its own mediation – that is to say, it was obsessed with its relation to a rapidly expanding print market, the forerunner of our own Amazon.com culture. Romantic authors (almost all the good ones) who found themselves, for one reason or another, excluded from the financial rewards of commercial publication, that is who failed to generate significant sales (this includes William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley and John Keats) were instrumental in shaping a myth of the author as a solitary, transcendent, unaffiliated figure – an individual who was vitally uninstitutionalized, and who wrote because they had to, because they were responding to some irresistible inner call to creativity. These writers couldn't shift copies of their books (as inexplicable as that may seem to us today, with the benefit of hindsight), but they were phenomenally successful in polarizing notions of ‘genuine’ writing and ‘inauthentic’ trash. In their terms, genuine poets were born, not made; they existed as isolated geniuses, or 'unacknowledged legislators', in Shelley's terms; they were accountable to no one; and no amount of practice - or teaching - could made a, say, ‘Barry Cornwall’ (pseudonym of Keats's far more successful rival, solicitor Bryan Waller Procter) into a 'real' poet. Put in Guardian columnist Matthew Wright's terms, no amount of poetry modules taken could ever have made Barry Cornwall into anything more than a ‘Coca-Cola League’ author; like - as Wright argues – most lecturers who teach such modules in universities today.
In fact, before the emergence of the recognizably modern literary markets that Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats struggled to exploit, no meaningful distinction had been made, or could be made, between literary celebrity (dismissed by Wordsworth, et al, as contemporary, transient, worthless) and fame (enduring, attuned to true genius). The previous transposability of these terms can be gauged from Percival Stockdale’s Poetical Thoughts, and Views; on the Banks of the Wear (1792):
But chiefly souls, fraught with ethereal flame,
Born for celebrity, for deathless fame,
Whom intellectual force, whom genius fills;
Should speed their course, regardless of their ills;
(ll. 67-78; my italics)
Indeed, in the fourth edition of his great Dictionary (1773), Dr Johnson had fielded a definition of ‘celebriousness’ as ‘renown’, ‘fame’. ‘Fame’, in turn – a turn back on itself – was described as ‘celebrity; renown’. This closed circle of self-referentiality only began to disappear once writers like Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats realized they were coming off a poor second to their more popular literary counterparts, including then-laurelled figures such as Laetitia Elizabeth Landon and Barry Cornwall himself. The fact is, once those ideal audiences of posterity that Keats and Shelley dreamed about recognized the now-canonical Romantics' genius, they also accepted those writers' self-explanations for why they were unpopular in their own day.
The case of Barry Cornwall - a writer I've been interested in for a few years, and have written about in my recent book, Bright Stars: John Keats, Barry Cornwall and Romantic Literary Culture, is particularly revealing. His career shadows Keats – or, to put it equally accurately, Keats’s shadows his. Both men reworked classical Greek myths in accessible, slangy idiom; both produced Italianate romances designed to cash in on the popular craze for medieval Italian tales (Keats’s Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil and Cornwall’s A Sicilian Story reworked the same source in Boccaccio's Decameron, though Cornwall’s poem appeared first and to greater contemporary acclaim; they published in the same journals (Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' first appeared in Annals of Fine Arts on a kissing page to Cornwall's sonnet 'To Michael Agnolo'); both tried their hands at writing pot-boiling, Gothicky long poems; and both shared the same publishers, the entrepreneurial Ollier brothers. However, whereas Keats sold no more than 500 copies of all his collections put together in his own lifetime, Cornwall shifted 700 copies of his third volume, Marcian Colonna (1820), in a single morning. For parts of his career, John Keats was trying to be Barry Cornwall. Let's be clear: I’m not suggesting that Cornwall was anywhere near as good a writer as Keats. (Actually, it's at those points of strategic retreat from Cornwall's pedestrian style that 'Keats' as we know him emerges.) But the point I'm making is that the idea that genuine poets have to be unsullied by the market place, that they should be unaffiliated, that they should be in no one's pay (whether a university's or anyone else's) can be traced back to a myth of 'genuine' inspiration and authorship that emerged as a response to a specific set of market conditions in the early nineteenth century. In a famous passage of Shelley's A Defence of Poetry – written in part as a response to the poet's disgust at the success of his Ollier-brothers stablemate, Barry Cornwall - we read that:
'Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgement upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.'
However, if my institution, Aberystwyth University, had offered Shelley a Chair in Creative Writing, it isn't inconceivable that he would have accepted it. Byron, too; which is a rather more unsettling thought ... Equally, Shelley, like Keats, would have embraced the advent of the iPad and e-book technology, if he thought he might have gained readers through it. Keats and Shelley, you see, when it came down to it, had nothing against popular success. Just like Keats, Shelley never abandoned his dream of contemporary accolade: a letter of 27 August 1820 shows him attempting to convince his publisher Charles Ollier that a second edition of his tragedy The Cenci (1819) would sell; he also tried to sound an optimistic note for his Rosalind and Helen (1819), before conceding petulently that he didn’t really expect ‘that prig the public’ to ‘desert its wines and drink a drop of dew so evanescent’. In the event, the Olliers declined to reprint Shelley, preferring instead to devote their limited resources to promoting their star writer, Barry Cornwall, whose own play, Mirandola, was then staged to tremendous applause at Covent Garden (which very sensibly turned down Shelley's The Cenci).
In the wider culture – which contains Asgill and blogs – Romanticism's self-representations, its self-justifications, survive in ways that continue to complicate the relationship between Creative Writing as a subject and the academy.
I talk more about some of these issues in the Editor's Essay to my recently published collection, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions (Brewer and Boydell, 2011).
Contributors: Richard Marggraf Turley, Damian Walford Davies, Philip Gross, Peter Barry, Kevin Mills, Tiffany Atkinson, Robert Sheppard, Deryn Rees-Jones, Zoë Skoulding, Jasmine Donahaye.