(This is my favourite of the pieces that I wrote for the Literary Network. The question is asks is one I think is very important: with the numbers of people studying creative writing, why has there not been a boom in small presses? Where are all the novels and short stories and poems that these people have been writing? It's like a mass of cultural dark matter that should be there but isn't.)
There are 1,300 creative writers emerging from British universities every year. This ought to be the start of a literary golden age.
In a recent email to this site’s bloggers, the editor said he was pleased with the posts so far but concluded: “As a brief aside, if anyone would like to write an unashamedly happy and positive post (ie not the death of publishers / libraries / books etc) please do.” So with this post I will be optimistic, avoiding words like ‘death’ and ‘decline’. I’m going to look at something I touched on in my previous post, the dramatic increase in creative writing courses, but this time I want to focus on the opportunities this provides.
Just after I submitted that previous post an article appeared on the Guardian website by Ian Jack on a similar theme. This piece, The Age of the Gifted Amateur has Returned, made the claim that “Figures are hard to come by, but Britain is probably turning out about 1,300 ‘creative writers’ every year.”
1,300 creative writers. Every year. Think how much raw talent that represents. Thousands upon thousands of people capable of crafting their experiences, hopes and fantasies into decent prose and poetry. So where are they? Where are all the little magazines, spoken word nights, pamphlets and small presses? There are some out there, but not enough to reflect the work of 1,300 additional writers a year. It’s an artistic version of the Fermi paradox: if they’re out there how come we don’t see them?
I suspect most of these writers are working on their first novel. If so, the main outlet for their writing will be workshops, exchanging chapters of masterworks-in-progress with other writers. Which is lovely – but I’ve had all the workshop wine and hummus I’m prepared to take. Workshops are a closed system, focussing on unfinished work, pieces that need tinkering. I’ve often seen writers produce exciting early versions but rarely see the polished gems these pieces are supposed to turn into. Furthermore, with 1,300 additional people every year competing for the shrinking space in bookshops and bookshelves, many of these people will spend years on their novel then have their heart broken when agent after agent sends it back. There must be thousands of pages of great prose not reaching readers, all that hard work and talent wasted.
Think how exciting it would be if the country’s thousands of creative writers narrowed their focus and worked on something other than novels. One of my favourite pieces of recent writing was Swindon Orbital, a friend’s obsessive psycho-geographical exploration of Swindon. There should be essays like this for every town in the country. Maybe the rest of the country isn’t interested in your local legends and characters, but the people who share them are likely to be very interested. Reinterpret your local environment: and if you produce something truly great, word will spread further.
What I want is obscure writing on topics I can’t find in bookshops and magazines. I probably don’t care about your literary novel about marital infidelity, even if it’s offered as a free PDF – I have more than enough of that sort of thing I could read already. What I want are narrowly focussed works: stories tied to tiny geographical areas, books obsessed by subjects I love that most people don’t care about. The world may not be crying out for short stories about typography, plays in disappearing local dialects, or avant-garde poetry about Derbyshire tearooms – but there are some people who’d truly love them.
Too many creative writers do too little with their qualification. Put aside that future Booker-prize winner and set your sights lower. You could be writing broadsides, something that can be read in minutes then kept or discarded. Paste stories onto walls and fences! Make little booklets – here’s how to make 8 page booklets from a A4 sheet. Put on a spoken word night – if even three strangers turn up it still will be more fun than a workshop. Write a great flash piece about school and put it in with a letter to an old friend. Forget about novels – there’s so much more you could do. Put away the hummus and send some writing out into your world.