TEXT review

Nattering in the tea room

review by Jeremy Fisher


jacket Image for What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing
What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing
Anna Leahy (ed)
New Writing Viewpoints
Multilingual Matters, Bristol UK 2016
ISBN 9781783096008
Pb 250pp GBP29.95


Why is ‘when’ capitalised in the title of this book while the two ‘abouts’ are not? What style is the publisher following? Is the capitalisation of prepositions and conjunctions in book titles a more important question than those raised in this book? To me, it is, as I found so much of the discussion in this fourteenth book in the New Writing Viewpoints series to be vapid and insubstantial. This is harsh criticism but unfortunately this was the view I formed as I made my way through the book attempting to refrain from judgement but increasingly annoyed by what ultimately I deemed to be a lack of academic rigour.

The book is arranged in six seemingly relevant sections: Introduction; Pedagogy; Programs; The Profession; Careers; and Conclusions. The chapter titles within the sections, however,  suggest style has sublimated substance. The use of terms such as ‘Writerly reading’, ‘Text(ure)’, and ‘(Re)Defined’, and clichés such as ‘Peas in a Pod’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ begin to define the shape of the book, and regrettably it is not a shape nor a form that I found to be capable of defending writing as an academic discipline. Here was artifice claiming to be taken seriously. The point is not to reinvent academic writing; the point is to ensure our use of this genre demonstrates our mastery of it in all respects, including relatively minor ones such as capitalisation.

Anna Leahy, Associate Professor of English, Associate Director of the MFA in Creative Writing and Director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity at Chapman University, USA, is listed as co-author or author for all chapters. While this demonstrates her dedication to this project, it might also indicate an overly zealous editorial role. This may not be the case, but the way the book is structured surely can only be the result of Leahy’s editing. She admits as much in her introduction where she notes the book ‘is purposefully constructed as conversation, in large part because … innovation emerges from collision – from talk – and the university is full of smart people testing out interesting ideas’ (7). The chapters have been assembled to suggest conversations are taking place. Editorially this is quite an accomplishment; however, different voices offering alternate or supportive viewpoints, some of them of dubious relevance in an academic text (‘Life is the central component in the creative process’, 39) lead to the absence of sustained argument. I also found this approach affected, with style imposed on text for little effect. It all seemed forced.

The book features United States contributors only. The Americans do show an awareness of TEXT and the British journal New Writing (24), but there is no evidence they have read either. All the references at the end of each chapter are American. Discussion is restricted to North American teaching and practice. This greatly lessens the relevance of this book for me. For example, it is a pity that none of the articles in TEXT Special Issues 7, 8, 14, 15, 27, 28 and 30 (on research and creative writing), 13 (creativity), 6, 16, 22, and 23 (pedagogy) informed the contributors’ conversation. Reference to any of them, or material in TEXT itself or in New Writing, would have removed the insularity that weakens this book.

As well, for me, the discussion appeared to be very elementary. It highlighted how far we have developed the pedagogy of creative writing in Australia and New Zealand. Australasian online journal TEXT has played a major role in this. The TEXT Special Issues supplement international series such as New Writing Viewpoints, providing a body of academic work for the discipline.

My viewpoint on What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing may not please all teachers of writing; I am certain that Leahy’s approach will appeal to many. However, I cannot accept that writing should be considered as an academic discipline yet show disdain for the genre of academic writing. The improvement and enhancement of this genre should be central to the teaching of writing in universities. It is not sufficient for students to be told that ‘life is the central component in the creative process’; surely disciplined writing is?

Obtaining a degree that offers the prospect of financial survival is central to a student’s university experience. In Australia we cannot pretend that our students will all evolve into financially successful creative writers; however, we can ensure they leave our care with writing skills and capabilities that will enable them to seek employment in a wide range of areas where these skills and capabilities are required. Our students should be able to master a range of genres, one of them being academic writing, when they graduate. When we talk about creative writing, we should make it clear that it is but one mode of writing.

Leahy’s book skirts around these issues but does not engage. It is all talk and no work. That is disappointing for American teachers of creative writing. Australian and New Zealand teachers of writing are fortunate that they have access to excellent resources that are relevant and substantial and that we have developed the pedagogy of teaching writing to the extent that we have.



Jeremy Fisher teaches writing at the University of New England, Armidale.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste