TEXT review

Forward to an academic discipline!

review by Jeremy Fisher


Dianne Donnelly
Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline
Multilingual Matters, Bristol UK 2012
ISBN 9781847695895
Pb 176 pp GBP19.95


When I first moved from a professional involvement in the writing and publishing industries to an academic position as a Senior Lecturer in Writing, within hours of taking up of my appointment I was firmly put in my place by one of my colleagues in Communication Studies. ‘Writing is not a discipline!’ I was informed. And nor is it. It is still a creature subservient to either or both literary and composition studies. Hence the relevance of Dianne Donnelly’s book, part of the New Writing Viewpoint series edited by Graeme Harper.

Donnelly argues not for ‘creative writing’ but for ‘creative writing studies’, seeing a parallel with the emergence of composition studies as a discipline in the 1990s. I take issue with Donnelly’s use of the word ‘creative’. The idea that creative writing is different from other forms because of its supposed artistic dimension should be well and truly buried by now, but this remains the central tenet in Donnelly’s argument. This represents the major problem I have with the pedagogy of writing as it commonly articulated. The teaching of that form termed ‘creative’ is very often hived off from the teaching of other forms, and students are very often denied any context for their writing beyond self-expression and some dim concept that they are creating ‘art’. In the real world, writers write to earn a living: their ‘art’ is circumscribed by editors and publishers, and by market expectations. A writer can earn more from ghosting a biography or providing interest to an annual report than from a first novel, let alone a poem. Therefore I include ‘creative’ forms of writing alongside others in my teaching - believing that best equips my students with the craft and skills to most effectively use writing when they must make their way in the real world.

One of the problems of Donnelly’s book for me is that it makes almost no engagement with the world of publishing, nor does it seeks to place the works produced by students on any but an artistic plane. There are other values that need to be considered, not least being the market potential for these works. The current best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James emerged from an online writing group that used mimetic and workshopping practices similar to those used in most writing classes. The book has enormous value in terms of financial return, but how many university based writing workshops would encourage a student to pursue such a venture?

Another book selling well at present, though nowhere as well as Fifty Shades of Grey, is All that I am by Anna Funder. Funder is a product of university writing programs. Her first book, Stasiland, was a meticulously researched work of non-fiction documenting the role of the Stasi in the former German Democratic Republic. Her current book traverses similar ground in fictional form. I mention these books because to me they offer opportunities for exploring context, reception, production and audience in writing studies in quite different ways. That is, works and writers should be examined holistically, within their social and cultural contexts.

I doubt that Donnelly would disagree with me on that point, but how that approach should be incorporated into teaching the production of writing may be another matter. After an introduction that traces the emergence of creative writing studies, Donnelly provides a taxonomy of creative writing pedagogies. The seven parts of this section outline various approaches to teaching creative writing. One of the features of this book is a section providing the results of a survey of the workshop model that tends to underpin the teaching of creative writing. This is valuable information on its own and Donnelly’s forensic analysis of the data is lucid and refreshing. The book concludes with a section on the academic home of creative writing studies and a final argument on the legitimacy of the proposed discipline.

The book is well researched. While Donnelly’s American background (she teaches at the University of South Florida) is evident in her spelling and the predominance of American data and sources, she also makes reference to British and Australian research in this field. She offers a measured and cogent contribution to what I would prefer to call the emerging discipline of writing studies. I recommend it to all teachers of writing. A couple of pedantic nitpicks: I don’t know what font the book is set in, but the question mark is very annoying. It looks as if it is upside down. Also, there were some irritating typos.


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


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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo