Wanting, needing, yearning, dreaming
All this, and the black marks on the page

Sunday round-up: age-banding, and putting the cart before the horse

In 'Wanting, needing, yearning, dreaming' I said that thinking about a piece of writing after you've written it can teach you much more about how writing works than reading a textbook before you start. The more formalised insitutions of academic creative writing seem to divide into two kinds: the departments and degrees which discuss ideas and theories of writing, and then write to explore them, and the places where the writing comes first and the analysis afterwards. A piece in Times Higher Education argues that creative writing is reviving the sort of liberal humanism in English departments that Theory banished, but the piece and the comments didn't rule out the theory-first approach to CW from which I instinctively recoil. So why do I recoil from it? Primarily, you could argue, because I became a writer first, and only a (sort-of) academic second. But I don't think it's simply an accident of my career. I think writing first, analysing second is the nature of writing, and although it's perfectly possible to use writing as a tool to explore theoretical ideas, the writing that results shouldn't be regarded as art, nor those whose only writing is of this kind as creative artists.

The first impulse that makes people take to pen and paper is, you could say, like the kind of moment in a musical that I was discussing in 'Wanting, needing'... when the characters just have to burst into song: they have something to say - something they feel, think, believe - which can't be contained any longer. Of course what bursts out of you may be an idea, not a desire to retell Puss-in-Boots, but it's the desire that comes first. Even at the micro level of single sentences, the sentence comes first, and the analysis of whether it's the right sentence, and what to do if it's not, comes second. And at a slightly more macro level, all writing teachers know that the first thing you have to teach learner-writers is that though the outburst comes naturally, and first, so much of writing as art and craft is actually in the revising. So it seems to me that for the academy to theorise first and write second is putting the cart before the horse, even if it is easier to examine and sits more comfortably with the established processes of academic enquiry. Not only will it result in a lot of writing which has no value beyond being a demonstration of theory (which you could argue doesn't matter, if the purpose of a degree or a research project is academic enquiry) but in perverting the natural writing process such courses and academics are actually losing sight of what they purport to study. Creative writing as a discipline is process, and if it's not allowed to be itself, then it's not creative writing, but something else entirely.

And finally, the row about age-banding children's books rumbles on. I think the attempt by publishers to guide parents in choosing the right books for their children is well-meaning, since parents who have least confidence in choosing are probably the ones who are least used to decoding covers and blurbs and getting a feel for a book with a quick dip. Having heard the story from the horse's mouth of the teenage boy who tentatively asked if he'd be allowed into Waterstones if he was wearing trainers, I have some sympathy with this view. And with 20% of books being sold through Tesco's alone, most people are not buying books in places where a well-informed bookseller is there to help. But the initiative is back-firing. Some very heavyweight authors indeed, and the keen and opinionated booky readers of the blogosphere, argue that a single mark of 7+ or 13+ will put off more children than it will help, and that unifying the very different issues of reading-difficulty and content under a single mark is not only impossible, but a betrayal of everything that literature should be: wide-ranging and free-thinking. It's not actually a new question: does anyone else remember the guidance in the Puffin books of my youth. 'This book will appeal to girls of 10-12, and sensitive boys,' was typical, as I remember. But it was tucked away at the bottom of the blurb, infinitely less pre- and pro-scriptive in style than the proposed gaudy film-certificate symbols. The anti age-banding camp are here, and mega-selling Darren Shan makes his views known on Vulpes Libris, just above an interview with the very wonderful Barrington Stoke, who in their mission to make good books suitable for dyslexics and reluctant readers have grappled for a decade with these issues of content versus reading age. Meanwhile The Bookseller's account of events is here.

And now, back to today's other job, which is putting up yet another bookshelf. I'll swear they breed, those darned books...