In his piece on the Death of the Novel in The Guardian, Will Self comments on his own PhD Creative Writing student:
Creative writing programmes burgeoning throughout our universities are ‘a self-perpetuating and self-financing literary set-aside scheme purpose built to accommodate writers who can no longer make a living from their work. IN these care homes, erstwhile novelists induct still more and younger writers into their own reflexive career paths, so that in time they too can become novelists who cannot make a living from their work and so become teachers of creative writing. In case you think I’m exaggerating, I have just supervised a doctoral thesis in creative writing: this consists in the submission of a novel written by the candidate, together with a 35,000-word dissertation on the themes explored by that novel. My student, although having published several other genre works and despite a number of ringing endorsements from his eminent creative-writing teachers, has been unable to find a publisher for this, his first serious novel. The novel isn’t bad—although nor is it Turgenev. The dissertation is interesting—although it isn’t a piece of original scholarship. Neither of them will, in all likelihood, ever be read again after he has been examined. The student wished to bring the date of his viva forward—why? Well, so he could use his qualification to apply for a post teaching – you guessed it – creative writing. Not that he’s a neophyte: he already teaches creative writing, he just wants to be paid more highly for the midwifery of stillborn novels.’
As with Hanif Kureishi, who recently belittled his creative writing students as talentless, this is one more writing Professor showing lack of empathy for his students. How does that student feel this weekend, after his supervisor’s public, paid-for jibes, and what has this done for his chances of getting the post he is looking for?
The role of PhD supervisor is as important as any in academia. Highly accomplished and talented students commit the most important part of their lives to you for three years or more. I reckon supervision amounts to around 54 hours of one-on-one meetings in which the student writer’s ongoing work is constantly challenged and subjected to intense mutual scrutiny. In addition there are the hours preceding those supervisions, where I read and comment on the student’s work in preparation. The first year is likely to be tough for the student writer. You’re asking them to break from conventions, to see what might be influencing and constricting their work, to examine the work of other writers (and maybe interview some of those writers) to find new ways forward. They examine concepts, structure, narrative drive, motivations … and the basics of sentence construction, what their choices of tense are doing etc. They are quite likely to take a radical new direction with their writing in their first year of study. Your aim is to make them be the best writer they can be, individual and confident. Does that mean the book is publishable by the mainstream? Possibly and possibly not. You need to work out what your students’ ambitions are and help them accordingly. They may want to write a book that is too challenging for commercial tastes, and the university setting is the perfect place to push their work beyond the standards acceptable to a young sales and marketing director. (This is why I set up Barbican Press: to give outlets to fantastic work that has come out of PhD programmes and is too edge for elsewhere.) And that exegesis, the commentary on their own work? It’s folded into the whole process of the thesis, so the novel is never solipsistic but is measuring itself against the whole canon.
If that ‘dissertation’ does not rank as original scholarship – well, as the supervisor you make damn sure it does. What happened with Will Self – did he sit in on his student’s viva and learn this for the first time from the examiners?
And he says the novel ‘isn’t bad’. Come on Will Self, you reach such a verdict in year one. It’s your job to raise the game. Is Will Self capable of this? I imagine so.
Will Self’s student aims to continue his career in universities. For such a person, the PhD supervisor is their mentor. They raise the game and show just how much can be achieved by careful, assiduous supervision. You build up a close professional relationship. Despite having successful publications behind me already, I learned a huge amount from my PhD creative writing supervisors, both about writing my novel, about writing itself, about seeing my work in academic terms, and very much about teaching and effective supervision of students.