The MA novel in the world

Michelle Moo

The romantic notion of the writer is not of one who’s been trained: the big-game hunting Hemingway, the rail-riding Faulkner, wind-tousled Emily on the moors. The university trained MA graduate writer is not so evocative. In fact, there are authors who go to great lengths to obscure the fact that their writing developed within a university writing context. Partly because the university qualification tends to wipe out street cred, and, mostly, because the university-trained writer rouses suspicion. The made writer is a faker.

Though of course, this notion is beginning to be challenged. We know, for instance, that in the USA graduate writers are extremely prominent. This is starting to happen here, with an uindeniable proliferation of creative writing courses.

While many established writers are taking DCAs (Doctorates of Creative Arts) to consolidate their practice in some way, or to provide the possibility of academic employment, there are MAs offered that constitute the writer’s first full length project. For me, this was the case. As I neared the end of my Postgraduate diploma, I decided to take a break from film subjects, and almost as an aside, and since I wasn’t up to the gruelling nature of film projects, took a unit in narrative writing. I produced a short story, later published, that proved enough to gain entry into the MA.

But the question is—and has been since the introduction of creative writing programs into the universities—what happens when the creative project meets the academic project? Do they have the same ends? What happens when the creative project aligns itself with academic ends, rather than orienting itself to industry: in this case the publishing industry? Certainly at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), where I studied, publishable work was emphasised, and there was no snobbery permeating distinctions between, say, genre writing and literary fiction. But with a university, there is always the question of the academic project. For me, the academic project involves the extension of the discipline. It must. It can’t simply be to emulate successful formulae, or to produce a perfect replica of the perfect book. To me, inherent in the academic project is a call to arms to take risks, and this isn’t necessarily—as it’s been accused—a contrivance.

Room to move

During the years of my MA, I worked on a manuscript supervised by writer and editor Jan Hutchinson. At the end of the degree I had produced a short novel. Well, ostensibly a short novel. There was the ‘story’, set in 70s Melbourne, when the stasis of suburbia collided with the spectacular in the guise of the Sharpie. While my training had equipped me with understandings of character construction, scene setting, structure etc, I broke any rules I felt like breaking in order to respond to my material, and, as an academic experiment, to extend the practice of creative writing. What was produced was an unusual manuscript: neither highly experimental, nor highbrow/obviously intellectual, and not without its flaws. It wasn’t contrived to be unusual as such; it felt ‘natural.’ It was, paradoxically perhaps, as much about instinct as it was academic, because what academic training does best is allow you to explore genesis, how things have come about, and you don’t just accept conventions. In so doing, you automatically disrupt naturalised constructions such as character, ‘prose’, plot, structure. And this proved to be highly problematic when I turned to the market.

Getting published

After my MA had been completed, marks had been registered, and the manuscript printed up and bound, I began to approach publishers. I’m not going to complain here about the manuscript being lost in the large stacks of unsolicited material in agents’ and publishers’ offices. I mean I would, but I was far luckier. The manuscript was introduced directly to editors and agents by some of the lecturers at UTS who had taken an interest. But, unsurprisingly perhaps, every one passed. Some lingered for a while (in the publishing world this can take the best part of a year), tossing up if character arc could be developed (I never would have co-operated, incidentally). But all eventually passed. Not every single publisher in Australia, but nearly. When it looked like the manuscript would never make it to a book, along came the writer Keri Glastonbury. I had already met Keri in the corridors of UTS several times when my supervisor suggested to her she might like my thesis. Keri ended up taking the book to Stephen Muecke, Local Consumption Publications (LCP) publisher, and made it happen.

And so it did. Novelist Mireille Juchau came on board, editing the manuscript, and Christen Cornell joined later, after returning from China. It was a very homemade affair. Photos were taken by Sophie Boord, and she and the gals from Spring In Alaska designed the book. It looked exactly as I wanted it. There were advantages in publishing like this which I never would have experienced somewhere else. Most importantly, my book was allowed to be: it was allowed to fail or succeed, whatever these mean, on its own terms. LCP is an academic publisher (though not a university press), and nearly everyone involved had come from academia; it was also somewhat radical, roughly affiliated with Cultural Studies, which meant the book wasn’t expected to conform to the conventions of literariness. All of which added up to the proper place for my manuscript, and the only place. In my MA year I am still the only one to have had their manuscript published. Others have experienced long deliberations by publishers whose marketing departments end up deeming the works “too quiet.” Though none of these manuscripts could be called experimental, in this notoriously down era of fiction publishing the question of writing that breaks with tradition seems particularly vexed.

In whose head?

When my book was released and reviewed in the mainstream press, I couldn’t have been prepared for the vitriol that erupted from the Age reviewer. My little novella was, I never guessed, entirely offensive. Basically a petty moralist tract (why weren’t these kids at school?), the thing that really made me cringe was the reviewer’s assertion that the vernacular I used was designed to “get you inside the Sharpie’s head” and create sympathy for the character. When she gloated that she would have liked to see these young people thrown in a divvy van, she was making plain something I’d forgotten about literature. That it’s for the middle class (by which I mean an aesthetic and moral state of being). I had failed to get her into the Sharpie’s head, I’d failed to create sympathy, and I had failed to write to her. If you don’t take aim at the middlebrow, you commit literary suicide (unless of course your work is indisputably high literature).

While the street press was favourable, while 2 universities are now teaching the book, while both writers and people who never usually read love it, there are those who hate it. That’s the way it should be. The book I’m sure has its problems. One I suspect is too much plot. But in the mainstream press reviews, while some were grudgingly flattering, peppered with backhanded compliments, not one talked about how the book might be different, how it might have opened up new ground. They were most concerned with how it failed to be a conventional reading experience; how it didn’t fulfil their ideas of literature. And that, at the end of the day, is what can put academia and industry at odds.

Now the book is done, its film rights have been bought by the New York production house Avery Childs, and if that eventuates we’ll see how this academic project sits in the cinematic realm.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 16

© Michelle Moo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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