The write course: the place of writing classes in the NZ book trade
20 Apr 2017
This week, The Read investigates writing courses and writing qualifications in Aotearoa; what they do for the Kiwi book ecosystem and what the book industry thinks of them.
We spoke to a selection of writers, publishers, writing course directors and booksellers Catherine Robertson, Paula Morris, Fergus Barrowman, Adrienne Jansen, Mary-Jane Duffy, Jemma Pirrie, Damien Wilkins, Thom Conroy, Thomas Koed, Ashleigh Young and Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb.
What do writers get out of them?
The most obvious place to start is: what do writers get out of writing courses? Catherine Robertson (pictured below) is a published author who has done several writing courses, most recently the MA course at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o Te Ao.
She says: 'Before I took my first writing course in 2001, I had done no creative writing since high school, so you could say the course launched my whole career. I was living in California at the time, and the course was led by a much-awarded poet, who was an excellent fiction teacher. His comments and guidance gave me some real skills, an understanding of how to manage criticism, and the confidence to keep going.
'…[Then the IIML MA] helped me decide exactly what kind of writer I am – what kind of work I wanted to do from now on. So it both expanded and focused my writing career.'
Paula Morris (pictured below) has also completed writing courses both here and overseas. She says: 'I chose to study at Victoria [the IIML] and Iowa for the time, experience, community and teaching. Having a Master of Creative Writing (MCW) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) will not help you to publish a book … But the experience of that MFA, the workshops and seminars, the time you spent working on your book and being mentored – that might help you write something good.'
Ashleigh Young is a writer and editor who co-convenes the science writing workshop at IIML. She says: 'It's not true that you HAVE to do a writing course in order to have a writing career. It would be truly weird if that were the only way.
'What's of value is having a person or group who can be your first readers and who can be honest with you, and for whom you can do the same. It's important not to hide your writing away – it's when your writing is out in the open, with readers, that you'll learn the most.'
How do publishers view them?
Victoria University Press (VUP) publisher Fergus Barrowman has a close relationship with the IIML MA course, having read and graded folios there for the past 30 years. However, when it comes to choosing manuscripts for publication at VUP, he says the presence or absence of a writing qualification makes no difference: 'that decision is made solely on the book'. Where courses can make a difference is in (a) the writer finishing the manuscript, and (b) getting it to a publisher.
'Writing courses definitely give writers a head start in terms of professional behaviour. I can tell from those submissions that writers have learned a great deal about how to present a MS to a publisher, in terms of presentation standard, what to say in the covering letter, and how to choose [an] appropriate publisher.'
More broadly, Barrowman believes that, although there’s always been really extraordinary "top-end" writing emerging from NZ, the writing courses here 'have really raised the average standard of the entry-level first book, and the number of new and emerging writers. This can mean it’s hard to get published because there’s more competition.'
Another effect writing courses can have on publishing is that sometimes they grow their own publishing ventures. For example, Escalator Press has emerged from the Whitireia Creative Writing courses, as has Cloud Ink Press from AUT.
IIML Director Damien Wilkins (pictured above) says: 'writing classes put you in touch with like minds and suddenly you’ve started your own lit mag, online journal or poetry press. This kind of community building is important in lots of ways, including its challenge to the cultural status quo.'
What do they mean to booksellers?
Booksellers we spoke to said the presence or absence of a writing qualification on the part of the author didn’t make much difference to their perception of a book.
Jemma Pirrie is the buyer at McLeod’s Booksellers (pictured above). She says: 'When I do the book buying, the qualifications of writers are hardly mentioned to me – emphasis is placed more on whether the reps have read and enjoyed the book, how well it is doing in the media, whether the author has received any awards, how popular the author is, etc. They also discuss books in reference to our bookshop’s target market and our tastes.'
Thomas Koed of VOLUME sees the importance of writing courses as contributing several steps before the books hit shelves. He says: 'writing courses do deepen the writing pool, which deepens the publishing pool, and it is from this publishing pool that we pull the books for our shop.'
Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb (pictured below) of UBS Otago says: 'I haven’t ever noticed that a qualification has any effect on sales … I don’t think customers particularly care: it certainly isn’t plastered all over the front and back of a book by the publisher.
'I suspect writing courses may be most valuable in sharpening up a writer’s style, in providing a place to experiment, to recognise and understand what does and doesn’t work, and to be challenged. Finally they encourage writers to keep writing – who knows what amazing book they will write as a result?'
Other things writing courses do
The value of writing courses in Aotearoa is not measured purely in terms of books produced, although all the writing course convenors we interviewed proudly spoke of the many books their graduates had published and are continuing to publish in impressive numbers. For example, Wilkins says: 'I think there are a couple of MA classes from the early 2000s in which the book publication rate is now 100%, but that was after a decade or more. It’s a long-haul game.'
Thom Conroy (pictured below) is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa. He says: 'I think the most important pay-off of writing workshops is not necessarily the direct improvement in your writing as much as it is learning about how to anticipate what readers desire and how to get a clearer sense of what they can tolerate and, likewise, what they won’t forgive.
'The other major positive outcome of creative writing [courses] for the publishing industry in New Zealand is to create a broader and deeper pool of ambitious readers –readers who are willing to critically engage with our literature, to discuss it, review it, and, of course, to purchase it. This sort of readerly engagement can have far-reaching cultural effects.'
Paula Morris convenes the MCW at the University of Auckland Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi , which she describes as being a greenhouse, not a factory. She says: 'I put the focus on experimentation, skill development, exploring technique, and workshops. Rather than the writers scrambling to submit a rough draft of a whole novel, I prefer them to submit a more polished first half and have the discipline, skills and direction to continue working on the book after the course finishes. I continue mentoring writers after the course, and plan to launch a two-year MFA, much more conducive to writing a novel, very soon.'
Morris also contributes to Te Papa Tupu, the mentoring programme for Maori writers run by Huia Publishers. She says: 'As well as one-on-one mentoring we give seminars on aspects of technique with the writers as a group. University courses are going to be too costly and impractical for many Maori and Pasifika writers. I respect Huia for working to develop new voices in NZ literature.'
More good news for writers on a limited budget is the development of international MOOCs (massive open online courses). Top universities and other educational institutions around the world are increasingly opening up their teachings to anyone with an internet connection, often entirely for free. For example, the prestigious International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa now offers MOOCs (the next one begins on 15 May) – and Dr Rebecca Priestley has recently begun one through VUW about Antarctica: From Geology to Human History.
Gaps in the market?
Many NZ writing courses are geared towards literary fiction, and there are some questions about whether commercial and genre fiction writers are adequately supported.
Mary-Jane Duffy (pictured below, photo copyright Matt Bialostocki) is the Creative Writing Programme Manager at Whitireia New Zealand, and Adrienne Jansen is one of the tutors there. They believe the commercial fiction market is currently underserved. “In general, commercial success doesn’t seem to be highly valued in the ‘literary’ arena, and that rubs off on students’ perceptions. In the Whitireia programme, students doing the comprehensive course/short fiction do some writing in all the major genres. That recognises that students have wide writing interests and some may go on to be excellent romance writers, for example.
'There’s always a danger that specific courses can create a particular type of writing. Is that good for publishing? Debatable. Writing programmes need to be aware of NOT channeling students in certain directions.'
Barrowman says: 'Writing workshops are about complexity and authenticity, helping writers release, identify, and shape something really special. This can go against the needs of genre books to meet the specifications of genre.'
Conroy comments: 'I do think we need to be careful that the link between creative writing and publishing doesn’t become too ‘in-house’ in New Zealand, as this can lead to more homogenous writing – work that meets expectations rather than shatters them … If 'commercial fiction' means literary fiction that sells well, then I think creative writing courses and publishers are serving students fairly well. I know that we supervise creative work at Massey that might be described as 'commercial' in this way …
'Regarding genre fiction, I think the issue isn't only how well creative writing programmes are serving students, but how well publishers are serving students … there are simply very few venues to publish it with New Zealand presses.'
Robertson says: 'Several of my IIML classmates were writing speculative fiction and quality commercial fiction, and there was absolutely no sense that these genres were any less worthy or interesting. However, others have had teachers in other courses who did not understand or ‘get’, for example, speculative fiction – so if you’re writing genre fiction, I’d say: do your research, ask the teachers questions before you enrol.'
As always, many thanks to everyone who took the time to speak to The Read – it’s clear that writing courses of all kinds have a vital part to play in Aotearoa’s booky ecosystem. As Wilkins said, “'New writers are the lifeblood of the industry. Does that make the IIML a transfusion centre of NZ publishing?'
NB: While this article goes wide, we just want to note that Elizabeth did not speak to representatives of every creative writing course in New Zealand.