As some of you know, I'm currently studying English Literature & Creative Writing as a mature student. I've written before about some of the issues I've found with my course, but there's one big one that has been bothering me for a while now. It comes down to one basic thing: How much do the people teaching the course actually know about writing, and how qualified are they to be teaching it?
I've said previously that creative writing courses shouldn't just focus on how to write, but also on how to manage the business side of being a writer. I firmly believe we should be being taught things like how to write proper covering letters when submitting, the importance of following submission guidelines, standard manuscript formatting and why it is so important, what to look for in contracts and how to know what rights you're giving up when you sell work and what that means, etc. (Obviously all these examples apply mostly to writing fiction, but that is where my interests lie). None of these are taught, unfortunately, and I really believe they should be.
The other thing I thing should be covered - and out of all of those things I listed, I think this is one of the most important - is how to conduct yourself with integrity as a writer. This has been touched on briefly on my course - we had a very, very short discussion of the drama surrounded James Frey's A Million Little Pieces - but I don't think it's been enough. We should be looking at things like Jacqueline Howett's spectacular example of how not to respond to criticism, and how situations like this could potentially ruin your career before you've even begun - how not to conduct yourself, in other words.
For a long while now I've had my doubts about the so-called "expertise" of one of my tutors, who will remain nameless. We regularly receive lists of publishing "opportunities", which inevitably turn out to be fee-charging markets or markets with such limited exposure that we'd be better off self-publishing (which isn't a dig at those people who choose to self-publish). The big red flag came when we were encouraged to attend a conference/workshop run by a small press who have connections with a very dodgy agent - an agent who we were also encouraged to meet up with and pitch to.
I was going to write this post then, but I thought I'd let it slide. I know enough to research opportunities before I commit time and money to them, and these "opportunity" emails don't seem to be doing any harm.
The tutor in question has talked at length about all her publishing success, and last week - when she found out that I'm a bookseller - she told me the story of the day she arrived in Manchester to begin teaching, and saw three of her books in the window of a bookshop. Wonderful, right?
Wrong. I happen to work in the shop she named, so I did some checking. Firstly, it turns out that all of her publishing "success" comes down to self-published books and books published by the small press that she owns - which amounts to the same thing. As I've said, I commend people who choose to put the work into self-publishing, but I don't believe it should be touted as having "been published" - because that phrase carries connotations of an editor having liked your work enough to pay you for it and invest in it. I think it's particularly important not to misrepresent something like this in a situation where you are speaking to a room full of people who want a career in writing and think that you know something they don't.
But I digress. I know that we stock some self-published titles, so I checked the system - it's not beyond the realms of possibility that a) we stocked her books and b) they were in the window.
Unfortunately, we have never stocked any of her books. Only 4 of them show up on the system at all - as far as the company I work for is concerned, the rest of her rather considerable output may as well have never been written.
I'm not sure what I do about this. Do I call her out on it? Do I speak to the course leader and ask him if he was aware of this when he put her in a room full of people and allowed her to claim to be an expert on writing? Or do I just send this post out into the world, and know that I've said my bit?