And publishing: Recent award winners and nominees coming out of the UBC program include Writers’ Trust prizewinner Lyon, now a full-time member of the faculty; Giller nominees Sarah Selecky, Lynn Coady and Zsuzsi Gartner; Charlotte Gill, a multiple award winner, and author of Eating Dirt; novelists Michael Christie and Steven Galloway, the latter also a faculty member.
“I don’t know if it’s the Pacific Ocean or the mountains or some particular alchemy we have on our campus,” Svendsen says, “but they’re publishing.”
Even the majority of less-fortunate, often-unpublished graduates benefit from the training, according to the teachers. “I really believe that the skill sets developed are useful no matter what job market a student enters,” Dunlop says. She and her colleagues have a firm answer to students who worry they are fated to starve. “We tell them no, and we’re the perfect examples.We are professors who write and teach and do research.” The York program includes regular visits from alumni who describe how they have applied their skills outside traditional literary occupations.
Learning to write is “an excellent discipline,” Hollingshead says. “I have never encouraged expectation of any significant economic reward from it.”
But enrolment in creative-writing courses continues to grow – in part because of the academy’s retreat from traditional literary studies, according to Hollingshead. By moving away from studying literature as an art form and toward a theoretical deconstruction of “texts,” English departments have “created a hunger that’s not being satisfied,” he says.
The number of students studying English in university hasn’t changed since the 1970s, according to Antanas Sileika, director of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. “The thought is that all these people who used to study English have moved into creative writing because it’s more old-fashioned in a way,” he said.
Creative-writing courses, which generally follow the “Iowa model” in which small groups of students critique one another’s writing in workshops, are popular as the last redoubt of personalized, small-group instruction in the modern multiversity. Just as valuably, they provide aspiring artists with a literary milieu. “And that’s just so lacking everywhere,” Gaston says, adding that the greatest benefit of his own experience as a graduate student at UBC was talking to peers about writing. “That’s how I learned most of what I did learn there.”
One now-traditional criticism of such processes is that they produce homogenous results, often identified as “workshop stories” or “Iowa novels” by skeptics. Most teachers deny it, naturally, pointing out that creative-writing courses have broadened access to the art and are in part responsible for the new diversity of Canadian literature. But the taint remains.
Fictions that carry it tend to be “highly competent but dull,” according to Hollingshead. “The rule is the telling detail,” he says, “so you get all this surface information, but to no effect. You have a kind of aesthetic sheen on the prose but you’re not getting enough ideas and you’re not getting enough dramatic energy.” He is confident in the prospect of literary renewal, but doubts such a thing will emerge from the creative-writing academy.
“What feels rough and wild and almost too strange for consumption – that’s what is going to show the way to the next phase of things,” Hollingshead says.
But that, too, will ultimately prove teachable.
Although it spans 10 days, Toronto’s International Festival of Authors offers a concentrated dose of world literature in its final weekend. Here’s a guide for total immersion.
On Friday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m., science-fiction authors Cory Doctorow and China Miéville explore the outer reaches of the “new weird” in readings from their latest novels, followed by a discussion of the fast-mutating genre of sci-fi.
A more grounded alternative at the same time is the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction “Spotlight,” a discussion hosted by 2012 Taylor Prize-winner Andrew Westoll (above) and including novelist Richard Ford.
On Saturday, Oct. 27, beginning at 3 p.m., artist, illustrator and author Leanne Shapton teams up with equally multitalented cartoonist Seth to present her latest book, Swimming Studies, which is based on her training as an Olympic-level swimmer. Artist Joanne Tod moderates.
Also on Saturday, at 5 p.m., seldom-seen Brooklyn novelist and filmmaker Paul Auster presents his memoir, Winter Journal, followed by a discussion with Toronto novelist Antanas Sileika.
As if that weren’t enough for one day, all five finalists for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize will be appearing Saturday at 8 o’clock for an evening of eclectic readings, hosted by the CBC’s Carol Off.
Beginning at noon on Sunday, Oct. 28, Booker Prize-winning British author Howard Jacobson reads from his latest novel Zoo Time, satirizing the publishing industry in a style that crosses Philip Roth and Woody Allen.
Later the same afternoon, beginning at 5, Minnesota-based author Louise Erdrich takes the stage to read from her glowingly reviewed 13th novel, The Round House, followed by a discussion with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel.