What Do You Want To Know?
Posted March 19, 2012on:
This week, my lack of knowledge proved costly and, while it’s safe to say that the little I knew about cars has now increased, I regret that the lesson was so expensive. That I should know more about cars seems a self-evident truth but there was something, too, to be taken from all the not knowing. The absence from my life of a raging need ever to sit down to watch Top Gear strikes me as a richness, as does the knowledge that no advert for a car costing half the price of a decent two-up, two-down terrace is ever likely to engorge my glands with desire. As a motorist, I’m also a person; there’s a balance to be found. As a writer of fiction, though, I’m always saving a seat within my consciousness for a character yet to emerge: if one arrives who happens to be a petrolhead, that’ll be another occasion when it’ll occur to me that I ought to know more about cars.
I have a modest facility with languages but one of the many languages I don’t know at all is Croatian. This has rarely seemed a major gap: I may harbour thoughts of holding down a conversation with the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modric but I suspect that my contribution would be a babble of incoherent fanspeak, irrespective of the nominal lanaguage. From this week, though, my lack of Croatian will be a source of some bother due to the publication of three separate Croatian translations of my 2008 story, Scent. The translations appear, respectively, in Pandemonij, Okreni na priču and Tko tu koga? – as well as in pdf format online here – published by Izdavačka Akademija [The Publishing Academy] which trains young people in translation and publishing. The three publications each takes a different publishing approach to the anthologising of ten short stories, including three from English-speaking writers. Scent is now Miris and it’s a great honour to be included, as well as a warm thrill to know the work is reaching new readers. Still, it’s a curious sensation to see your work in print yet understand virtually nothing of it. It makes me wonder – should the Croatian language be something else I ought to know more about?
The question of what a writer should know occurs to me when I’m doing the rounds teaching Creative Writing to undergraduates. It’s not uncommon for some students to complain that they don’t really ‘do’ short stories. The short story disciplines of editing, economy, crafting a perfect sentences and realising a complete story are too much of a struggle and they honestly feel they’re more suited to the higher form of novel-writing. Of course, it’s a great thing for a person to have a novel inside them and it could well prove to be a great thing for the culture as well. The thought of showing up at University on a Creative Writing degree and bypassing all other disciplines in pursuit of this singular opus might seem strange to, say, a medical student. A student may enter medical school with dreams of curing cancer but I somehow doubt that when James Robertson Justice or Eriq La Salle tries to instruct our medic in how to perform a tracheostomy, they’re told, ‘Actually, tracheostomies aren’t really my thing – do you think I could just go to the lab and work on my cure for cancer instead?’
‘Oh, you have a cure for cancer? Tell me about it.’
‘Well, it’s really just an idea based on something I saw last week on an episode of House.’
I’ve touched on some of the areas of knowledge that might inform a writer’s work in an earlier post when I considered The Physics of Language, Dom DeLillo’s articulation of how language houses and stratifies knowledge. Professional writers will recognise the necessity of research and fact-checking for work that is to appear in the public domain, but aside from this retrospective acquisition of knowledge, is there a level of knowingness needed to become a writer? Can ‘write what you know’ be superseded by ‘know so you can write’?
The study of creative writing at university is by no means the only nor necessarily the best route towards a life in writing but not even Monty Python’s working-class playwright could deny the increased significance creative writing academia has as a crucible for contemporary literary practice. When tuition fees rise and employability becomes the function of, as opposed to a passive yardstick for, university study, creative writing degrees will come under an inevitable pressure to demonstrate their practicality as well as their popularity. Could it be time to move away from a philosophy whereby the skills needed for creative writing are taught in terms of their transferability to suit careers in anything but, towards the serious study of disciplines that could nourish and enrich the writing? I teach students who also learn Japanese or philosophy within combined honours degrees. Any crossover is purely an individual initiative – but what if those twin beds were pushed together to make one double? What if a creative writing undergraduate could spend three years writing but also drawing from research into history, chemistry, architecture, economics, astrophysics – what would knowing about any or all of this do to the words?
I don’t know if I’m arguing towards a sun-drenched ideal or from a bitter basement of despair at the absence of rigour that can characterise this particular form of paper chase, leaving the subject open to the type of ridicule that used to be reserved for media studies (and incubated, paradoxically, within the mainstream media). Maybe this isn’t a discussion any broader than my own narrow range of interests and awareness. But it’s one that will remain current for the foreseeable futute – or at least until the day your car breaks down on the road from Split to Zagreb and you decide to call a short story writer out to take a look at it.