For the month of August this year, while the rest of you were living it up at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at the University of Edinburgh’s International Summer School — my class was Creative Writing, and most of my students were poets. The majority were also English Literature undergrads, and hailed from a variety of countries.
One of the seminars I devised for the class was entitled “The Importance of Reading vs the Anxiety of Influence: Entering the Literary Canon and ‘Making New’”. In this seminar, I spoke about ideas of literary tradition, literary identity and essentially “knowing where you come from” as a writer. Dr Alan Gillis gave a lecture on the Modern Irish literary tradition on the same morning as my seminar, and I asked the students to talk about their own literary identities — how they felt they fit into their national literature as well as the wider literary canon, what tradition they felt they might be working in, or a tradition they might aspire to fitting into. I found their responses pretty surprising.
The students did not believe in literary tradition. Unanimously, they said they felt that tradition — and the idea of fitting into the canon in any specific place — no longer existed for contemporary writers. “It’s just not something I ever think about,” said one American literature undergrad. Indeed, the group seemed to think that if anything, identifying with a particular literary tradition or attempting to emulate literary predecessors was a bad idea. “Isn’t it just copying?” was a question that arose again and again. We talked about the Whitmanic tradition, and the influence of other literary heavyweights on contemporary writing. “It’s just riding on the coat tails of someone very respected,” was one response. The students also dismissed the idea of being part of a national literature. Only one student, who hailed from India, said she felt ties to her country’s literary identity, but said she also felt that embracing her role as “an Indian writer” — and more importantly, as “an Indian woman writing in English” — might actually be potentially damaging, or at least limiting, for her. “I prefer to just be a writer,” she said, and the others agreed. “If you’re a good writer,” said one of the American students, “why does it matter where you’re from?” The general feeling was that where you’re from, who you’ve read and who you admire is — or should be — irrelevant.
This provided real food for thought for me. I’d expected that such a diverse range of young people — hailing from universities all over the world — would have radically different opinions about literary identity and tradition. The fact that they stood united and totally dismissed the ideas about tradition and canon in TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent really surprised me. I was also surprised by the fact that, when I asked the question “so, do you feel like you have a literary identity at all?”, the answer was a resounding “no”.
This made me think about my own literary identity, which is apparently a bit of a sore topic. Who I am as a writer — and indeed, who I am as a human being — is something that other people seem determined to have a say in. A while ago, after the now-legendary “where are all the young Scottish poets?” panel debate at StAnza 2009, a comment thread popped up online somewhere, and among a list of young Scottish poets, my name was dropped. I was unaware of this thread at the time, but when I was tipped off about it (I’ve just spent a good while Googling to try and find it again, but to no avail), I found that people were lining up to talk about my national — and therefore, literary — identity. To set the record straight, I had to point out that I was born in England (North Yorkshire, to be more specific), but moved to Scotland at the age of 8. I’ve received about 90% of my education north of the border, and I never wrote a word of poetry while I lived on English soil. Surely, therefore, I am a Scottish poet. Am I a Scot? This is a bit tricker. I have two Scottish grandparents (one on each side, as it happens), but both my parents were born and raised in Cumbria and speak with strong Cumbrian accents. I was born in North Yorkshire and between the ages of 2 and 7 my family lived in the Midlands. Apparently, these were my formative years, because in spite of my sixteen years on Scottish soil, I’ve never shaken my accent — which is a weird southern mongrel with northern vowels, but unmistakably English.
It’s tricky. Apparently, I’m Scottish enough to play rugby for Scotland — if, you know, I was a bloke, and any good at rugby, and even vaguely interested. But because of The Accent Thing I get asked to read at events called things like “Sassenachs in Scotland!”, which I’m not 100% comfortable with. During the festival I was very flattered to be asked to read at Utter!’s “Utter! The Brave” event, which was ‘Scots Only’. I accepted (and a damn fine event it was too), but as it turned out, I didn’t feel very comfortable with that, either.
So my feeling of literary identity is a confused one, but the urge to belong as a writer and to fathom out whose traditions I belong to and where I am accepted is a really strong one. To be faced with a diverse group of young writers (none of them that much younger than me) and told that literary identity “doesn’t exist”, or at least, “isn’t relevant” to writers of our generation was rather shocking. Am I weird? Are they weird? I can see that ideas about literary and national identity change over time, obviously they do — but do they really cease to matter? Have they ceased to matter? Am I the only person under 30 still worrying about this stuff?
Of course, the issue might be my Scottishness (or, my status as a Scottish resident, depending on your outlook). Dr Gillis’ lecture was all about Irish literary traditions and the Irish literary identity, so the Scots aren’t alone — but is it an inherently Scottish thing to constantly think about and debate one’s national and literary background? Is it just us? In the seminar group, there were students from all over the world — Americans, Canadians, Scandinavians, Europeans, etc — but I was the only Scot(tish resident). According to the students, the Americans, Scandinavians, Europeans and — dare I say it — maybe even the English, are just getting on with it. Even my Canadian students reckoned that questions about national and literary identity in their country had mainly been answered (”we just need to get over the fact that America’s right there, really”, said one). It’s just us Scots who are devoting hundreds of hours, blogs and column inches to the issue of what tradition, what nationality, and (apparently) where our new generation of writers are. Is this true? Are the Scots just “very into navel-gazing”, as one student put it? Or is this as much of an issue elsewhere? I don’t feel qualified to comment, but would love to hear others’ thoughts.
Something else that must surely have contributed to this general feeling of rootlessness and the apparent break from literary tradition is the rise of University education. These days, if you’re under 30 and want to be a writer, you’re probably at University, and probably studying something in the Humanities bracket. All of the students in my group were majoring or had majored in Literature. Most of them had moved on or were planning to move on to MA courses. Several of them stated that their MA course was or would eventually be Creative Writing.
I’m not going to debate the usefulness or value of Creative Writing at University level, don’t worry. What I’m left wondering about is the influence of all this literary study on the mentalities of young writers. With so many young writers picking up Literature degrees, is it possible that this study has contributed to their lack of interest in their personal and national literary traditions? As students of Literature, these young writers have access to libraries full of works by authors from across the world and down the ages; they are bombarded with option-courses on everything from Classics In Translation to the contemporary slam movement of Def Poetry Jam fame. Gone are the days where if you grew up in or attended University in New England you’d be expected to name Frost, Lowell or Dickinson as your primary poetic influence — or so my students seemed to think. One of them was, in fact, from New England, and his view was: I have a world canon full of amazing writers at my fingertips. Why should I read Frost just because he was from the same state as me? I can choose to read anything I like.
Obviously, the option to read anything you like — or at least, anything you can gain access to — has always been there for writers. But is access a key factor? More young writers are attending University and therefore getting the opportunity to visit incredible, sprawling libraries full of weird and wonderful works. Most University campuses grant access to inter-library loans across the world, as well as offering online services like LiOn and JSTOR for free. The internet has also, naturally, revolutionised the way we all read — but the current crop of writers under 30 are the first writers of “the web generation.” Does this all add up to explain this apparent disinterest in tradition and sense of place?
The short answer is, I don’t know. I’m still really surprised by the unanimous and unswerving response my students gave me. This post is mainly just the overspill of the seminar and its lengthy discussions. But I’d love to hear what other people think about these ideas… so no matter what your age, leave a comment!