Research, or something like it (Part I)
Every few years, here in UK academic circles, there is a curious circus known as the REF, the “Research Excellence Framework”, a bizarrely arcane ritual of humiliation where academics struggle to demonstrate that their research is not merely good (one might have thought that being “good” was a sufficiently high demand, although apparently this is not so) but is instead excellent. And because this is a rigorous exercise, scholars are asked to prove their excellence in research by submitting to learned boards of their peers a range of “outputs” that are scrutinised using the best scientific and divinatory methods, so that these works may be awarded stars. Not real stars, of course; not even the kinds of stars that are handed out to primary school children, shiny sticker-stars, but just notional stars, the Platonic forms of stars that are more true and real than any actual star or representation of a star could ever be.
The next round of the REF is in 2014; and so, ever the faithful employee, I have over the past year been compiling and recompiling lists of things that I have written (“outputs”, I must remember to call them) and submitting them to various committees, so that I can find out how many hypothetical stars they might get were they to be submitted to the REF itself. Many colleagues and friends have been doing the same. And this is instructive, in a gloomy, gallows-humour kind of way. I submitted my children’s book, because it’s sold more copies than all my other books put together, and been translated, and has nice pictures in it, and features a very impressive whale. However, I was sad to discover that this book is (hypothetically) worth no stars at all, on the grounds that there was “no research content”. “But it’s got a whale!” I wanted to protest; but in the end, I restrained myself, knowing it was hopeless. I also submitted an obscure article that I wrote for a journal few people will ever read, one of those academic journals run by huge corporations that charge exorbitant fees, to virtually ensure the journal goes more-or-less unread, whilst along the way stripping authors of their copyright into the bargain: no readers, no rights—the kind of deal that no writer should agree to, in other words. This article—which was not at all bad, but which will probably languish in obscurity forever—was deemed worthy of a hypothetical three or four stars, despite being entirely free of cetaceans. And it’s not just me who has problems: as I write this, all across the country, people are anguishing over those hypothetical stars, as they dream of excellence.
So, anyway, what I want to write about is not the REF itself, a weirdly skewed process that will eventually, one hopes, be swept away by the tides of history, but instead the question of research. In the academy, at least, creative writing is seen somewhat unhelpfully as a kind of subset of English literature. You would have thought that the study of literature was a subset of the broader field of creative writing—on the grounds that some people write creatively, and that this being the case, some people decide to study what other people write creatively—and that the study of English literature was a subset of the broader study of literature, in other words, a subset of a subset of creative writing; but that is not, alas, how things are seen.
This is a problem. The thing is this: writers who write novels and stories and poems are doing a rather different kind of thing from those people who spend their life writing learned papers on Emily Dickinson, or Beowulf, or anything like that. That’s not to say that it is a better or worse kind of thing, but it is a different kind of activity. When it comes to thinking about what writers do, universities are really rather hopeless at getting their heads around the fact of this difference; and when it comes to the REF, there is a tendency to evaluate creative works on the same kinds of grounds as learned papers, which is a mistake rooted in a simple kind of category error.
The problem is this: if we take the narrow academic definition of research as our starting point, we have to concede that what writers of fiction and poetry do really isn’t research at all. Of course, when it comes down to it, we writers in universities all argue as hard as we can that what we do is research, because “research” is a shorthand for “writing stuff that matters”; and we like to think that what we write matters—as perhaps it does, to an extent. But at the same time we know that it’s not really research in the way many other people mean it. Here’s what the REF document has to say about research (it’s in Annex C of the REF guidance, if you want to be geeky about it):
1. For the purposes of the REF, research is defined as a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared.
2. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction.
New insights, effectively shared. This sounds nice and broad, as does the generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts. But the more I think about this, the more I find myself puzzling over it. Do novels lead to “new” or “substantially improved” insights? Now, it strikes me that here there is a difference in the kind of thing that a novel is and the kind of thing that a contribution to scholarship on Emily Dickinson is. The latter exists in a world where knowledge is a public, shared, heap-up-able kind of thing. I write a paper on Emily Dickinson and tooth decay, and I am adding something to a general, public store of knowledge about Emily Dickinson (and specifically about her teeth), a nugget of information that has not existed in the public domain before. This is one kind of new insight. But the kind of insight I get when reading a good novel is a different one. Let’s say I read Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey. It’s a lovely book about a journey of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna. I recommend you read it. I gained some insights into elephants, and into Portuguese history. But these insights were not, when it comes down to it, reliable or secure. I’d rather trust an elephant specialist, if I wanted to find out about elephants, than I would trust the notoriously tricksy Saramago. The real insights I gained when reading the book were not heap-up-able, public kinds of things in the way that further data on a poet’s molars might be. Instead they rendered my sense of life slightly different from how it was before I read the book, they were more of the nature of small displacements in the way I attended to the world, small pleasures that I could not have anticipated. Insights effectively shared: yes and no. But substantially improved insights? I think not. Creative writing sits uneasily against these kinds of definitions. We can say that we know incrementally more now about Shakespeare than was known in the time of Dickens; but I don’t think, for example, that we can say that Dickens is incrementally more insightful than was Shakespeare.
So I ask myself: do I do research? On the one hand, yes, of course I do. I’ve been breaking my back learning Chinese for my next novel, and spent the summer two years ago enduring hard seat journeys through China, finding stuff out. I spend weeks tramping round Bulgaria in hiking boots for the novel that is coming out this summer. And my children’s book, The Snorgh and the Sailor, was based upon years of close study of things like soup-making, human grumpiness and bathtubs. So this is, in the broadest sense, research, in that it is a process of investigation and exploration of the world. But if research is seen as a process of making incremental contributions to heap-up-able knowledge, then I can’t help feeling that the process of writing poems and stories is simply not that kind of thing.
Ultimately, I don’t think it is possible to square the circle of fitting what writers do into the definitions of research used today in universities. This problem of squaring creative non-heap-up-able activities with heap-up-able research demands is a problem that may have already been addressed more effectively elsewhere in universities than in creative writing departments, for example by fine art departments; but then, perhaps they have the advantage of not labouring under the misapprehension that fine art—the making of paintings and sculptures and photographs and installations and so on—is simply an aspect of the study of art history in the way that creative writing is seen as an aspect, and a minor one, of the study of english literature. It is worth holding out and arguing, then, for a different notion of research—I hope to talk about this in a future post (hence the “Part I” in the title). But until then, I’ll go on with all of my fellow writers throughout the country, arguing that what I do is something that it really isn’t, so that I can accumulate those hypothetical stars about which we have been taught to care so very much.