Author, Editor, Critic, Dr Jonathan Taylor on his Writing and Teaching at the University of Leicester

Welcome to the blog. For those who don’t know you, can you tell me about yourself, your writing, and teaching?

I’m Jonathan Taylor, an author, editor, critic and lecturer. I write in lots of different genres (partly because I get bored easily) – particularly fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and (occasionally) for radio. My books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). I’m editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012).
I teach Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. I also write academically, and (among other things) am currently writing a non-fiction book about the relationship between laughter, horror and violence in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. I was born in Stoke-on-Trent, and now live in Loughborough with my wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and our twins, Miranda and Rosalind.

How long have you been teaching for?

Oh, gosh, a long time. I first taught courses (oddly enough) on opera and the symphony in the mid-90s. I’ve been teaching English Literature and Creative Writing since about 2000.

Do you have a title at the University of Leicester?

Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, and director of the MA in Creative Writing.

Do you have a speciality that you teach?

I teach many different things – as with the writing, I’m naturally eclectic, I suppose. But my main specialisms are memoir (and hence creative non-fiction), short stories, writing for voices and sometimes poetry.

How do you balance teaching and family life with your own writing?

Erm … I don’t. It’s something I’ve been trying to balance for years, with varying amounts of failure. Writing is the thing that always gets squeezed out – given that, for me, the thing that pays the bills is the teaching, and the most important thing is obviously the family – so each year for the past ten years I’ve had less and less time to do it. A full-time university job is now hugely demanding, even in comparison to what it was when I first started. Don’t get me wrong: I love the actual teaching, but the soul-grinding bureaucracy … Anyway, at least what it’s meant in terms of the writing is that I absolutely never suffer from so-called “writer’s block” any more. It’s not a luxury I can afford, and whenever I do get a few hours to write, it’s just unadulterated pleasure.

What are the qualifications (and grades of qualifications) needed to get on the course?

For the MA in Creative Writing, prospective students are normally expected to have a first degree (BA) in a relevant subject. But this condition is flexible, if writers can show that they have considerable professional experience instead.

What are you looking for in your students? What would a ‘perfect’ student be like?

I don’t have a “perfect” student in mind at all: what I love about Creative Writing (and, indeed, teaching in general) is that there’s such an infinite variety of experiences, backgrounds, histories, ambitions and reasons for doing the course. Institutions and governments like to draw up patterns for what students are and what they want from a course (hence Careers services); but it’s a very different experience when you’re “on the ground” teaching. What I like is people who are passionate about reading and writing – it doesn’t matter to me if a student dreams of becoming the next J. K. Rowling, or if s/he is just doing the course for a year because they enjoy the subject; both are equally good reasons for doing Creative Writing.

With the cost of courses so high, either via student loans or not – how do you ensure you have a diverse cohort?

I think that’s very difficult. I make no bones about my feelings towards the fee situation: I think it’s wrong, and I believe in a free and comprehensive education system for all. What’s happened in recently years – whatever successive governments have claimed – is prejudicial against students from particular backgrounds. It was hard enough when I did my MA in the mid-90s: even then, it was the time I struggled financially the most. I can hardly imagine how hard it is for some students now. There are, at least, discounts, scholarships, hardship funds at most universities for postgraduates. Personally, I would encourage anyone interested in a course like the one I run to talk to the lecturers and union even before they apply. Thankfully, so far the courses I’ve been involved in over the years have been very diverse in terms of their cohorts – and I think that’s got to do with creating a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere, accepting people who come from lots of different academic and professional backgrounds (whether or not they’ve got the “standard” qualifications), and also something to do with the subject itself: Creative Writing is, I believe, a very democratic and open subject, which anyone can do well in if they’re passionate about it.

With regard to postgraduate studies, do you think enough work has been done in attracting those who may have limited financial resources?

No, I don’t. And I think it’s worse in some places than others. I don’t think the government has ever really cared about postgraduate courses. What this means is that academia is always in danger of being skewed in terms of social class and background: of course people from poorer backgrounds find it harder, have to work harder, and anyone who claims otherwise is living in Daily Mail Cuckoo Land. Having said that, at least postgraduate fees haven’t increased in quite the same way as undergraduate fees, and universities have got much better at accommodating students’ work patterns over the years.

There has been a proliferation of creative writing courses of late, and this has led to the accusation that debut novels are ‘samey’. Is this something you recognise or not and can you explain why?

No, I don’t really recognise that – I think there are lots of different and amazing debut novels out there. That’s not to say that I think the novels which are most lauded are the strongest: there’s a certain poetic earnestness and monotonality about some of the most celebrated contemporary novels. But this isn’t the problem with Creative Writing courses, I think, but with literary prizes and mainstream reviews (and, no doubt, the dominance of the huge publishing conglomerates). In terms of poetry, I think the danger of sameness is slightly more apparent: some of the founding tenets of Creative Writing teaching (show don’t tell, etc.) may be useful for beginning poets, but have a profoundly distorting effect when uniformly applied at a “higher” level. The “show-don’t-tell” thing, for example, has meant that a certain amount of contemporary poetry is in danger of becoming apolitical, gentle, nostalgic, quietist.

As there are so many creative writing courses available, both online and in red-brick universities and colleges, what advice would you give to a potential student trying to find a course?

I think the main piece of advice is to bear in mind that they vary hugely, so spend time looking into the mechanics and details of the course, and deciding which suits you. Some courses, for example, concentrate on particular forms and genres (“Introduction to Poetry,” “Novel Writing,” etc.), whilst some are transgeneric. I like a mixture of both – but, perhaps because of my own eclecticism, generally lean towards the latter. I think it’s better to learn about “writing” in general, not exclusively “how to write a novel.” In fact, I think writers should call themselves “writers,” not “poets,” or “novelists” – the forms and genres aren’t mutually exclusive. There are differences, but there are also major overlaps, and people who class themselves poets can learn things from novelists, and vice versa. It’s a kind of openness which I think is vital. I’m always suspicious of poets who only ever read other contemporary poets: you need experience and knowledge of other fields too, or you just end up writing poetry about poetry.

Many people equate qualifications in creative writing with an increased chance of getting a publishing deal. How do you manage expectations from your students?

I actually think the idea that people have – that students have unrealistic expectations of a course like an MA in Creative Writing – is wrong. It’s an out-of-date illusion: one that my generation had, to some extent, but which isn’t necessarily shared by the younger generation. In fact, what I’ve found over the last few years is something which is a bit disturbing, and it’s the opposite: too much realism (so-called) among younger students. They have no illusions about what they’re doing and where they may be going. Post-2008 particularly, students have become “realistic” or “pessimistic” about the future, because of successive governments and economic policy. I think we should allow the young to have their illusions, their world-changing ambitions and aspirations; I don’t think it’s my job to destroy these (as I know some Creative Writing lecturers believe), but to encourage students to think about the first steps they might take. Why do the older generation so begrudge the dreams of youth? Because they never realised their own.

To find out more about Jonathan, and his work, please visit his site:http://www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

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