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The Novelist-Academic-Poet on Campus

Universities are chock-full of novelists and poets. Indeed, the cultural life of nations would be mightily impoverished without their presence. There have of course been many studies of novelists and poets who are also academics. Perhaps it is just that I have not noticed the phenomenon before, but it does seem as though they are expanding in number now as never before.

Probably the single-biggest boost has come from the growth of creative-writing programs. Since their inception in the 1960s, these courses have not only produced numerous novelists and poets but are themselves taught by eminent novelists and poets.

I think only of the University of Warwick’s own course. We are privileged to have fine novelists like A.L. Kennedy and China Miéville, as well as remarkable poets like David Morley, teaching our creative-writing course, a course which clearly enriches the university’s cultural life. Each of them produces a different kind of literary gloss. Kennedy’s novels and plays are already well known and need little comment from me. I love Miéville’s ability to conjure up genuine moments of alterity, something very few science-fiction writers actually achieve, an ability that is best on display, I think, in his book Embassytown. Morley’s poems, thick and precise descriptions of life that often hover between art and science, are always gripping. There are other eminent examples associated with the creative-writing program too, like David Dabydeen and Maureen Freely.

But you could, I suppose, argue that these are the professionals. What about all those academics who write novels and poems as a kind of spur from their academic careers? The thought was prompted both by the example of a colleague of mine, Rob Kitchin, an expert on the spaces of information technology, who has started to write detective novels, and by finding out that we have an academic manager at Warwick—Catherine Hanley—who writes historical fiction.

It is a fine line, of course, as the case of Adam Roberts, an English professor at the University of London’s Royal Holloway, shows. Roberts lists creative writing as one of his interests, so you could enlist him into the professionals. But you could also see him in other ways. Whatever the case, his science-fiction novels are quirky, thought provoking, and fun. I think the best so far is probably New Model Army, which manages to integrate a whole series of themes around emergence into a satisfying whole.

But there are also academics who exist farther from the discipline of English, like Stephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor. I have never been disappointed by his books. They occupy a wide range but they all have the character of being able to marry an acute historical sense with a strong narrative drive. His latest book, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, shows these qualities in full as it imagines what might have happened if Lincoln had survived his assassination. In particular, it prompted me to look up more on the checkered career of the controversial politician Dan Sickles and on the situation of the well-off African-American families of the time.

I could add many more examples, but the point is a more general one. Here in Britain, as elsewhere, we are beset by the need to demonstrate the “impact” of university research to government. That can no doubt include cultural objects like novels and poems. But I am really not sure just how much government understands of how universities around the world can act as a prompt to the imagination of the population in ways which are valuable simply because they stimulate the imagination.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia image by Ildar Sagdejev authorized under the GNU General Public License]

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