Creative Writing, Cultural Capital and the Labour Market

By Scott Brook

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Over the last decade several Australian broadsheet newspapers have run numerous articles on the state of literary publishing, providing a rare opportunity for academic debate to enter the public arena. According to the reported commentary of novelists, publishers and academics, it would seem the literary field is caught between two contradictory currents: although the economic viability of Australian literary titles appears under pressure, there is booming demand for university courses in creative writing. This casual linkage has enabled a range of speculations on the possibly ‘perverse’ market relations between writing programs and the publishing industry. Has consumer demand for Australian literary authors shifted from the bookshop to the arts faculty? A recent quip by Frank Moorhouse would suggest so: ‘Now the joke goes that when someone says they’re a writer, the next question is, “where do you teach?”‘ (10).

While concerns about the impact of globalisation on Australian literary publishing are often reported with a significant amount of hyperbole, they have also received some evidence-based support. In his analysis of the publishing trends of large publishing houses, Mark Davis has suggested that a ‘literary paradigm of Australian publishing’ has been in decline since around 2000; and this account has received qualified support from David Carter’s analysis of a more comprehensive dataset of literary fiction titles published between 1990 and 2006 (although for a longer historical perspective, see Bode). While it may be simply too early to know how significant these developments are, the perception of a decline has nevertheless rendered the current popularity of creative writing courses conspicuous, with commentators engaged in some heady accusations and imaginative defences. Some authors have accused creative writing courses of flooding the desks of publishers with bad manuscripts, while journalists and some academics have claimed that writing programs are little more than an ‘academic racket’ in student fees and a clandestine form of state subsidy for literary writers (e.g. Neill; Pryor; King). It has also been claimed, from both celebratory and despondent perspectives, that creative writing is gradually displacing literary studies as students are now more interested in the production rather than history or interpretation of writing (Muecke). For some creative writing lecturers it has been a short step from here to the promotion of new economy rhetoric on the rise of a ‘creative class’ and the benefits of creativity for an innovation economy (Dale).

At stake in these debates are two sets of concerns. The first is signaled by the figure of ‘student demand’. In the post-Dawkins era, discussions about student demand operate less as neutral indicators of the shifting enthusiasms of students, than as expressions of the hopes and anxieties attendant on the marketisation of public higher education. Debates about booming enrolments in creative writing courses are fundamentally debates about the effects of a market model on the Australian arts faculty. How might new funding structures that sensitise curriculum planners to student enrolments affect the relationship between the arts faculty and the labour market? The rise of creative writing in the post-Dawkins university was largely counter-intuitive from the perspective of the humanities, and its success has been an anomaly in a faculty that has been decimated by funding cuts and institutional restructures.

The second and related set of concerns is foundational to the field of tertiary creative writing courses, a teaching formation that has routinely claimed a ‘vocational’ rationale, even if this claim has been largely symbolic. The notion that creative writing courses train students for professional careers as literary authors is not only cemented in the popular imagination and reproduced in course promotions, but also reflected in histories of the field written by teachers of creative writing themselves (e.g. Dawson). Regardless of the more modest and ‘generalist’ educational rationales that subtend arts faculty curriculum planning, it is the image of a special caste of literary artists with a higher mission—the nurturing of the next generation of poets and novelists, the preservation of a national literature—that has informed both the academic and popular imagination. This image originally derives from the US model of the writing program that emerged in the elite liberal arts colleges, such as Stanford and Princeton, in the early post-War period. From R. P. Blackmur’s celebration of the Modernist author in his address to Princeton students suggestively titled ‘The Undergraduate Writer as Writer’ (1941), to the Michael Douglas character in the film Wonder Boys (or perhaps David Duchovny in the recent TV series Californication), it is the image of the charismatic author before a group of literary aspirants that has been central to the popular image of the writing program. Within this promotion there has been little room to acknowledge the more modestly ‘generalist’ educational rationales that subtended the emergence of the writing course. According to Edith Mirrielees (a much neglected pioneer of creative writing in the US who taught fiction writing at Stanford from 1909), these ‘were identical with the reason for placing there any other liberal arts course. It is that attempts at writing affect the student’s habits of thought’ (37).

Given such publicity, it has always been possible to worry about the vocational outcomes of creative writing courses in a manner that is distinct from the more perennial concern about the purpose of an arts degree; and it is always possible to render such publicity conspicuous by pointing to the situation of literary publishing. In this article I want to respond to these debates by interrogating the vocationalist logic that informs perceptions of both the purpose of Australian creative writing programs and the motivations of students who enrol in them. It suggests that current hopes and anxieties about the place of creative writing courses can be redressed through more modest accounts of the curriculum rationales and institutional conditions that historically enabled creative writing to get a foot in the door of the Australian tertiary sector, as well as the more mundane rationales that motivate student enrolments. I then move on to propose a more sociologically nuanced account of the interest of some students in specific areas of the literary field, an account that is capable of resisting the current policy rhetoric around ‘creativity’.

In relation to the curriculum planning that underpinned the emergence of creative writing in Australia, evidence suggests that the rationales behind the provision of tertiary creative writing subjects had little to do with maintaining a steady stream of literary authors, and more to do with a variety of new demands placed on tertiary education by post-War Australian governments seeking better to articulate tertiary education with the labour market. Two relevant factors here are the expansion of teacher training in response to the post-War baby boom, and the rising demand for advanced clerical skills in an increasingly bureau-based workplace. For instance, we know that the first tertiary creative writing classes in Australia were run by A.D. Hope at Sydney Teachers’ College in the 1940s (Hope). The institutional context of Hope’s experiment was clear: the purpose of the creative writing class was not to identify and nurture the next Kenneth Slessor, but rather to imbue trainee English teachers with the necessary aesthetic sensibility that might in turn shape the moral and social development of school children. Noting that creative writing instruction migrated upwards from the popular school to the teachers’ college is consistent with the pattern of modern literary education established by Ian Hunter (1988). Following Hunter’s excavation of the pedagogic rationales that underpinned the emergence of modern literary education, we might suggest creative writing appears on the horizon of Australian post-compulsory education not as an effect of the Modernist mission to unite criticism with examples of living literature, or maintain literary culture in the face of the rise of mass commercial entertainments, but rather as an institutional response to the new requirements of the English classroom. By the mid-1970s creative writing had migrated from the teachers colleges to the Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs) under the banner of ‘professional writing’, a curriculum heading designed to promote the broad vocational utility of writing skills that drew strength from the rise of Communication Studies. It was within these technical and vocational curriculum settings that subjects in creative writing could first surface outside English teacher training. These two lines of development in Australia would appear to have been more or less contiguous, with the merging of the state teachers colleges with the CAEs in 1973 through the creation of a federally funded tertiary education sector by the Whitlam government. By the mid-1970s, 41% of student load in CAE courses was for trainee teachers (Meek and Goedegebuure 22).

This history concurs with what we know about tertiary literary education in general; i.e. that generations of post-War humanities students were not made to express their responses to Milton in order to preserve English literary culture, but rather to inculcate those forms of aesthetic ‘personality’ that were vocationally redeemable in the school and public service (Meredyth 1991). The interesting fact about the recent boom in writing programs is that it is due neither to a government push for vocational education, nor to the success of educators in reforming the school in line with a new emphasis on creativity. Rather, it is the result of the creation of a market-like mechanism for federal funding of domestic places. Simon Marginson and Mark Considine note that the expansion of student places following the Dawkins Reforms resulted in a ‘host of “generic brand” programs in business studies and professional writing’ (29). In 2008 I interviewed a former staff member from the University of Melbourne who had been instrumental during the mid-1990s in establishing a creative writing stream in the then Department of English with Cultural Studies (subsequently Department of English with Cultural Studies and Creative Writing). This interviewee was strikingly candid in stressing that the primary reason for adding a creative writing program concerned the contribution student enrolments would make to department finances within an increasingly internally competitive faculty: ‘We [the English department] had to get as big as we could as quickly as we could’.1 Indeed, department enrolments between 2003 and 2007 bore out this strategy. Whereas first year enrolments in the Literary and Cultural Studies programs showed a marked decline from (respectively) 90.6 to 77.9, and 58.1 to 46.1 in Equivalent Full Time Student Load (EFTSL), first year enrolments in the Creative Writing program increased from 79.0 to 120.1 EFTSL.2 This trend was mirrored in staff appointments in creative writing, which between 1999 and 2006 increased from 1 equivalent full time position to 4.25.

These figures are reflected at the national level. Between 2001 and 2006 the Detailed Discipline Group ‘Written Communication’ was amongst the fastest growing areas, with student load increasing by 52.2% (from 2495 to 3798 EFTSL). This figure can be compared to the average increases in student load for the relevant Broad Discipline Groups during this period; these were 13.3% for the Creative Arts (which includes media studies, design and all of the performing and visual arts), and 16.8% for Society and Culture (which includes the humanities, social sciences, law and sport).3

With the benefit of hindsight it would seem that the expansion of creative writing at a time of increased pressure on Australian literary publishing registered the contradictory effects of neoliberal reform; that is, the crosscurrents between the withdrawal of the state from post-War policies of cultural nationalism (for instance the Howard government’s abolition of the Book Bounty subsidy for Australian printers in late 1996) and its active construction of markets for public services, such that the figure of ‘student’ is refigured as a ‘consumer’ whose custom is to be competed for by service providers. While it is clear that it was new funding mechanisms rather than educational theory that sensitised curriculum planners to these trends, such statistics nevertheless tells us little about why students take creative writing courses in the first place. Is it true all students want to be literary writers, as is often assumed in popular debates, or are there other rationales in play? And if the desire to participate in the literary field isn’t universal, what kinds of students are motivated to study creative writing for this reason?

Another interesting fact about national figures in Written Communication is that they suggest a small but significant difference in terms of class background. In 2006 Written Communication had a conspicuously higher percentage of low and medium socio-economic status (SES) students (16.46% and 50.86% respectively), and a lower percentage of high SES students (31.98%) when compared to cognate disciplines, such as Literature and Journalism, and the major discipline groups Creative Arts and Society and Culture (Table 6 in Brook, ‘Accounting’: 23). In fact, percentile averages for the broad discipline groups Creative Arts and Society and Culture are heavily slanted in favour of high SES students; in 2006 high SES students made up approximately 43% of total EFTSL for both these areas. A possible explanation for the higher number of low SES students would be the outreach programs some writing programs have established in schools in low SES areas to encourage students from non-academic backgrounds to consider university (e.g. the writing programs at Victoria University and the University of Canberra). This would be supported by the conspicuously high level of student load in enabling courses in Written Communication for that year (7.24%). Enabling courses, also known as ‘bridging courses’, are courses designed to assist students from equity groups gain access to tertiary programs as well as equip such students with the necessary skills to succeed once enrolled. The idea that creative writing can empower working class communities through schools and adult education programs has a long history in the UK, and is supported by that exemplary study in British Cultural Studies, Carolyn Steedman’s The Tidy House: Little Girls Writing (1982).

While such outreach work would account for the higher number of low-SES students, it doesn’t explain the conspicuously higher percentage of medium SES students and lower percentage of High-SES students relative to both cognate discipline and the broad discipline groups. (As noted in the previous paragraph, only 31.98% of students in Written Communication were from high SES backgrounds, whereas this figure was 43% for the Broad Discipline Groups Creative Arts and Society and Culture). That the class backgrounds of writing cohorts would be composed this way is further puzzling given that a national survey of cultural practices conducted in the mid-1990s suggests a strong association between professional occupations and the likelihood of practicing creative writing. My analysis of the dataset generated by the Australian Everyday Cultures survey conducted in 1994/95 showed that the likelihood of a respondent practicing creative writing ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ clearly corresponded to increases in the educational level of their parents (Brook, Governing Creativity 197).4 In the language of Pierre Bourdieu, the greater the cultural capital of the parents, the more likely the child would be disposed to creative writing.5 This survey also showed that the class most reliant on the education system to reproduce itself, namely Professionals, were significantly more likely to practice creative writing than any other vocational class. 21.0% of Professionals in the survey indicated that they practiced creative writing ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’, whereas the next most likely group to indicate they practiced creative writing often or sometimes were para-professionals at 13.6%. These were followed by sales and clerical workers (12.0%), employers (11.3%), supervisors and the self-employed (10.9% for both groups), managers (8.8%) and manual workers (7.2%) (Brook, Governing Creativity 196).

So, if there appears to be an association between the private practice of creative writing and a) high parental cultural capital, and b) professional occupations, why isn’t this reflected in the national statistics on student load? Why are enrolments conspicuously higher for students who are less likely to come from those vocational classes most disposed to practicing creative writing?

Of course, professionals don’t represent all High SES occupations. The fact that the Australian Everyday Cultures survey showed that employers and managers had a significantly weaker level of engagement with creative writing compared to sales and clerical workers can be taken as consistent with the class composition of student load for written communication noted above.6 Nevertheless, the possibility that there might be something distinctive about the socioeconomic background of those who study creative writing (as distinct from those who practice it privately) is intriguing.

To explore some of these issues I ran a student questionnaire in 2008. The ‘Accounting for Creative Writing’ survey sought to explore the priorities of students in taking creative writing subjects at three tertiary writing programs in Melbourne. These programs were the Professional Writing program in the Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development, Victoria University; the Creative Writing Program in the former Department of English with Cultural Studies and Creative Writing, the University of Melbourne; and the Professional Writing and Editing Program in the School of Creative Media, RMIT University. The three programs were selected for the strong contrast they provided in terms of profile, course type, university tier, and student catchment. In terms of course type, students from the University of Melbourne and Victoria University were enrolled in bachelor degrees, while students from RMIT were enrolled in a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. Students from Melbourne and Victoria Universities were studying subjects available to 2nd or 3rd year degree students, while students recruited from RMIT were studying in the 2nd year of their TAFE diploma in Professional Writing. In the case of Melbourne and Victoria universities, the survey sample included students enrolled in dedicated writing degrees, i.e. Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Creative Writing (University of Melbourne) or Professional Writing (Victoria University), as well as students who were picking up one or more creative writing subjects as part of other degrees. Respondents were recruited from five subjects that were all described by their instructors as subjects in creative writing, were all workshop based (the defining pedagogic tool of tertiary creative writing), and were all designed to offer training in prose writing (predominantly fiction, creative non-fiction and short story writing). The survey received 38 replies.7

Melbourne was considered a useful location in which to scope the diversity of rationales for studying creative writing as it has a highly differentiated field of literary production, being home to several large and medium sized Australian publishing houses and a number of independent small publishers and book retailers. Victorian state and municipal governments provide substantial support to the literary arts in a variety of forms (from community writing programs through to the nation’s most prestigious literary festivals and prizes) and the city is home to several nationally significant initiatives to support young and emerging writers. The Victorian state government increasingly promotes Melbourne as Australia’s ‘cultural capital’ and in 2008 was successful in its bid to UNESCO to join the global Creative Cities Network as a recognised City of Literature.8 Recent developments in secondary school curriculum are also significant, with the introduction in 2000 of a Vocational Education and Training certificate in Desktop Publishing for year 11 and 12 students as part of the Victorian Certificate of Education (‘Desktop Publishing and Printing’), and the development within the Victorian Essential Learning Standards program of teaching modules on zine-making (‘Zines—Level 6 Sample Unit’). Melbourne is recognised for the dynamism of its independent writing and publishing scene and has a significant zine network which is increasingly supported by arts funding bodies (Poletti 2008).

The survey produced two sets of interesting results. The first concerns the normative motivations for studying creative writing held by the sample group as a whole, while the second held some interesting possibilities for a sociological account of the relation between arts education, class and the labour market. As I’ve discussed the first set in detail elsewhere, I will provide a brief summary here (Brook, ‘Accounting’ 2009).

In order to explore the normative motivations for student enrolments, the survey asked respondents to rank the significance of four educational rationales for their initial decision to enrol in the creative writing subject from which they were recruited; these four rationales were ‘Literary writing’, ‘Writing skills’, ‘Personal skills’ and ‘Career in writing and publishing’. These four rationales were glossed with the following statements:

Literary writing: ‘You are enrolled in this subject because you want to gain an understanding of how literary authors approach their craft and/or improve your knowledge and appreciation of literary writing generally.’

Writing skills: ‘You are enrolled in this subject because you want to understand writing from a technical perspective, develop skills in editing and proofreading, and/or improve your general written expression.’

Personal skills: ‘You are enrolled in this subject because you want to develop your creative potential, learn to express yourself with confidence, and/or discuss writing from a more personal perspective.’

Career in writing and publishing: ‘You are enrolled in this subject because you want to learn how to produce writing that can be sold to commercial publishers and/or gain the skills necessary for a career in the publishing industry.’

These four statements and the rationales they were grouped under were derived from an analysis of 19 statements generated from a discourse analysis of current curriculum planning documents, interviews with writing instructors, and a pilot survey with a similar cohort of undergraduate creative writing students.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rationale most commonly ranked at 1st place was ‘Personal skills’. This was followed by ‘Writing skills’, ‘Career in writing and publishing’, and lastly ‘Literary writing’. The mean rank positions for these variables was somewhat bunched (between 2nd and 3rd place), which suggests that although ‘Personal skills’ was the most significant factor and ‘Literary writing’ the least, all of the factors were of some significance to some of the respondents. A further breakdown of responses to this question by institution showed some difference in terms of rank position for ‘Career in writing and publishing’; for instance, RMIT students were the most career-motivated in their enrolment decision, Melbourne University students the least. Nevertheless, the positions of ‘Personal skills’ as the most significant rationale, and ‘Literary writing’ as the least significant, remained constant across all three universities. A modest interpretation of this result would be that an interest in ‘how literary authors approach their craft’ is not the first thing students are thinking about when they enrol in creative writing. Rather, it suggests that most students appreciate and prioritise (when prompted) the enduring normative rationales for creative writing instruction; namely those related to personal development and improved writing skills.

The survey also sought to explore the interests and backgrounds of a particular cohort whose vocational agenda is not well captured by the term ‘professional career’; namely, those students interested in participating in the specifically avant-garde and belletristic regions of the literary field, or what Bourdieu describes as the ‘autonomous’ or ‘restricted’ pole of the field of literary production (Bourdieu, The Rules of Art). This is a region where symbolic capital (i.e. peer recognition and publicity) is more significant than financial remuneration, and where the ideal of a commitment to literature ‘for its own sake’ generates a prolific gift economy in social prestige (‘symbolic capital’) and social contacts (‘social capital’). It is this subfield that we might describe as literary per se, in that aesthetic value assumes a level of autonomy it is denied at the commercial end of the field. Nevertheless, this subfield has a complex and dynamic relation of subtle refutation and involvement with the publishing industry as a commercial enterprise. Indeed, it is the autonomous sector of the field that has historically generated the social prestige (if not the money) associated with the field as a whole. It is this literary subfield that has of course been crucial to the reproduction of creative writing programs. It has been a key source for the personnel recruited to writing programs where they embody a relation to writing that is more a ‘calling’ than career, and face towards the restricted field of peer production (fellow writers, reviewers, funding bodies and small publishers). Historically, it is this region of the literary field that has been most accessible to new entrants, and for this reason the source of symbolic challenges to the literary establishment. Examples in Australia would include the self-styled ‘New Australian Writing’ of the 1970s, or the new field of ‘Young Writers’ which has found traction with arts organisations and funding bodies since the mid-1990s (as with the increased use of the policy term ‘Young and Emerging Writers’).

In order to identify a group who might be drawn to this subfield of specifically literary endeavour, the survey asked respondents to rate the extent to which their enrolment was motivated by the prospects of ‘improving my chances of being published in literary journals and literary magazines’. Along with readings and spoken word events, literary magazines have been a key resource for Australian writers in establishing peer recognition and enabling literary experimentation and contestation. The respondents that ‘strongly agreed’ (30%/N=11) and ‘agreed’ (32%/N=12) with this statement cut right across the sample group in relation to a number of variables. However, there were three factors that strongly distinguished them from the rest of the sample group (ie. the 38% of respondents who disagreed, strongly disagreed, or neither agreed nor disagreed with this statement).

1. Those interested in the literary field were significantly more likely to come from a medium or low SES background (their parents had occupations that were ranked as ‘medium’ or ‘low’ in terms of socioeconomic status).9

Medium and low SES respondents were 46% likely to strongly agree with the statement that they were enrolled in the subject to improve their chances of literary publication, while only 22% of high SES respondents felt the same way. This finding agreed with the results of other survey instruments that overwhelmingly demonstrated that medium and low SES students in the sample group had a stronger relationship to creative writing as a private practice. Although there was little difference across the group in terms of exposure to creative writing in high school (high SES respondents being slightly more likely to have undertaken creative writing than low and medium SES respondents), medium and low SES respondents were significantly more likely to have undertaken creative writing ‘often’ in their spare time (57% likely, as opposed to 26% of high SES students) and to have read a writer’s guide book prior to their current studies (29% likely, as opposed to 13% of high SES respondents). They were also more likely to attend book launches, readings and spoken word events.

2. Those interested in the literary field were more likely to be mature age students (25+).

Those aged 25 or above were 56% likely to strongly agree, as compared to 23% of those aged 18-24.

3. Those interested in the literary field were more likely to already possess some form of post-compulsory qualification.

Given that mature age students were more interested in the literary field than school leavers, it is unsurprising that those who strongly agreed were also likely to already possess a tertiary qualification (50%), whereas those without a tertiary qualification were only 23% likely to strongly agree. Interestingly, the post-compulsory qualifications held by those who were strongly motivated by the prospects of publishing in literary journals and magazines were from across the disciplinary spectrum, there being no suggestion of a link between possessing a qualification related to the arts sector and an interest in literary publishing.

These three factors—parental socioeconomic status, age and past tertiary education—drew a portrait of a student cohort that had experienced a higher amount of tertiary education than their parents, but who had not yet converted their first post-compulsory qualification into a career. Another way of saying this is that an orientation towards literary activity appeared to be consistent with lower levels of inherited cultural capital (students whose parents were less likely to have attended university) and a prolonged period of formal education (students who were more likely to be returning to tertiary study). This suggests that an interest in the symbolic rewards of literary publishing might be a response to the accumulation of cultural capital that has not been (and perhaps can’t be) redeemed for its full value on the labour market; those who are experiencing some sort of delay in converting educational credentials into careers.

This hypothesis was supported by the kinds of jobs held by this group. While tertiary qualification holders were slightly more likely to be working than those without tertiary qualifications, the jobs of tertiary qualification holders from non-academic backgrounds showed little difference in terms of skill level or prestige when compared to the jobs of school-leavers and others without a tertiary qualification. Most of the tertiary qualification holders from non-academic backgrounds held entry-level clerical, hospitality and retail service jobs; this group included a casual kitchen hand with a diploma in professional writing and editing, a part-time receptionist with a degree in sociology, a part time food attendant with a diploma in media and communications, a casual bank service clerk with an arts degree, and a casual audio transcriber who had completed a TAFE apprenticeship in typesetting and who appended the word ‘yawn’ to her job description.

Interestingly, the two factors of possessing a tertiary qualification and coming from a medium or low-SES background held for the entire sample group. Across all survey respondents, those whose parents did not possess a university degree were 50% likely to already possess a tertiary qualification of some kind when they enrolled in creative writing (that is, they were returning to study), whereas respondents whose parents did possess a university degree were only 14% likely to already hold a tertiary qualification.

Given the very small size of this survey it would be unwise to draw any conclusions from such statistics. However, these findings do suggest a possible hypothesis worthy of further inquiry; namely, that an aspiration to participate in the literary field amongst creative writing students may be associated with a reduced and/or delayed capacity to convert cultural capital into a career whose prestige and economic rewards befits this capital investment (as opposed to a job that reflects economic necessity). That the ability to convert tertiary qualifications into labour market returns is itself an inherited form of cultural capital—a skill modelled by parents who have already achieved this—is highly plausible and would account for the different rate of returns different classes experience when they invest in higher education (Bourdieu, ‘The Forms of Capital’). This interpretation draws its real strength however from being consistent with the findings of two related areas of labour market research to have emerged in the wake of Australia’s massified higher education system. The first focuses on the declining value of tertiary education on the labour market since the Dawkins reforms, and notes that this has been especially acute for arts graduates who were increasingly pushed out of the professions and into sales and personal service sector jobs during the 1990s (Marginson; Andrews and Wu). The second and more recent area of research looks at the rising phenomenon of overeducation and overskilling in Australia; that is, the rising disjunction between the qualifications and skills held by employees and the qualifications and skills required to perform a job (Linsley; Mavromaras, McGuiness and Wooden). It is argued that overeducation and overskilling result in increasing levels of occupational dissatisfaction, as the workplace increasingly fails to provide a positive occupational experience consistent with qualifications (‘overeducation’) or capacities (‘overskilling’).

At this point we might speculate on what the rewards of participation in the subfield of peer-oriented literary production would be for a cohort we can suggest is less likely to know how to convert tertiary credentials into careers, and therefore more likely to be overeducated and underemployed after graduation. A reasonable hypothesis would be that it provides satisfying vocational identities, social status, and a form of ‘exercise’ for recently acquired cultural capital within a social space that is independent of the labour market. That is, the literary field provides this cohort with an alternative source of social status to the labour market, one that symbolically redeems their investment in education. While we know that the ‘life of art’ provides a shelter from a range of social norms that act as indices of adulthood—career, income, property, even family—we might also consider whether the failure of labour markets to reward educational investments can itself generate artistic temperaments.

While this approach has clear implications for how we think about creative writing courses specifically, let me finish by situating this hypothesis in the broader policy context to have emerged alongside the continuing massification of tertiary creative arts education, and which has sought to mediate its effects on the humanities and creative arts. For what this hypothesis really offers is the possibility of an evidence-based reply to the ‘creative turn’ in arts and education policy that has swept Australia over the last decade. By considering the labour market conditions that dispose young people towards the creative arts in the first place, we might learn to regard hyperbolic claims of the increased importance of ‘creativity’ (for the economy, workplace, urban planning, classroom, retail sector et cetera) as retrospective responses to, if not rationalisations of, a slightly less rosy transformation in the relationship between education and work. These changes have clearly had an enormous impact on young people who are forced to bear an ever-rising share of the cost of tertiary education, even as the labour market value of their qualifications is structurally determined to decline. We might take the notion of an expanding ‘creative class’ as referring to a quite different set of individuals from the glamorous caste of mobile professionals imagined by Richard Florida, and the idea of the ‘creative city’ as reflecting a far less utopian set of social and economic conditions than believers in the new economy are willing to entertain.

Although it is beyond doubt that there is student demand for creativity, how we account for this demand is crucial to the development of viable curricula and cultural policies. If there is indeed a link between an interest in participating in the creative field and the phenomenon of overeducation/underemployment, as I have suggested in relation to student interest in the literary field, then it would make sense for stakeholders in the arts and education sectors to turn their attention away from discourses that seek to leverage value for the creative arts, and to focus instead on ‘managing expectations’. This phrase needn’t be taken to imply their downward revision (Brook, ‘Managing Creativity’ 8); rather, it might be taken as implying a need for a more sociologically nuanced account of the meaning of the term ‘vocation’ in the context of the creative arts, and the relations between arts education and the cultural field. While there will continue to be no shortage of stakeholders in the arts and education sectors who find the rhetoric of creativity expedient (as its proponents have calculated), the approach I have flagged here would enable a less partisan and more plausible account of where the new demand for creativity comes from.


Scott Brook is Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Canberra. His research is interested in modern governmental accounts of creativity, cultural sociologies of artists’ careers, and the rise of ‘Young and Emergent Writers’ as a policy formation in Australia. He has published widely on Vietnamese Australian cultural production; and has overseen, and made submissions to, scoping studies on municipal cultural planning.


1 Interview with past staff member of the Department of English with Cultural Studies and Creative Writing. The University of Melbourne. 16 October 2008.

2 Source: University Planning Office, University of Melbourne. See Brook 2009 (Appendix 2, 57).

3 Source: DEST Higher Education Statistics. Datasets extracted by author, Jan 2008. See Brook 2009 (Table 3, 21). Although the discipline group Written Communication includes all courses in professional, technical, business and academic writing, a glance at the subject lists coded to this group by university planning offices shows a significant majority of subjects dedicated to literary genres, such as fiction, poetry and script writing.

4 For instance, respondents whose fathers who had completed tertiary education were 16.1% likely to practice creative writing ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’, whereas those whose fathers had not completed high school were only 12.4% likely to do the same. See Brook 2010 (Table 20, 197). This analysis is based on a cross-tabulation of variables 71 B1 (‘Creative writing’) and 375 F3 (‘Father’s level of education’) in the SPSS dataset ‘Australian Everyday Consumption Project, 1994-1995’ (See Frow, Emmison, Chant, Bennett and Sachs 1996). The figures reported here are the results of my own analysis and are not the responsibility of the authors cited.

5 Although Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital is often used to measure the possession of skills relating to aesthetic and intellectual culture specifically, such as attendance at theatre performances or the possession of books, I use the term here to refer solely to formal education. Unfortunately the concept of cultural capital has become popularly confused with ideas of kudos or caché which Bourdieu classed as ‘symbolic capital’ (i.e. forms of social value generally called ‘recognition’ or ‘honour’). See Bourdieu 1986.

6 Furthermore, the way in which ‘socioeconomic status’ is measured in university statistics collected by government—the use of a student’s residential postcode as coded to ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ SES by the ABS Index of Education and Occupation—does not neatly align with the notion of ‘vocational class’ used in the Australian Everyday Consumption survey.

7 For a full description and justification of the recruiting process, see Brook 2010 (174-82).

8 The Victorian State Government was committed to the centre independently of the success of the bid and had already allocated 19.4 million dollars across its 2007 and 2008 budgets (Steger 2008).

9 In determining respondent SES backgrounds I followed Roger Jones’s model for scoring parental SES which is based on the ANU4 scale of occupational status (2001).

Works Cited

Andrews, Les and Tiemin Wu. The Labour Market Experience of Higher Education Graduates over the Last Decade. Canberra: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Commonwealth of Australia, 1998.

Blackmur, R. P. ‘The Undergraduate Writer as Writer.’ College English 3.3 (1941): 251-64.

Bode, Katherine. ‘Publishing and Australian Literature: Crisis, Decline or Transformation?’ Cultural Studies Review 16.2 (2010): 24-48.

Bourdieu, Pierre. ‘The Forms of Capital.’ Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. John G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 241-58.

—. The Rules of Art: the Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Trans. Susan Emanuel. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996.

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