None of these greats would have been eligible to be Edinburgh University’s writer-in-residence:


Literary lunacy

Kenneth Roy

As soon as he left school, George Orwell (Eric Blair) signed up as a probationer in the Burma police. The fact that he went on to be the most influential writer of fiction in post-war Britain would have counted for nothing in the department of English literature at Edinburgh University: he would still not have been eligible for its post of writer-in-residence.
     Likewise, many great Scottish writers of the last century would not have been qualified to apply. Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Leslie Mitchell) went straight into journalism; Neil Gunn headed at once for the civil service; Muriel Spark did a college course; Nigel Tranter trained as an accountant; among those still alive and writing, James Kelman was an apprentice compositor. All these writers – and, of course, many more – would have failed at the first hurdle if they had been in a position to become Edinburgh University’s writer-in-residence. The ‘essential’ qualification for this currently advertised post – essential above all others listed – is ‘an honours degree in English literature or other arts subject’.
     Let us be clear what this means. Let us state it plainly: an honours degree in English literature counts for more than the ability to write.
     Does a degree of this sort necessarily confer an ability to write? As a handler of other people’s copy, and having read the competition papers of hundreds of young people with honours degrees, many in English literature, my answer to that question is heavily qualified. Some can write; a few write well; others have no discernible talent with words. Many people with no degree write just as well if not better. There is no rule. The notion of excluding someone because he or she does not possess a degree is absurd.

The writers named, and many un-named, would have struggled to fulfil another of the job’s requirements – ‘knowledge of, and contacts in, local and national literary networks’.

     So George Orwell and Edinburgh’s own Muriel Spark would not have passed the first test of the ‘Person Specification’ for this writer-in-residence. It is now time to introduce other potential candidates who need not have bothered to complete the form.
     Since the university is looking for a writer of ‘prose fiction’, a previous holder of the post, Norman MacCaig, whose 100th birthday was recently widely celebrated, would have been debarred because he was a poet. The darling of the London stage, Ena Lamont Stewart, would have been excluded on two counts – she never went to university, but picked up valuable experience as a hospital receptionist, which she then exploited in the observation of character; and she wrote plays, not prose fiction. The daddy of them all, Hugh MacDiarmid, the greatest literary Scot of the last 100 years, would not have been considered either. He was a poet, and as a young man he chose to make his way as a journalist rather than go to university.
     The writers named, and many un-named, would have struggled to fulfil another of the job’s requirements – ‘knowledge of, and contacts in, local and national literary networks’. It is true that MacDiarmid and MacCaig, and a number of others, drank together in Rose Street, but whether they would have considered themselves part of a network in the sense conveyed by Edinburgh University’s department of English literature seems doubtful – they might have ridiculed the idea. Orwell escaped from literary London to write his greatest work on Jura, without human contact for much of the time, far from anything resembling a network. Lamont Stewart was essentially a loner. Many of the best writers are loners.
     In Edinburgh, however, they are looking, not only for an honours graduate in something or other, but for one of those adroit networkers at ease in the back-scratching, contact-making, email-exchanging milieu characterised by Creative Scotland. Is that all they want? Not quite. There’s the job itself.
     It is not enough that the successful candidate should be the university’s writer-in-residence; she or he must also be a ‘tutor in creative writing’. Two different jobs requiring different skills are being conflated – one for a professional writer, the other for an academic lecturer. It would not be astonishing if Edinburgh University got landed with someone who is not very good at being either.

So there is another class of humanity excluded, apart from most of the world’s greatest writers: anyone over the age of 65.

     The job is advertised as ‘part-time’, at a starting salary of £25,001, so we should consider what is involved:
     Main responsibilities of the post
     teach seminars and workshops for the creative writing MSc (a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 30 two-hour classes each year); take one-to-one supervisory sessions with students on the creative writing MSc; participate in assessment for the MSc; organise weekly writing workshops open to all university students; manage and judge the universitys [sic] writing prizes for students; organise lunchtime readings by visiting authors; organise a one-day annual event for undergraduate and postgraduate writing students; represent and promote the university externally, nationally and internationally; other duties as required
     If this is part-time, my name’s Bernhard Langer.
     A final risible note: the distinguished professional writer for whom Edinburgh University is advertising will be employed on PAYE, a system of taxation foreign to most professional writers, and superannuated, for what that’s worth, for the two-year tenure of the post. So there is another class of humanity excluded, apart from most of the world’s greatest writers: anyone over the age of 65.
     The closing date (if you are interested in applying and consider yourself eligible) is 17 December and the person to contact is Dr James Loxley, head of English literature, whose telephone number is 0131 650 3610. Dr Loxley welcomes ‘informal inquiries’. I can think of a few.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.