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April 28, 2011

Emily Kingham's Horror of Romance has driven her to embrace the Power of Horror

Posted by Emily Kingham

Emily Kingham finds that for the novelist there is plenty of material to be found in the creative writing department of suburban London university - whether the genre is horror or romance.

Academics are notoriously touchy. When picking your internal examiner for the final viva in a PhD, it is best to pick someone you have not inadvertently or otherwise offended. One PhD contender couldn't pick the most obvious examiner because she had once refused to carry some books for her. There had been a slight chill in the air ever since. This particular student told me that she sees this touchiness as an occupational hazard.

They spend so much time picking literary texts apart, they can't help but do the same with people - and then they start to see sub-currents that possibly don't need to be swum in.
I certainly recognize myself in her description, so at least I can rest assured that I am in the right place.

I have just been assigned two MA students whose dissertations I shall supervise. To my chagrin, one of them was specializing in Romantic Fiction. I was horrified. Nothing in my CV or publishing history suggests an expertise or interest in Romance. The last love story I read, and re-read and read again was Persuasion. But Jane Austen doesn't count - the irony of her revivification is that people fail to see how much Austen disliked humanity. Her heroines are not so much looking for romance as a safe place simply to be. The heroes provide that environment - in Captain Wentworth's case, it's the wide blue sea.

In scanning the list of supervisors, I noticed once again, how full the Creative Writing dept is of fairly well-known writers who have turned their hand to teaching. One name, in particular, stood out. Josephine Turner is in a similar situation to me. She has had a few books published, worked in journalism, experienced some moderate success, and shown an interest in matters intellectual. In other words, she is a good writer who has kept afloat in print media and academia. I know her personally and have seen in her and others like her what confidence can do to a career.

I have seen many moderately skilled people rise to eminence on sheer hard work, determination and an ability to schmooze. I have seen two women in particular shamelessly flirt and manipulate their way into high-paying positions in journalism, while I could only stand back and allow my jaw to drop in na´ve horror. Turner is not of this ilk, but she is certainly not pre-eminent amongst her generation of writers. Nevertheless, at this particular suburban university, she is treated as such. At this point, it is probably quite obvious that my nose has been put out of joint. Turner, I couldn't help noticing, had been given the students whose genres are closest to my field of expertise.

As a mere research student, I was expected to turn my hand to any old genre - even Romance, she sniffed! I made my objections clear to the senior lecturer responsible for assigning students to supervisors. In so doing, it became abundantly clear that he, too, was burdened by the weight of his "isshoos" with this writer. He, too, was doubtful as to her suitability for the role. She, he told me through gritted teeth, was senior to him. We both had to wonder at how easily impressed "some people" are. To whom we were referring, I cannot exactly say, but I would guess it's the same Head of Everything who, every time Rowena Fey walks by on her way to class, smiles, like the boy in the song, and says, "Ah!". And of course, so the song goes, she doesn't see. But does she? I ask. At some point in our conversation, I realized how ridiculously close I was to grinding an axe. I made an effort to rise myself above the heap of my professional insecurities, and decided to plump for the Horror student.

I have a Horror of Romance, after all, and I had just started reading an academic I really do admire, Julia Kristeva. The book's title: The Powers of Horror: An essay in abjection. The gods were nudging me towards Stephen King. In confronting the heart of this genre's darkness, I had to wonder at my aversion to romance. It is the inevitability of it all that I fear. In place of conformity to expectations, I long for twists, turns and complexity. On closer inspection, life is full of them - relationships, whether romantic, professional, or familial - are studded with knots that require careful untangling, mirrors that need to be cleaned and thorns it's best to avoid.

For a writer, self-belief and the space to be oneself are paramount. Do not let the horror of abjection prevail! As our most famous (bow deeply, dear students, because he really is "proper" famous) Writer in Residence proclaimed: writing a novel is

a lot of heavy lifting twenty hours a week; a lot of failure and depression.
How do you teach that?
Novels tear up material, and you need a lot to fill one.
I guess that material - whether it's horror or romance - can be found in an academic department.

Emily Kingham (a pseudonym) teaches creative writing to undergraduates and Masters students at a suburban university in the Greater London area. She formerly was writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. Her Notes from a Prison can be read here.

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Horror is a genre capable of handling the most profound (and, of course, disturbing) issues - which is why most people write it off (too chicken to face the abject/ abyss etc). Sounds like there's plenty of motivation in this particular uni.

Posted by: Paul Johnston at May 1, 2011 02:31 PM
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