Vicky Newham

That’s my view and I’m sticking to it


Whenever I hear iPhone enthusiasts arguing with Android lovers about which is best, I am always reminded of how attached we can all get to our opinions and how much time and energy we often invest in confirming to ourselves that we are right, and in attempting to convince others that they are wrong. When a person experiences two conflicting beliefs simultaneously or when there is a conflict between what a person believes and evidence which is presented to him, social psychology refers to this as ‘cognitive dissonance’. It is an uncomfortable emotional state but can also be a constructive one which results in genuine and long-lasting mental change as the brain attempts to reduce the anxiety experienced via the dissonance by resolving the conflict somehow.

So why have I been thinking about this you may wonder when I have a manuscript to polish and an MA to complete? That’s the thing. It’s the MA. In specific it’s the literary theory that we have to study this semester and the role it plays in a creative writing degree. Of course I knew that it was one of the modules when I enrolled for the course last September and started my first year. I told myself that I’d worry about it later (never works for me). That I’d have changed my mind about it by the time I started the module (yeah yeah). I’ve discovered over the years that I’m not very good at delaying worrying. If something bothers me I worry about it. Either consciously or unconsciously. My beef about literary theory is not that it’s inherently of no value or dull. I actually find a lot of it fascinating. It’s that a) it belongs – in my opinion – on a literature degree not a creative writing one and that b) it uses an academic part of my brain which conflicts with the creative part. When I’ve discussed my concerns I’ve enjoyed discovering that lots of people felt the same.  ‘Exactly,’ I would say to each of them, ‘Glad you agree’. And each time it stoked my resentment and I dreaded starting the module a bit more.

As an aside, it also amuses me that I’ve avoided many of the theories a number of times before on previous courses and now they’ve come up again. I feel like the world is telling me that I need to learn my “–isms”. Psychology has ‘debates’ such as determinism and reductionism, and these include many of the philosophical theories in literary theory. The literature modules on my French and German degree nodded continually at Marx, Foucault, de Beauvoir, Sartre and Lacan. When I did some Sociology and General Studies at school (as a teacher) I learnt about structuralism and post-modernism.

As I now have a 2.5 hour journey to get to Kingston each week, and back, it is important to me to get as much out of my MA as I can. One thing I learnt on my MA Effective Learning was that attitudes to learning profoundly affect learning. This may sound obvious, but actually it isn’t necessarily nor are the ways in which it plays out. So I gave myself a good talking to about my attitude. That didn’t really work. As a fan of preparation, both mental and physical and as an empiricist, I’ve been giving my anti-literary theory prejudices a good airing over the summer holidays and instead of looking for self-confirming evidence I’ve been actively seeking evidence that I am wrong: that learning about literary theory will help me to be a better writer. I think what has helped was that I sat down on Sunday night and read half one of the set text books. I’d told myself I’d read a couple of chapters but I couldn’t put it down.

In the first session yesterday, an introductory one, I listened to what the module leader said, and I was aware that a subtle shift had taken place: whereas before I hadn’t wanted to be convinced, now I did. Prior to the lecture I’d had a chat with him and had aired my concerns. ‘Won’t it make me more self-conscious when I write?’ I asked, feeling rather stupid. ‘Perhaps,’ he replied, ‘but perhaps that’s a good thing.’ ‘Won’t it suppress creativity?’ I continued. ‘Not necessarily,’ he answered, with a knowing smile. Normally these sorts of answers don’t work for me and knowing smiles wind me up. But for some reason, yesterday, they satisfied me. They gave me patience and faith. That I was wrong and that that was okay. And that good things might come of my being wrong in the way that cognitive dissonance suggests, in other words: learning.

I am not entirely sure why this module issue bothers me as much as it does. I am not a stubborn person and I have a good ability to shove myself through unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. If I’m honest it might simply be that the MA is costing me a lot of money and I would have liked something more writing-focussed (but not another writing workshop). I am still worried that the academic and the creative don’t sit well together, that self-consciousness in writing will hinder my creative flow and will invoke self-censorship. But I am prepared to suspend my beliefs, to give the module the benefit of the doubt, as well as people who know waaaaaaaaay more about literature and writing than me, and to see how things pan out over the next twelve weeks.

What we cover on the module is: the author; inter-textuality; the real; history & place; sex & gender; race & empire; politics & ideology. Plus we learn about story theory (which I love). We start formally next week with the ‘author’ material and guess who’s volunteered to do the opening summary of Foucault’s ‘What is an author?’ Foucault Shmooko. I must be mad…. Oh, well. In for a penny … (or rather several thousand!)

I would love to hear from people who’ve studied literary theory. To know how you found it and, for those of you who are writers, what relationship it had with your writing.

As views go, this one's not bad!

As views go, this one’s not bad!

Vicky Newham © 2013

Author: Vicky Newham

Vicky Newham is a writer, living in Whitstable, Kent. She writes crime fiction, psychological thrillers and science fiction. Her main projects are novels, but she also writes short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction articles and some poetry.

5 thoughts on “That’s my view and I’m sticking to it


  2. My undergraduate degree was in English, so I did do quite a bit of literary theory and I really enjoyed it at the time – although it was about the time I stopped creative writing, so maybe the two were related and it did make me more self-conscious. However, now I am glad I did it, as it makes me much better as a critic of both other people’s writing and my own. I can now put a name to the things I do (or don’t do) and, even if I cannot always find a better solution on the spot, I know when a better one is required. Have fun with it and take it to the point where it helps rather than hinders you!

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment MarinaSofia. I am glad that you found literary theory useful. I agree that it provides a useful framework through which writing can be commented on so it will be interesting to see if that same process can take place whilst I am actually writing, planning and editing. I am just hoping that it is possible to switch it off once it’s been learnt so that it’s not a continual voice in my head! Hope your own writing is going fabulously. Hope to meet you somewhere!

  3. Brilliant, Vicky! I studied some literary theory when I did my MA and I found it interesting ( of what I can remember), especially learning about stuff I didn’t know, like what metafiction is etc. However, what I enjoyed the most was learning bout Story Writing techniques. It was like a lid being lifted from my eyes. What was especially good was that I could apply some of the “techniques” to my writing, which was nice 🙂 I have to say, though, that the literary theory was kept to the minimum, the focus was on getting our writing done. I Loved it.

    I am sure you will find the theory interesting, and especially enjoy the story theory, and looking forward to hearing how you get on! 🙂

    One book we used on my MA was The Story by Robert McKee, I found it really helpful and I notice it isn’t on your list of creative writing books. I also noticed you have some Readings by Linda Anderson, can I ask which Linda Anderson? There are two, you see!
    Linda Anderson was my tutor at Lancaster Uni where I did my MA. She was quite brilliant. She is now head of creative writing at The OU, I used to tutor for the OU on their creative writing courses, and also worked with Derek Neale at the OU, who you also refer to! I wonder if my LInda Anderson is the same as your Linda Anderson?

    • Thanks so much Marianne for reading my rather over-honest blogpost! Yes, I have STORY and use the ‘swing’ idea as my guide & mantra for scenes. It’s excellent. I have a Derek Neale book also. I will check the Linda Anderson. The story theory is only a minor part, sadly, but the lecturer who does it taught me last module so I’ve picked up a lot of his stuff about story theory. It was he who recommended McKee. (He’s also a crime writer) You can see now why I’m so looking forward to getting stuck into your course next week!

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