The issue of Times Higher Education of 9 February 2017 focused on the public trust in expertise (especially that of universities) in the ‘post-factual’ world of Brexit and the Trump presidency. One main feature was ‘Topping up the Trust Fund’, pp 40-45, part of which was my essay on the potential of fiction as a tool to help in the teaching of soft skills to students on educational programmes that otherwise focus on learning technical knowledge and technical applications. It can be found on the magazine website, timeshighereducation.com.
I have added a new piece on the Essays page, which appeared previously on the Albertopolis Writing Circle site. George Gissing wrote two novels in quick succession at the end of the nineteenth century, New Grub Street and Born in Exile dealing with the career and social prospects of bright working and lower middle class boys given the chance of a good education by reforms following the 1870 Education Act. Gissing himself was a representative of this group and things had not turned out well, and they don’t turn out well for his fictional anti-heroes, Edwin Reardon and Godwin Peak, the first trying to make his way as a literary novelist, the second as a scientist. Both books provide considerable insight into the working lives of writers and journalists (Grub Street) and in chemical and biological science (Born in Exile).
I think we expect biography, autobiography or memoir to provide a fair amount of detail about a subject’s working life. After all, it is most often celebrity or fame acquired through work success that makes a subject’s life sufficiently notable to justify biographical treatment. This is often not the case, there is little or no insight into working practice. However there has been a recent spate of memoirs that do focus on the writers’ work and five of these are the subject of a piece in the Essay section of the site (Memoir as Literature of Working Life). While they all provide insight into working life, not all of them cover all the aspects that would fully illuminate it.
Both employers and teachers are concerned about the lack of ‘soft skills’ among students and young workers. The development of such skills is seldom dealt with in either secondary or higher education, which focus on subject-specific knowledge where students make use of only rational intelligence and cognitive ability.
Soft skills arise from emotional intelligence, the competences that enable people to understand each other in a social context. Unless they are locked in isolated backrooms, everyone at work has to operate in a social context and relate effectively to their peers, bosses, juniors, customers, and other potential contact groups. The lists of specific skills needed to express emotional intelligence vary, but usually include communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem solving, conflict resolution, and time management (working effectively under pressure).
Employers worry that basic social experience in childhood is being lost in a digital age (with its reduction in direct person-to-person contact) and that crowded school and university curricula don’t leave enough space for the development of soft skills. They would also like students to have some preliminary practice with these skills in a context related to their careers before they start on them.
Ways of ‘teaching’ such skills are well established. The best are participation scenarios, where students’ role-play work-related interactions, acquiring experience through gaming and reflection. Other methods use demonstrations of good and poor workplace practice (through short stories or videos for instance), followed by discussion and reflection. But it takes considerable talent to devise these scenarios. There could be an easier way of doing this.
Recent academic work has shown the positive effect of reading literary fiction on general soft skill development among students. This is not surprising since interaction between characters in good literature demonstrates emotional intelligence in action. The use of fiction here could be taken a step further by using profession or trade-specific short stories (or extracts from longer novels) as ready-made material for discussion and analysis for students preparing for specific trades or professions (as it already does, for instance, in medical humanities). While these stories are of course valuable in their own right, they could also have useful educational applications. These are more reasons for valuing work-based stories and for writing more of them.
I have added two new short tales of working life to the stories page of this site:
‘The Health and Safety at Work Act: Reasons to be Grateful’ and ‘The Grasshopper’. I hope any passing readers will enjoy them.
The Guardian Saturday Review started a new weekly column in May, ‘My working day’, where authors talk about the day-to-day business of writing.
It may be modelled on the BBC4 television series, ‘What do artists do all day?’, which title, in turn, probably owes much to the subhead ‘People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do’, of Studs Terkel’s book, Working, from 1974.
Terkel interviewed a variety of blue and white-collar workers about their jobs. He found that even people doing tedious, dangerous, or difficult work found it provided them with a framework of meaning and a degree of personal satisfaction, not least because the jobs were reasonably secure. Similar interviews conducted today, for instance by Joanna Biggs in All Day Long (2015), reveal a bleaker picture because after thirty plus years of global free-market political economy the stuffing has been knocked out of secure jobs, even professional ones.
This narrative of falling job satisfaction might not apply to the creative professions, as they have always been insecure, competitive and dependent on the patronage of wealthy individuals or institutions. Literary authors occupy a halfway house here, their incomes coming from commercial sales of books but their careers subject to gate keeping pressures from publishers, editors and, latterly, agents. Do these new writers’ columns in the Guardian provide some insight into the working lives of authors today? Sadly the answer seems to be ‘no’.
Four of the contributors during May were novelists, Ian Rankin, William Boyd, Rose Tremain and Jonathan Coe. They all concentrate on the everyday business of putting words on paper; their composition styles, writing devices and technology, hours of work, what distracts them and so on, all endlessly fascinating to many readers. We learn that no two writers have the same routine, that few working days for any one author are ever alike, and that writing a novel is one hell of a slog. Ian Rankin can knock out a rough first draft in 27 days but even he finds the pre-conception musing and subsequent research and self-editing far more time consuming. For this group of novelists, finished novels emerge at the rate of about one every two years.
Ironically, despite the diversity of authorial practice they are all doing exactly the same thing, sometimes putting longhand words on paper first but ultimately communing with their laptops, exactly what most other professional people do all day as well. And these authors are obsessive; they need to write something every day, although whole days devoted to writing are relatively rare. Perhaps only the very young or mentally agile can manage six hours of concentrated word work for days or weeks on end.
These diary-style columns make interesting reading and we voyeuristic readers probably feel we are learning something intimate about the authors and their work. But I think that is an illusion. What really drives the writing life is not the mechanics of getting the words down, but the combination of the mental process and effort in devising and articulating stories (composition), the professional relationships authors have with their publishers, editors and agents, and their personal relationships with friends and family, which provide the raw materials they need to generate plausible (or even truthful) relationships among their fictional characters. Some of our columnists touch on mental process; ‘the inside of my head’ as Rankin calls it, while ‘mysterious’ is Coe’s single word description of composition. That doesn’t take us very far but is hardly surprising. Artists are often unwilling to analyse what they do, frightened that any rational unpacking might destroy their imaginations. And in any case, personal introspection is an unreliable guide to thought or behaviour. All of us reconstruct our memories, framing them in ways that often surprise our friends (or, for the more grandiose amongst us, historians), observers who have an external and possibly more objective view of what makes us tick.
A surer way to understand the whole cloth of authorship, or that of any other creative, technical, or administrative profession, is through biography or fiction. Both formats allow us inside a writer’s head and can explore how the stories he or she constructs depend on their experiences and relationships, while the tensions and connections with the trades around publishing govern their writing careers. This life of writing is already a relatively common theme for novelists to explore, but there is always room for more. Meanwhile, like the BBC’s video diaries of artists, the Guardian’s ‘My working day’ columns provide tantalizing snapshots, but they represent only the small visible tips of the vast submarine icebergs making up the bulk of working life.
I have just visited the Short Story Guide website (http://www.shortstoryguide.com) which collects and collates short stories freely accessible on the web. One category is ‘Short Stories about Work’. About a dozen tales from canonical authors are listed there. The brief plot summaries suggest that most of them are about characters who undertake manual or clerical work and find harshness and disappointment there. There is little focus on the nature of the work itself. There does not seem to be anything about the rewards and disappointments of professional or creative working life. It is stories of these (perhaps) richer lives that might provide rewarding themes embedded in working practice and relationships.