The business of universities: a work of fiction

What is a university today?

This –

hallowed halls

or this –

business

Hallowed halls or a corporation? Ivory towers or big business?

Yes, these days a university is both and I was part of that transformation of higher education from the 1980’s to 2007 and as a consultant in Asia and Europe until 2013.

Since I left full time university life, starting out as a lowly fixed term lecturer, later as a professor, Faculty Dean, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Director of various public and private companies linked with universities, I have wanted to write a novel about the massive challenges taking place in universities in the Anglo world and increasingly in Europe and Asia with the decline of government funding, the growth of ‘user pays’ and the treatment of education as a private rather than public good within a broader neo-liberal philosophy where the market rules.

Until now I remained too close to the subject to be able to write a fictional account of the challenges and dilemmas facing Australian universities in particular as governments reduced funding and universities were forced to become entrepreneurial, business oriented and market driven. I rode that wave for 20 years and think I left just in time with a sliver of my soul intact.

My story? A prestigious Australian university has failed to adapt and faces funding shortfalls and the loss of key academic staff and research areas unless it can access external funding fast and lots of it. A Chinese businessman needs to move assets overseas, fast and lots of it. A match made in heaven or is life never this simple?

5,000 words written and loving it – oh and if you’re reading this, you may be in it …

Writing from trauma

I am taking a break from my novel set on the Camino. The ms was never intended to be autobiographical though it drew on my experiences and encounters walking across France on the Via Podiensis and across Spain on the Camino and drew on a personal interest in dying with dignity and assisted suicide. Not to mention experiences of madness and death and all the other stuff of everyday life.

It was not until I received editorial feedback praising some parts of the ms and criticising others, that I realised how intensely personal and introspective the novel had become. It seems astonishing now that I never realised how entrapped I was in old wounds/traumas and their working out in fiction.

So I am putting the ms aside for a year to gain distance and perspective, maybe to undertake workshops on writing about the past. The novel, I repeat, is not ‘my story’ per se and is not a memoir except in a psychological and existential way I was too blind to see until I was poked in the eye from editors. While I let it lie for a year, I am contemplating attending ‘memoir writing’ workshops to learn skills of perspective and especially of extracting the universal from the personal.

In case you think you’re now safe from my scribbling, not at all.

I have begun writing a novel about universities and commercialisation, a topic dear to my heart for 10 years. See my next blog post for further information.

Decisions …

I described in my previous post the response of an editor to my novel ms set on the Camino. That person believes it can work well as a travel narrative and currently does not work as fiction, essentially being too introspective, intense and ‘Gothic’. I accept much of her criticism, albeit surprised she detested sections of my novel which published authors [not editors or agents] have praised in writing workshops. Fair enough, opinions differ and this editor is a professional whose assessment I should take seriously before deciding on my next step. After all, this is my first attempt at writing fiction.

But…

At a book launch last week, an acquaintance [a highly successful fiction writer] asked after my Camino ms, I summarised the opinion and after prodding, revealed the identity of the person. Her response – ‘Oh, everyone knows x never likes that stuff! X always goes for -‘. Followed by first rate gossip and a faint glow of affirmation on my part.

Alright, nothing new, nothing to be seen here, move along please. Publishers have preferences and profiles, make decisions good and bad and their worst mistakes become the stuff of folklore and we wannabe writers have a good laugh. I am not kidding myself, I know my ms needs more work. The frustration is receiving such contradictory feedback.

What next?

Revise my novel ms? No, I need to leave it for minimum six months to gain some distance from it.

Write a Camino travel book? Nope, the world has enough.

Start a new blog devoted to the people – fascinating, mad, appealing, romantic, annoying – whom I have encountered on various pilgrimage paths? Yes. Watch this space.

Write a university novel? I have had a story in mind for some years and maybe now I have the perspective to write it after four years out of the game. Again, watch this space.

 

A surprising response from an editor

Six weeks ago I sent my novel ms to 3 publishers. I had low expectations of success given the small number of novels published annually in Australia and the tidal wave of unsolicited manuscript submissions washing up weekly on editors’ desks. Nor did I expect any feedback since publishers’ websites sternly enjoin ‘no feedback will be given’ and ‘silence equals rejection’. Let’s add the fact that I had no idea if my writing was good, bad or ho hum who cares?

Imagine my surprise to receive feedback from one editor . Alas, not feedback saying this is the most brilliant piece we have ever seen and we’re publishing it unchanged in a print run of 1,000,000, film rights already being auctioned. Quite the opposite. As a work of fiction it requires more work and they are not interested. So far, so depressing. I keep reading.

They love the ‘compelling sense of place’ and the ‘very strong travel narrative’ – you may recall my story is set on the Camino in Spain and France – and suggest I focus on that in the short term, perhaps placing articles in travel magazines, perhaps as a stand alone travel book. Well, knock me down with the proverbial feather. I love quality travel narrative ranging from the classics of the 19th and early 20th century to contemporary travellers/commentators/writers and am no snob who believes fiction is inherently superior to travel narratives.

Anyway, it is early days and only 3 publishers, however, it does give me food for thought [sorry for the unimaginative cliché] as this blog began life as a story of hiking and writing and maybe that will be my path again after a detour into the land of fiction. Not that I am giving up on fiction, perhaps this story needs a breather though. It is my first effort, I have learned a lot and cliché alert number two, you have to know when to hold and when to fold.

I have experienced three dramatic turns in my life in the last year and this could be number four.

Watch this space…

 

An island stroll

Tomorrow I fly to Adelaide to commence a 6 day hike on Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third largest island, situated off the South Australian Coast and fronting the Great Southern Ocean.

It is a gentle walk, the longest day is only 18 kilometres and not at all like the long walks I have done and have planned.

But…

Staying in a lighthouse – yes

44_Cape_du_Couedic_Lighthouse_Kangaroo_Island_reg

Staying in lighthouse cottages – yes

Mingling with penguins, sea-lions, goannas, kangaroos, echidnas etc – yes

sea lions

Seeing rare Australian native birds – yes

Spectacular cliff top walks and scenery – yes

cape borda

Wandering in the sunshine – yes.

The stars at night, crystal clear far from city pollution, peering into infinity – yes.

‘What’s not to like’, as we say down under [and possibly elsewhere].

In the meantime I continue to ponder doing the Via Francigena in 2016, a hike of 950 kilometres from Saint Bernard’s Pass to Rome. I have learned that the Pope has declared 2016 a jubilee year for the Catholic Church.

I have zero interest in religion, however, I am informed that the jubilee year declaration will lead to an influx of people/pilgrims to Italy [and higher prices] and the last thing I want is to be surrounded by hordes of people!

I know that the Camino Frances becomes even more crowded in jubilee years.

What do readers know of the possible impact of a jubilee year on the Via Francigena?

If I decide that the Via Francigena is ‘off’ for 2016, there are other enticing possibilities – the 88 temples pilgrimage in Japan, Jakobsweg in Switzerland/France and the temptation of hiking  in Scotland, about which I have heard so much.

I could do the first half of the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Saint Bernard’s Pass, but that one is less appealing. Mind you, it would certainly be solitary!

Either way I shall continue to learn Italian, a beautiful language and a fun class even if I do not walk there next year.

First world problems, I know.

When the past walks in your front door

It has been a dramatic few months. It is a cliché to say that we can never truly escape the past, but you don’t expect it to enter your house. Literally. This is what happened to me.

This is not a confessional, gut-spill post, not my style, however I can tell you it was a shock and it got a lot worse in the following days and weeks and I was obliged to face memories and issues long buried [deliberately or simply the passage of time]. Mainly good old repression…

Let’s move to the good news. The situation is resolved and digging up and discussing memories and emotions has been ‘good for me’ as they say. No, seriously, it has been good for me – not like dad giving me a smack around the ear being ‘good for me’. It has shifted a truck load of crap.

And so to my novel writing with apologies for my long silence on this blog – did you miss me? Correct answer is ‘yes’.

So, I pitched to 3 publishers and duly submitted 3 chapters as requested. I have heard nothing from the 2 big publishers = rejection I presume, whereas a small local publisher expressed interest and wanted to see the complete manuscript. This was good news and I went back to my ms and read it AND HATED IT. I had not written for 2+ months [other matters more pressing], nor looked at it. Like my PhD long ago; when I submitted I thought it was the best I could do. Six months later I thought it was rubbish.

I decided not to submit my ms to the publisher because I know I can do much better and this is the point where the past hitting me in the face [like a clown throwing a pie] met the present and opened up new possibilities.

A few days ago I began a total re-write. Not a re-draft, completely new. Writing in the first person, which I have not done before, to give more impact and immediacy. I feel that my writing is freer, stronger, less restrained and going into places where previously I had not dared and for which I lacked the skill.

Yes, confronting what I thought was ‘all in the past’ – as if – has been good for me and I’m optimistic it will be good for my writing.

Ever onwards and upwards!