"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Necessary Evil

The last several posts have denoted a void for members or aspiring members, of the literary circle and this one introduces a diversion: writing competitions. Are they the necessary evils to propel awareness into our society and create a workable market and solution around the problem?

As a rule, I don't like competitions. I think a piece of writing is largely subjective and open to interpretation by its readers, and as such, can it really be judged and not only judged, but (horror of horrors) compared? But then, we subconsciously do it all the time when we compare one book with the other, one author with another, one genre with another. So my rules should be discarded, shouldn't they?

Writing competitions are, like other literary pursuits in this country, a forgotten breed. That when they do arise, they bring a wealth of submissions denotes a promising thing: there are aspiring writers in this country, or at the very least, earnest amateurs. One noted example is the recent Young Writers' Competition on Women in Pakistan held by the Heinrich Boll Foundation in conjunction with the Goethe Institut, Karachi and Oxford University Press. Out of 600 submissions, the top 20 writers were selected by a panel of literary heavyweights to participate in a workshop held at the Heinrich Boll Foundation, Lahore to prepare their texts for publication by OUP on International Women's Day. This is the first serious venture taken in Pakistan, exclusively for young writers. Now that's promising. One can only hope, this is one step in a continuing series of right steps.

Now of course, there have been other competitions open to Pakistani writers in the past, most notably the Commonwealth Writing Competition, but those are almost entirely for school going young adults, and don't cater for the 18-30 year olds that form a key subset of the current population.

The Young Writers Competition provided a good approach - there were cash prizes for the monetary inclined and the chance to pursue a workshop under the guidance of a published author - for the more serious writers, and of course the chance to see their work in print. My advice would be for more competitions of this kind and to open up a realm of mainstream literary journals to encourage writing and publication. Because if the only option for publication for serious writers is still Jang's Us - Magazine for the Youth in five years - I'll jump off a cliff.

Giving examples of either the US or the UK is laughable, because those two countries are far ahead of us in every mainstream field, and it goes without saying that they're beyond us in this one as well. One of the reasons for that of course, isn't just the lack of competitions, but the lack of understanding that writing and literary pursuits are not derogatory and nor should they be made to be. There are a handful of universities offering liberal arts degrees, and good ones. Most recently, Beaconhouse National University opened its doors to providing a solid, decent experience with an excellent staff of teachers. This information is still unverified, since time and chance hasn't allowed me to take a look at their campus, although I have been to their website (http://www.bnu.edu.pk). Among its notable features is the MA in English Literature which provides workshops by established Pakistani authors, which needless to say, is an excellent thing! It's a marvelous step in the right direction.

Now all we need are more universities who offer their students a rich, diverse literary experience and an environment to really dive into, and we're all set.

Another consideration is the art of teaching creative writing, which brings me to Creative Writing programs, most notably the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing which is becoming a craze for the younger generation of writers, with particular reference to local authors because of a lack of opportunities here. In my next post, I hope to discuss whether pursuit of this program is the most lucrative option available, whether writing can be taught, and just what the MFA experience offers.

Till then...

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