The North London Literary Festival gives students real-world experience of working with publishers, agents and prize-winning authors.
Not long ago, says Josie Barnard, writers considered literary festivals an "optional extra". No one assumed a writer should be able to stand up and talk about their craft: the job was a solitary one, untroubled by the internet or worries about how to promote an e-book. Now Britain has around 300 literary festivals. For most writers, they are an essential way of establishing a relationship with readers. That's why, when Barnard rejoined Middlesex University last year as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing with Journalism, she made the University's North London Literary Festival a centrepiece of her students' work. "The changing role of literary festivals in the publishing industry has been under-explored in the academy," Barnard says. Two recent papers by Barnard on the literary festival as pedagogy, one at a Leisure Studies Association seminar and one at the National Association of Writers in Education annual conference, tackle exactly that.
She supervised every aspect of the 2013 festival, which was the biggest and most ambitious yet. "We decided to showcase the fact that creative writing is part of the Media Department at a time when the digital revolution means everything is changing," Barnard explains.
Rather than simply inviting high-profile speakers - though there were plenty of those, including former Middlesex students – she and the students introduced a host of participatory events. The Middlesex Quad was the scene of a speed pitch in which students had two minutes to sell their ideas to a prominent literary agent. A Faber editor advised on how to get published and poet Laura Hird held a masterclass. An MA student created the festival's app, and another wrote it. Students set up the festival's website and published the brochure. At the event, as in her fiction and her teaching, Barnard found the boundaries between the creative and the critical breaking down.
She had recently decided to experiment with using Twitter in her creative writing classes, both as a novel way of responding to a text and as a means of overcoming the terror of the blank page. "Twitter helps them see the value of working to say what you want to say in the simplest, most direct way possible," says Barnard in her 2013 paper, Tweets from the Classroom. Initially, some students were reluctant to use Twitter for work: they saw it as a private medium. But they, and Barnard, came to realize its creative potential and the way it could help them develop an identity that would make their work more marketable. The "Wall of Twiction" became part of the 2013 Festival, with visitors telling stories in fewer than 140 characters.
The festival reflected Middlesex's ambitions for its students - not merely to stimulate their creativity and hone their skills, but to get them noticed. Barnard's exceptionally broad professional experience, and her commitment to reflective practice-focused research in creative writing, makes her the ideal programme leader for the university's new MA/PGDip in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice. She has published a Betty Trask Award-winning novel, is the author of the non-fiction volume The Book of Friendship (Virago), has worked as an editor and journalist and produced radio programmes for the BBC. What will distinguish Middlesex's new MA, she says, is its pragmatic approach. "We're positioning people to be published, but also addressing ways to provide transferable skills and enable them to earn a living from writing... I really relish the mix."