A review of Review of Researching Creative Writing by Jen Webb

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Researching Creative Writing
by Jen Webb
Creative Writing Studies – an imprint of Frontinus
Hardback, 271pp, 2015, ISBN: 9781907076374

For those of us who are writer-researchers, this is an essential book, full of valuable and useful information. It is well organised, clearly written, and often led me off to other authors and their work, such as Milan Kundera and Ezra Pound. However, this is not surprising given the experience of Jen Webb, who is a Distinguished Professor, Creative Practice, at the University of Canberra, as well as the author of poetry, short stories, introductory texts on cultural theorists such as Bourdieu and Foucault, and many other works.

The book is divided into three main sections after the introduction: ‘Designing the research’, ‘Doing research’, and ‘From materials to published work’. There is an extensive reference list and glossary, as well as an index. Webb states in the introduction that her book is about what research is, what it might mean for creative writers, and how they might work as researchers in the process of working as writers.

As a creative writer and researcher (doing a PhD consisting of a memoir and exegesis), I appreciate the clarification of what doing research as a creative writer means, and how it can enrich the process of writing. Webb outlines the three requirements for a research project—the question, the context, and the methods—and notes that they emerge in the process of making creative work (30) or sometimes the project or question emerges from the literature review (31).

Webb takes the reader through constructing the research question, stating its five requirements of clarity, relevance, novelty, researchability, and achievability, giving examples and discussion. More challenging, but equally well explained, are the epistemological preliminaries: axiology (ethical dimensions of research work), ontology (nature of being), and epistemology (study of knowledge). The sources of knowledge are four-fold, being intuition, authority, logic, and empiricism. The author discusses the two main research paradigms of quantitative and qualitative. All of this is clearly set out, with examples and references.

The chapter on the craft of research explains the framework for selecting methods and designing the project and the principles that can be applied to ensure it is useful and valid (74). Ezra Pound and TS Eliot are discussed as ‘generators of transformative practice’ with reference to their works ‘The serious artist’ (1913) and ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ (1919) respectively (78). The author also discusses Milan Kundera’s assertion, in his book of essays The curtain (2007), that Henry Fielding established a methodological framework for novels, that he was a researcher as well as a novelist; that is, he wanted to find out something as well as tell a story (79). All of this is explored under the title ‘The jumping-off point’, indicating in an easily indentifiable manner what every writer-researcher does in the beginning. The discussion of how authors such as Fielding, Eliot, and Pound can be thought of as researchers as well as writers, seeking knowledge through their writing of creative work, gives a refreshing way of thinking about research and about writing creatively.

The three types of research—pure, applied, and action—are also joined, for writer-researchers using what Graeme Sullivan calls ‘imaginative research’, by the non-linearity of the practice. What this means is that there is no necessary cause and effect as in conventional research (85). Webb quotes Kate Grenville in a way which neatly reflects this: ‘The great power of fiction is that it’s not an argument: it’s a world’ (96).

In the second major section, ‘Doing research’, Webb proceeds through writing as research, and how the technical and aesthetic aspects of creative writing can be used in the pursuit of the research question (104), discussing creativity, method, fields of practice, logics of practice, and ways of making. Here she details reflective practice as described by Donald Schön and Michael Polanyi, and writing as a space for thinking. The ethics of research, referring to the other people involved in the project, is given detailed attention.

Research and the environment refers to good intellectual habits (care, attention, reflexive thought, etc) and the research approaches of phenomenology, proprioception, and participant observation.

The third part of the book, ‘From materials to the published work’, addresses managing the material and writing and telling (publishing throughout the research project), including the issues of who are the audience for your research. There is a wonderful quotation from Roland Barthes, ‘Writing makes knowledge festive’ (209), which needs to be remembered by every writer-researcher!

This is a book that has the potential to help creative writers ‘make knowledge festive’ in the process of creating their research projects. It is structured logically so as to make for optimal comprehension. It is superbly written and gives exciting examples of writers and books that illustrate the process of researching creative writing and writing as research. A book to which I shall refer repeatedly and which I highly recommend not only for tertiary students doing higher research degrees, or academics, but for all writers interested in research as part of the process of their practice.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane.