One of the unintended consequences of the combination of research assessment exercises and the contemporaneous expansion of Creative Writing in the university sector has been the belated recognition of the research potential – and, indeed, the research function – of creative writing practices. In the last REF there was a significant quantity of practice-based research in various forms submitted to various panels. If REF 2014 (and my experience of reading work for 2021) is anything to go by, the English Language and Literature Panel this time can expect to receive a wide variety of practice-based research ranging from Young Adult Fiction and genre fiction to experimental forms of literary fiction; from conventional page-based poetry to visual and digital poetries, and poetry using performance, video and installation; from stage-play scripts to radio-scripts; and probably forms of writing practice not yet foreseen.
All of these diverse forms are subjected to the same criteria as standard critical works, theoretical work, editions of Shakespeare or Aphra Behn, and contributions to book history or phonetics. The first, basic requirement is that, whatever the form of the output, it has to be a piece of research as defined by the REF. After that the usual criteria of originality, significance and rigour apply – and it is subjected to the same descriptors of generic levels.
Originality might seem to raise particular problems for those submitting creative work. Obviously, in one sense, every piece of creative work is original – in the sense that is has not been simply plagiarised – though conceptual writing which involves the explicit recycling of pre-existing texts raises questions here. Clearly REF requires more than that ‘the output’ is the writer’s own work. The REF 2012 generic description of originality begin by referring to ‘a creative / intellectual advance that makes an important and innovative contribution to understanding and knowledge’. As this suggests, the ‘contribution’ made by creative work has to be of a comparable standard to the contribution made by critical or editorial work. What is foregrounded is the contribution to ‘understanding and knowledge’. Further assistance in interpreting these terms is provided by the examples given: ‘substantive empirical findings, new arguments, interpretations or insights, imaginative scope, assembling of information in an innovative way, development of new theoretical frameworks and conceptual models, innovative methodologies and / or new forms of expression’. It is made clear that this list is illustrative, not exhaustive, but it is sufficiently suggestive for creative writers to understand what ‘originality’ might involve. New ‘interpretations or insights’, for example, might seem readily applicable to works of fiction or poetry. In both cases, we could argue that they are forms of knowledge-production which produce a knowledge that other discursive forms cannot. (The QAA Creative Writing Benchmark Statement, for example, recognises that ‘concrete or sense-based expression can embody more abstract discourse, perceptions and knowledge’.) We then need to be clear, however, what that claimed form of knowledge is. Shakespeare critics would have no difficulty describing the kinds of knowledge which The Merchant of Venice or King Lear produce – and it is very different from the historian’s knowledge-production about trade in Venice or royal succession in early Britain. Equally, generic fiction like Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels are also engaged in knowledge production. That reference to ‘new forms of expression’ also raises the matter of formal or generic innovation – and this can apply to both literary and popular forms. It might include experiments with the form of the sonnet, for example, or Agatha Christie’s generic innovation in Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?.
Significance is described as ‘the enhancement or deserved enhancement of knowledge, thinking, understanding and / or practice’. Once we have decided what kind of knowledge is being produced by a piece of creative work, we can then think how this adds to current knowledge. The key words here are ‘deserved enhancement’. It is not a matter of actual, demonstrable ‘enhancement’ (as evidenced by citations, for example), but, as is often the case (particularly with poetry or literary fiction), rather an originality which deserves to produce such an enhancement. Mendel’s work on pea-plants laid the basis for modern genetics, but it took three decades for the importance of the work to be recognised. As a rough guide, in assessing the quality of such enhancement, we might ask ourselves whether we would include this work on a Master’s course (or in a bibliography for a research student) and would this be essential reading, recommended reading or just ‘a recognised point of reference’.
The descriptors for rigour begin with ‘intellectual coherence, methodological precision and analytic power’. At a basic level, this would exclude incompetent and incoherent work – except where incoherence or, perhaps more accurately, decoherence) is deliberately part of the aesthetic. At a more sophisticated level, this would relate to the writer finding the appropriate formal embodiment for the issues raised or questions addressed. It is harder for a novel or play, for example, to show ‘depth of scholarship’, and this might be seen as an inappropriate expectation. On the other hand, there is a creative writing equivalent: you cannot write a novel in which time runs backward, for example, without being aware that this has been done before. Indeed, the third descriptor, ‘awareness of and appropriate engagement with other relevant work’ is something that is likely to inform creative work, although this awareness might not be made explicit in the work. This is part of what Creative Writing students are taught (and assessed on). The ‘Defining Principles’ of the QAA Creative Writing Subject Benchmark Statement include the requirement that students should ‘acquire knowledge of the contexts of their writing: literary, cultural and personal’.
Finally, in the past, the REF has allowed creative outputs to be accompanied by a short statement. This is not the place for quoting reviews or listing prizes: these are not usually relevant to the REF exercise, which is concerned with research as a ‘contribution to knowledge’. Nor is it the place for the background research into, say, Berlin transport systems, that might have been necessary to move characters around a novel. This is the place, however, to provide the appropriate conceptual frame for the output. What are the research questions with which the work engages? For most creative writers and artists, these questions are not articulated at the start of the project. They might emerge during the creative process. They might become visible only in retrospect – or even only to a third party. However, they provide a vital prompt to the REF panellist about the claimed contribution to knowledge.