Friday, September 24, 2010
'Get a Real Degree'
Long essay by Elif Batuman on creative writing in the current LRB. I teach a little creative writing, occasionally, but still enough to recognise the truth of much of what she says, even if her focus is chiefly on the States. Among her more salient charges: the kind of writer produced by MFA programmes gives the appearance of having been ‘tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition’; programmes are conducted in ‘a knowledge vacuum’; their culture of worthiness and identity politics replaces the ‘books I would want to read [with] rich, multifaceted explorations whose “amazing audacity” I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk’; they struggle with the inherently ‘elitist and impractical’ nature of literary writing, which ‘doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims’ and appears ‘narcissistic and wasteful’; its identity politics are all-too-close to those of the comic website Stuff White People Like (Being an Expert on YOUR Culture, Being the Only White Person Around, Religions Their Parents Don’t Belong To – you get the idea); they fetishize creativity in an a-historical, post-Romantic way (to Dr Johnson God created and writers produced); they prize good at the expense of great writing (the good is the enemy of the great). She ends:
Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.
Some random questions that occur to me from my own experience of teaching the subject:
How much literature (a teacher of creative writing might ask him or herself) do I teach? A lot/some/none? Is that my job? If not why not?
How comparatively interesting do I find canonical literature and creative writing?
How many books on my reading list are non-contemporary? How many are pre-1900?
Is the reading list for my short story/poetry/whatever module comprehensive/patchy/totally random?
How many students on this creative writing module about the short story/poetry/whatever could write an essay on the short story/poetry/whatever for the ‘straight’ academic module on that subject? How many would want to? How much of a problem is it if the answer to both these questions is ‘few’?
I wonder. What is the best defence or justification of creative writing teaching (if there is one)?