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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Down With Creative Writing (Again)


















Writing in P.N. Review on Geoffrey Hill’s inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor Poetry last November, Jeffrey Wainwright notes that:

Hill declared his scepticism towards Creative Writing courses, arguing that if there is someone ‘out there’ working at a pitch equal to the demands set by the history of poetry ‘she will know who she is’ without interference. In a cognate swipe at contemporary hustle and self-inflation, he announced that for the time of his incumbency as Professor of Poetry he would not be using the office to promote his own work in the university by readings or otherwise.

{Ends}

Without going all Diogenes-in-his-barrel over this, the ethics or otherwise of Creative Writing is something I have frequent reason to ponder. When I was a student, and still receiving a fairly Leavisite education, many people feared theory was going to destroy English studies. Theorists would declare Jane Austen were in fact all about the slave trade, lesbianism or the transcendental signifier, no matter what the author may have thought she was doing. How shocking! Whereas nowadays the thought of a postcolonial theorist who still wanted to read Jane Austen rather than take her off the course in favour of (insert name of ignominious stand-in here) will seem almost quaint, in many quarters. Yes, I witnessed my share of scraps and scrapes over the canon back in the 90s, over the emergence of Irish Studies as an academic subject, over whether Camille Paglia had committed a sexual assault on Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and whether seminars on Beowulf should revolve around discussions of Derridean theory (answer: em, no). But what I have seen in more recent times (to hark back to Hill’s comments) is something else entirely: the replacement of the canon by the press release. The important writers are whoever has just won a prize or had a press release sent around about how important they are. Academics become panders, would-be go-betweens for the publishing industry, who – well, as if they care whether their writers have got a creative writing degree or not. Students do not know about literary history because they need not know, because the worldview that informs their courses has dispensed with, eviscerated it. There has to be a right way and a wrong way of doing Creative Writing (and of course there are still some righteous souls to be found, here and there...), but my instinct is that the wrong way has largely won, and what it has led to is not something I recognise as tertiary education, and I heartily wish it would go away and not come back. It is the death of the critical faculties, the death of the mind.

There, off my chest now (this is plenty, this is more than enough...).

11 comments:

ovaut said...

I don't know what I think about creative writing but 'the death of the mind' seems a bit much

puthwuth said...

You'll have to allow for a little hyperbole. But the death of the mind can take many forms, this being one.

P said...

Do you think anything can be done to reverse the situation, or is society completely fucked?

puthwuth said...

What -- I'm expected to know how to fix things now, instead of just sounding off impotently about them? The cheek of it.

And that's quite a step from creative writing programmes to 'society' too.

Let me just limit myself to a few quick suggestions though. Creative Writing should not be a separate subject from English Literature, I believe. People who teach the former should teach the latter too. Creative writing teaching should not be tied to a vocational idea of publication, a goal that university programmes are powerless to deliver in any case. And in the broadest possible sense creative writing teaching should be opposed to the culture of hype, marketing and scam that informs publishing today, instead of an active and enthusiastic part of it, which in all too many cases it is.

sean lysaght said...

I certainly agree that creative writing should not be divorced from English Literature. A few poets circulating freely about the academy might do no harm. Remember, Percy, how coy one had to be about one's poetry, lest it interfere with one's PhD-tenure-track ambitions?

puthwuth said...

It is frankly amazing now to think back on a time, in the recent past, when the orthodoxy was that writing poetry might interfere with one's academic progression. Perhaps it *should* interfere with them, if you're doing it right (shades of George Steiner's ironic, or maybe not so ironic, defence of censorship under Stalin here -- what a tribute to the arts that was...)

Anonymoose said...

Well said that creative writing shouldn't be divorced from the study of English Literature. Creative writing is looked upon as a soft-boiled degree; a preserve of the polytechnics. It's tragic. A lot of skills taught in creative writing are beneficial to a whole host of varying careers. If it were coupled with English Literature then perhaps there'd be less of a stigma around it and an expansion of the mind rather than a death of it. I believe that a lot of young people accept what is given to them by publishers because they lack the insight and the capacity for thought (and arguably, written expression) so that they can form their own opinions.

ragwatercat said...

There's that Eliot essay "The Tradition and the Individual Talent" that argues that you need to know literary history so you know what to model but also what to reject. It seems that contemporary MFA programs churn out poets and fiction writers who are highly accomplished but sound an awful a lot alike because all they read is each other.

ragwatercat said...

There's that Eliot essay "The Tradition and the Individual Talent" that argues that you need to know literary history so you know what to model but also what to reject. It seems that contemporary MFA programs churn out poets and fiction writers who are highly accomplished but sound an awful a lot alike because all they read is each other.

JRed said...

The election of Hill to the Professorship distracts a little from the main issue. Which is that Oxford does not know what the professorship is *for*. And nobody knows what the Laureateship is *for* either. The sad thing is that the two top jobs in British poetry are, essesntially, non-jobs.

Robert K. Walker said...

I climb up onto the roof of my house with a stethoscope and try and discern patterns in the noosphere. Am I doing it right, David? That's how I remember your seminar advice... :/