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.
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...).