I found this article by Jane Sullivan interesting because the argument she has discussed is the same used for other creative professions. Are institutions ‘killing’ the creative mind? How so I ask? And if creativity (in writing) cannot be nurtured through mentoring, writers’ grants nor creative writing workshops – what are we suppose to do?..Quit?
Having said that, aren’t we (bloggers) all lucky that we could write stories here on WordPress for free in our own genres, languages etc and build our own readership without worrying about whether someone reads the stories or not?
Turning Pages: Is criticism of creative-writing courses justified?
There’s a scene in the Simon Pegg TV sitcom Spaced when a writer is kicked off the dole and has to get a job washing dishes. She complains to the manager: “But this isn’t me. I’m a writer.” The manager replies: “Oh, everyone who works here is a writer, dear.”
They used to make that joke about actors. Now it’s writers. Not that it’s new, exactly. Writers have always taken pride in listing menial and bizarre jobs on their book cover bios, and have taken comfort in the thought they were following in the footsteps of Hemingway and Beckett. A full-time writer is still quite a rare beast, and is usually a writer of books for children, or of books in a highly commercial genre.
So why is a Nobel Prize for Literature judge, no less, complaining about the rather meagre and intermittent help writers can get from institutions? You’d think Horace Engdahl would be totally in favour of writers’ grants and creative-writing programs to nurture talent and to supplement what are usually very modest incomes.
But no, he thinks they are impoverishing Western literature. Just before the Nobel team announced that the 2014 prize had gone to the French author Patrick Modiano, Engdahl told the French newspaper La Croix that “professionalisation” of the writer’s career is having a negative effect: “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions.” He cited writers including Samuel Beckett, who had to work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living.
Engdahl’s comments were reported in The Guardian, which drew some miffed responses from writers (one of them mentioned the Spaced scene). They just don’t view their lives as he does.
Most writers still take the Beckett route, combining paid work with writing in their spare time, and most don’t get any other income until they are published. Grants are still few and far between, last for a few months at most, are always under threat of cutbacks, and the competition for them is intense.
There’s always someone ready to rail against literary grants as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Creative-writing programs are similarly under siege. Although they have grown at a huge rate, they are as vulnerable as any section of academia to cutbacks, and they regularly get attacked.
Writers and teachers themselves have joined the offensive. The British novelist Hanif Kureishi has denounced creative-writing courses as a waste of time, even though he teaches one himself, at Kingston University. He complained “99.9 per cent” of his students were not talented, and many of them couldn’t tell a story. Lucy Ellman has agreed with him, calling creative-writing courses “the biggest con-job in academia”.
It’s true most creative-writing students will not end up in full-time careers as published writers (though they might well end up working in the publishing industry). They may not have the talent; they may not have the right teachers; almost certainly they won’t have the fanatical determination that is necessary. But it’s a huge jump from there to assert that all courses are a waste of time, or a con-job, or part of a “professionalisation” that diminishes literature.
Writing is a vocation that attracts a huge number of beginners; very few stay the course. Those who stay need all the help they can get. And the charge that a bit of intermittent assistance from a creative-writing course or a grant will put them out of touch with society seems out of touch with reality.
October 25, 2014