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08 Oct 2014 - 04:42:48 pm


"Western literature is being impoverished by financial support for writers and by creative writing programmes, according to a series of blistering comments from Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl, speaking shortly before the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is awarded." 

So declareth a recent article in The Guardian. So sayeth Horace Engdahl. Has he a point? One might argue that a writer with an established record ought reasonably to be supported by his government through the relevant agencies. Then again, such agencies might counter that they wish to encourage new talent, older talents surely being capable of getting by. Few are, however. Ultimately, it's a debate about how one sees literary art - as a marketable commodity? Something for the tourist brochures? A gift of which a nation may be justly proud?

Concerning creative writing courses, however, I would hold that Horace does have a point. There are too many of them, for one thing, and many unfairly offer what it is not in their remit to provide. Nor within their capabilities. Hark back, one might scream - especially those of us of a certain age - to a time when one learned the craft of writing by reading other writers, a time pre-writers' courses, MAs in the same, and so on. How did Dostoievski learn to be a great novelist? Who gave the terrific novel-writing course attended by Tolstoi? Who taught the craft of poetry to Robert Graves? 

Writers' courses, in prose as well as fiction - there are others for drama - are part of the staple of a national literary industry. That industry is governed by publishers, funding agencies and, to a lesser extent, universities and other third-level institutions. Insofar as it is spurred along too readily by the print and broadcast media, it is part of the entertainment industry. In a world dominate by public image and public exposure as the great determinants of success, one lauding interview with a young writer who has just published his or her first collection of poetry or first novel, can mean book-festival appearances, a glut of readings (we always favour the fashionably new) and even book sales far beyond the dreams of a fledgling Turgenev in his day. And if that review is penned by a friend or someone from the same publishing stable, who cares?

So we have this industry, a sort of litporn coagulation on the body cultural, and everyone wants a piece of the action. Creative writing courses would not exist at all were there not a public craving for them. Everyone wants to be a poet, a novelist, if not for the money, then for the adulation. Notions of serving any kind of apprenticeship through years of submitting to and suffering rejection by literary magazines are deemed silly, old-fashioned, behind-the-times. Well, one might shrugfully say, it's their money. 

But it can be dangerous. Harmful. I do so hope that in my own creative writing classes I do not convince anyone in my audience that at their conclusion will come instant publication. Some course-givers do, however, in one manner or other. Some even offer their students readings of their own - thus are the blind thrown into a dark room and told to find the light-switch. Certainly I have engaged in courses where some of the audience wanted first and foremost to know where they'd find an agent or whether I might recommend a good poetry magazine to which they might submit; and this before the first lesson has begun. Once a woman, when asked as a warmer-upper why she had chosen poetry, said, demonstrating with her thumb and forefinger, that poems were small and wouldn't take up much time. Sometimes it is not a good thing for practising poets to give poetry courses. 

In any case, can poetry be taught? No, it cannot. Certain pointers can be given towards what poetry is, the various styles, rhythms, and so on. In the sense that all of this might lead someone towards writing a short poem, that is fine. But you cannot make a poet. Nor should you ever suggest that you can make a poet, or a novelist besides. Witness how many participants of my classes disappear in the first few weeks when exercises are handed out; no time, too complicated, didn't understand it, left it on the 'bus and, most gloriously in one case, the dog ate it. Those who leave might better have taken up knitting. What have they spent the course fees for?

I believe that, encouraged by the chickenpox-rampant rash of 'new' poetry collections, for instance, many are prey to the hungry idea that if Mrs Murphy down the street or Mr Smith over the hill can have a collection of poetry published, then so can they. Some actually would benefit from being instructed on how to keep a diary. What they all seem to have in common is that they never read poetry and many are ready to blame this on their schooldays and lavish doses, imposed, of Worsworth or Keats and Shelley. Yes, it is like blaming one's parents for your unacceptable adult behaviour. Others are addicts of chicklit, that media-grabbing, PR-savvy porridge that is served up instead of better fare, because it's easier to handle in the sound-bite world. 

Unscrupulous course-givers tend almost always to take an easy and sharper route, encouraging less-than-good work because every bum on a seat is worth money and being liked as a teacher is better than being thought élitist, the word used now to ward off all criticisms. Keep 'em laughing and who knows, you'll be asked back again to give a creative writing course. Your flock may even go out and buy one of your own books. Teacher does enjoy being loved, after all.

More seriously and likely in the current fast-food MacLit era, some very bad poetry and other writing will manage to get a platform because it is accessible, very often a descriptor applied to work that is so because it does nothing for us and anyone could write it. It challenges nothing in us, aims us toward nothing. Somewhere out there, though, there is a small local publisher only too willing  - for a modest fee - to publish whole collections of it. Then comes the launching, the photo in the local paper . . . and who dares criticise one's talent after that? Surely it is better to be a fine poet scarcely published, than a bad one published widely?

I'm rather more in favour of the élitists than I let on, at times. I want writing of every stamp to challenge me, test me, educate me. It can only become these things if it has something to say; and that acquires life experience, apart from anything else. I am also of the belief that the writer is merely a conduit for the writing, this being especially true of poetry, and if that conduit is blocked, cracked, or simply not up to scratch to carry the work, it can't be bent into an accomodating shape. No amount of paying fees to have it so bent will suffice. 

But saying these things constitutes a kind of cultural blasphemy in our time. 'Everyone's a poet!' some yell. 'Very well,' I shout back. 'Allow me to perform some intricate brain surgery on you. I am a brain surgeon.' Ah, but people respect brain surgeons. They do not respect poets or poetry, otherwise they would not reduce poetry to a 'small' thing that 'anyone' can do. Is my attitude here any more contentious than that which afflicts those who say anyone can be a poet?

And I do not blame creative writing courses, I blame bad ones. Dishonest ones. Courses that do not respect their subject sufficiently to defend it in front of onslaughts of fashion and a bitter hunger for instant fame. Courses that demean literature in all its forms. Poetry is hard. All serious writing is hard; hard work, time consuming, frustrating, infuriating, glistening with possible disappointment. And thank God or the Muses it is so. 

If anyone could write like Dostoievski, what use would Dostoievski be?



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Comment from: Charlie Adley [ Visitor ]
You can teach people how to use the tools of the craft without making false promises. Obviously talent cannot be taught but it can be nurtured. My courses help people gain confidence, on many levels. There is nothing harmful about them.
   2014-10-11 @ 02:13:42 pm

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