Writing courses as mental hospitals

The Guardian reports that the playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi recently made a caustic public attack on creative writing courses and programs, describing them as “mental hospitals” in which students are misled into believing that the academic study of writing will “inevitably” result in successful literary careers. No doubt Kureishi is correct that many writing students begin their coursework with unrealistic expectations—and it’s definitely also true that some writing programs are happy to nurture students’ fantasies of bestsellers and Nobel Prizes beyond all reason, just so long as the tuition checks continue to clear.

That said, the sheer vitriol with which Kureishi delivered his assault fascinates me. Not that Kureishi is doing anything unusual here—writers and commentators frequently mount attacks on writing programs and students along these lines, and very often using a similarly abrasive and contemptuous tone. But why is it, exactly, that the idea of creative writing as an academic pursuit brings on this kind of harshly negative response? Very few people seem troubled by the existence of university programs in film and the fine arts—which aren’t any more likely to produce the next Picasso or Hitchcock than a writing program is to nurture a 21st-century Shakespeare. Film, art, and writing programs all graduate their fair share of mediocre (and outright bad) practitioners—as well as the occasional master. So why, then, do creative writing programs get singled out?

I wonder sometimes if underlying this kind of attack there might be some anxiety about the value of literary writing itself. Film is still seen mostly as a mass medium; its extreme popularity guarantees its cultural importance (at least for now). And visual art, in contrast, has long been viewed as belonging almost exclusively in the realm of high culture—it’s supposed to be abstruse and remote, something to be appreciated primarily in museums, in the academy, or on the walls of the homes of the extremely wealthy. Lliterary writing seems to be on its way to a cultural position less like that of film, and more like that of visual art: it’s slowly fading out of the broader popular consciousness and into a the hands of predominately academic and subcultural audiences. An instructive comparison might be the fate of jazz in recent decades: the music still has its core of dedicated fans, as well as some truly remarkable present-day practitioners—but it’s now rarely given any attention at all in the mainstream media, while at the same time it’s become the focus of more and more scholarship and academic programs. Jazz is by no means dead, and neither is literary writing—there’s still vital (even great) work being done in both, and there are still niche audiences that appreciate them.

But if literary fiction is headed for the retirement home of academia and subculture, then it becomes somewhat unclear what its cultural role might (or should) be. Literary writing sets out to be “important,” and its finest practitioners are supposed to be “great.” But if no one’s paying it any attention, it’s understandable that writers and commentators might get a little nervous about their continued claims for the significance and relevance of literary writing. Phenomena like MFA programs and creative writing courses just serve as reminders of how difficult it is for a literary writer to make a living without institutional support; and that institutional support itself suggests that literary writing’s vitality has weakened.

Of course, the nature of the contemporary cultural environment—with its infinite array of forms, genres, styles, and media to choose from—encourages niche-based cultural engagement over mass popularity in any case. Whatever the value of literary writing—or of any kind of artistic expression—it seems increasingly unlikely that it can achieve a truly broad popularity or cultural importance now. If writers and commentators on literary writing continue to hold it to those expectations, they’re bound to be disappointed.

There’s perhaps another (but related) reason why some folks dislike writing programs so intensely: viewing literary writing as embattled, some of its proponents would like to circle the wagons in order to defend its purity and superiority against outside cultural invaders. Literary writing is unpopular, but writing courses, on the other hand, are anything but: MFA programs routinely receive hundreds or even thousands of applications from aspiring writers, and undergraduate creative writing courses tend to fill up quickly. Some of those students aren’t particularly well-read, and have no particular literary ability; others are very knowledgeable and/or talented, but are predominately interested in modes like genre fiction or inspirational poetry. But they do all want to write—much to the frustration of the sometimes narrowly literary-minded writers who teach them. The fact that so many of these hopeful scribblers aren’t particularly interested in literary aesthetics is no doubt galling to many literary writers— and of course if you hold the narrow-minded (and also very much outmoded) idea that the only kind of writing of value is literary writing, then you’re very likely to see much of your students’ work as worthless.

But: so what if writing classes don’t produce many literary greats? Why should that be the point of writing classes? What’s wrong with ordinary people getting a chance to learn how to be better writers and storytellers in some small way? Who cares if, by literary standards, their work is wretched? Isn’t it better to have at least engaged even the worst writer in the process of writing—to have made them think about writing and literature? And isn’t it good to give everyone a chance to raise their voice, knowing that at least a handful of people in a workshop will listen to them? Is there any reason on earth why a writing workshop (or even an MFA program) should be considered a failure if it doesn’t produce a literary master?

The other side of the coin here is that even if most writing students have no particular literary ability, there’s all the same actually a great surfeit of literary talent out there. The literary world tends to elevate a handful of writers to greatness: only so many books can win the National Book Award, and there’s only enough space in The New Yorker or The Paris Review to publish a very small percentage of the good stories and poems that are being written. Even tiny literary journals read by a couple hundred people typically receive thousands of submissions annually—and though no doubt a great deal of that writing isn’t very good, it’s no doubt also true that there’s more worthy work in the slushpile than there will ever be room to print.

The fact of the existence of all of this talent is no doubt also troubling to some writers, editors, critics, and commentators of a particularly elitist bent. An elitist might wonder: who are all these people who think they can write? These masses of uncredentialed unknowns, people who don’t live in New York and don’t know anybody in literary publishing and don’t have an Ivy League degree and don’t have any kind of recognizable pedigree—how dare they put on such airs! The presence of so much talent and good work threatens ideas about canonicity, or about the central importance of a handful of successful contemporary literary stars. It’s hard to do your job as a cultural gatekeeper if you have to admit that there are a dozen or a hundred great stories out there for every one you decide to anoint with your approval.


3 Responses to “Writing courses as mental hospitals”

  1. 1 poetloverrebelspy June 4, 2008 at 9:31 AM

    I read this post yesterday, but this afternoon while doing the dishes a connection popped into place.

    In September I wrote a post about Milan Kundera and his thoughts on the proliferation of publishing entitled, “Blogging, Graphomania, and the Age of Universal Deafness.” Kundera is definitely the type of literary author you refer to, and his criticisms of the popularization of writing are similar to those of Kureishi. You, like Kundera, keep your discussion limited to books (or literary magazines). But how do you see self-publishing — of all forms, but especially blogging — fitting into this criticism and into the overall writing trend?

    I’m forwarding a link to this post to my writer friends at Brood, Bittersweet and Ad Nauseam, because I’m interested in their thoughts on this.

  2. 2 goodreadings June 4, 2008 at 5:05 PM

    In your blog post from September, you quote Kundera:

    For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.”

    This, to me, is no kind of argument against the “taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers…” of the world taking up their pens (or keyboards), but instead a profound reason in favor of them doing so. A writer like Kundera would seem to have no stronger claim to the right to speak against the void than a childbearer or taxi driver or anyone else.

    But: you do raise a very interesting question, in terms of applying Kundera’s ideas to blogging. At present, the WordPress homepage indicates that there are more than 3 million WordPress blogs, and that more than 120,000 posts have been made today. Kundera’s fear of “incomprehension” would seem to be well-justified here: there’s no way anyone could make sense of all those millions of blogs and posts. But I wonder: is this really anything we should worry about? I mean, since when has the world been comprehensible? Unified, broadly-accepted literary canons (and narratives of history) must necessarily depend on simplification—on leaving out some of that complexity in order to tell a single, comprehensible story from a particular point of view.

    So: the blogosphere’s multiplicity of voices seems like a good thing to me, in that it makes us aware of the limits of our storytelling and canon-making, and reminds us that there will always be many stories and many canons.

    But: I haven’t yet really addressed the meat of Kundera’s critique—the idea that in a world where everyone has a voice, no one will ever listen to anyone but themselves. I don’t think this is true with respect to blogs and the internet–many blogs and other sites do not consist of monolithic, individual voices, but rather are lively communities of individuals listening to and responding to one another (via comments, etc.). People do seem to listen to each other on the web—and even better, they’re having conversations.

    I wonder if Kundera’s caught up in print culture expectations here: the sense that literature and ideas ought to be distributed from the relatively few to the many, because that’s the setup that worked best for print technologies.

  1. 1 Canons and Kureishi « Ad Nauseam Trackback on June 9, 2008 at 12:06 PM

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