Monday, 17 March 2014

Monday Musings: Blocking writers

Hanif Kureishi has been in the news for calling creative writing courses a 'waste of time.' Putting aside what an incredibly stupid and insulting thing this is to say when he is paid to teach them, we might get closer to what he meant to say if we look at this earlier article he wrote. In this more measured piece, Kureishi essentially argues that while you can teach plot, structure and character, what you cannot teach are the leaps of imagination performed by truly great writers such as Kafka. Here, I'd have to agree with him. Having no creative writing qualifications myself, I would also agree that it is a concern that an MA on creative writing might be seen as an instant passport to a career as a novelist, or, worse, that novelists have to have MAs in creative writing in the same way that academic historians have to have PhDs. However, apart from these two caveats, I think he is talking total rubbish. Reasons:

1. To get the pettiness out of the way first. Kureishi says that 'A lot of my students just can't tell a story. They can write sentences but they don't know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.' I completely agree that this is an important skill to have. I also totally agree with Kureishi's next statement: ‘They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ Unfortunately, I'm unconvinced that (a) this is a skill that cannot be taught - unlike leaps of the imagination, pace absolutely can be improved by practice and advice, and (b) that Kureishi is actually capable of teaching it, given how much I struggled to get through The Buddha of Suburbia.

2. More important. It may be a bit of a revelation to realise that not all aspiring novelists aspire to be Kafka. Many course participants will be aiming to write genre fiction, or literary fiction that focuses on being enjoyable and interesting rather than intellectually ground-breaking, and that's OK. I enjoy reading such novels and believe they should exist, and I certainly believe you can teach at least some of the skills you need to write them. (I also think there are serious arguments to be had about what types of literary fiction are the most 'valuable', but that's a topic for another time.

3. Can you teach somebody to be Kafka? No, probably not. But as numerous other commentators on this topic have pointed out, a writing course gives students the space, time and motivation to complete a novel. I'm hopefully about to complete a PhD in history. There is no possible way I would have done this project without being enrolled in a PhD course. (And I speak as someone who has written a novel without doing a creative writing MA - I did it during my last year in sixth form and my first two years as an undergraduate, so I'm not saying it can't be done - but I recognise that not everyone goes to university, or has the motivation or time to write around a job, or is writing a novel in their twenties, etc etc…) This article might be interesting in this context, although please ignore the rubbish it talks about millennials.

4. I teach undergraduates history. Can I teach all my undergraduate students to be academic historians? Probably not, and the majority of them probably don't want to be academics anyway. Does that mean my teaching has no value? Hopefully not, because learning history is valuable in itself and they will also learn other skills that they can take with them. What do I think ought to happen to me if I was to insult my students publicly by saying they have no hope of being historians and hence are wasting their time? I'd think I ought to be fired for being a terrible teacher, because teaching is not only about skill but about trust, and the sense that your teacher is on your side. And perhaps that, really, more than the reasons I've given above, is why I'm so angry with Kureishi.

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