Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Worlds Literature Festival 2015:
3. Solitude and the racket

On Wednesday morning the attention turned, as it often does, to Creative Writing (henceforth CW for short) and its place in university. Did this relate directly to reputation or was it something quite separate, an intruder in our menagerie? Jon Cook quoted Malcolm Bradbury on the unlikelihood of transforming small talent to big talent more of establishing a significant climate within which writing in general might prosper.

D J (David) Taylor led the attack via Cyril Connolly’s 1938 book, Enemies of Promise. What Connolly - a “romantic, classicist, sensualist and anti-academic” in David’s words - offered us in his book was mostly a critical view and a personal memoir, but in the middle section of the same book, he examined factors militating against the production of great literature and the writing life proper: these included hack-work, political committment, escapism, the pressure of ‘promise’, sex, domesticity (the famous pram in the hall) and last, and possibly worst of all, success itself.

David invented a family, the Littlejohns, one member of which in an earlier generation wrote neglected books but survived by hackwork. A later, contemporary figure in the same family proceeded from a CW degree to book publication then returned to university to join what David called a racket wherein academics write for each other and lose contact with the greater public. He preferred the earlier generation if only because they did things in the real world, the academic world not being considered real.

Instead of asking questions at this stage, Jon Morley, in the chair, asked Vesna Goldsworthy to respond with her own provocation. Vesna talked of her early youth of writing poetry and of her parents’ determination that she should be a doctor. She studied Comparative Literature instead, but the study of it led her to write less and less as the course went on. Studying literature as a subject of criticism did not make one a writer, she said: vets don’t make jockeys. She referred to Hanif Kureishi’s contemptuous dismissal of CW while teaching it. There were the natural comparison with other Arts subjects such as music and visual art where no-one thought to question the idea of formal, institutional education. Was CW a vocational course that prepared you for the life of a wage-earning writer. Would it help you to succeed, to gain a reputation?” Or was it something else? Was the respectability of academic opinion actually one of the underwriters of reputation, I wondered. Vesna herself did not make too high a claim for institutions and shared a certain wreiterly wariness of them.

In the discussion afterwards Geir Gulliksen suggested that the best a CW course could do was to create good readers, and added that publishing - the field in which he worked - was also a kind of institution. Jonty Driver said he had heard that the Norwegian state bought a thousand copies of all literary books. True, said Geir, the state does intervene to save the literature that it recognizes as literature. Jack Wang has long experience of teaching CW and referred to an essay by Chad Harbach comparing the MFA culture of universities with the NYC culture of writing in a world of publishers. Neither was free of limiting considerations he said but at least the university allowed for experminet and the avant-garde. Ana Clavel talked of the problem of commercialisation in Mexico, Mamta Sagar of the tension between Comparative Literature and straight Literature Departments. James Shea remarked that CW was hardly new since there were ancient schools of haiku in Japan and China and that CW was currently expanding in China and Singapore. Anna Funder wondered how teaching might affect one’s writing while Erica said publishers (and she had worked in publishing) don’t really like CW.  This may be so, I thought, but if they really didn’t like it they wouldn’t be publishing as many graduates as they do.

Lauren K Alleyne commented that institutions bestowed a kind of respectabilty in the eyes of the outside world (as for example in the eyes of her own parents). Kyoko Yoshida had done an MFA course and returned to Japan to find that people back home no idea what that meant. She did however emphasise that there existed in CW an ethical contract that agreed your writing, and desire to write, were legitimate and guaranteed that it would be taken seriously. I suggested that not only had writers always met, albeit informally and without institutions, but that before CW started it had been a matter of luck if you happened to come across senior writers willing to discuss your work in person, I also suggested that teaching was essentially intelligent conversation. Dan - whom I had in fact taught at one time - agreed but rightly pointed out the increasingly high cost of such courses. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett wondered why CW should not be regarded, almost incidentally,  as a kind of vocational training providing transferable skills just as other hiumanities degrees did. You did not necessarily have to become a writer. Thinking and reading were the important things. Amit pointed out that CW classes were the only ones where no one ever bunked off. Students wanted every minute they could get. He also noted a certain tension between literary theory in reading, and reading for literary style. Deborah Smith agreed with Kyoko and imagined CW must be a great deal better than straight English Literature which was a matter of ploughing through work by a lot of dead white men.

Romas Kinka worried about the lack of support and respect for translators. Jack said it was a matter of earning a living. All writers had to do it one way or the other and modern pedagogic practice was far from the racket DJT had called it: it was a profession with high professional standards. Bhavit Mehta surprised us by arguing that there no shrinking readership, that readership was wider than ever, it was just that readers weren’t all reading in hard-copy book form. DJT ended on a different note: that of a necessary solitude. He lamented its loss in the climate of workshops, social media and public forums. The notion of writers not just writing but developing in solitude was, I thought, worth considering.

Note: any name not linked has been linked above in the same post or in a previous post on the festival.

Next day on reputation in India and Lithuania.

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