Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

"The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else" by Michelene Wandor (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

The title refers to her opinion that while literary theory was diminishing authors, aspiring writers were bursting up in Creative Writing courses. She writes that

  • "Creative Writing (CW) is one of the success stories of the late twentieth century in the UK", p.1
  • "an academic success it certainly is, and will continue to be, for many of the right reasons , as well as many of the wrong ones", p.223
  • "If CW were to disappear tomorrow, it would make no difference to literature, though it would affect the bank balances of many writer-teachers", p.228
  • "I am completely convinced that 'creative' (i.e. imaginative) writing can be taught, and can be productive and exciting for teachers and students. However, I am equally passionately convinced that it needs to be historicised, theorised, problematised, and finally, reconceived", p.4

She charts the history of Eng Lit as a degree subject. In the UK there were many precursors and catalysts - Mutual Improvement Societies; Working Men's libraries; Workers' Educational Association; University Extension movement; Child-centred education; community arts; literacy movements; counter-cultural developments and new technology. Furthermore, "during the 1960s and 1970s, notions of 'play' and 'creativity' took on more politicised and adult lifestyle resonances", p.91, and new universities who couldn't compete with existing ones on standard subjects tried new ones. Support and resistance came from various angles

  • "The origins of the subject, from lower down the educational, class and gender scales, were used to diminish its [Eng Lits] value", p.32
  • "Anne Cluysenaar found there was support from people with a Classics background 'because they knew about rhetoric', and from 'people like engineers, who thought, how can you study a subject without learning how to do it'", p.14

Eventually things took off

  • In the US: Myers claimed that 'the true beginnings of creative writing' date from later in the 1880s, when Barrett Wendell ran a course in 'advanced composition' at Harvard. The term "Writers Workshop" first appeared in Iowa University's Catalogue in 1939. By 1970, there were 44 pgrad CW courses. By 2000 there were over 300, according to Myers.
  • In the UK: the 1st Oxford Eng Lit degree was in 1893; the 1st Cambridge Eng Lit degree was 1917 (it ditched philology); the 1st UEA CW MA was in 1970; the 1st full ugrad CW degree was at Middlesex Univ in 1990. Now "With a gender ratio that appears to be stuck at 3:1 in favour of women ... English literature at BA level remains a white, middle class and female subject" (Knights and Thurgar-Dawson, "Active Reading", Continuum, 2006, p.15).

Though the US provided models for UK developments, there were significant differences

  • "The very fact of English studies' greater radicalism in the UK was ironically partly responsible for jettisoning what might have become a basis for developing some form of curricular-centred writing instruction", p.82
  • "In nineteenth-century America, English as a university subject retained its ties with Rhetoric (from Classics) more closely than it did in the UK", p.34
  • "The link with Rhetoric and Composition from its beginnings is the crucial divider between English in the US and in the UK", p.35

She's not keen on some aspects of CW courses

  • "In today's 'how-to' CW books, there is an uncomfortable slide from the unteachable genius to the teaching of imaginative writing as - in effect - a form of therapy. The tone of many books is uncomfortably patronising, using a form of address which is very similar to registers appropriate for talking to very young children", p.117
  • "This chapter [on Workshops] has elaborated on the pedagogical implications of the irreconcible conflict at the heart of the Romantic/therapy axis. The conflictual models are shoe-horned into a pedagogic practice which renders the workshop as a House of Correction, built round re-writing, rather than writing", p.131

She dislikes "CW's persistent hostility to, and rejection of, anything remotely resembling historical, critical and theoretical study" (p.224) and thinks that "for imaginative writing to be taught effectively, teachers and students need to make a decisive break with the impossible ideology of CW as caught in the double bind of the Romantic/therapy axis" (p.174). She'd like to see more theory and more careful assessment (she doesn't see useful models in the other performing arts - she's been a music student too). She feels that students should produce finished works rather than synopses and journals.

But most of all she thinks that "The workshop must go" (p.221). It doesn't fit the pedagogy; it emphasises re-writing rather than writing; it doesn't model the publishing process; lecturers shouldn't be umpires or therapists; students shouldn't be coerced into personal revelation or forced into a game of the "survival of the fittest student through the hard cop/soft cop scourges of the workshop". "Genuine learning takes place as a result of doing something properly, and gaining experience of how to do it ... If the stress is always on what is wrong, as most CW literature proudly vaunts of the workshop method" then many of the aims are unvalidated.

I can see how workshops can be abused both by teachers and students, but sensibly managed their advantages surely outweigh their disadvantages. Texts are hard to evaluate objectively, so it's useful for the writer to learn how to manage a range of responses. It's also likely that they've been protected from harsh criticism in the past. Perhaps the author's disappointment needn't be transformed into humiliation by the workshop context, but in many other disciplines (football, etc) evaluation isn't always private.

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