The trend has been set. Slowly, very slowly, but surely, courses in creative writing are taking the place of courses in literature. Forget English literature, French literature, Oriental literature, comparative literature; critics are not wanted any more, writers are. The word is on the street, and universities, instead of looking inwards, are looking outwards, following populist opinions. (And yes, as Plato said, opinions are gibberish from schoolboys to schoolboys).
In the early noughties, with the explosion of the internet editorial phenomenon, there were more blog writers than blog readers. Everyone had something to say, and having the tools to say it meant an exponential entropic increase of noise; people did not care to read as long as they were writing and being read. Which brings us to the very problem of creative writing, where people are being led to believe that they can write almost without reading.
Biting the hand that feeds you is never a sign of appreciation. However, one should always look at everything with healthy criticism and cynicism, including about oneself. It seems a more or less natural progression from a BA or MA in literature and to an MA in Creative Writing. What does not seem that natural is to start with BA or MA in Creative Writing. Literary studies and creative writing, though within the realm of literature (let’s assume so, otherwise we would have to discuss the concept of literature), are on opposite sides of the spectrum: one is theoretical and the other one is practical.
Theory and practice are things that go together very well. Even in literary studies, students are encouraged to read and then write critical analysis of what they have read, resorting to both academic essays and fiction texts. Creative writing suffers from the predicament of essentially resorting to fiction and drawing its knowledge from it, of severing its bonds with the fields of literary theory and literary studies. Even the critical analysis expected from students is, by and large, structuralist, a theoretical matrix now outdated for over half a century that serves the purpose of teaching of how to write a more readable novel, based on working structures. And what's wrong with that? Nothing, apparently. As Somerset Maugham wrote, “I want to be read and I think I am justified in doing what I can to make my book readable”. The problem is not teaching how to write the best novel one could write, or teaching outdated literary theory. The problem formulated is, in a way, the lack of contextualization, both in theory and in practice.
The notion of creative writing is self explanatory: it's about writing, not about reading. But how can a good writer exist without being first a good reader? Reading is not only adding books to an imaginary list (a double-entry balance sheet with books to read and books read), it is also about gaining depth and breadth of knowledge (this is applicable to both lecturers and students). By emphasising the act of writing over the act of reading, creative writing courses, directly and indirectly, imply that writing is more important than reading and that one can go on to become a writer without being a reader.
If creative writing is to replace literary studies, the reading issue is something that should be addressed quite sternly. Good reading habits are being dismissed in order to make BAs and MAs more accessible and therefore enjoy higher enrolment and success rates. So, who makes the reading lists? That unanswered question brings us to the next set of problems, the lecturers!
Who are the lecturers? Who should the lecturers be?
Creative writing lecturer job advertisements specify that breadth or depth of specialist knowledge in the discipline is required to work within established teaching and research programmes, that skills in the writing and research of fiction and/or creative non fiction are needed, and that a PhD or equivalent qualification is required, where a track record of publication in fiction or creative non fiction is seen as equivalent.
Lecturers are extremely educated people; but in a field where research and education are dismissed in favour of publication, doesn't this mean that universities are putting the choice of their lecturers in the hands of publishers? Doesn't this also mean that the more a person is published, the greater the odds of becoming a creative writing lecturer? Surely many would be reluctant to have Stephanie Meyer or James Patterson as their creative writing lecturers...
Prejudices and value judgements have always been a university rule, they are not exclusive to humanities departments. However, in an English department one cannot dismiss and ignore the work of Jane Austen or William Shakespeare because one doesn't like their ideas, punctuation or style.
The same cannot be said of creative writing: lecturers often allow their personal prejudices to cloud a supposedly unbiased assessment and become as pedestrian as the prose they are supposed to help construct. The lack of theoretical knowledge - because yes, knowing about literature and the theory of literature and reading should be conditions sine qua non for the teaching of creative writing - leads lecturers to make uneducated and moronic assessments of their students' work, which can be extremely damaging at personal, creative and academic levels.
Making the transition from literary studies to creative writing can be both extremely amusing and ludicrous. However, it is also an extremely painful experience. Under the banner of inclusion, universities seem to be dumbing down their programmes and reading lists. Creative writing lecturers often have to settle for the lowest common denominator, sacrificing both their own experience and that of the other students.
Literary fiction (which is now considered a genre amongst crime fiction or chick lit) is frowned upon for being unreadable and intellectually snobbish. One could almost state that there is a movement against experimental and intellectualised fiction. How would a creative writing lecturer assess a Ulysses or a Finnegans Wake? It seems that the writing coming out of creative writing courses is extremely well behaved, middle-class fiction for yummy mummies to read over cappuccinos and babies sleeping in their buggies. There is nothing wrong with that, just as long as there is also room for everything else.
Historically, when the book was the privileged medium, literary studies told us what to read and why. With time, and the inventions of radio, television and the internet, the privileged medium shifted, and will continue to shift, and the role of literary studies also shifted. What are they for? And in the midst of this re-alignment, creative writing courses arrived. And what are they for? What is the difference between them and their predecessors?
The differences are many, and therein lies the hope for both: whereas literary studies are concerned with analysing and studying literature, creative writing is concerned with producing entertainment for the masses and money for the publishers (whose publications will later help choosing the future lecturers in creative writing). Both are more than justified. However, they concern completely different things in the field of the humanities, so if one wants to study literature one must not enrol in creative writing courses, and if one wants to write for others' entertainment, one must make sure not to enrol in literary studies.