Hanif Kureishi’s effective admission of being a failed teacher

(Photo linked from the guardian)

The Guardian ran a recent piece on Britain based novelist, and Kingston University writing professor, Hanif Kureishi‘s claim that creative writing courses are a waste of time, and that most of his students are able to write sentences but incapable of telling an actual story. Hence, of course, taking a creative writing class is a waste of time. Writing is, in his view, something one either has or does not have.

(on the side, Hannah Jane Parkinson in her Guardian Books Blog response takes a somewhat different course than I am about to. This is, of course, fine..)

So, here is the irony; what we have is essentially a case of projection. Kureishi, author of The Black Album and My Son the Fanatic, is effectively admitting to being an ineffective teacher. Why call yourself a shitty professor in one of Britain’s most read papers? My mind boggles. This, in effect, makes him sound like a pretentious ass. Given that he is one of Britain’s more talented authors, in his generation at least, this is a bit dreadful.

I think, to some degree, Kureishi may be purposefully exaggerating, for the purpose of being provocative.

Something can be said about the long term value of many creative writing courses, or MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs. Indeed some people have said certain things, some positive and others not so positive, about them. Some people defend both wholeheartedly; and the entire Anglosphere literary establishment more or less requires an MFA for entry.

In reality, though, there have long been multiple routes, formal and informal, through which people learned the craft of writing. There is, moreover, a long history of people tutoring and teaching the craft, and if you look deeply into the biographies of some of our most noted writers in history, there is always a learning phase. Sometimes in Journalism school, sometimes by excessive reading and self-taught practice after such reading, sometimes of course by creative writing classes, or reading and writing circles and groups.

No writer is born knowing craft. Every writer, be it of prose or verse, has to learn the craft of writing. As for storytelling, I couldn’t give a damn about it. Literary writing is far broader than making up fables read by a recondite small circle of literary critics. Let me put it a bit differently; being a good writer and a good storyteller are two separate things. Since I am neither, I feel no compunction regarding pointing this out. I simply have no dog, cock, or monkey in the fight.

What people like Kureishi forget is that the novel’s tyranny as the epitome of literary production is recent. In fact, to snidely plagiarize a turn from Matt Taibbi, one could almost call the novel a vampire squid, sucking with fanged chitin beak the very life out of modern literature. History lesson; at the turn of the 20th century English letters on an academic level had only recently conceded the novel a literary status of serious merit. The greatest novelists of the 19th and 18th centuries were seen, by the literary world’s doyens, much like genre novelists are today. At best, talented but not quite engaged in serious pursuits, say like William Gibson, Anne Rice, Steven King, or even J.A. Konrath (I do put him on the same line, he’s that good actually.) At worst, they saw novelists as hacks who pandered to the marketplace.

Literary fiction was viewed exactly like genre fiction is today. In fact our division between literary fiction and genre fiction is, in itself, a bit recent. It’s roots go back, of course, to the division between primarily market motivated, and artistically motivated, writing that predates even pulp fiction, and goes back to the division between dime novels, and cloth novels (the ancestors of our paperbacks and hardbacks). Of course there were authors who crossed over, just as today paperback editions exist of serious literary fiction.

In reality all of these divisions are contingent, and ignored in practice though not in cant and rhetoric. People read what they enjoy reading, and do not read what they do not enjoy reading, and today’s classics were yesterday’s disposable yarns. Nothing essential changes, only forms and names.

Back then the non-fiction essay and poetry held supreme sway as literary modes of production. To be respected as a literary figure (as modern English readers respect Hanif Kureishi for example) one would not write novels, rather one would write serious essays, critical ones at that (some essayists of course were critics of novels, ironically) and one would write verse. French letters held novelists and the novel in far greater respect, but it was only from the 1880s to the early 19teens that the novel fully emerged as something worthy of not just enjoyment but actual literary respect.

Today we conflate the concept of “writer” and “novelist.” This conflation is even more recent, really not only stemming from after the second World War, but from the late 60s and early 70s. With this in mind Kureishi’s claim should be rephrased. His students are bad fabulists, bad storytellers perhaps, but not bad writers. And frankly since storytelling itself is a craft, or has craft like aspects, that exist independently of the ability to produce good prose (or verse, for as people forget long form storytelling in the form of Romances, Romans, the very ancestors of the novel, were all in verse).

In this light, really, all that Kureishi is claiming is that he’s a bad teacher. This is hardly something one would want to claim in public, unless one was exceedingly honest and blunt. He is being blunt, but he is not being honest. Or, at least, that’s my opinion. Perhaps you disagree.

3 Quotes to Muse Over Today

Three quoted sayings or passages I am contemplating today.

One:
“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” – Niccolò dei Machiavelli

Two:
“…Islam burst forth in the form of an epic: now, a heroic history is written with the sword, and in a religious context the sword assumes a sacred function; combat becomes an ordeal. The genesis of a religion amounts to the creation of a relatively new moral and spiritual type; in Islam, this type consists in the equilibrium — paradoxical from the Christian point of view — between contemplativeness and combativeness, and then between holy poverty and hallowed sexuality.

The Arab — and the man Arabized by Islam — has, so to speak, four poles, namely the desert, the sword, woman and religion. For the contemplative, the four poles become inward: the desert, the sword and woman become so many states or functions of the soul.

On the most general and, a priori, outward level, the sword represents death, the death one deals and the death one risks; its perfume is always present. Woman represents an analogous reciprocity; she is the love one receives and the love one gives, and thus she incarnates all the generous virtues; she compensates for the perfume of death with that of life. The deepest meaning of the sword is that there is no nobility without a renunciation of life, and this is why the initiatory vow of the Sufis — insofar as it relates historically to the “Pact of the Divine Acceptance” (Bay`at ar-Ridwan) — includes the promise to fight to the point of death, bodily in the case of the warrior-martyrs (shahada shuhada’) and spiritual in the case of the dervishes, the “poor” (faqir). The symbiosis of love and death within the framework of poverty and in the face of the Absolute, constitutes all that is essential in Arab nobility, so much so that we do not hesitate to say that here lies the very substance of the Moslem soul of the heroic epoch, a substance that Sufism tends to perpetuate by sublimizing it…” – Frithjof Schuon, in Images of Islam.

Three:
“Our fashion situation reflects our social and economic situation. Clothes have become more like costumes, intended more to hide than reveal who we are, or who we would like to be. An eclectic, basic, affordable style allows the super-rich to conceal their soaring exclusivity and to mimic humble circumstances, while it permits the rapidly contracting classes below them to camouflage their precarious status. The result is a place somewhere in between: a middle-class style without an actual middle class.

Call it the age of inconspicuous consumption, where the dominant style is either a preening or a self-protective understatement.

As some of our best fiction writers have grasped, in this atmosphere of concealment and masquerade, clothes have very nearly ceased to be markers of identity. Perhaps that’s why the craving for self-exposing memoirs has become even stronger than the desire for fiction. We don’t feel we really know anyone until we’ve seen them naked.”
– Lee Siegel, in a New York Times blog 10/7/2013 titled, when clothes no longer make the man.

..sometimes nothing, can be a real cool hand

“sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand…”
“what we have here, is a failure to communicate..”
I was sitting in Sitwell’s Coffeehouse the other day,
Lisa Storie, the owner, installed a TV set a little while ago and permanently tuned it to American Movie Classics. I was initially a bit resistant to its presence, but the thing grew on me after a while. Its effect is subtle. Say, you’re sitting down, talking with a friend, or people watching, or reading; there is a TV set above, silently playing some old arcane movie from decades ago. It is mounted up, above a corner water cooler at a peculiar angle. Always on the peripheral edge of your perception, until you choose to acknowledge it.

In any case, while I was typing up a manuscript I noticed that Cool Hand Luke(1967) was playing. I never saw it before but the film was one of my fathers’ favorites. He was constantly talking about it. You can read about the plot at IMDb, the page for Cool Hand Luke (1967) is pretty interesting. In a way it seemed to sort of serve as a model of masculinity to him. Luke, played by Paul Newman, is a war hero, and inveterate small time crook, a “pretty evil feller”, the type of guy post-war that people begin to look at as scum, can’t find a place in society, turns to crime, a n’er do good type of guy, but not in a vicious way.

HE constantly bucks the authority of the frankly murderous, in a genteel way, good ol boy Warden over Luke’s chain gang. Luke’s insubordination is an expression of a male spirit that refuses to be broken. Luke is a bad guy, like everyone in the gang he’s a bit of a bastard but the viewer is left wondering whose crimes are worse, those of the criminals’, or those of their brutal overseers.

Watching it I quickly realized why the movie was my Dad’s favorite, and why he wanted me to watch the film. Luke was a man who took his cards in life, screwed up the hand he was dealt but it was a meagre hand in any case, he tried, he failed, he accepted it and his lot in life – BUT he refused to be cowed by it. From his standing up to the big syndicate man among the inmates, facing him down in a bare fist boxing match in which he’s beaten almost to death, to taking a dare to eat 50 eggs something “ain’t no many can do” to his daring escapes, his tongue in cheek sending the boys back a photo of him with two hot girls, to his rejection of their idolizing him and his final standdown in an abandoned church, Luke refused to let his spirit be broken. He refused to complain or bitch about his lot, he accepted his mistakes, and refused to ever back down, always wearing a smirk on his face.

Beyond the historical reminder, after all people today have no idea just how brutal chain gangs were. Local legend and talk is full of, in the deep south, accounts of many an unmarked grave, sometimes a mass grave, where a a prisoner or prisoners were more or less extra-judicially executed. Colored prisoners doubtless but also many a white one too. Chain Gang labor really was legal slavery, constitutionally approved. Its’ forgotten that technically the Constitution’s 13th Amendment ended private slavery and slave ownership, penal slavery for convicts technically isn’t unconstitutional… but beyond this Cool Hand Luke is relevant to modern viewers because of its central message; you can be an inveterate fuck-up, a loser, a bastard, a no account man, but you must always, always, be a stand up man. You can make mistakes, but don’t let your spirit get broken.

3 Interesting Things about History, Entertainment, and Class I’m Pondering

Three things have been striking my mind as interesting. One interesting thing about modernity is that the strangest things are inverted. In terms of their roles in historical traditional society, modernity inverts certain forms and patterns. Take one example; contrary to the idea that only women adorn themselves, except a few simpering metrosexuals, when we actually look at history often men have adorned themselves. This is true both east and west, in the global north and south – with some exceptions I admit. In some cases this adornment has been even more than women, and much of it for the purpose of attracting mates.

I find that interesting. Historically Peacocking was a bit of a norm then.

Another thing. Whatever we think today about the harem and polygamous societies (polygynous anyway) and the excessive female seclusion of many past eastern cultures, both Muslim and non-Muslim, something to ponder is that the concept of Harem is more nuanced than usually considered. The word itself – Harem – literally means sacred or hallowed. Hence the three temple complexes of great sanctity in Islam, the Kaaba in Mecca, The Prophetic Mosque in Madina, and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, are all known as the Harems. And the Kaaba itself is draped and veiled in black. It’s also little remembered in contemporary Islam, or in the West, that female veiling was originally a prerogative of elite women.

Free women went veiled, upper status free women typically observed the hijab or purdah, seclusion in the family harem, slave girls could go unveiled and at times even bare breasted. Something very similar was the case in early Rome and Greece for upper class women, in particular the early Romans. This, interestingly enough, was not the case for non-Mediterranean Europeans like Celts and Germans.

I draw no conclusions from any of this but musing over the history is interesting.

A third thing that I find interesting, is that entertainment, particularly Singing, was often admired in the pre-modern world but was typically also lower in status. In particularly singing girls. This was the case for popular entertainers not just in the East, but also in Western Christendom, and pre-Christian Rome. Actors Singers Mimes, all were typically of low status or actually slaves.

In the early modern world, actors and actresses in early Modern England were often not just prostitutes rising up from the poor, but in many ways a successful stage career was – for all intents and purposes – actually a modality of upper strata Prostitution. Put differently, a successful acting career put one in front of the nobility and the actress then had access to sexually service the nobility. Some very successful actresses engaged in general public whoring as well as elite private courtesan work. This was most blatant in the reign of Charles II but it was a constant in Post-Elizabethan modern England until well into the 19th century.

In our modern era, in the origins of Hollywood, this still held true to some degree, for both male and female actors drawn from poor or humble backgrounds, I have no idea what to make of this but I find it, and the origins of modern celebrity culture, very very interesting. In Black America, musical entertainment was one of the very few avenues open to talented Blacks during Jim Crow. The Jazz era created a demimonde in which Blacks were still suppressed and occupying a very low social status but paradoxically gained social access, albeit on a patronizing and highly circumscribed level, to upper class whites and could in many ways benefit their families even with the crushing oppression of a Jim Crow social order in the South, and the more diffuse social racism of the North.

I can think of one major exception – literary entertainment, and in particular poetry. Literary entertainers were often drawn from elite strata, or at least middle social strata. In Christian Europe, and in the Islamic East, likewise in the non-Islamic East, like Confucian and Buddhist China, and Hindu India. Added to this the musical arts most associated with literary expression and performance, or with the Court. This is where we get our Western Classical music. When not performed by higher class artists it at least gave access to the higher classes and the opportunity to move into an ambiguous and highly respective middle strata. Troubadours for example were of noble birth, and certain Filie and Bards in the older Celtic order were of higher rank origins. Those performers who were not initially of higher class could gain intimate access to aristocrats and thus their fortunes and status would rise.

This was the case with very, very, good British actresses between the late 1600’s and early 1800’s as well, and also pay writers and poets of common birth.

Somewhere in all of this are some interesting puzzles to figuring some aspects of our present day class system in America and Britain, I think. It’s at least something I’m finding interesting to think about.

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Novels, Romance, and Romans, oh my !

I’ve long kicked around the idea of writing a novel in Iambic Pentameter, the idea isn’t as nutty as it sounds. For one a few contemporary writers have written verse novels, like the late David Rakoff, whose “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is mostly in anapestic tetrameter, or Vikram Seth, whose novels are infused heavily with verse. His “The Golden Gate” is in iambic pentameter.

The idea seems funny, aren’t poetry and novels supposed to be separate?
Well, ask yourself, why?
Where does this assumption come from? Doubtless, few people in today’s world feel like wading through, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost but at one time verse, and poetry, were the queens of the literary world, both high and low. Broadsheet Ballads were the original English news papers, decades or perhaps even a century before the true rise of gazettes and journals.

Let’s consider this. The prose novel, as we know it today, is a rather new thing.
This is why, in fact, it’s called a novel in english, for it was a new and novel thing. They were also called Romances, a word that only survives today in Bodice and Panty Rippers churned out like candy, and devoured eagerly by educated and accomplished women all around the English speaking world as a naughty or guilty pleasure.

Originally all novels were Romances; or rather I should say and the Romance didn’t just deal with love, it dealt with war, adventures, all sorts of things. This notion survived on a bit even up until the 1960’s and early 70’s. Frank Yerby’s Gothic Romances were very much Male books. They could be read by women, and often were eagerly read by women, but the perspective of the central character was Male. The adventures were rugged, and he didn’t get one girl, rather he typically got two or more, of whom one would either survive (literally, death counts were a bit ghastly in some of these pulp paperback Romances) or be left as the one true love and right choice in the end.

The Romance in English is the Roman in French. The French prose Roman did inspire the first generation of English novelists, along with the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights, which in many ways more or less prefigured and inspired the Fantasy, Weird and Supernatural Tale (Lovecraft, and before him Poe, and even Lord Byron and others going before him were fascinated and heavily influenced by the 1001 Nights..)

Now the original Roman was in verse, they were poems, going back to the Roman de Rou and the Roman de Brut, in the earliest dim echos of Anglo-Norman literature. It is the Roman de Brut, which heavily borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histria Regnum Britannia, which was responsible for popularizing the legend of King Author both among the French and English at the close of the Dark Ages and dawn of the High Middle Ages in the West.

All Romans at that time were poetry, often in an octosyllable meter, though sometimes in Alexandrines, at times rhyming, that new poetic device borrowed from Arab poetry, whose cultural influence gradually wafted North from Andalusia during the time of Muslim rule in Spain. But sometimes eschewing rhyme, Romans were crafted in a sort of blank verse.

A novel in Iambic Pentameter, in a way, is a return back to it’s origins. Or let’s say that stories, rather, narratives, when told in verse, are a return back to the origins of literary storytelling.

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