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.