This paper responds to some of the major questions Mark McGurl raises about the ‘program era’ of creative writing in his recent major study of the postwar history of creative writing in American higher education. My aim is to bring this history up against the new wave of changes in the contemporary academy signalled by the presence and prevalence of digital media, information technology and virtual environments. A discussion of the future, the shape, and the experience of creative writing in the academy is approached tentatively here through a number of the central antinomies of the discipline. I argue that literary fiction, and modernist aesthetics, are only one, and possibly no longer a central aspect of what ‘creative writing’ might mean. As a consequence, the questions McGurl raises are less meaningful and less urgent than they once were.
Key words: creative writing, creativity, program era, teaching creative writing, MOOC
This paper is a series of responses—founded in my research into the institutional contexts for creativity, and in my experience of teaching creative writing at an Australian university for the past sixteen years—to Mark McGurl’s influential 2009 book, The Program Era. Each of my responses adds to an argument that creative writing is moving into an almost wholly new era, one that significantly departs from assumptions McGurl sees embedded in the history of the ‘program era’. In his 2012 review in the London Review of Books, Frederic Jameson called McGurl’s possibly definitive history of creative writing in the American academy ‘magisterial’.
McGurl’s book outlines the institutional history and wider literary-cultural influence of university-based creative writing programs in America from the 1940s until the present. Even though there are significant differences in the institutional contexts for creative writing in Australia, Britain and the United States, the influence of the United States has been pervasive across these countries. Many broad cultural implications of creative writing in the American academy are mirrored in Australia and Britain, not least among them the paradoxical aura of charisma combined with illegitimacy that writers can experience in the academy, and the continuing reliance on the workshop as the fundamental pedagogical method. In Britain, and in Australia in particular, however, a focus on incorporating creative writing into the research PhD has allowed for theorized, temperamentally progressive and experimental approaches to creative writing inconceivable to the program era described by McGurl (see for instance Krauth 2011). While acknowledging that some of what McGurl describes can be observed in Australian university creative writing departments, I aim to suggest here the ways in which the Australian context allows for developments beyond the values, methods and assumptions of the program era.
Rather than give an introductory summary of McGurl’s book, I will allow the main details of his history, terminology and argument to emerge as I make my responses. It will be enough to summarise here where I think the major shortcoming lies for the view of creative writing McGurl describes. This is not meant as a challenge to McGurl’s historical account, but rather I mean to use the moment of his book as a watershed, a moment for looking to how radically creative writing must now split away from its previous path to change its identity, methods and even its content and ambitions. McGurl’s book, I hold, has been published at a crossroads for creative writing in the academy, because his final view of the discipline as a ‘conservator’ of modernist aesthetic principles will not for much longer be educationally or artistically viable. Creative writing’s future must be, I argue, as an innovator, facilitator and enabler. In particular there is an opportunity for existing creative writing programs to bring their creativity to the possibilities offered by the internet, virtual and digital writing for screens, cross-art writing that involves performance, animation, visual art and video, graphic literature, and even online streamed gaming, which could be the new genre form for contemporary writers beyond the novel, short story and even the graphic novel. In his account McGurl is describing a situation for creative writing that, if it remains as it is, will mean the discipline becomes moribund and ironically enough almost entirely academic.
I am convinced that McGurl’s book is therefore a useful starting point for feeling my way towards reflecting upon the changing place and role of creative writing in the new academy. I do this with a view to identifying future directions for creative writing as a discipline in the new academy’s Arts Faculties in Australia and across the English speaking world, and now moving into Asia (see Disney 2014).
Firstly, then, what is the new academy? The new academy is increasingly virtual and connectivist (Siemens 2009). Given the national and international competitiveness of contemporary universities (particularly through global ranking systems) it is not surprising that many are early adopters of new online educational technologies (Romney and Brueseke 2014). These technologies have the potential to increase student numbers exponentially and increase almost unimaginably the amount of information and data that can included in curricula. The new academy is connected in to a virtual world of information and communication that is volatile, vast and uncertain. It has not yet settled on a business model or a secure set of platforms, so the situation for the new academy is an emerging and sometimes confusing one. It is a fundamentally different context for creative writing from the picture developed in McGurl’s history.
The University of Melbourne in Australia (where I teach, write and research) is adapting to this emerging virtual, digital world. The most spectacular recent manifestation of this arises in the interest and energy being spent upon MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. In 2011, for instance, York University introduced eleven new blended courses (offered partly online via the internet and social media, and partly on campus through face to face teaching). It has planned for 75 more, ranging from first-year to masters-level in 2013-14 (Dehaas 2012: 54-5). York University is not unusual, and the consequences of this system-wide enthusiasm could soon transform universities. Some possible consequences of shifting so much delivery of educational content online could be significantly fewer senior lecturing positions and a growth of lower level tutoring jobs (Wright 2013: 38). It will almost certainly mean fewer large lecture theatres being built on campuses (Dehaas 2012). The advent of MOOCs has added an alarming or exciting dimension to the academy, depending on one’s view. There are already many forms of MOOC, much debate over their significance and educational effectiveness, and no single definition that can encompass them (Liyanagunawardena 2012: 216). In essence, and with some cynicism, Jon Baggaley, British education psychologist, writes that the point of commonality might be that ‘MOOCs tend to be simpler and more impersonal than earlier forms of online education: no teachers, no supervisors, no fees or entry requirements’ (Baggaley 2013: 368). There seems to be a natural fit between the entrepreneurial spirit of the MOOC and that new, ongoing experiment led by Britain’s conservative government aimed at commodifying and commercialising tertiary education as a retail business (see Brown 2013; McGettigan 2013). In accord with the new start-up spirit of retail education, outsourcing businesses acting as proprietary providers of multimedia MOOC materials are fast appearing. Udacity was formed by a Stanford Professor in February 2012, Coursera in April 2012 by two other Stanford computing professors, edX in May 2012 by Harvard and MIT. In Australia, the University of Melbourne is the first to adopt the Coursera model. With 10 subjects on offer, over 600 lectures videoed and more than 214,000 students enrolled, it looks to be an immediate and spectacular success, though one with no clear business plan (Learning Environments University of Melbourne 2013), and with the usual low completion rates of less than 20% (Baggaley 2013: 372). This new academy is upon us, and what it promises is not only a shift towards education via online and social media modes, but constant change in curriculum content and pedagogical practices driven by information technology.
Creative writing in the academy will not be immune to these changes. Its challenge in fact is to engage with them from the beginning rather than resist them as unworthy of a discipline committed to text on the page. In my case, I have worked with a colleague to develop a new hybrid short fiction subject with a ‘flipped’ classroom, where all lectures are delivered as online packages, all reading is online, exams and assignments are online, and face-to-face teaching happens only after students have engaged with the content of online lectures and reading material. This has been a learning experience for us, for in the process of re-designing this subject we have found that we are re-defining the meaning of not only the lecture, but short fiction to include graphic fiction and possibly other forms (MacFarlane and Brophy 2015). We have not, however, committed to the larger and almost completely automated model of the MOOC. Part of a discipline’s engagement with the new technologies must be a critical and sceptical attitude, a hands-on informed intimacy with the technology, and clarity about the core educational and research objectives of the discipline.
Creative writing can only survive and thrive if committed to being open to the risks of engagement with the new academy, including the new enthusiasm for encounters with a commercial, public world outside the academy, and to going with students into those areas of textual, linguistic and narrative creativity that excite them. The future is, perhaps, with new, unrecognisable works such as the text, audio, and animation visual game, Gone Home (Gaynor 2013), a streamed narrative that unfolds through environmental and audio clues as ‘you’, a young woman, arrive home in 1995 after a year overseas to find your family house deserted and an enigmatic note from your sister pinned to the door. Gone Home was developed by three young game designers who call themselves writers.
McGurl’s overview of the history of creative writing, particularly fiction writing, in American universities provides an articulation of a now rapidly fading rationale for the discipline, and reviewing this can provide an understanding of how major the changes coming upon creative writing might be.
In articulating the assumptions and values of creative writing as a discipline, McGurl sometimes identifies strengths and at other times seem to be pointing out critical weaknesses for creative writing in the academy. When he states that ‘the writing program [his term for the phenomenon of tertiary creative writing courses, mostly postgraduate] has generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with tremendous energy—and at times great brilliance—by a vast range of writers who have also been students and teachers’ (Preface ix), he seems to be pointing to a system that has been intellectually and artistically open as waves of change have moved through the (American and hence the Western) cultural world of the past sixty years.
But when he also states that ‘the overriding problem for postwar American fiction has been how to adapt modernist principles of writing, developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries well outside the academy, to a literary field increasingly dominated by bureaucratic institutions of higher education’ (Preface x), he is pointing to the limitations creative writing faces if it is to survive within the highly proscribed and bureaucratised system of academic education. He is also pointing to another delimiting factor for postwar creative writing programs: they were formed within and they were committed to a limited range of modernist aesthetic principles. ‘For better or worse, colleges and universities are now the central conservators of modernist literary values as such, and they are where most “serious writers” (of which there is now an oversupply) and “serious readers” (of which there can never be enough) are trained’ (Preface x). In the context of the fragility and the tensions McGurl sees, this is a useful description of the starting point from which creative writing now must find ways to engage with the new academy.
If Creative Writing programs are the conservators of a late modernism, the values they adhere to are those encapsulated in a handful of slogans associated with excellence in the craft of writing: show don’t tell, write what you know, and find your voice (summarised in McGurl 23), including the possibly contradictory advice to perfect a free indirect style via a relatively absent, Jamesian author, and more lately to be alive to the possibilities of reflexive turns or metafictional manoeuvres. These are the techniques of literary fiction that still produce extraordinary books, but they are not absolute values, nor are they necessarily central to the full range of writing that students now wish to explore in contemporary creative writing departments.
The question for creative writing departments is whether they opt to conserve a set of standards and methods adapted to the late twentieth century, and proven to be the basis for instilling a rigorous aesthetic that can produce brilliant works, or whether they acknowledge and engage with internet-based technologies that will force a reconsideration of the meaning of creative writing—a riskier path, but I argue one that is essential if creative writing is to remain a contemporary force as a discipline.
In focusing his history upon the production of fiction out of writing programs, McGurl has failed to give due notice to the reach of creative writing into investigative journalism, creative non-fiction, scriptwriting, short fiction and experimental writing including conceptual writing, verse novels, the personal essay, YA fiction, children’s books, performance poetry, web poetry, autobiography, memoir, and more lately graphic fiction—even in the United States. The American Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) for instance provides an online guide to programs in the United States under ten headings for interested applicants: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, literary translation, professional writing, criticism and theory, writing for children, screenwriting, playwriting, and popular/genre fiction. It is perhaps in this—the range of new kinds of creative writing being taught and developed—that the antipodean version of the discipline is distinctive. Students enrol in large numbers in creative writing courses not always in order to write fiction, but even the fiction-writing students now ask for courses in genre forms—those para-literary or sub-literary forms of fiction that rely on telling rather than showing, writing about what we can never know, and adopting either a voiceless prose, or a facility with voice that re-directs notions of authenticity. McGurl’s characterisation of Creative Writing programs as conservators of modernist values holds a truth but it is perhaps one that carries particular descriptive power in the United States where the relatively anti-intellectual MFA was for many decades the terminal creative writing award, unlike Australia, New Zealand and the UK where the PhD and Doctorate of Creative Arts have had more dominant ambitions (Krauth 2005).
Every academic discipline, especially in the humanities, faces its own antinomies over defining the nature and the boundaries of what goes by its name. Philosophy, history, linguistics, literature, neuroscience and physics all blend into each other and lean upon each other at certain points, and yet we seem to ‘know’ how essentially separate these disciplines are. The divisions of disciplines in our higher education institutions are a cultural and historical x-ray image. They reveal the assumptions by which we think, live and work, the divisions by which we make sense of the world. We know that in the future the landscapes or townships of disciplines will be differently organised, with new ones we cannot yet imagine and old ones discarded or transformed.
Creative writing, as a relatively new and still emerging discipline, is acutely aware of the historical nature of institutionalised knowledge, the interdisciplinary nature of any new discipline, and the hard work involved in shaping the cultural event of writing creatively while fitting in with the bureaucratic demands of curriculum guidelines, quality frameworks, labyrinths of committees, schools, departments, faculties, and government research policies. Some of the lasting antinomies the discipline of creative writing has faced can be summarised by the following ensemble of related questions, which are pursued up to a certain point in McGurl’s book. I do not wish to deal with each of them exhaustively here (each would be its own book and lengthy research project), nor take issue with McGurl’s version of history, but I wish to highlight some responses and reflections to the questions that help us see more clearly that some of these questions now make little sense, and their apparent urgency has disappeared once we focus upon how creative writing can develop, change and transform in the near future.
CAN, OR SHOULD, CREATIVITY BE TAUGHT?
McGurl identifies this as a lasting issue for postwar creative writing programs in the USA. He contextualises the predicament by emphasising the difficulty faced by figures of institutional authority when they ask for originality:
…the paradox of conventional unconventionality is only intensified when it is narrowed to the specific issue of formal instruction in literary creativity, where the essence of the thing taught is understood to be originality. How can the teacher give instruction in this area without falsifying it from the beginning? (93)
McGurl writes that creative writing has been ‘haunted’ by this question. How can it, in academic settings, avoid becoming normalised and routinised as yet another Ideological State Apparatus (to adopt Althusser’s term)? Against such paralyzing doubt there is, firstly, the fact of students’ apparently insatiable demand for courses in creative writing. Contemporary students at least have no doubt that this is one of the disciplines and opportunities they want from an Arts and Humanities education.
‘Creativity’, the term at the heart of this question, is a marketing term, a neurological phenomenon, a fundamental aim of education, a subjective judgment, a set of psychological traits, a marker of significant intelligence, a gift, a set of trainable skills, a theological concept, a philosophical puzzle, a mystery (Koestler 1964, Simonton 2004 and Pope 2005 are three landmark studies that go a long way to uncovering and historicising the myriad meanings of the term). Creativity becomes multiple, subjective, political and elusive once we try to define it, and whatever research is conducted into creativity depends for the value of its results on the adequacy of its definition of creativity. To use the term as if we all know what it means is rhetorically seductive but does not bring us close to what really matters about the idea.
If, in addition, meaningful creativity is by definition a rare event characterised by novelty and recognised value (Gow 2014: 15), then the teachers of creative writing are free to leave creativity, as it were, to its own devices, and focus their efforts on education in history (informed thinking), critical thinking (theory), craft, design and the gaining of experience in producing (creative) writing.
In a recent diary entry in the London Review of Books, novelist Ben Lerner has pointed to another aspect of creativity that offers it as an unreachable benchmark for writers. Once one begins writing ambitiously and seriously (no insurance against writing badly), there must be, implicitly, Lerner argues, ‘an ideal of perfection’. Any actual poem then written, for example, provides at best ‘a necessarily limited glimmer of poetic potentiality’ (42). In other words, the more ambitious we are, and the more earnest and subtle we become in trying to understand the ideals we aim for, the more clear it is that writers will inevitably fail (to be as creative as they set out to be). As teachers and promoters of our writing departments, can we afford to let prospective students know that if we are serious, we will be teaching them to fail (better and better)? The point here is to recognise that creativity cannot be delivered and packaged in curriculum modules.
In this view, the above question becomes a non-question. We might foster, encourage, or make creativity possible in this discipline as in all disciplines, but we cannot pretending to teach it. This does not make creativity less important or central to creative writing, but it does allow realism and honesty back into the curriculum and the promises made to students.
CAN, OR SHOULD CREATIVE WRITING BE INSTITUTIONALISED?
This related question continues the theme of the outsider becoming an insider. McGurl writes perceptively of the situation from the teacher’s viewpoint, and then most interestingly from the viewpoint of the student:
The many repetitive rituals of the educational institution—the cycles through which it daily, weekly, semesterly turns—can seem to be for its inhabitants, a form of circular movement around prison walls, a laborious frenzy of going nowhere …. This way of viewing the school is perhaps especially open to the teachers and administrators who work there, since what is for students a transcendental ceremony of departure towards a ‘limitless’ future—graduation—is for the more permanent inmates just another appointment on the calendar. (173).
There is no immediate solution here, but equally it is not always clear exactly where the contradictions lie. Writers are transforming the academy even while the academy works to constrain them. The new academy is also finding that its commitment to meeting the outside world on its commercial and cultural terms is eased and progressed by the presence of writers who attend public festivals, launch books, publish reviews, speak on radio and YouTube, visit schools and become involved in grassroots writers associations or little magazines and web sites. Writers are more than useful to the new, engaged face of the contemporary academy, by just doing what they have always done.
Another perspective on this is to note that there has not been a successful art form that has not allied itself with the largest and most powerful institutions, be they imperial, political, religious or economic. We have the artworks of the renaissance and the baroque Italian masterpieces only because of the patronage of powerful elements in the Catholic Church, and powerful families of wealth. Similarly today the institutional collections of banks, mining companies and multinational corporations are crucial in continuing to make the making of art viable for artists. Given the importance of text to tertiary education in the humanities, it is not surprising that creative writing has found an institutional home in the academy, uneasy though it might sometimes be.
This too, then, turns out to be a non-question. There is no ideal world where writers remain pure enough to be free of institutional and commercial alliances. The real questions relate to what kind of alliances and arrangements might be the most fruitful for all involved.
HAVE CREATIVE WRITING PROGRAMS HOMOGENISED LITERARY FICTION?
McGurl recounts developments in creative writing programs as new generations, new writers and new critical-cultural-theoretical movements swept through both society and the academy over the past sixty years. From the dominance of a Jamesian free indirect discipline, we move via Wayne Booth’s 1961 classic, Rhetoric of Fiction, to the writers whose commitment was to voice and self-expression (Ken Kesey the leader here), then on to the meta-storytelling of the those influenced by poststructuralist and early postmodern sensibilities (Barthelme, Nabokov, Roth and others). His account of the postwar history of creative writing becomes a broad cultural history of America via its fiction. In the later part of the twentieth century there was the rise of a new minimalist version of modernism’s show-don’t-tell technique, focused upon lower middle class America, not necessarily confined to the Carver country of the Pacific Northwest but ‘stretching to encompass almost any overtly ordinary, obscurely hurtful American place’ (McGurl 279). This was the prose championed by Gordon Lish, a behaviourist-trained teacher of grammar before he became, through his work with Raymond Carver, an editor, writer, and teacher of creative writing himself. This aesthetic became prevalent in creative writing workshops through the decades of the late twentieth century. John Barth has objected to the dominance of this late version of modernism by remarking that this ‘Dick-and-Jane prose tends to be emotionally and intellectually poorer than Henry James prose’ (71). Bharati Mukherjee, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1988, articulated the immigrant writer’s suspicions of such minimalism: ‘I feel that minimalism disguises a dangerous social agenda … it speaks in whispers to the initiated. As a newcomer, I can feel its chill, as though it were designed to keep out anyone with too much story to tell’ (quoted in McGurl 375). For McGurl this minimalism is at least an achievable craft for the student who wishes to avoid at all costs the experience of public shame (295). Craft thus dominates creative writing programs through Carver’s resurrection of Hemingway, and John Gardner and Richard Ford’s championing of the relevance of this new, modest, morally toughened fiction. The problem with Carver, as the critic John Aldridge puts it, is that when students are encouraged to follow the path of the master, it is a path of ‘extremely modest intention’ (quoted in McGurl 311). McGurl identifies this as the ‘corporate style of the creative writing program’ (297).
McGurl is careful, however, not to condemn the aesthetic poverty of creative writing programs outright, for he is wanting to show his reader that more is always going on, that ‘American gigantism’, for instance—Joyce Carol Oates being emblematic of writers with Chekhovian sized outputs (295)—survives despite the seductions of minimalism and its easy marriage with workshop dynamics. In Australian creative writing academic circles, we can appeal to the unusually prolific and ubiquitous presences of, for instance, John Kinsella and Ouyang Yu as evidence that our own academically protected versions of gigantism escape the possible corporate style.
In Australia more is always going on as well. Paul Dawson (2008) has bemoaned the influence of the workshop in encouraging the production of safe, unadventurous, minimalist creative writing, while pointing at the same time to possibly narrowly bureaucratic conceptions of practice-led research in the pursuit of institutional legitimacy (and research funds). There are always complex and sometimes contradictory demands and ambitions for creative writing in the academy, perhaps especially in Australia where creative writing programs are no longer so closely tied to English departments. If there was a moment when a homogenised modernism seemed dominant, just as there was a moment when critical theory seemed to be taking all before it in the humanities, I am arguing here that cross-art effects and other new opportunities opened up by the internet and information technology are now bringing creative writing towards an acceptance that there cannot be only one way for a writer to be excellent, or creative.
The question seems to be one that was relevant briefly, but its relevance and urgency have quickly dissolved under the forces present in the new academy.
DO CREATIVE WRITING TEACHERS NEED TO BE WRITERS THEMSELVES?
McGurl’s title for his book, ‘The Program Era’, derives in part from the move away from charismatic schools of aesthetic change to the more democratic assumption that anyone who wants to be a writer can expect to join a writing ‘program’ in higher education and thus develop the necessary skills. This shift coincided with a mid to late twentieth century massive rise in the proportion of young people attending higher education institutions, an increasing interest in continuing education, and the growing prevalence of the ideal of universal access to higher education. If anyone can study creative writing, then perhaps almost anyone can teach creative writing. Do we need actual writers with actual publications and public profiles to be the teachers? McGurl quotes the observation of Jay McInernay, Carver’s student, on Carver’s apparent bemusement at finding himself a teacher: ‘I think he [Carver] believed it a peculiar fate that led him to be a teacher. He thought it strange that so many American writers supported themselves by teaching. On the other hand, he thought it was better than sweeping floor or pumping gas, which he had done in the past’ (quoted in McGurl 281). In a Paris Review interview with Elizabeth Spires, Elizabeth Bishop, another writer-turned-teacher, remarked, ‘I don’t believe in teaching poetry at all, but that’s what they want one to do. You see so many poems every week, you just lose all sense of judgment’ (Bishop). She went on to observe that by teaching she overcame her shyness and learned to become aggressive, as all teachers eventually do. Such responses to finding oneself, unprepared, teaching one’s craft to bedazzled students, are in stark contrast to the kinds of essays and reflections on teaching and the craft of writing produced in Australia by J. M. Coetzee, Nicholas Jose, Brian Castro, Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville to name only a few of the Australian writers who are now teaching and supervising tertiary students. Again, we have entered a new era, where the writers themselves are often PhD graduands, serious researchers, and as serious about teaching as they are about writing. The question might have been important when some writers were plucked from their fame and placed, unprepared, in front of students who, the institutions hoped, thought they were being privileged with a connection to the mysteries of creativity. Students very well know, I suggest, when they have a famous dud in front of them in a classroom.
In my experience as a supervisor of PhD students at the University of Melbourne, it is not unusual now to find that at the end of the research foundation a PhD constitutes, a graduate publishes their creative work with a commercial publisher and then goes on to enrol in a teaching course as the next logical step towards a career in the new academy.
Again, the question matters less than it once did. The situation is more complicated that the question implies, and students are in any case often exposed to a range of teachers and supervisors across the course of a degree, graduate or postgraduate.
DO WE TEACH AN ART OR A CRAFT, AND WHO KNOWS BEST WHAT WORKS?
These topics keep driving us to the question of quality. There is always ambition to be the best, but the best at what, and who is to judge this ‘best’, and upon what criteria are the judgments made in a discipline as vague in its aims, and as interdisciplinary as creative writing? If a modernist notion of literary excellence is the ultimate benchmark for a creative writing program, then the answer to the boundaries between high and low art, success and failure, and who are the arbiters of taste are either pre-determined or never addressed. McGurl sees this limitation at work in the present state of creative writing in America: ‘The all but complete aversion to genre fiction in the creative writing program is incomprehensible except as an artifact of the lingering pre-postmodernism of the program and the larger world it inhabits, in which a concept of autonomous aesthetic value continues to circulate promiscuously’ (McGurl 329). This is the creative writing program as conservator of a fixed set of values, in this instance values that became fixed in the mid to late twentieth century, we might say at the height of realism’s hold on fiction, though just as it was being leavened by a postmodern turn. In my previous reference to the online AWP guide to writing programs, I pointed out that there were ten headings under types of writing offered in these programs. Digging a little further, the number of programs offering ‘genre or popular’ fiction is less than ten per cent of the number of programs offered in ‘fiction’ or ‘poetry’, an indication that McGurl’s description of the state of play in American writing programs could be accurate, for the time being.
The question of whether we teach an art or a craft when we teach creative writing is similar to the question of whether we teach creativity or a set of trainable skills, as discussed briefly above. If a craft is a set of definable skills linked to a tradition, a culture, a system of patronage and a state of technology, then inevitably craft is an important aspect of what any serious creative writing programs engage in. If the most ambitious aim, to produce the rare and ground breaking work, the strange and beautiful work, the unpredictable and powerful work, is included in a program’s aims, then more unruly and difficult questions must be allowed in, addressed, debated, teased out. Pragmatically, this becomes a question of how sophisticated is the approach to teaching, I suggest.
Teachers in creative writing programs are now more likely to be familiar with theories of teaching that offer them the choice of working as authoritarian figures, expert figures or democratic facilitators, employing teacher-centred or student-centred classrooms methods (Ramsdem 2003; Conti 2004). The best of them, I suggest, aim to show students that they too have choices available to them, and choices they must eventually make in committing to any particular notion of excellence, for practice is always located in a time and place. These teachers know what Richard Sennett has articulated in his strangely wonderful 2008 book, The Craftsman, and what Donna Tartt has depicted in her recent third novel, The Goldfinch (a novel that is at times about the difficult question of quality in both art and craft). This teacher is interested in how we make questions of quality a matter of public discussion without pre-empting the conclusions of the discussion. This teacher is interested in how an idea (or a value, an ideal) might start out as a sketchy thing, and how its development might be bent as much by the talent as by the limitations of writer and material, how looseness and play are as important to any project as obsession and perfectionism, and how the work is part of an ongoing discussion not only about quality, but about why quality might be important to us. In Donna Tartt’s novel, this teacher is the character Hobie (James Hobart), and eventually it is the role adopted by the narrating central character, Theo Decker.
The non-answer then to the above question that suggests a division where there isn’t one, is that we teach both art and craft, because we must. There is no necessary division between them, and we are part of a developing historical and public discussion over questions of excellence.
CREATIVE WRITING: AN AMERICAN PHENOMENON?
I am following McGurl now as he asks his ‘loaded’ final question, mainly because it seems to matter in the context of his history: ‘Is the creative writing program an exceptionally American phenomenon?’ (361). From our antipodean position, it is clear that creative writing has a peculiar and particular shape and history in the USA, but it is not so clear whether creative writing as we experience it is a close version of the American phenomenon.
The relation of creative writing to the academy in Australia, in Britain and in New Zealand is currently exemplified, I believe, by the two significantly online open access refereed journals, TEXT and New Writing. Each of these gives weight to an assumption that creative writing and teaching creative writing constitute an open-ended research project that must be debated into the future as the discipline transforms and keeps transforming.
McGurl’s recent history has been useful because it marks perhaps not so much a crossroad as the end of a certain road. ‘Writing’ in the modernist sense of that term as McGurl describes it, turns out to be only one way of writing.
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