Saturday 21 June 2014

Are creative writing courses a waste of time?

This first appeared in The Bangladesh Daily Star, whose literary pages can be seen here

Hanif Kureishi caused a stir at the Bath Literature Festival by describing creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’. He said that most of his students at Kingston University have no talent, and talent can’t be taught. He gets no marks for tact, but does he have a point?

In recent years in Britain there’s been a huge expansion in university courses in creative writing. It’s no coincidence that this has coincided with a shift from public to private financing of higher education, and the growing pressure to respond to consumer demand. Creative writing is what the customers want. But can the universities deliver on their promise?

Novelist Lucy Ellman thinks not. She used to teach creative writing at the University of Kent, but now describes such courses as ‘the biggest con-job in academia’, suggesting that universities charge fees on false pretences. If people take these courses in the expectation of getting published, many will be disappointed. If they have fame or wealth in mind, they’re almost certainly deluded. But students I talk to often have more modest ambitions. They speak of wanting to improve their writing, or of needing the structure to help them write a story they’ve been thinking about for years.

Asked if he would consider studying creative writing himself if he were starting out now, Kureishi said, ‘No… that would be madness. I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me.’ That’s easier said than done. Most aspiring writers work in isolation, sometimes with no one to consult but family members or friends who mean well but don’t really get what they’re trying to do. You can’t pluck a good teacher out of the air. The university course provides a community of students and teachers who understand the urge to write and respect the struggle to produce good work. 
The defenders of creative writing courses often talk about the elements of craft that can be effectively taught. Novelist Matt Haig says that courses can be ‘very useful, just like music lessons can be useful’.  I understand the temptation to liken this new subject to more established kinds of training, like studying an instrument. But there’s a huge difference. Playing music is a precise discipline. Predictability is an asset. It’s best to start young, and you can’t expect to think about self-expression before you’ve achieved some level of technical mastery. In contrast, people typically take up novel writing in adult life, sometimes in midlife. It’s an activity that springs from individual experience and celebrates personal vision. It’s not a skill that can be acquired in predictable stages. Publishers may value craft, but they continually seek fresh voices. 

To this extent, Kureishi is right to emphasise the importance of individual talent. But, for the very same reason, startlingly good work can sometimes emerge from apparently unpromising students. University courses may not be able to teach people to become writers, but they do provide an environment in which writers can find themselves. 

Friday 13 June 2014

We still don't do God

A humble college lecturer by the name of Dave Brat has just made big political news in America by defeating House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in a Republican primary. Brat took an extreme line on immigration and rode a wave of tea-party anger against the Washington establishment.
We know Dave Brat is humble because he said so. Asked what he attributed his success to, he replied, 'What do I attribute it to? I attribute it to God. I am utterly humbled and thankful. I’m a believer. So I’m humbled that God gave us this win… God acts through people, and God acted through the people on my behalf.'

This kind of religious talk apparently goes down well in conservative circles in Virginia. But even in more northern, more coastal, and more cosmopolitan regions of America, some level of religious faith seems to be a basic requirement for political life, whereas here in Britain the leaders of two of our three major parties currently call themselves atheists, and members of parliament can survive whole careers without having to commit themselves one way or another.

It was Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell who famously said, ‘We don’t do God.’ Far from being a statement of unbelief, this was an attempt to establish a kind of religious ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. If people felt Blair might be dodgy on religion, the fear was that he had too much of it rather than too little. When he was interviewed at length by Jeremy Paxman during the build-up to the Iraq war, one of Blair's most uncomfortable moments was when Paxman asked him whether he and Bush prayed together.

BLAIR: No, we don't pray together Jeremy, no.
PAXMAN: Why do you smile?
BLAIR: Because – why do you ask me the question?

Imagine an American president acting so coy and being made to look so shifty in response to a simple question about religious practice! What Paxman had done, of course, was to evoke an image of inappropriate intimacy between our Prime Minister and the American President, while implying that Blair’s determination to invade Iraq might be based on something other than a rational calculation of costs and benefits. These were the subtexts that made Blair squirm. We really don’t do God.   

Blair’s predecessor, John Major, once went so far as to speak nostalgically of an England of warm beer and village cricket and ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist,’ but he was only quoting Orwell. In one of her more grotesquely unctuous moments, Margaret Thatcher recited a 1912 prayer, which she inaccurately attributed to St Francis of Assisi, about replacing doubt with faith and despair with hope, but she was more in her element berating Anglican bishops for being soft on the poor and praying for the souls of dead Argentinian soldiers. No one really thought she’d got religion.

And no one really thinks David Cameron has got it either, even though he announced over Easter that 'we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.’

Is it just me, or does that ‘frankly’ sound like an awkward clearing of the throat before the scary reference to evangelism? And isn’t there just a hint of embarrassment in the way the indefinite article holds ‘faith’ at arm’s length? And what’s the sentence really about anyway, but getting Tory-like stuff done in the world and having a presence on the international stage, with some vague nod to religion in the middle? But in this country, where we don’t do God, it’s as close to a ringing declaration of belief as a Prime Minister can get.  

And who can doubt that Cameron’s religious revival has been inspired by the surge of support for the UK Independence Party? For the benefit of American readers, I should explain that UKIP is a bit like the tea party, though there are fewer cattle-ranchers armed with assault weapons among its members and more old maids bicycling through the morning mist.

Their leader Nigel Farage has called for a ‘more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage’. I’m not sure bluff, beer-soaked Nige would spot a Judaeo-Christian if it bit him in the leg, but I think he might recognise Dave Brat as the kind of bloke he could have a pint with – as long as Dave stuck to the immigration issue and didn’t go on about God. 

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Still armed, still dangerous

Expressing shock at the killing of six UCSB students in Isla Vista last week, a journalist on MSNBC said, ‘What a combination of anger, firepower and delusion.’

If firepower is only part of the problem it’s clearly the most urgent part, and the part most responsive to public policy. What can you do about an angry deluded man-child with a gun? Take his gun away for a start. Then you might think about diagnosing his psychological condition or exploring how his misogyny and sense of entitlement  may have been fuelled by cultural forces.

But what seems like common sense to most people is heresy to some. 

I’ve posted about the gun lobby before (Armed and dangerous, January 2013). There’s a new device, worn on the wrist like a watch, that allows a weapon to be fired only by its owner, so that a loaded gun found in the house by a child or snatched by an intruder becomes harmless. The people at the National Rifle Association are working hard to keep it off the market. They also object to new technology that could print every bullet, at the moment of firing, with a code unique to the gun that fired it, which would help police to solve violent crimes. 

On the other hand, they have a history of defending plastic assault rifles that could be smuggled past metal detectors, and bullets designed to pierce body armour, and they have no problem with child-friendly weapons made for small hands.  

The NRA is an industry lobby masquerading as a grassroots organisation and too many politicians are scared of it. But big money is only part of its power. You don’t have to dig very deep into online conversations about the Isla Vista shooting to find people who think guns are not the problem but the solution, and who blame California’s gun laws, which are marginally more restrictive than most, for the failure of anyone to gun down the killer. In internet forums the opposing sides face each across a chasm, shouting, ‘Look what your policies have brought us to!’

According to opinion polls, most Americans are persuaded that some minimal measures, such as requiring background checks for all weapon sales, would be a good thing. The gun advocates are not impressed by the evidence for this, or for anything else, because they are not focused on a pragmatic reduction of harm. 

There are two kinds of fundamentalism behind this attitude, each with its sacred text. There’s an apocalyptic kind of Christianity that encourages hostility to social progress, while emphasising personal salvation and self-reliance. And there’s a form of libertarianism that treats the Constitution as Holy Writ, especially the Second Amendment, which the true believers misread to suit their prejudices, being resolutely opposed to anything that would weaken the ability of the private citizen to defend himself against his neighbour or the federal government. 

If unregulated gun ownership is an inalienable right, any inquiry into what happened at Isla Vista must begin and end in Elliot Rodger’s soul, about which nothing can ever be done.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Work in progress

It’s been a while since I posted. But silence doesn’t mean I’ve been doing nothing. Among other things, I’ve been working on a novel. I’ve got about 35,000 words and have reached the stage where I begin to wonder if it’s going where I expected it to, whether the conclusion I vaguely envisaged when I started out is strong enough, and whether I’m giving my protagonist a hard enough time, or giving him sufficient scope to transgress, along the way.

I also face more profound doubts. How can I hope to find another 50,000 words to fulfil the promise of what I’ve done so far? And how much of a promise is that anyway? Is it even a premise? And does anyone apart from me really care whether I finish the book or not?

I read and re-read, trying to be open to the story that’s struggling to emerge. I prune ruthlessly, eradicating jokes, random surprises and other local effects that draw attention to themselves and stall the momentum. I delete modifiers and metaphors, simplify complex sentences, remove words that might send an averagely intelligent reader to the dictionary. I lose half a dozen pages.

I read aloud, listening for an authentic voice (I’ve come to feel more comfortable with first-person narrators who will talk like real people if I can get out of their way). I challenge the other characters to work harder for the space they’re taking up. I interrogate moments of drama and expressions of emotion. Is this the way it would happen? Is this what it would feel like? Is it believable? Is it true? More pages go.

Resisting the temptation to entertain, I push myself to engage readers at a deeper level. My draft begins to grow again.

In the middle of this process I get an email from the literary editor of the Bangladesh Daily Star, who has been given my name by a friend. Would I be willing to write a monthly column of 500 words on any literary topic of my choice? I learn that The Daily Star is Bangladesh’s largest English language newspaper, with a print circulation of 40,000 and a considerably larger reach. I don’t hesitate.  The greatest anxiety for a writer is whether the words will come. The second greatest is whether anyone will read them. The email offers me a potential readership – not for a novel, but for something.

I’ll be posting those pieces here, once they’ve appeared in print– along with other non-literary pieces if I find myself drawn back into the blogging habit. Meanwhile I’ll be pushing forward with the book, submitting myself to the long silence.