Why do a Creative Writing MA? – Kureishi has a point but so does Winterson

“‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'” So says Hanif Kureishi on the broad subject of creative writing courses. Is he right? Of course he is. He’s also hit on the reason most amateur writers struggle. It’s not that they don’t know what a good story is, either. Anyone who wants to write has at some stage experienced a great story. Are good writing and good story related though? That is  part of the great debate, and something to get straight as you’re trying to decide what to learn and who can best teach you it.

Yes we all love a good story. Many of us would love to write one. And yet fiction publishers tell us that the plot (or at least its outline in the synopsis) is not what sells a novel to them. It’s all about “the writing”, apparently, a piece of advice which allows  more chances of error-in-randomness than any aspirant should have to deal with. If what we’re aiming for is some mysterious creative vibe that comes out of a collection of sentences, then what can we possibly be taught? Isn’t this like charisma, or a gift-of-the-gab, or charm – just something that some people seem to have and all we can do is squat down by the campfire and enjoy. If so this sounds horribly like that “born not made” mantra that keeps the cap-doffing sub-creatives in their place.

On the other hand, is there something that needs to be taught? We know we must read and must mature. But is there something beyond the ongoing life-education of experience and observation and repetition? If so, what? Teaching of any creative pursuit easily descends into “do your stuff” workshops, with an occasional evaluation to help you reconsider your decisions, or help you make some. Typically your next teacher tells you the opposite and you’re left wondering whether there’s any useful consensus  on what the goal is, what good writing is. The infamous Zeitgeist adds to the complications too, some have spotted it, some are riding it and others have had it thrust upon them. Is this teachable? Is it something that emerges from the connectivity of a peer group?  Certainly not a banker for today’s customer-centric students.  Far more awkward to pin down than disciplines with a less labile set of benchmarks.

Francine Prose opens her bestselling Reading Like a Writer with a winning set of statements around just this issue:

…if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for story-telling be taught? then the answer is no… [yet] for any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especial, cut, is essential…A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer (Harper Collins, 2006)

The charisma is important, of course, the life and the verve and the brio. There are some writers who can blast out a word-fuelled high energy fix (Martin Amis perhaps), there are those who keep you  bathed warmly in a drip of avuncular mellowness (Stephen Fry, Malcolm Gladwell do this for me).  But the power of a prose-style does seem sometimes to dominate in ways that are not only unproductive but seem to make of fiction writing something that, at it best, it just shouldn’t be. Certainly doesn’t have to be. And certainly doesn’t have to be for the aspirant amateur.

At what point did we all decide that the magical beauty of the prose and the flair of the conceit was to be focussed upon at the expense of a bazzing good story? Kureishi’s point seems a very good one – if you’re writing a book you should at some level accept your responsibility as a story-teller and judge your success according to this rather than a turn of phrase or sleight of philosophy.

Books and stories go together like some dodgy 1970s cinema couple, Sid James and Hattie Jaques probably. There’s some reason to stay together and indeed they’re often seen together but really both partners want out, and their best friends would rather see them separately.

The problem starts with the Literature bods I guess. Anyone coming through a standard literature system grows up with the kind of books that are nourished by the academy, books that without a supportive academic worship of arcane heroism would surely have died a sad and lonely death. Writers – at least the kind of writers who believe a university system has something unique to offer them – take to writing often without any sense of how stories work. The chances are they spent their uni literature courses talking more about pseudo-psychology, the minds of characters or about various theories that play with narrative subjectivity, time displacement or social history. Does anyone come out of a literature degree thinking about story as a nuts and bolts craft, a sequencing of events, intentions and intensities. Perhaps some, certainly not me, and it doesn’t seem to be what most students  are expecting when they go to university to read books. The great novels didn’t have stories (seems to the wisdom of the post-teen classroom) or at least if the story is what you’re interested in then you’re a pleb or a populist and should be pilloried for not reading deeply or intelligently enough to see beyond the plot you loved so much.

If you want stories, go watch films.

Yes, again our colleagues who are heading for industry professionalism in and around Hollywood, Bollywood or Broadcasting House, they know that story counts. Catch what anyone says when teaching scriptwriting and the fancy dialogues, descriptions and character traits are the lesson after the ones about generating narrative interest, emotional journeys, engaging conflicts and satisfying resolutions. In some writing disciplines, story is the star.

Not in literary fiction on the whole, (prose works that require so much reading for the plot that only a crack team of literacists can find it)

In the same article Jeanette Winterson  backs alternative views of what writing is. Fair enough. Hard perhaps to imagine a successful beat-sheet for a film of Art and Lies, but then the same was said of Tristram Shandy.  Hers is a different idea of what it is to teach writing and if you are lucky enough to have her as a teacher I imagine this is what you’d want from her. As a teacher as well as a writer she is in the business of relationships with language: “My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces. To show them that writing is both bomb and bomb disposal – a necessary shattering of cliche and assumption, and a powerful defusing of the soul-destroying messages of modern life (that nothing matters, nothing changes, money is everything, etc). Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language. The rest is up to them.”

The rest being what?

The argument has come up a number of times. Matt Haig compares teaching writing to teaching a musical instrument, “Like most artforms writing is part instinct and part craft. The craft part is the part that can be taught, and that can make a crucial difference to lots of writers.” That seems to be the rest and what to be fair can be taught, at least well enough to make a difference. We seem perfectly happy that children can be taught to write better. There are grades given and tutors can whack a comment on as to how you might improve. Why not at the super-advanced levels? Do we really get to a stage where no-one can improve? Of course not and this is where Kureishi is called into question. Some believe he sees no value in being taught. If he’s right it’s not because writers can’t get better. Rather, it’s because there’s no point them getting “better”. They need to get luckier if anything, (and lets remember how  Willy Russell beautifully delivers this point in The Wrong Boy.) Yes some lessons or at least some peer interventions can help improve you as a writer, as a life-long learner and as a master craftsperson. But does this help you become a “great writer”. No. And there’s no point thinking that an MA is designed to get you into the shoes of a “great writer.” Great writers are above all lucky buggers.

But then, there’s craft

That craft could be in aspects of rhetoric. It could be in structures. Kureshi’s initial point though seems to be not that studying writing is a waste but that time is wasted over-refining some aspects at the expense of others.

(This makes me marvel again at the insight of Richard Sennet – bring on the craft debate, yes please)

Three aspects of   miniaturism:Again the way we are taught to read as critical, inquiring readers is at the heart of this notion of what we should be doing to become writers of a certain kind – the kind whose books get studied by the academy we guess. Most students are encouraged to think in terms of micro-observation. Can we take apart these twenty sentences, examining each to such an extent it merits its own thesis?

Writing lessons are similar exercises in the micro-climate of fictional prose. The most enjoyable lessons tend to have some writing involved: write for half an hour and then we’ll read and discuss is the classic practice. The stimuli are developed to merit a swift half hour of focussed writing. The output for anthologies  and assessments tend to be short forms whether whole stories or sample sections. Very few educational models give the assessor a novel to read for each student come the summer vac.

Thirdly, we are getting increasingly used to culture in miniature, culture in gobbets. Tweets. Vines. Slogans. Shorts. There is increasing value in the shortest forms and these are made valuable by the exquisite detail of their mechanisms.

Yet we don’t often carry sentences with us, not from fiction. We carry plots, storylines or at least our own pitifully broken version of them. However wrapped in the experience of the prose we have become, what we try to piece back together is regularly to do with the storyline.

Should we be studying “creative writing” or should we be studying “writing” or “rhetoric.” A phrase engineered in the 1930s, “Creative Writing” seems for many to hide rather too many excuses for basic flabbiness.  Creativity offers many things for the intelligent particpant, as Rob Pope brilliantly describes (Creativity: Theory, History, Practice 2005). Nevertheless the primary market for the Creative Writing class seems to have certain expectations, often that there will be a chance to take what they are already determined to write to a level of further appreciation, whether that is among classmates or that coveted public, attained through the shamanic mysteries of the publishing system.

No-one can really believe that their Creative Writing course is a passcode to some sanctum of best-selling success, do they? It’s an extra, something to add to the hours of personal labour. If it is a qualification you’re after then perhaps we should ask  how well it stands up to the range of other MA offers, those to do with history or sociology or media. Is it as valuable as other humanities degrees or does the element of ‘creativity’ make it rather more of an option for the hobbyist than for the ambitious corporate professional? How seriously is it taken in the job market?

While the Creative Writing course may not be the same step for the novelist as a Chartered Accountancy course is for the Accountant, it surely makes its value in looking at literary heritage in new ways, ways that involve intervention and participation at their core, ways that can, at their best make sure that the plotting and the stylistics remain an equal partnership.