Friday, March 7, 2014

Hanif Kureishi and Comrade Lenin

Are writers special? Is writing a special talent? Can creative writing be taught?

Ian Jack comments (down below in the article) on HK's comments on the above (in summary they agree: Yes, Yes, and NO, but Jack warns about the downsides of cutting the branch you are sitting upon). 

Hanif Kureishi thinks creative writing courses are a waste of time, which is a dangerous thing to say given that he makes his living (not all of it, but probably more of it than he does from his novels) as a professor of creative writing at Kingston University. Telling a story well took a rare skill, he told an audience at the Bath literary festival last weekend. He estimated that perhaps 0.1% of his students had it. Could it be taught? Kureishi didn't think so. Would he pay money to take an MA in creative writing himself? "No … that would be madness."

We should feel sorry for all concerned: for a university that may consequently face a sharp drop in fee income; for Kureishi's students, who have paid £5,800 each (£12,700 for non-EU citizens) for their professor's useless course; and not least for Kureishi himself, biting the hand that fed him out of a rage (I speculate) that he has to make money in this despicable way.

....But how do you explain the apparently unstoppable growth of a vocational course for a vocation that is being remorselessly de-monetised? When Kureishi started out, the University of East Anglia had Britain's only department of creative writing, which may also have been the only one outside North America. Today no broad-based university would dream of living without one, despite the fact that writing ("literary" and otherwise) earns increasingly little money, if any at all, and we are returning to the time when it was confined as an occupation to those who had private incomes or the patronage of philanthropists and academies.

What tempts students towards such an unfeasible career? A clue lies on Kingston University's website: "A Kingston University creative writing MA graduate has been snapped up in a six-figure deal by one of the world's biggest publishers after her self-published books topped the Kindle download rankings, selling tens of thousands of copies." In other words, like winning the national lottery, it could happen to you.

Workshopping is probably the most hateful feature of writing courses, easily mistaken for an American idea because, like Alcoholics Anonymous, it believes in the benefits of group frankness. In fact, according to a professor of creative writing I once met in Chicago, the practice originated in the early years of Soviet Russia, when Leninists wanted bourgeois activities such as writing to assume the more muscular, proletarian habits of workers' committees. According to my American professor, Lenin found the results hard-going when they were shown to him, and announced a preference for an old favourite, Pushkin. In this, Hanif Kureishi and the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union would have been at one.


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