Tuesday, 24 February 2009

'Miffy, Muffy, Tufty.'

A.L. Kennedy's new series on becoming a Writer.

I've a lot of time for A.L. Her novels aren't exactly wheel-inventing, but they're funny, compassionate, and well-observed (long-time readers will appreciate how odd it is for me to use these the last two of these words non-pejoratively.) Once again, though, this is the media playing up the cult of the Writer whilst laying the blame for a diminishing 'national literary culture' - who does she think she is? Sandor Petőfi? - on anyone but Writers themselves. This is a fallacy that benefits nobody but the nouveaux mandarins behind the now-global industry in postgraduate creative writing courses. But, A.L., isn't it often the case that these courses, which, whilst not exactly promising, intimate the enhanced likelihood of publishing contracts and/ or the representation of agents at their conclusion, reveal cohort after cohort of 'Miffys', 'Muffys', and 'Tuftys'? I know you're guaranteed to meet a grizzled, alcoholic ex-miner on every single CW course, but they usually soon become a totem for an authenticity which is subsequently, miraculously, distributed through and across the group. CW courses are full of people who are used to being told that they are relatively talented writers, because they are, who then choose to ignore the relatively part and decide that they don't need to graft to make it better. Unless 'grafting' means spending hours in a bar, talking not about books by other people, but by the minutiae of motivation and 'inhabitation' of voices as it pertains to their own work.

So many CW enrollees I have met read works of literature in a purely cannibalistic manner, looking to see what devices could give their projects a shot in the arm. Form becomes the instrument of a commercially-viable 'novelty', vis-a-vis the appropriation of people like Georges Perec and Harry Mathews to the ever-proliferating mass of CW coursebooks. To me, this is not an example of literature being regarded in good faith. I'll sit and talk drunkenly about books for ages, for far too long, but I can't participate in those seedy conversations where - for example - Henry Green's dialogue or Elizabeth Bowen's stillnesses become as little as something I can have too. Sure, I'll recognise a congruence of intentions, and there's writers who work now - M. John Harrison at his best, Peace, Chris Paling in parts - who I like because they appeal to my 'working' sensibility. But I could never look at Harrison, extrapolate a Mills & Boon-style template for the 'quasi-fantastic novel of northern melancholia', then work to it by rote. To me it's always something to work away from, to acknowledge as well as possible whilst drawing a line of consecration around it, than to chop up and decontextualise like some Sicilian tomb raider.

So Kennedy still wants to have, and still wants writers to have, their ego. They are still skinny and poor, they still live off coffee and perhaps something a little stronger in a giftless genie of fag smoke. They live at an extreme. IMO, the majority of CW students manufacture that environment as much as possible as a vital stage in that most ersatz of process, becoming Writer - I know a couple who could be said to have existed within this stereotype by necessity rather than by pretence, and it's no coincidence that they're the ones I might take seriously. But it is the ego of the Writer that obstructs the activity of becoming reader, which is, still, an unavoidable (and yet utterly pleasurable) necessity in the creative apprenticeship. The reason we are ending up with bucketfuls of myopic novels about adolescence and studenthood, which are, unquestionably, the dullest topics on which one might write, is because of the CW agenda's partial nurturing, which tells young writers they are 'good' but does not encourage them to look beyond the limited scope of their own experience and send them towards the rather bloody large stock of other peoples' which can be found, conveniently, in the average university - or even municipal - library. Don't talk about 'control' and 'motivation' as if you were Stanislavski until you've at least familiarised yourself with a page or 3,000 of Flaubert or James or Bowen, don't talk about 'atmosphere' until you've done M.R. James and Patrick Hamilton backwards, and don't talk about 'Japanese influences' because you're read a few pages of Murakami.

David Peace and Will Self have both talked, repeatedly, about the potential harmfulness of the CW system and I think it's time more people listened. There may be people reading this who are CW friends, and if you're my friend you're probably exonerated from this on the grounds that we've almost certainly been over this ground and you've agreed with me about the dangers I've mentioned above. I'm sorry, but I felt like I needed to say all of this.


Karl said...

I don't know - Creative Writing courses provide a valuable holding pen for people who wish to act out their Fitzgerald/Hemingway fantasies. I don't think Oulipo would really care about the appropriation of their exercises by Creative Writing courses - they were essentially founded to provide constraints for other writers, or at least that's what they said at the time. One wonders whether some of the constraints imposed on CW classes should include 'write a page of grammatically correct, properly punctuated prose', though. One thing Oulipo aimed to do was demythologise the work of the writer somewhat; something that's not part of the CW cultish agenda, methinks.

Joe said...

Who was that guy from Dublin with all the photos of nuclear detonations on his bedroom wall? The one who succinctly described his novel as being about 'a bunch of cunts wandering around Dublin beating the shit out of people'? He was great. Especially because he used to be an accountant. More CW students should be like him. He was a role model. He was the actually Irish Michel Houllebecq.

In other CW news, that guy who used to drink with us after F.O.N. groups still lives in Norwich. He kept on avoiding my glance on the bus. Perhaps I should have asked him where Danny was...