Creative Writing in Universities by David Lodge

David Lodge

Creative Writing in Universities


There are two distinct ways of teaching creative writing at the tertiary level of education, though various compromises between them are possible. One type of course (let us call it type “A”) is designed for students with a serious personal commitment to imaginative writing and perhaps aspirations to be professional writers. It is usually run as a “workshop”: a small group of students meets regularly with their teacher, who is often a recognised author, employed by the institution exclusively for this purpose, to present and discuss their ‘own work, giving and taking criticism. The second kind of course (type “B”) is less selective in its intake, less vocational in orientation, and more formalised in method. It combines the reading and analysis of literary texts with exercises in composition in various forms and genres, and may embrace discursive as well as imaginative writing. The aim of such courses is to increase the students’ verbal skills and enhance their understanding of how literary texts are constructed by putting them in the position of producers rather than consumers.

Both types of course are well-established components of the curriculum in American universities, but are rare in British (or indeed Continental) universities. The prejudice on this side of the Atlantic against creative writing as an academic “subject” is mainly directed against courses of type “A”, but seems also to have inhibited the development of courses of type “B”. In fact, it is difficult to see how there could be any serious educational argument against the latter. Nothing is more likely to enhance a student’s understanding of narrative method than, say, writing the “same” story from two different points of view, or of grammar than writing a poem entirely in the passive voice or the interrogative mood – whatever the literary value of the end product. Those with a genuine creative talent will often produce astonishingly good work under this kind of artificial stimulus, but the element of prescription in the work means that the creatively ungifted can be fairly assessed for effort rather than achievement.

Assessment is undoubtedly the principal difficulty is integrating creative writing courses of type “A” into a degree course, especially in Britain, where a delicately calibrated scale of degree classes is so deeply embedded in our concept of higher education. By what criteria, it is often asked, do you decide to give this student’s novel-in-progress an A-minus and that student’s lyric poems a B-plus? And how can such marks be weighed against marks achieved for courses in Shakespeare or Victorian Literature? All marking in humanities subjects is probably more intuitive than teachers care to admit, but where large numbers of people are involved in doing the same kind of assessment a surprisingly consistent set of standards is maintained. Assessment of creative writing undoubtedly is likely to be more subjective and less easily monitored. This does not seem to be a major problem in the United States, where a high degree of variability in marking standards is accepted as the price of a very flexible degree structure, and where there is in any case no equivalent to the British mystique of degree classes. It is symptomatic that one of the first successful courses in creative writing in this country (Ian McEwan was an early graduate) was an MA course at the University of East Anglia – the MA being an unclassified pass/fail degree. In most British universities, if creative writing is encouraged at all, it is as an extra-curricular activity, usually under the aegis of a writer-in-residence sponsored by the Arts Council or other outside source.

In my own Department at Birmingham we have tried to solve the problem of assessment at the undergraduate level (in a second-year optional course called Advanced Composition) by requiring a high degree of critical self-consciousness from the students who enrol for it. During the year they present work – prescribed exercises at first, but later in freely chosen forms – for “workshop” discussion by the group, and eventually produce a folder of work for assessment. But they are required to submit an accompanying statement of what artistic aim or design they were trying to accomplish, and the reasons for the techniques and rhetorical devices they employed. This statement yields hard evidence of the thought and work that have gone into the production of the writing, and insight displayed at this level can compensate for aesthetic shortcomings in the creative work itself. We do not of course mean to imply that all writing should be produced in so self-conscious a way, but if creative writing is to be pursued in an academic context at all it surely ought to be highly analytical and technically self-conscious; and anyone who feels his or her creativity threatened by such an atmosphere would be well advised to seek a different environment in which to practice writing. A common objection to creative writing as an academic subject is that you cannot teach people to be creative. But, as Northrop Frye once pointed out, you cannot “teach literature” either, though we have courses in literature – you can only teach the criticism of literature. Creative writing as an academic subject teaches aspirant writers to be self-critical.

Advanced Composition is our type “A” course. We also have a type “B” course called Close Reading and Composition, taken by all First Year students. It combines Practical Criticism of short texts with more systematic stylistic and grammatical analysis and compositional exercises of the kind cited above.

It is taught by a team of teachers pursuing a structured syllabus, leading seminar groups of about a dozen students, and is assessed by conflating marks awarded to work submitted throughout the year. Its aim is primarily to make a bridge between “ language” and “literature” studies – something we regard as distinctive and valuable in the Birmingham English Department – at an early stage in the student’s career. First year students are also taken, in their first term, on a short Reading Party, in which they pursue the same kind of work more intensively, on a single theme.

Although I take an interest in the Advanced Composition course at Birmingham, I do not myself teach it, and am happy to leave it in the very successful hands of my colleague Deirdre Burton; but I have taught creative writing at Berkeley, California, and I ran an extra-curricular writers’ workshop at the University of East Anglia when I was Henfield Fellow there in the summer of 1977. It seems that I am happier teaching creative writing when playing away from home, and I think there are two, related reasons for this. Firstly, although I enjoy this kind of teaching as an occasional and short-term project, I think I would find it an impediment to the pursuit of my own writing if it was a constant, year-after-year commitment. Secondly, I have always, in some instinctive gesture of self-protection, tried to maintain a distinction between my work as a university teacher and my work as a novelist – to keep these activities separate on the public or social level, however inextricably connected they are at the private, mental level, and in the fictional texts themselves. Why I should wish to maintain this distinction, for what deep and dark motives, I leave others to speculate (the reasons are not, in fact, I believe, wholly personal and idiosyncratic). The point is that this kind of separation of roles would be impossible to maintain in teaching creative writing courses- at least of type “A”, where the teacher speaks in part out of his own experience of the practice of writing. I find it easier to do this when away from the institution where I have a permanent position of academic authority and responsibility. It is also easier to do in America, simply because the presence of creative writers among the academic faculty is more commonplace.

In America, indeed, Creative Writing has profoundly affected the development of literary culture. The university provides employment for writers as teachers of Creative Writing, and this in some measure frees them from the necessity to write for the marketplace. The students who enrol for Creative Writing in their thousands constitute a huge body of aspirant professional writers whose commitment to the art is intensely serious and highly “literary” – that is, it is nourished and informed by the critical study of literature, especially modern literature, within the academy. Some of the more obvious differences between British and American writing today – for instance, the greater ambitiousness of the best American new writing, its stylistic inventiveness and technical virtuosity – can be attributed to the proliferation of Creative Writing courses on that side of the Atlantic, for it is difficult to think of a single important American writer living now who has not at some point either taught or taken such a course. The blessings, however, are not unmixed. Pretentiousness, self-indulgence, straining for effect, are also more likely to be found in contemporary American writing than British, and may be traced to the same source. And there is more contradiction than co-operation between the institution of literature as it is conceived of in the Creative Writing programmes, and as it actually exists as a socio-economic reality. The former cannot entirely ignore the latter: teachers of Creative Writing need commercial publication at some point in their careers to establish their credentials; and their students inevitably dream of “making it” in the bigger literary world, which means the world of New York publishing. But New York publishing is entrepreneurial capitalism at its most feverish and brutal. It can absorb only a fraction of the “literary” writing that is being produced by the graduates of Creative Writing. As Theodore Solotaroff, former editor of the celebrated New American Review, observed in an interview printed in a recent issue of Granta (Spring, 1979):

The problem is that the industry is almost guaranteed, by the very way it’s set up, to build frustration into the experience. As I say, we’re trying to run a very different literary culture than we have ever before. We no longer have a few elite talents and then a lot of popular, commercial writers. We have a couple of thousand really first-rate writers, and we’re trying to run this with an apparatus that’s practically nineteenth century.

We are a long way from this situation in Britain, but the question of built-in frustration haunts the whole subject of creative writing courses like a guilty secret. One can, I believe, teach people “how to write” in the sense that one can improve their verbal skills, make them more aware of the operations and choices involved in writing, and of their own technical mistakes. But one cannot teach them to be successful writers – i.e. to write what other people want to read. It is inevitable that the great majority of students who enrol for Creative Writing courses of type “A” will never achieve publication (though some will persist with astonishing faith and perseverance, writing novel after unpublished novel, throughout their lives). Is the creative writing class doing them a disservice by encouraging ambitions which can never be fulfilled; or, on the contrary, providing a kind of surrogate publication – circulation of work among the group – without which their urge to create would be still more grievously frustrated? I do not know the answer to that question.

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