8: Will Self vs Creative Writing

Via a tweet from @piratemoon I found a fascinating interview with Will Self. As the final question, Self is asked "What do you feel a writer should use his twenties for?" His reply is strident:

"Just read a lot of books. I certainly did, and still do. Do anything, really. Anything which brings you into contact with the world. The big crisis for literature today is creative writing [courses], which is ludicrous at every level. It’s like these cunts like Cameron, who have never done anything but be a politician. And there isn’t a market for these creative writing graduates’ in most cases mediocre lucubrations. You are educating people to be writers who can’t make a living, who will go on to teach more writers who can’t make a living."

It's a great end to an interview but Self's rant has an interesting contradiction, claiming that creative writing is a "crisis for literature" while "there isn’t a market for these creative writing graduates". I think the crisis produced by creative writing courses is mostly confined to the field of creative writing courses. I've spoken about this a little in other blog posts (see, for example Creative Writing is a Pyramid Scheme). Literature seems able to take or leave the ouput of creative writing courses which is why there is no market for them.

Do I regret the creative writing courses I've attended (the CCE Certificate and MA in Creative and Critical Writing at Sussex)? While the professed promises and aims of both courses may be questionable, they have been very worthwhile experiences. Will Self questions the idea of "educating people to be writers who can’t make a living", but this assumes that employment/profit is the only reason to study something. While CCE (in particular their novel-writing stream) made little movement beyond the link between writing and 'success', there should be more to creative writing than publishing.

The Creative and Critical Writing MA frequently questioned the idea of Creative Writing. The course is not to everyone's taste, but I found it exciting and refreshing. How does writing relate to the publishing industry? To people's lives? This was a course that had some very big questions to ask rather than focusing on how one writes a best-selling literary novel. Why not question the meaning of life? Why not read incredibly difficult poetry? 

There is a second apparent contradiction in the Will Self interview. "Just read lots of books… [Do] Anything which brings you into contact with the world". How does fiction relate to the real world? The two are not neccessarily in contradiction, although Self's comment here doesn't consider that; but fiction is an important part of many people's real world. Julian Barnes wrote an essay in the guardian about his life as a bibliophile, the ending of which is worth quoting:

The American writer and dilettante Logan Pearsall Smith once said: "Some people think that life is the thing; but I prefer reading." When I first came across this, I thought it witty… The distinction is false… When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life's subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.

Without wishing to sound self-helpy about it, creative writing should be lead its students to become better readers living richer lives. Creative writing offers an opportunity to deepen one's experience of life, regardless of publishing success – education should be about more than vocation. The Oxford philosopher, John Alexander Smith, apparently opened a 1914 lecture course with the following words: "Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."

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One thought on “8: Will Self vs Creative Writing”

  1. Hi James
    In her essay on the ‘nature’ poet Mary Oliver, Kirstin Zona says that when Oliver abandons writing one morning for a walk in the forest, “Oliver confronts that most tempting and debilitating of doubts: maybe our work as poets proffers only an illusion of communion; perhaps the solitary act of writing guides us towards love at the cost of real connection.”
    I’ve struggled with this relation between writing and the real world. It’s not simply because we’re told writing is separate. There’s a phenomenological experience of writing that is always going to be turned inwards, or at least partially. In the context of nature writing, it’s waht Scott Slovic tackles in his essay “Nature Writing and Environmental Psychology” in developing an argument about the relationship between inner consciousness and external nature and how, in Mary Oliver, after Emerson and Thoreau, such writers are not merely analysts or appreciators of nature, but “students of the human mind, literary psychologists”.
    Mary Oliver’s poety is about ‘the work of noticing’ which she believes is a ‘work of love’. Writing is part of the world, as is reading, as is finding the connection between those acts of writing and reading and other acts, such as running (how I always seem to break down in running and writing at the same time). My personal challenge is finding a way to believe that my writing is not only ‘caring about’ the world but an actual physical ‘caring for’ it.

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