Creative Writing Courses Aren’t Killing Literature – Sanctimonious Rich White Tossers Are

I don’t often weigh in on the latest literary chattering points for fear of contributing to the very close-quarters farting contest I purport to detest. But the latest comments by Nobel judge Horace Engdahl really piss me off, so fuck it.

As the publishing world waits to hear who has won this year’s Nobel literature award, Engdahl has been mouthing off in an interview with French paper La Croix, saying that grants, bursaries and creative writing courses are damaging literature. (‘Creative writing courses are killing western literature, claims Nobel judge’) Here’s the part the Guardian quotes:

Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions. Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.

It may shock you to learn that, as an adjunct professor of Scandinavian literature and member of the 18-seat Swedish Academy (who select the Nobel prize for literature), Engdahl lacks the enriching luxury of a full-time job in the service industry. Perhaps his doctoral thesis on Swedish romanticism would have benefited if his ‘unhealthy link’ with Stockholm university had been replaced by a 70 hour week of split shifts pulling pints for drunk pricks.

‘But ah,’ you slur through your sixth glass of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon, ‘Engdahl is an academic. He’s talking about writers.’

And you’re quite right. Heaven forfend that authors should be so crass as to earn a living wage from their work. This, of course, is the dreaded ‘professionalisation’ of contemporary literature that Engdahl fears.

When I finished school, I worked 60-80 hour weeks in a pub for a year. After that, I worked part-time through university with full-time stints in retail between semesters, then several years of full-time minimum wage call centre and data entry work before finally having a breakdown.

It was crushing and grim. It was hard to find time to write. I did not feel a glorious connection to society – I felt marooned and knackered and, eventually, suicidal. I produced very little work and what I did produce was utter dogshit.

Currently, I write and perform full-time. I don’t want to sound like a smug twat but it’s wonderful. I am happy and with all the time I save not wretchedly sobbing in airing cupboards or drinking myself into a stupor I am able to properly research things and spend hours writing each day. My work is much better, and my output is steadily improving.

Engdahl has not worked any of the jobs he names for at least half a century. His argument begins and ends with this: some great authors have had low-paid jobs. Therefore, to accept a post at a university or to – gasp – write full-time results in drab, insipid literature.

For a start, Samuel Beckett only did all those jobs he did because he had to – if Engdahl had done the slightest bit of research he would know that Beckett’s stints as a policeman, baseball player, waitress and Navy Seal were a result of the malfunctioning nuclear accelerator chamber in Stallion’s Gate, New Mexico, AKA the Quantum Leap Proj-

Hang on. Sorry, wrong Wikipedia page.

So yes, Samuel Beckett worked to support himself while he wrote (and also fought in the Second World War) until his plays were sufficiently successful that he could work full-time as a writer and theatre director.

Notice Engdahl does not provide anything so vulgar as evidence to support his asinine claims. Aside from the specious contention that an author popping onto campus once a week is somehow ‘cut off from society’ (by which he – presumably – means the clandestine world to which only waiters and taxi drivers are privy) he doesn’t name a single author he thinks guilty of this, and he doesn’t demonstrate that this is a modern problem.

Thinking up counter-examples – of authors who either worked at their craft full-time (quitting their previous day job as soon as they could support themselves through writing) or who worked in academia – is pathetically easy, because it’s more or less everyone you’ve ever loved, from Tolkien to (Nobel literature prize winner) William Golding to Ursula Le Guin.

As for grants – fuck you, Engdahl, you privileged wanker. Awards like The RSL Brookleaze Grants, which last year helped ‘a working mum with three young children’ afford a research trip for her novel, and bursaries which support students who want to study creative writing, are essential if we believe that literature benefits from opportunity and diversity.

I’ve written before about creative writing courses and why I loathe the lazy, anti-intellectual sideswipes commentators like to take at them, horrified at the idea that some literary skills might be communicable. That bleary old-guardists feel so terribly threatened by their alumni is a clear indicator of how phenomenally successful these courses have become.

It’s not enough to make generalisations about our literary culture – you have to be able to back up your assertions with proof. Instead of tossing out patronising canards about the romance of the garret, Engdahl could better use his position to highlight the horrendous institutional sexism that continues to blight our literary culture.

Just 13 of the 110 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – for example – have been female, including last year’s winner, Alice Munro. This is an imbalance repeated across literary and genre awards, and unless you think female authors have spent the last 100 years cranking out a significantly inferior product to their male counterparts, it’s a damning indictment of our skewed, insular awards culture in general.

Credit where it’s due: Engdahl does highlight the ‘literary riches we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa’ – which is still incredibly condescending, implying that over half the planet is finally now reaching cultural maturity and rising to join us, up in the rarefied air of the Western Canon. Whoops! Look out Europe, the colonies are starting to catch you up!

But at least he’s tacitly admitting that the Nobel has, historically, been hugely Eurocentric, and that readers – if they genuinely want something scintillating and engaging – ought to widen their palette and eat from a truly global buffet. British readers – myself included – are in for a succession of mind-expanding treats if we let go of our ingrained prejudices and read more novels in translation.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I wholeheartedly believe that our artistic culture is strongest when it embraces and promotes contributions from all sections of a society. Indeed, without such diversity, it cannot really be called culture at all. Our literary culture desperately needs to recognise its working class voices, its queer voices, more female authors, more authors of colour.

But this is distinct from an argument that authors do not deserve – if enough readers appreciate their output – to earn a living wage from their work, that writing full-time somehow enfeebles one’s creative practice, or that engagement with academia constitutes an estrangement from society.

I’m really glad that some talented authors share their skills with other people who have new voices and stories. I’m really glad that we have a creative culture that values thought and creativity, and institutions that help artistic and critical practice to flourish. Our goal should not be to drive artists out of academia, but to put measures in place – including, yes, grants and bursaries – that encourage writers from a far wider range of backgrounds to participate.

Unimaginative commentators have been bleating doomy prognostications about the dire state of Western Literature for centuries, and this irritating trend shows no sign of diminishing. Most readers simply ignore them – as I said at the beginning, this sort of bun-fight becomes very relative when you realise no one’s listening – but I do think it behoves us to call out glib twattery when we see it.

Engdahl is precisely the type of out-of-touch, tin-eared academic he attempts to decry. I speak from experience when I tell you that, bad as it is spending the best years of your life working a tedious minimum-wage job with no end in sight, far worse is having a wealthy ivory tower gobshite gush about how wonderfully authentic you are.

Piss off, Horace. Everybody hates a tourist.


17 Comments

  1. a de grandis says:

    As someone who worked as a lawyer (not a low paid job a safe career!) for many years and struggled to produce anything at all on the back of long strenous working weeks -I utterly agree the idea that somehow the gritty reality of earning a living from something other than your creative talents makes you a better writer, painter, musician is total crap. What it does is deny you the time that you need to perfect your craft. My brain was wired into writing legal opinions, I honed that craft and not my imagination and rich use of language. I finally jacked it in to go full time and I’m beginning to produce stuff but I know I’ll never fulfill the potential I could have had as a writer because I’ve lost those precious years. You can never regain them, life is finitie. As a society we need to wake up to the fact that young people need grants, support and not wage slave jobs. We don’t value creativity enough and that’s a bad road to go down for any civilsation

  2. John Horse says:

    There’s much to criticise the Noble judge for. But it’s not here. This is largely anger, low-rent, punky populism and ad hominem attacks.

  3. Weapon of Slight Destruction says:

    What do creative writing courses do?

    1. They provide an income stream for established writers who can no longer earn a living from their work because the publishing industry has fallen off a cliff.
    2. For the new writer, courses don’t ‘teach’ much that they couldn’t learn for themselves by reading a lot. But – and this is important – they provide an opportunity for feedback and fellowship. It is hard to grow as a writer without access to constructive criticism. Also the constant pressure to write, and to share writing, adds to the 10,000 hours (or whatever it is) that is supposed to be necessary to acquire confidence and competence. Courses also provide contacts to people who might otherwise lack them. This is especially true outside London.

    As for contact with the world, universities are workplaces like any other. It’s not all senior common room philosophical debate. There are cleaners, porters, canteen staff, drivers, admin staff. There are not just professors of Literature – there are engineers, toxicologists, neuroscientists, artists, business specialists, political scientists.

    I’m not on a creative writing course. I don’t work in a university. I’m just thinking. Some people should do more of that before spouting off.

  4. Jack Plug says:

    @John Horse wtf u on about horsey u mug lol

  5. r says:

    I’ve been told that you need a MA these days. I did the OU FutureLearn course to see what these online courses are about and had it confirmed that I’m an illiterate halfwit who’s wasting my time. I’ve set up a blog with some of my FutureLearn and other rubbish on it as a learning resource. Some people seem threatened by such an approach, but surely you van learn as well from the bad as from the good. The bottom line of these courses is to tell people not to bother and leave it to the professionals (who have done the courses.) http://www.rogerfromanotherplanet.org.

  6. alternative bar job says:

    I read this entry as I sit at my crappy job wondering if i will ever write anything good enough, and have it noticed by enough people not to have to work another job to support myself.

    If you are going to hold down a job, then you need to apply at least some of your brain to it, distracting that brainy bit from writing. If you have to hold down several jobs to make the rent, and spend most of the night worrying if you will be able to fulfill all your financial committments, i doubt there will be a lot of headspace left for great works.

    Those writers who have dedicated themselves wholly to their craft do so, at least in my experience, largely without a financial safety net to make sure they are ok if the next grant doesn’t come through. This is brave and something which should be congratulated rather than frowned upon. We live in a society which places little financial value on the work of non-established artists, and without access to grants and prizes, many important new works wouldn’t have the sort of exposure needed to

    Those writers who have taken creative writing courses tend to be those with the humility to admit that writing is a craft and like and craft should be carefully honed and developed. Would you expect a piano virtuoso to pack a concert hall without ever having taken a lesson? I wouldn’t. Why then should writers create in a vacuum? They shouldn’t.

  7. JenniferLaraine says:

    I’m 46 and have just completed a three year Creative Writing degree. All the way through I felt guilty for doing such a self-indulgent course. Family and friends wasn’t sure what it was, apart from the study of calligraphy, and my mum said it was a waste of time and I should be training to be a nurse or something useful. But as wonderful as nurses are, my heart was in writing.
    I enjoyed the course and my skills have improved and expanded tremendously but all of the time I was wondering where it would lead. I would love to wallow in writing, spend all of my time researching and writing but there are bills to be paid. So now I’m thinking teaching and for this reason I’m studying a masters degree in literature, being sensible but still keeping my foot in the creative door.

  8. Sherman Jeppardi says:

    Don’t forget also that Beckett received an allowance from his family until almost into his forties!

  9. Kathryn Kerr says:

    Tim Clare, I love you.

  10. Ana Salote says:

    The tax threshold is way above my less-than-minimum-waged head. It’s my choice. I work for 20 hrs a week, read and write for 30, fill the gaps with observation, dreaming, novelty and general weirdness. If I opted to chase more consumer tokens by whatever means I would write less, and less well. I’d rather live than do a course on living. Ditto writing.

  11. Denise Allen says:

    Writing is a calling, a passion and oftentimes a gift. Wheather or not you work, are retired, are a housewife or unemployed, you can be an extremely talented writer and/or one that merits a nobel prize. If I’m not mistaken, many 17th, 18th and 19th century well known writers did not even writing courses; They wrote from their life experiences and their inner voice.

  12. Daleth Hall says:

    My hat’s off to you, sir. Well said.

  13. Kia Groom says:

    The romanticization of poverty and struggle is deeply, deeply concerning, and I think you’re spot on when you suggest that Engdahl is not supporting this narrative from personal experience. It’s easy to get teary-eyed about the noble taxi driver from your position as tenured faculty and Nobel judge, I’m sure.

    I think the important thing to highlight is that there are many ways to skin a cat, and there’s no correct formula to produce “great literature”. Working a 70 hour week in a service industry job gets your creative juices flowing? Rad, go do that. Power to you. Crave the structure, support, and community of an MA or MFA? Go for it.

    This has been raised in the comments already, but to suggest that creative writing degrees cut you off from society is incredibly short-sighted. It really depends where you go, what kind of program you’re in, etc etc. I’m currently a third year MFA at the University of New Orleans, and due to a variety of factors, myself and my cohort and very much still embedded in ‘the real world’. Not every MFA offers their students a full ride. Budgetary cuts are happening left and right. Almost everyone I know must work a second or third job in addition to their university-funded position, if they even /have/ a university-funded position.

    Also TA-ing? TA-ing is basically a service industry job. I don’t know where people get this idea that teaching undergraduates basic literacy skills is some sort of cushy Dead Poet’s Society romantic shit that “cuts you off from society”. Spending several hours a week with a bunch of driven, first-generation college students from incredibly diverse racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds is absolutely enriching my life, on a personal and an intellectual level. But it’s hard fucking work, and it’s not always fun.

    But my money is on the fact that Engdahl hasn’t had contact with anyone more lowly than an upper level graduate student in years, either. So perhaps he has forgotten that the academy can be diverse and challenging and difficult to work within, too. There’s a struggle to be had, if you’re not on tenured salary. He’s obviously forgotten.

    Thank you for your words on diversity in literature, particularly as it pertains to WOC, women, the queer community. You are spot on, and it’s really refreshing to hear this mentioned bluntly and with no attempt to re-centralize your own struggle. Thakn you thank you thank you.

  14. Kevin says:

    I have invited Horace Engdahl to a course of psychotherapy in order that his detachment from the realities of life are addressed. Taking a creative writing degree even at my tender age of many, my learning brought out the creative juices I did not know I possessed. I’ve driven a taxi, I’ve typed on a keyboard, and served food to many. It paid the bills but also left me no room other than to think of how to get a better job to survive. I had no time for thinking let alone writing. Now I’m idle I think, now I think, I write. I guess that negates me from ever being nominated, but hey, I’m not likely to win the lottery either, such is life.

  15. L. Alexandra says:

    To be honest, I agree with both your points and his. I think he was largely taken out of context, mostly by virtue of not expounding upon his points. As a female, American writer, I’ve witnessed both the bluecollar trials you’ve mentioned and the vapid, insular academia Engdahl lampoons. And while I understand your anger at his seeming elitism and generalizations, both of which whitewash his own biases and privilege, the way you went about addressing the matter weakened your own argument. You have firm ground to stand on, there’s no need to muddy it. Ultimately, I think what he was pushing for was a more global perspective in literature, which the west is resistant to where it counts (i.e. the folks up top who choose what to promote, publish, translate, and award). The way he was implying that we can achieve this (horrible, mind-numbing jobs), was a bit limited. Really, the trick is to just go out and experience life, reach for the ever-present Other and come to know them until their strangeness morphs into another shade of humanity. Sure, a shitty job here and there is good fuel for writing later, but it can, and often does, cruelly constrain it in the moment.

  16. ronald says:

    The point is more that Beckett was a genius and you are not. These courses just produce second rate drivel, much like the self justifying nonsense you have written here. The world of books needs less angst ridden middle class tropes – not more.

  17. Kevin says:

    @Ronald: Your’re just the type of person literature can well do without. Creative writing courses led by masters of the art don’t always produce “second rate drivel’ as you dare suggest, they often produce fine pieces of work. Out of interest what have you written to qualify your comment? Or are you like many, including the ignoramus this subject is about, living in a world of your own self importance and commentary that is about as useful as a woodpecker with a rubber beak. Becket being a genius is subjective, I happen to agree he is rather good, but many won’t. Is this wrong?

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