Earlier this week, novelist Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia, and others) dropped a bomb on writers and potential writers. The Guardian quotes his remark about his students: “it’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.” Kureishi also described creative writing courses as “a waste of time.” This is the nature versus nurture debate in the literary world. Can a writer be taught or are they born?
Every semester, hopeful writers attend seminars and courses taught by famous and not-so-famous authors. They spend thousands of dollars that they almost certainly don’t have to gather pearls of wisdom from their professors. No doubt there are naturally talented students who just need to hone their craft and learn the mechanics of story telling. There may be others who have the grammar down, but need to be taught how to harness their imagination and put it to work. As a pragmatist, I’m leery of generalizations, especially the ones like Kureishi’s. (Personally, I wonder what kind of a teacher Kureishi is and how the program screens potential students. I always look for the other factors.)
As a reader, I’ve read novels by professional writers who’ve been through writing programs and gifted amateurs. Each group is as likely to produce a clunker as the other. If a writer feels they need a creative writing program, I say go for it and good luck with the publishers. If a writer doesn’t feel they need such a program, I say good luck the publishers. I doubt many readers look at an author’s credentials before they buy or read a book, especially if it’s a work of fiction. All we want is a good story. Most of us don’t care about how it was produced. (If a reader does care, they’re a snob.)
There is one point in the article I linked above, from Lucy Ellman, who also teaches writing, with which I sympathize:
The whole system is set up to silence writers, and dupe students. It doesn’t even provide a safe haven for writers, as Hanif made clear, because most universities go out of their way to ruin writers with admin, overwork, and other nonsense. There’s lousy teaching too: I know of creative writing teachers who don’t even read the students’ work. This is criminal…But of course, the purpose of corporations – which is what universities now are – is to scupper originality and dissent. Universities have gone from being culture – preserving institutions to being culture-destroying institutions. And people queue up to pay these culture-destroying institutions £9000 a year to ensure that any idea of literature is destroyed before it can enter their heads.
This extreme, of course, but I have noticed that a lot of the writers who come out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop* sound very similar to one another. Many of them appear to fall into the trap of writing to impress one another and please their professors and they let their linguistic fireworks get in the way of the story. But that’s a long standing gripe of mine. What I worry about is when programs and universities churn out writers at incredible rates without nurturing their originality. Kureishi is probably right when he describes the ideal model as a master mentoring an apprentice.
* I highly recommend Eric Bennett’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Iowa Flattened Literature.”