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How writers do.

A Fortnightly Review.


Against Creative Writing
by Andrew Cowan

Routledge | 256 pp | $44.95 £34.99


There is a broken pencil on the cover of this book.

The book’s title could mean a) that its author is against (ie, hostile to) Creative Writing (CW) as an academic discipline, or b) that the author is challenging those who are hostile to it. In fact, Andrew Cowan is entirely ‘for’ CW, with certain caveats, making the title a loss-leader. Equally loss-leading is the heading to Chapter 1: ‘Can it be taught? should it be taught?’ Cowan writes: ‘Creative Writing is an institutional practice, a set of administrative and pedagogic activities that usually results in the award of an academic qualification…whether it can be taught is tautological, since Creative Writing…is the name given to writing courses at Universities and Colleges.’

Cowan distinguishes between CW and ‘“writing”, which is what writers do’. Does he mean professional writers, who earn their living from writing? The Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) in 2018 surveyed authors for whom writing occupies at least half of their working life, to show that their typical earnings are under £10,500. Not much of a living. Or does Cowan mean anyone who writes novels, poetry, and may never be published, still think of themselves as writers? It is not clear.

The book usefully recounts the way CW has been embedded in the UK. In the footsteps of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), which validated degrees in non-university higher education, CW developed its own rubrics. In 2003, two reports commissioned by the English Subject Centre laid the foundations. Siobhan Holland’s Creative Writing: a Good Practice Guide (to which I contributed) and Robert Sheppard’s Supplementary Discourses in creative writing teaching at higher education level preceded the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE)’s draft Benchmark in 2008. In 2016 the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) established their Benchmark, and the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) covered postgraduate provision.

A lot of work has gone into writing this book, but its messages are not always easy to unpack.

A lot of work has gone into writing this book, but its messages are not always easy to unpack. Cowan’s approach stems from his formation at the University of East Anglia (UEA). After a BA in 1983, and a 1985 MA, taught by Malcolm Bradbury, he began teaching there in 2004. Between 2008-2018, he was Director of the UEA Creative Writing programme. Understandably, then, UEA features regularly — to the point where one might imagine the book as something of a recruitment tool. Other courses are available.

UEA’s pioneer MA in CW was set up by novelists Bradbury and Angus Wilson. They had both taught in the US, knew of its practice of teaching Composition and Rhetoric (ie, discursive writing), and were influenced by the University of Iowa’s CW work in the early twentieth century. Cowan pays tribute to this: ‘…the values I wish to defend, owe so much to the early Iowan example, while the trajectory of the discipline’s wider development so closely resembles the pattern initially established in the American academy.’ This may suggest that UEA is the natural heir to Iowa. Other heirs are available.

While UEA’s MA was pioneering, it was not the first manifestation of CW in the UK. At Lancaster University, David Craig developed CW alongside literary criticism, as a way of studying literature. He set up the first CW PhD in the UK in the early 1990s, but Cowan doesn’t mention this. If my tone in this review sometimes has an edge, it is because Cowan refers to me seven times, taking issue with my book The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else (2008), and, between pages 127-131, with my analysis of the workshop approach. Each time he is scathing (I nearly wrote ‘sneering’) without cause. If my ripostes here risk being read as sourish gripes (spelling intentional), I would suggest they are a necessarily corrective narcissism, which has vital implications for any future serious discussion of CW pedagogy.

For example, based on Bradbury’s own account, I wrote: ‘The MA aimed to combine the reading and study of literature with its writing and was set up as a self-conscious cultural intervention to correct what was feared might be the death of the high-art English novel.’ Cowan glosses my words as ‘not altogether approvingly’. They are factual. I neither approve nor disapprove.

Cowan’s book draws on D.G. Myers’ excellent The Elephants Teach (2006), and Paul Dawson’s thoughtful Creative Writing and the new Humanities (2005). Having done so, he announces: ‘A…history remains to be written of the emergence and rise of CW in the UK…building perhaps on the “historical snapshots” assembled by Michelene Wandor…’ Well. Although he later accuses me of hyperbole, my phrase ‘historical snapshots’ was deploying its opposite, litotes, as perhaps a (too) coy reference to the reach of my summary of the history of the development of CW in the UK. Whatever its limitations, mine is more comprehensive than Cowan’s, including influences from beyond the academy, to explain CW’s ideological history and pedagogical practices. I should point out that Professor Philip Martin, Pro Vice Chancellor, De Montfort University, commented on The Author…: ‘This book is set to become a definitive and authoritative text.’

My account points to the rise of the study of ‘English’ in nineteenth century UK, led by London, Oxford and Cambridge. Along with the University Extension Movement and the Workers Educational Association, the lecture format was augmented with seminars, to encourage more active student participation. Fast-forward: the radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s entailed a reaction against authoritarianism, with some leaderless, egalitarian ways of working in the arts – ‘collectives’. Despite some real achievements, the idealism behind these didn’t last. A well-known 1972 feminist American pamphlet by Jo Freeman, called ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ critiqued the hidden patterns of dominance in such groups.

From the 1960s, there were Writer Fellowships in schools and universities, along with the arrival of the Arvon Foundation, and the expansion of adult-education CW courses. During the 1980s the Verbal Arts Association, set up by Anne Cluysenaar and including Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, campaigned for CW. The 1960s also saw Arts residencies in higher education. The concept of the small group of students with a tutor, was thus not just invented for CW.

Cowan distinguishes between CW at under- and postgraduate levels. For the former, he quotes UEA’s programme as complementing ‘the critical study of English literature with insights gained from the practice of writing and … the practice of writing with insights gained from the critical study of English literature’ – an aim consistent with Norman Foerster’s original conception for the Iowa School of Letters that “Creative writers would do scholarship; scholars would creatively write”’. It is worth remembering that Foerster was writing about postgraduate study.

I object strongly to any imputations that I have been unprofessional in my account of CW.

It is in relation to publication that Cowan launches another salvo against my book: ‘Wandor’s tendency to hyperbole – evidenced …throughout her critique – is commensurate with the scale of her many misapprehensions about the discipline, which includes the assertion that all students at all levels are “seduced” into believing that they are being prepared for publication.’ First, I object strongly to any imputations that I have been unprofessional in my account of CW. I have no misapprehensions about it, and his implication that my language is less than appropriate is crude and not worthy of someone who claims to be sensitive to the uses of language. Cowan’s ‘attack’ (which it is) on my book is based on mis-readings (or perhaps lazy readings) and a refusal to engage in serious discussion. As far as the issue of publication goes, I recently checked over fifty of the most established CW university websites, and almost all postgraduate programmes invite and encourage ambitions towards publication, which foregrounds it, and makes it tempting, if not seductive, in a secular sense. There is nothing wrong with ambition, of course, but no drama school would advertise its teaching with ‘Would you like to play Hamlet/Medea?’

For postgraduate CW, Cowan admits to his ‘own attachment to the apprenticeship model of Creative Writing – the schooling of would-be authors for potential publication. This certainly appears to be the orientation of most graduate programmes in the Anglophone academy.’ However, this aim is subject to conceptual slippage, and he modifies ‘Creative Writing at graduate level as a … site for the inculcation of “the literary” rather than the “publishable”; that is, I would argue for an understanding of the term “literary apprenticeship” as denoting a training in “literariness” as much as any preparation for a career as a publishing author’. Does this mean that UEA would not be receptive to students who wanted to write more ‘popular’ forms of fiction, such as sci-fi, fantasy, young adult fiction? Prospective students might want to know.

Cowan’s exploration of the literary, abutting onto Theory, is stimulating. To Jakobson’s discussion of ‘what makes a verbal message a work of art, ie what makes a text literary’, Cowan adds Barbara Foley’s Marxist Literary Criticism today  (2019), which invokes ‘ several…criteria: fictionality, density of language, defamiliarisation, extension of experience, formal unity, beauty…’ Elucidations of the Prague School, ‘heightened language’, the Russian Formalists and Bakhtin’s important concept of heteroglossia support his commitment to the ‘literary novel’. Cowan also directs valid attention to Derek Attridge’s The Singularity of Literature (2004), which further expands thinking about the ‘literary’. Quite how these concepts might directly infuse CW pedagogy is not clear.

Now within the academy, the relationship between CW, research and knowledge becomes important. As Cowan correctly points out, ‘To an extent. the problem of fictional knowledge …is a problem for philosophy and the interpretive work of certain kinds of literary criticism.’ However, it also has an impact on the CW curriculum – if one may call it that.

Cowan writes: ‘the professionalisation of writers as writing teachers has meant a much greater willingness among Creative Writing academics to embrace a codification of their ways…’ Willingness is not really the issue: the universities’ requirements have resulted in a discursive adjunct to the creative work, called variously a critical commentary, a self-reflective piece, an exegesis. Interestingly, Cowan doesn’t seem to consider this an essential component: ‘I’d like to suggest that the developmental function of critical self-reflection obtains primarily in the earlier stages of a writer’s apprenticeship…’

Assuming that Cowan’s phrase ‘critical self-reflection’ might refer to a student explaining/explicating their work, there are problems. In 2004, Amanda Boulter suggested that students can’t take possession of their own meaning, and Robert Sheppard, in the 2003 report referred to earlier, rightly argued ‘…in fact that it may be “unhealthy (or impossible)’” for the creative writer to attempt to achieve the objectivity required to interpret her text for an assumed, external reader in the manner of a literary critic…’

More pertinent is Cowan’s summary of Paul Dawson’s position: ‘Knowledge is formed, he argues, at “the dialogic junction” of the creative and the critical. In other words, the two parts are of equal importance and should not be viewed in the “hierarchical sense of host and parasite text, first order artistic practice and second order intellectual apprehension”. They are, Sheppard insists, “complementary modes of writing” (1999). This makes far more sense, and if the academy has required a discursive adjunct to the creative element, it is no bad thing, because it invites students to think about a wide range of writerly issues beyond craft skills. As Sheppard adds, ‘Far from being secondary to the creative work, this will amount to a developed poetics of writing … placing it in national (and international) literary, social, intellectual contexts…’

Now to the core of CW pedagogy: the workshop. Cowan is resistant to any idea that the workshop might be ‘reformed’. Paul Dawson’s advocacy of a ‘sociological poetics’ receives short shrift (even if it were easily possible); so does Janelle Adsit’s 2017 Toward an inclusive creative writing; threshold concepts to guide the literary curriculum, where she address biases of gender, race, and other identity markers; and even the less radical areas of reform suggested by Stephanie Vanderslice and Anna Leahy, from the US. Perhaps his resistance is more due to his own admitted limitations, rather than an in-principle objection: ‘I may be particularly ill-equipped to teach a sociological poetics, especially as Dawson envisages a role for my “critical expertise” that would effectively constitute me as…someone more like a Cultural Studies academic.’

Perhaps more serious is Cowan’s reference to Felicia Rose Chavez’s 2021 book, The anti-racist writing workshop: how to decolonise the creative writing classroom. He writes: ‘Consistent with its polemical intent, [it] is marked throughout by a similarly heightened, often hyperbolic rhetoric that readily equates authority in the classroom with historic oppressions, as in the claim that “Control and dominance are trademarks of the traditional writing workshop and, by extension, white supremacy’”. (There’s that ‘hyperbole’ again!)

Cowan’s overwritten (I can do it too!) objections to Chavez read uncomfortably at a time when diversity and inclusivity (whatever their difficulties) have to be taken seriously. The more so as Cowan adduces surveys of publishing which show that ‘…who gets published, and who chooses who gets published – continues to inhere in those older forms of institutionality…of the private school and the Oxbridge college…the institution of middle-class whiteness will tend to reproduce a readership receptive to certain kinds of writing, a publishing industry attuned to that readership.…’

The workshop is the core of postgraduate CW teaching. For Cowan, ‘the workshop I wish to take as definitive of the term is the wholly discursive, advanced-level version that was inaugurated at the University of Iowa in the US and later emulated by the University of East Anglia in the UK, and which has subsequently provided the most popular model for adoption elsewhere…’ It is characterised by ‘…the New Critical practice of close reading, and is particularly attentive to the formal properties of language… The workshop is understood to be synonymous with peer review…’

Additionally, ‘The workshop provides the occasion, then, for a disparate group of writers at different stages of their development and having distinct life histories, personalities, cultural coordinates, and areas of expertise and knowledge, to collaborate in a sustained engagement with works-in-progress that will become through their revision more effectively situated in relation to the wider cultural context that is revealed and constituted by the various contributions of the participants.’ This begins to sound like an appropriation of Dawson’s ‘sociological poetics’ of which Cowan disapproves.

This cumulative account implies an egalitarianism which cannot exist, however tactful the tutor. Note that Cowan uses the term ‘writers’ above, which, according to his earlier definition of ‘writer’, workshop students are not. If the ‘New Critical practice of close reading’ is to be genuinely adopted in the workshop, the participants would have to be familiar with its practice. It can only be ‘learned’ in a piecemeal way in a workshop. Close reading takes a while to learn and apply; many students on postgraduate CW degrees may not have previous literary-critical training.

On the matter of leadership authority, Anna Leahy, in the US, has written about the difficulties of holding authority, with, as she puts it, the conflict between nurturing (!)  and teacherly roles. Cowan claims a solution to this: ‘The tutor may well be the most insightful reader in the room... Possibly she will carry the authority of several publications and prizes. Her role, however, is not to issue instructions, but to point to possibilities…to exemplify a way of reading that is tactful and insightful, meticulous and honest, but which is only ever offered as one reading among numerous others.’

Cowan writes, The most insightful reader…the authority of several publications…exemplify a way of reading….’ In my book (actual and metaphorical), that’s called being a teacher, and every student will know who the teacher is, and that the teacher carries authority, and that reading is never simply ‘one reading among…others’.

Finally, there is peer-review. Within academia this is generally anonymous, and the peer reviewers will be professional experts in their field. Workshop students are ‘peers’ in the sense of sharing the same course of study, but that’s as far as it goes. They are not – to use a shorthand – literary-professional experts. That’s why they are students on a course of study.

I make no apologies for these emphatic pronouncements, since Cowan’s appropriation assertion of the Iowa/UEA legacy leaves no room for discussion. In my book, The Author Is Not Dead…, I proposed a pedagogic approach which was based on my experience of class teaching as an alternative to workshop practice. I stand by all my criticism in that book, but I now have an alternative approach to the CW workshop, of which I was unaware at the time.

In 2007, I began teaching on Lancaster University’s Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing. This was set up in 1999; Graham Mort took charge of it in 2002. It lasts two-years, is part-time, and each student is assigned a tutor for the whole course. There are two online tutorials per term, and an online ‘conference’ (not a workshop) in the middle of each term, where students post up short examples of their writing, and respond to each other, all in writing. The teaching is one-to-one, with everything written, on record for reference.

The following comes from Graham Mort’s account in ‘The Reflexive Muse’, published in The International Journal of the Arts in Society (Vol 1, 2006):

‘In a sense, the tutor and student ‘write’ and ‘read’ themselves and each other through their textual relationship. So the ‘rhetorical’ strategies of literary texts are deployed into the educational exchange…Every aspect of virtual exchange is “writerly” so that writing skills are deployed in a range of ways from explication and composition to intervention and analysis…distance learning has conveyed powerful pedagogic advantages – from the logistics of course delivery to the intricacies of textual analysis and drafting.’

Such teacher-student, close text-based work is cumulative and consistent, in a way the workshop can never be. It can work online, and on-campus.

In itself, it is not a solution to the issues of ancillary literary and cultural teaching which should also be part of postgraduate CW, or which might even be set up as a foundation year, to enable any ‘disparate group’ of students to acquire some literary-critical skills. It is, however, labour intensive, and that will not endear itself to university authorities because it will be more expensive. It may be that the one-to-one tutoring system is more likely to be found on distance learning courses than on-campus. However, while it may be a radical suggestion for on-campus CW, it is already common practice across the humanities. I hope to elaborate on this elsewhere.

Meanwhile, imagine buying a book called The Coconut: From Tree to Table. At one end, it gives a history of the coconut and how to grow it; at the other end it has cooking recipes. However, the centre is absent; nothing to explain how the raw material is processed to become available for cooking. No discussion of the impact of global warming. I rest my hyperbolic case.

MICHELENE WANDOR is a playwright, poet, short story writer, reviewer, broadcaster, theatre historian and a musician with degrees from Cambridge and Essex universities and from Trinity College / University of London. She has taught in Britain at the Guildhall School of Drama, London, the City Lit, London, London Metropolitan University and at various universities abroad and currently teaches the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. She is the author of The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing after Theory: Creative Writing Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan). She held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship from 2004 to 2008. Recipient of many awards and nominations, particularly for her radio dramatisations (see her ‘Dramatising Mrs Dalloway’ in the Fortnightly). Michelene Wandor is also an accomplished musician, performing Renaissance and Baroque music with her early music group, The Siena Ensemble. Her latest poetry collection is Travellers (Arc Publications 2021). Her collection of short fictions, Four Times EightyOne: Bespoke Stories, was published by Odd Volumes in October 2022 and her novel, Orfeo’s Last Act, will be published in 2023.

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