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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Is Creative Writing The New Mental Hospital?

Hanif Kureshi is one of the more celebrated writers in Britain at the moment - and he's known to have a Swiftian urge to his writing. He's been at the Hay festival, sponsored by The Guardian, where he was no doubt encouraged to say inflammatory things, to earn his keep; the rotten truth about the media-literary nexus these days is they make every writer perform like a two-bit Oscar Wilde to oil the wheels of interest. The books, the writing, never enough for them - a story is required. They got one. Just saw this. If indeed Kureshi did make these remarks, it is disappointing. They're just basically silly and counter-factual.

I am a visiting writer at Kingston University, where he also teaches creative writing. I know he's inspired a few good writers there since he arrived. These comments - even taken lightly, in a spirit of '68ism - well, they do tend to damage the enterprise of creative writing teaching. His comments boil down to three points: 1) creative writing students are the rampaging killers of America; 2) creative writing is the new mental hospital for our time; and 3) one can't grade creative writing.

Firstly, mass killers in America and elsewhere are not always, or even usually, in recognised creative writing departments; the fact that crazy people leave messages and notes (more and often televisual or digital in nature) doesn't relate to the teaching of writing, so much as the instinctual urge within all persons to want to inscribe their fates into being; 2) the new mental hospitals of our time are more likely literary festivals and junkets for celebrity writers. Most creative writing students are serious, talented people. 3) Creative writing assignments are evaluated, just as all writing work submitted at university is. To suggest it is impossible to grade a creative writing paper is to equate all "creative writing" with some ineffable idea of "genius" - untouchable by consideration, and not requiring improvement. In fact, writing skills can be and are taught, and the workshop environment encourages editing and other skills that every writer can certainly find useful.

Several Kingston students I have taught have been very successful so far, and one, at least, has a half million dollar American book deal - which is not really mental hospital stuff. I suggest that "big name" writers, who don't believe that creative writing "works" should stop taking the money these positions offer - otherwise, they begin to look like Tartuffes.
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