May 28, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Hay on Wah?

Here’s one possible response to Kirsten’s post on creative writing workshops: “Celebrated novelist, screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi,” The Guardian newspaper reports, “has launched a withering attack on university creative writing courses, calling them ???the new mental hospitals.’” The article, reporting on Kureishi’s appearance at the annual Guardian Book Festival in Hay-on-Wye, England, went on to report Kureishi’s observation that “One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student.”

“But the people are very nice,” Kureishi added, apparently realizing he was standing in a room full of aspiring writers. (In America, one presumes, he would have hit the floor and dialed 911.)

Actually, most of Kureishi’s “withering attacks” on writing workshops were surprisingly conventional. Having taken up teaching creative writing (at Kingston University in London, if you’re in a hurry to sign up) in the belief that teaching a skill set like writing was “an honorable calling,” he observed that while creative writing workshops can improve students’ writing, such programs also create an unrealistic expectation that students will all have successful careers as writers. (Clearly he’s never breathed the fragrant mist of hopelessness and despair that drifts through AWP.) “When I teach them,” Kureishi said of his students, “they are always better at the end – and more unhappy.” (Surprised?) He also noted that he gives all his students the same grade, since one can’t really assign grades to creativity. “And then you write these reports,” he added. “I always say they were well-behaved, well-dressed.” (Not to mention well-armed.)

Obviously, there’s something a little too easy about this kind of sarcasm, especially if you think back to the Virginia Tech shootings. Real tragedy just doesn’t lend itself easily to comedy, especially in service of something as banal as criticizing creative writing courses. What would you say if you got that kind of thing from a student? Too much attitude, I’d be tempted to scrawl in the margins, for so little thought. It’ll get you attention, but for what? Does it really say anything we haven’t already thought?

What’s amusing here is that this is bad writing. After all, it’s not always a writing student who shoots up an American campus, just as it isn’t always a creative writing instructor who lets his cynicism get in the way of real teaching. Both are angry, aggressive acts, but can we really compare them? One is tragic, and the other just petty. To draw the comparison is to inflate the teacher’s ego while diminishing the reality of the violence by playing it for laughs.

Personally, I don’t know any creative writing teachers who don’t have their doubts about the value of writing workshops. Kureishi’s point that writing is a teachable skill is valid, but what he’s hiding by his dismissive comments is an even crueler truth: in a successful workshop, everyone improves, but only within the range of their talent. The best students get even more terrifying in their brilliance, and the worst remain frustrated. The least surprising thing about the Virginia Tech killings was that the shooter was a bad writer, unable to articulate his rage and alienation except in the most derivative ways. Shooting up a campus is a sadly unoriginal act at this point, a kind of performance, like the photos the killer took of himself posed as the heroes of violent revenge movies like Oldboy and Taxi Driver. There may be no cure for this disease in our culture (except for the all-too-obvious one for which we apparently lack the wisdom or political will: getting rid of the guns), but it’s easy to see that the infection spreads through imitation.

In my last post, I suggested that creative writing workshops do a good job of teaching craft, but not surprise. One might easily switch the terms here to say that workshops do a good job of teaching imitation, but not originality. And for students, imitation is all too often a display of attitude, unearned by real thought. It must be tough to be an aging bad boy, and the temptation to say something outrageous before an audience can be powerful, but it saddens me to see the pose consume the man, especially from a writer like Hanif Kureishi.

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