Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Louis Menand on creative writing courses

If you thought creative writing courses were booming in this country, then take a look at America. According to Louis Menand in The New Yorker there are currently 822 degree courses in the subject (up from around 79 in the mid-1980s).

The debate about the point of such courses, however, shows no sign of abating - especially, says Menand, when it comes to the writing workshop.
Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.
But Menand's article is not, in fact, an attack on teaching creative writing. It's partly a review of an interesting-sounding book The Program Era by Mark McGurl, which looks at postwar American literature in relation to the rise of mass higher education in general and creative writing programmes in particular. And it's also an entertaining meditation on various aspects of the subject.
Writing teachers may ...cultivate their own legends. Once, on the first day of class, Angela Carter, who taught at Brown, was asked by a student what her own writing was like. She carefully answered as follows: “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.” The course turned out not to be oversubscribed.
In conclusion Menand looks back at his own experience studying poetry and concedes that, while it didn't make him a poet, it was certainly worthwhile.
I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

1 comment:

  1. Chris R4:36 pm

    I taught on one for a year - just one evening a week - and it felt like the biggest waste of time. Only one student had even the faintest prospect of making it as a professional writer and she was so 'off the wall' that there was nothing I could teach her. She'd have made it with or without a writing course. I became convinced that the only reason for the course's existence was to bring in the university money.


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