All entries for Wednesday 01 February 2012

February 01, 2012

Publication Day for The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

from Jonathan Bate's FCUPoreword to The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

On Criticism and Creativity

Creative writing has been the subject of university level study in American universities and colleges far longer than it has been within British higher education. The common pattern in the American system has traditionally set the ‘writing program’ apart from the critical, historical and theoretical work of the ‘literature’ department. Typically, the writers will be employed for the drudgery of instructing students from almost every discipline in ‘freshman composition’ (how to structure an argument, a paragraph, even – remedially – a sentence) and then be rewarded with some small group teaching in which, at a more advanced level, they assist the aspirant writers of the future in the improvement of their novels, stories, scripts and poems. The academics, meanwhile, will teach a freshman survey course of the kind that used to be known in the trade as ‘from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf’ but that is now more likely to be a guided tour of competing theoretical approaches to the subject and to include a high proportion of contemporary, often international, literature; they will then teach other, more advanced courses in their specialism, which could be anything from Shakespeare to the Victorian novel to some aspect of literary theory to postcolonial women’s poetry. In terms of their ambitions for publication, the ‘writer’ will be working on, say, her latest novel and the ‘academic’ on a learned conference paper that will later be worked into a critical book for a university press. It is not unknown for the writers and the academics to neglect each other’s work and even to view their counterparts down the departmental corridor with a degree of suspicion.

There is no inherent reason why there should be such a division between criticism and creativity in English studies. Consider the higher level teaching of music and art, the disciplines of writing’s sister arts. University degrees in music do not confine themselves to questions of form, history and cultural context, as English degrees often do. They have an emphasis on technique and on practice that is rarely encountered within a traditional English degree. The serious student of music will be expected to read music, to play an instrument, to hear a shift from major to minor key. Similarly, the serious student of art will be expected to know about perspective, to discover the different properties of different materials, and (one hopes) to draw in a life-class. It is not usually demanded of literature students that they should be skilled in the literary equivalents of such techniques as playing a scale, composing a variation, sketching a nude: they are not habitually asked to scan a line of verse, compose a sonnet or sketch a fictional mise en scène. An education in the art of writing is often regarded as marginal to an education in the art of critical reading (as the agenda of most English departments used to be) or the art of cultural poetics (as the agenda of most English departments has become). But it is precisely this gap – an education in the craft of putting together words, analogous to the craft of putting together musical notes – that creative writing programmes can fill.

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