Friday, January 20, 2012

How the Schools are Killing CREATIVITY!!!

(With apologies to Sir Ken Robinson, who shall not be referred to again in this piece)

It seems that Philip Hensher, one of those literary butterflies who seem to get an awful lot of press work without ever demonstrating a tremendous capacity for critical insight, has provoked what Private Eye might call a 'stir' with this rather scathing (and unpleasantly personal) review of the new UEA anthology. As assessments go, it's very much in the Christopher Hitchens tradition of using its subject predominantly as the occasion for a discussion of something to which it is linked only tenuously; this 'something', according to Giles Foden, is propelled by Hensher's bitterness over his failure to secure a chair in Creative Writing at UEA. Funnily enough, the review failed to mention this.

I spent a year as a faculty member in UEA's School of Literature and Creative Writing, and I suspect my suspicions about the merits of CW as a discipline were fairly obvious. During my interview for that position, I discussed what I saw as an increasing division between the critical and creative missions within the School, and argued that CW students and staff were endowed with a glamour that risked making the traditional activities of a Literature department look like donkey work. One of the main drawbacks of the proliferation of CW courses in UK universities has been to occlude the fact that criticism is in itself a creative discipline which draws on the same faculties of linguistic deftness and associative confidence that a poet or novelist requires to be successful. Indeed, coming to the work of close-readers like Christine Brooke-Rose, J. Hillis Miller, Maud Ellmann, or Margery Perloff (not to mention the scalpel-sharp analyses of poet-critics like J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland) is frequently more invigoratingly unsettling than going over the latest collection by a Bridport Prize hopeful whose verse allegedly 'reveals the magic of the everyday', or one more post-Sebaldian traipse through English marginalia.

The latter-day lionisation of creative practice as an academic discipline is also ideologically inflected in ways which strike me as not particularly subtle. By driving a wedge between 'criticism' and 'creativity', the academy implies that the critical thinker somehow lacks creative flair. In an age where every TV commercial seems to want to liberate our inner Picasso, and in which the inability to do that is portrayed as an ultimately limiting sense of self-doubt brought on by the critical superego (equated in Big Society's cultural logic, of course, with the alleged paternalism of big government), to 'lack creativity' is to suffer stigmatisation. What would be genuinely empowering, I think, would be a kind of left-Reithian approach to the teaching of literature which demanded that a large volume of reading be undertaken in order to bequeath a sturdy knowledge base from which further creative or critical (I'll repeat: the distinction isn't mine) projects could embark. Instead, there's an implicit message that degree courses which place a heavy emphasis on the creative can be flown through with only the briefest of dalliances with an extant body of work. The message of CW, on at least one level, is 'because you're worth it': there's a pandering to neoliberal subjectivity which nurtures a fantasy of the 'individual' whose experiences deserve to be expressed because they are more significant than social, collective experience. Personal experience is divorced from a social epistemology: I think György Lukács was wrong in his assessment of modernism, but his claims about its asociality could be transposed correctly for a study of the ideology of CW. (What I'm trying to say about the contemporary love of creativity is perhaps better expressed by Mark Fisher in this essay on psychotherapy.)

Returning to Hensher, then, I think his opening points make room for a broader discussion of the usefulness of CW courses in general, but don't pursue that path. UEA has, historically, probably done more than its competitors to ensure that transactions between the critical and creative maintain a certain fluidity - hence Angela Carter, Lorna Sage, Sebald, Vic Sage and a litany of others - and it seems to me that extra-institutional pressures are the predominant explanation for the increasing separation of the disciplines there. These forces have been generated by the determination of competing institutions to chase the quick buck with more straightforwardly 'creative' courses, something which Hensher clearly has no intention of acknowledging. What might have been an opportunity to have a serious conversation about the role of the market in undermining both components of the type of literary education being talked about is lost amidst snide claims about the merits of individual writers.

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