Author of Stoning the Devil
Creative Writing Programs: What’s Gone Wrong?
This month I retired from the American university where I taught creative writing for the past thirteen years, to both undergraduates and graduate students. It was the best job I ever had, and in the early years particularly I loved it. Over the past years, though, the frustrations and demands have become almost intolerable. Here’s what I’ve learned.
First, most students are delightful people, and many are imaginative and talented. What’s more, some genuinely love books and stories, reading and writing, and it’s a pleasure to teach such people. However, a majority are poorly-read, particularly at the undergraduate level. Ian McEwan, who has an MA in Creative Writing himself, spoke in an interview about the “spectre of undergraduate writing programs” precisely because he felt that young writers need to read more than to write. I think you can do both: but unquestionably most US programs are not providing a structured syllabus of required reading. What this means is that students follow the models they know: fantasy literature, most of it escapist and formulaic; or TV shows and movies, usually of a puerile and predictable nature; or else the handful of American classics of literary fiction they’re familiar with. The first two paths lead to imitative, unconvincing work; the last leads usually to workmanlike but homogeneous ‘workshop stories’, even at the graduate level.
Second, although technology has had many benefits, students have shorter attention spans now than they did even a dozen years ago. They fidget if they can’t access their phones and laptops—many resort to concealing them behind barricades of books, or behind purses or beneath tables, and furtively consult them and text people, believing that the professor can’t see them. But they also find longer texts difficult to read. (And by long, I’m not talking about War and Peace: I mean a story of twenty or twenty-five pages.) They complain that authors are ‘too wordy’. They think that when authors use long words they are being pretentious, and will lose their audience.
Third, the majority have a very limited command of the English language. This extends not only to vocabulary, but to matters of usage like collocations. With phrasal verbs, for example, most students are very hazy about the prepositions that follow the verbs. They have an imperfect understanding of tense too (admittedly, in English, a tricky subject), particularly the past perfect and the future in the past. Most cannot write complex sentences; they have no idea how to use subordinate clauses, for example.
Fourth, they don’t take notes. I assume this is because they assume there’s no need to, since they could look up anything on their devices. And it’s true that they could, but they don’t. Even the simplest and commonest mistakes of everyday usage, such as the difference between subject and object pronouns (‘Please come to dinner with Bill and I’!) and between transitive and intransitive verbs (‘She was laying in bed’—eggs, perhaps?) prove to be ineradicable, however many times one goes over them.
Fifth, they are parochial, culturally speaking. Much of this is the fault of the institutions. Although diversity is officially prized, and even mandated, what does it mean? That mention must be made of other ethnicities, genders, sexualities—but it’s fine if every single text is by an American. And although some of the writers studied may indeed be black or Hispanic, female, or gay, the majority will have graduate degrees from American universities, and so they are voices from the educated, liberal elite. What about aesthetic diversity? Imagine trying to teach music students but only using American examples. How could anyone become a proficient musician without being exposed to the music of Mozart, Debussy, Verdi, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky? And yet in writing programs students graduate without having read Tolstoy, Kafka, Mishima, Borges or Flaubert—or for that matter, even the British writers of the last century. It is a rare student indeed who has read Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, or Elizabeth Bowen, or even Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster.
Much of this is the fault of the Creative Writing programs themselves, who by and large have opted for a sort of kindergarten vision in which all students are treated as special, everyone is entitled to continual praise, and everything is incredibly easy. You can’t spell? No problem. Grammar is hard for you? Well, it’s the imagination that counts, isn’t it? And if you find Joseph Conrad or James Joyce hard, that’s fine, you can read J.K. Rowling or Tolkien instead. Recently a graduate student told me that a degree you couldn’t fail was worthless—and the truth is, it’s impossible to fail a creative writing degree, even at the graduate level, unless you don’t attend classes at all. I don’t know of anyone who has managed that feat. And at the graduate level, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a 4.0 (straight A) average, either. Everyone gets a prize: it’s so important that no one’s feelings be hurt, ever. The problem with this is that students rarely know if their work is really any good, since most of their teachers praise everything indiscriminately. As a professor, I was known for being ‘brutally honest’ and even the word ‘harsh’ sometimes came up in evaluations—but at least students knew that if I praised their work, it was sincere. Many told me that they trusted my judgement precisely because I was discriminating. Of course, not every student liked my teaching style, and I am not suggesting that it is the only one, or even the best. But there should be room for teachers of all kinds, I think, not just Wendy Bishop clones.
Unfortunately, though, the dogmatic kind of thinking and behaviour we have seen so much of in politics recently—on the left as well as the right—has permeated the academy and the arts too. Whereas universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech, and perhaps still are somewhere, that is no longer the case in the USA, where professors, particularly in the humanities, are dragooned into following whatever brand of political correctness is in fashion. At the moment, the required flavour is identity politics. Many of the people who direct programs, sadly, while of course professing liberal ideals, turn out to be covert authoritarians who tolerate no dissent at all.
In short, the crisis in US education is not just the result of De Vos and her ilk, although of course they will exacerbate it; but it is being fomented too by people on the left who are not sufficiently secure in their own beliefs to encourage vigorous intellectual debate. (And, it might be added, often lack the intellect for it, although they have the touching belief that their PhDs qualify them as bona fide intellectuals.) To sum up, we could be doing much, much better. I am not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bath water: creative writing programs could be thrilling, instead of boring and undemanding, as most are. That will not happen unless a true divergence of teaching styles and opinions is allowed in the academy, and my sojourn on these shores has convinced me that that is unlikely.