My wife handed me a recently published ‘literary’ novel this morning and asked me to read the opening and tell her what I thought about the writing. It’s a debut novel and the author is a graduate of the burgeoning empire of Creative Writing degree courses. The premise of the novel is very promising. So far, so good, I thought. Then I began to read, and by the time I had got through the first twenty pages I’d had enough…
It’s not that the writing is bad. There’s a certain mellifluous skill in the composition, and the author has done their research, but the style seems to be the only saving grace of the writing. The characters are flat and the story seems to take a distant second place in order for the author to parade their lengthy descriptions. Sometimes the effort to impress crashes to the ground with a confused thud as the wax that binds the words together loosens under the glaring scrutiny of the reader. (Sorry, couldn’t help playing the MFA game there).
Take this phrase, when referring to a photographer’s choice of a smaller camera for convenience - ‘the putative authenticity of spontaneity’. You can kind of see what the author is getting at, but the sense of it is lost in the clash of semantics. Aren’t authenticity and spontaneity more or less the same thing? Why would it be putative if it was authentic? It’s the kind of unnecessarily complex phrase that I am sure looks good on the page in the milieu of a Creative Writing degree course, but it only serves to obscure meaning while sounding erudite.
The wider effect of this approach is to constantly throw the reader out of the shimmering between the words on the page and the imaginative world they conjure up. I don’t think it is a good strategy to keep reminding readers that they are looking at print. Once in a while a polished gem of a sentence is worth the effort for the gratification of the writer and reader, but not for almost the entire duration of a novel. It only serves to aggrandise the author and diminish the creative opportunities for the reader.
When I read a book I want to be given the tools to create a lived experience in my head. I can live with the odd writerly flourish but I don’t want the author to constantly demand that I put down my readerly tools and admire their writerly skills. Are such authors so insecure or, worse, arrogant (and insecure) that they require such constant affirmation of their craft? It is possible to balance elegantly crafted writing with great characterisation and story-telling skills. Rosemary Sutcliff did it, as did Dodie Smith and more recently Yasmina Khadra.
Don’t get me wrong. I am perfectly happy for there to be plenty of Creative Writing courses out there. They serve a useful purpose in giving ‘putative’ writers the space and time to experiment and refine their craft. I felt the same way about the old PGCE courses where one third of the time was spent teaching and two-thirds of the course concerned thinking about teaching in order to define the best teaching strategies for each individual teacher. You get better teachers that way. You should also get better writers from similarly purposed Creative Writing courses.
And yet it feels like those who attend such courses are encouraged to look inwards, as if their writing has no relevance outside of the confines of their studies. This is reflected in much of the published output of Creative Writing course graduates, most of whom would appear to fall into the rut of ‘big words, small print, low sales’ and end up, if they are lucky, teaching the next generation of those doomed to follow the same path.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some hugely successful writers who emerge from Creative Writing programmes. But, from what works of theirs that I have read, I doubt that their legacy will long survive their deaths, or the deaths of their careers. For my own part, I am not interested in the posterity stakes. Nor the literary. I want to tell a story and tell it well enough that it is experienced as if a custom-made movie was playing inside the head of each individual reader. And that’s it. The old adage, trust the tale, not the teller seems to be the purpose of good writing.
A rewarding read, for me at least, should be about the story and the characters, not the author. The trouble with so much of the output of Creative Writing courses is that they seem to encourage the authors to leap out of the pages of their writing to such an extent that they become obstacles between the reader and the text that the reader has to fight past the author to get at. Where is the pleasure in that? What is there to admire in such a process, other than the author?
If I want to spend my time observing self-regarding individuals then that’s what television celebrities and politicians are for. People who care about stories and good writing are better than that. And, if they are wise, they avoid hostages to fortune like offering courses leading to the qualification of 'Master of FA...'