I recorded my first vlog of 2014 (I know, it’s October) to talk about the recent comments from Horace Engdahl, who is part of the panel that decide who gets the Nobel Prize for Literature.
You can watch the video in the player on this site or over on YouTube. You can even watch it with closed captions, because there is a transcript too. I’ve include that below, because frankly, it seems I talk a bit like I write blog posts. If you prefer to read and not watch, go for it.
And don’t forget that you can subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Wealthy white academic says writers should be taxi drivers.
Okay, that’s not quite true, but that’s more or less the general overview that’s coming from a certain chap called Horace Engdahl, who is part of the Swedish Academy folks who decide who’s going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Basically, his attack is two-fold. First of all, he has a go at creative writing courses. I went on a creative writing course myself after I finished University and I found it very useful.
The other thing that this Engdahl fellow is saying is that, “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard, but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.” I mean this all seems patronising in so many ways that I can’t quite count them.
First of all, the idea that in order to actually live life and to have any kind of life experience, you have to have what I suspect he considers to be working class jobs or perhaps low paid jobs. Like, in order to write we need to have endured some kind of perceived hardship. He also refers to the professionalism of being a writer, as if that’s quite a bad thing. And the idea that grants and financial support in order to write is somehow cheating.
I don’t need to go into a huge amount of detail but as someone who has written a book and had it published, I can say from the bottom of my pockets that it is not a lucrative business. Many writers don’t make a living from their writing alone and most of us, including me, have to have a full-time job at the same time.
It took me about eight years to get through my first draft of my first novel, and it wasn’t because I’m a giant lazy idiot. That’s part of it. But it was also because I couldn’t afford to not have a full-time job. That’s how a lot of authors write. There is absolutely no other option. You just have to put food on the table.
And for the most part, we don’t really complain about that. It’s just the way things are. We’ve chosen to pursue this career and we recognise from the outset that it’s not going to be hugely financially rewarding, unless we strike it lucky.
So although he’s concerned about the professionalism of writing, the reality is that the word ‘professional’ here, is pretty loose. It’s pretty hard to define, and absolutely nothing like professional in the way that most things are.
It’s not the same as being a professional footballer, for example. Or being a professional lawyer. Or being a professional doctor. Or being a professional dentist. Or being a professional taxi driver, actually. Because at least when you’re a professional taxi driver, you know that there’s a pretty good chance that, once you’ve done your work, you’re going to get paid for it… unless you have a particularly difficult ride where someone just legs it.
Anyway, he’s talking nonsense, obviously. But to make this vaguely useful, let me tell you three reasons why I thought being on a creative writing course was actually quite handy.
To be clear, I don’t think that a creative writing course is necessarily all about teaching and learning. I didn’t wander in as some kind of useless idiot and then leave being the next literary master of all literary things.
In fact, the most useful thing for me in my creative writing course was just being around other writers. It can be a lonely old business, this writing. So being around 20 other people, for a whole year, who were doing exactly the same thing, interested in exactly the same things, and going through exactly the same problems was just invaluable.
Secondly,it gave me a good idea of what goes on in the publishing industry. Back then I didn’t really know anything about publishers or agents or how to approach either of those types of person. I didn’t know how books were bought and sold. I wasn’t really very clear on the editing process. So just being in that environment and learning those things about the industry as a whole was really useful.
Thirdly, and in hindsight perhaps the most important thing that being on a creative writing course did for me, was to give me some nice, big fat juicy deadlines. Now, I’m not saying that if I didn’t go on a creative writing course that I wouldn’t have written an entire novel, but the fact that I had to, if I was going to graduate from the course that I’d paid good money to be on, I found quite useful.
Anyway, creative writing course aren’t for everyone, but to suggest that they are in some way corrupting the whole of Western literature is perhaps the biggest load of toss-nonsense I’ve ever heard.
Ultimately, I think that Captain Engdahl’s comments are pretty unhelpful. He seems to have a deluded idea of what writers should be. In fact, the very notion that writers ‘should be’ anything is kind of offensive and upsetting. Because the reality is, you might be surprised to find, is that writers/authors are just… people.
Just like, normal people with families and lives and… shelves and stuff.
I’m not the only person who’s upset about all of this. You can read a fantastic post by the poet, Tim Clare, and it’s on his website, which is here on my computer screen. You can go to timclarepoet.co.uk/?p=2449
That’s the URL structure. We all make the choices that we make. And the title of Tim Clare’s post is ‘Creative writing courses aren’t killing literature, sanctimonious, rich white tossers are’.
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