Reviewed by Peta Mitchell
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In the first Modern Language Association newsletter for 2006, renowned poetry critic and MLA President, Marjorie Perloff, remarked on the growing ascendency of Creative Writing within English Studies in North America. In her column, Perloff notes that “[i]n studying the English Job Information List (JIL) so as to advise my own students and others I know currently on the market, I noticed what struck me as a curious trend: there are, in 2005, almost three times as many positions in creative writing as in the study of twentieth-century literature” (3). The dominance of Creative Writing in the English Studies job list in turn reflects the growing student demand for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the field—over the past 20 years, BA and MA degrees in Creative Writing in North American tertiary institutions have quadrupled (3).
Creative Writing has always sat uneasily within the English departments that now, generally speaking, house it, and the discipline’s recent and rapid growth in popularity throughout the US, the UK, and Australia has begun to throw this tension between the creative and the critical more clearly into relief. On the one hand, many Literary Studies academics, Perloff observes, have
reservations about an undergraduate [creative writing] curriculum that, so they think, consists mostly of surveys and workshops—the latter, touchy-feely affairs where students discuss one another’s work and talk about their personal feelings and problems with a permissive instructor playing the role of passive facilitator. As for the creative writing PhD, the same academics take a dim view of these new programs, convinced that they are largely anti-intellectual (3).
On the other hand, she asserts that Creative Writing’s growth might best be conceived as “the revenge of literature on the increasingly sociological, political, and anthropological emphasis of English studies (or, for that matter, modern language studies in general) today” (4). For Perloff, the “boom” in Creative Writing, although it signals a crisis in the field of twentieth-century literature, does not necessarily indicate the triumph of the “touchy-feely” creative writing workshop over rigorous research and scholarship. Instead, she maintains, it offers an opportunity to focus upon the field that unites Creative Writing and English Studies—literature.
Perloff may be more positive about Creative Writing than many of her colleagues, but when she states that this uniting field of literature is “a field without which creative writing could not exist and which, conversely, may have no other place to go” (4), we can detect a certain amount of fatalism in her tone. With the noticeable decline of twentieth-century literature and British literature in the US academy, literature may simply have “no other place to go” than Creative Writing.
I suspect that Perloff’s somewhat grudging acceptance reflects the ambivalent attitude of many Literary Studies academics who are not inherently opposed to the growth of Creative Writing. However, in an important new work in the underresearched (but possibly not for too much longer) field of Creative Writing, Paul Dawson—lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of New South Wales—proposes a much more radical and positive role for Creative Writing in redefining Literary Studies and the Humanities more generally. In Creative Writing and the New Humanities, published in 2005, Dawson states that the debate outlined by Perloff is not the central issue. In fact, he argues, it is
unproductive to dramatise the presence of Creative Writing in universities as a struggle between writers and critics over the integrity of literature or the importance of aesthetic value. The history of Creative Writing demands that it be seen as a flexible and continually developing set of pedagogical strategies for challenging and reinvigorating Literary Studies. (160).
Consequently, it is the history of Creative Writing that Dawson focuses upon for the majority of the book. By carefully tracing the way in which Creative Writing has carved out a garret within the ivory tower of the university, first in the United States and then within Australia, he demonstrates the shared beginnings of Literary Studies and Creative Writing before their gradual separation in the Romantic redefinition of the category of “literature” and the privileging of “imagination” as the creative faculty. In doing so, Dawson effectively dismantles the opposition between the two dominant metaphors of garret and ivory tower, drawing the reader’s attention to “the pervasiveness of these metaphors and the assumptions about Creative Writing and Literary Studies which they underpin” (20).
These assumptions, rooted in Romantic notions of the individual creative genius, can similarly be seen to have generated the question that has perennially plagued Creative Writing as a discipline: “Can (and should) writing be taught?”. For Dawson, it is this central question that itself requires interrogation, for it has led directly to a Creative Writing pedagogy—embodied in the space of the workshop—that privileges craft, process, individual expression, and the discovery of a distinct, individual voice, as opposed to the product-focused depth hermeneutics of Literary Studies (112-13). This is particularly evident, Dawson argues, in the growth of Creative Writing in the United States in the 1930s. Developing alongside New Criticism, Creative Writing as a discipline was “left with a denuded Romantic aesthetics, adopting an expressivist theory of authorship that democratised the poetic imagination as a means of self-development, and a craft-based pedagogical practice” (188). The workshop’s emphasis on individual voice and its primary directive to “show rather than tell” was nothing more than a perpetuation of
the dead end of the Romantic legacy known as art for art’s sake. The workshop model offers no figure of the writer for students and teachers other than that of the artist dedicated to the discovery of a personal voice and the development of a craft. The university, in this formulation, is nothing but a garret in the ivory tower, and this attitude persists today. (188)
In contrast, Dawson asserts, Creative Writing programs began to emerge in Australian universities at the same time as the concept of the “author” as the prime creative originator of, and the distinct voice within, a work began to be challenged by capital-T, continental “Theory” (169). This cross-pollination between Creative Writing and Theory is embodied, for Dawson, in the emergence of fictocriticism, a hybrid genre that demarcates “a metaphorical (postmodern) space between theoretical and literary genres” (169). Creative Writing, in turn, operates as “an institutional juncture for this space, a literal site for negotiation between the demands of the academy (theory) and the demands of the literary market (literature), plus the attendant theoretical binaries of objectivity/subjectivity and exteriority/interiority” (169). And in bridging the critical and the creative, and institutional and market forces, fictocriticism begins the active process of building the garret in the ivory tower.
More importantly, while Dawson is careful not to posit Australian Creative Writing programs as an “ideal model,” he does maintain that their more recent history has placed them “in a more flexible and interdisciplinary position than those in America” (126). Specifically, it is the potential offered by Australian Creative Writing programs in the post-Theory environment of the “New Humanities” that interests Dawson and that forms the critical crux of his argument. In the figure of the public intellectual—”the exemplary figure of the New Humanities” (201)—Dawson sees both common ground and a common goal for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, stating that
the distinction between the practice of artists and the theory of critics can be circumnavigated by collapsing both figures into that of the intellectual, a figure that incorporates both, without the need for hybridity, because it is based on a vision of social agency rather than a theory of generic form or of the creative process. For an artist to be an intellectual it is less important to have a theory of writing than to possess a vision of how a literary work might operate in society and to assume responsibility for it. (195)
In shifting the focus away from the author-as-creative-genius to the writer-as-literary-intellectual, Dawson does not so much side-step the vexed question “Can (and should) writing be taught?,” as he does refocus it on a more sociological level. When released from “narrowly formalist conceptions of craft,” what Creative Writing’s emphasis on process and on praxis can bring to the New Humanities is a new “sociological poetics” that “connects [literary work] to the outside world” (208). This, in turn, recasts the traditional disjunction or disagreement between Creative Writing and Literary Studies as a more fruitful dialogic exchange. Like Perloff, Dawson sees literature as the point of connection between the two disciplines, and for him it is a point that both necessitates and lays bare this mutually beneficial exchange:
A specific work of literature not only reveals the structure or general laws of literature, but interrogates and expands them. It is a contribution not just to the practical creative art of writing, but to the study of literature as well. This requires a recognition that knowledge in Literary Studies does not consist of a list of methodological approaches which can be applied to the study of literature, and nor does it reside in a body of canonical works awaiting critical excavation, but that it is formed at the dialogic junction between the two. Knowledge is constituted by the interaction of literature and criticism. […] What I am arguing for, then, is a concept of intellectual exchange, of literary and critical writing as complementary practices, of the discipline of English involving a dialogic interaction between the two modalities of intellectual work within a specific field of knowledge. […] In this case Creative Writing is not necessarily the teaching of writing literature alongside the teaching of writing criticism, but a mode of literary research within the academy. (178-79)
Dawson’s call for an increased and more sociologically aware interaction between Literary Studies and Creative Writing is certainly convincingly made and more directly positive and practical than Perloff’s reticent endorsement. However, it is still unclear what shape this new pedagogy might take at the undergraduate level and how it might reshape postgraduate dissertations—whether they take the form of the traditional Literary Studies dissertation or the dual critical/creative form of the Creative Writing MPhil or PhD.
Dawson also does not take up the increasingly critical issue of the status of creative work as research within the institution of the university. According to a recent report by the Australian Government’s Council for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS), “the most common difficulty in dealing with work in the creative arts disciplines as research has been in accommodating the creative outputs of artists’ work within conceptual frameworks geared more to traditional scholarly publication”—a difficulty that the upcoming Research Quality Framework provides an opportunity to address (28). Moreover, that Dawson does not set Creative Writing within the context of other forms of creative practice as research—such as musical composition or dramatic performance—raises further questions about the possible privileging of literature as the category of public intellectual work par excellence. However, raising these concerns is, perhaps, to misunderstand Dawson’s objective. Creative Writing in the New Humanities is less a prescription for Creative Writing than a call for a deeper understanding of its historical context and its future possibilities, and it is a call that will no doubt be taken up, generating new debates about the role of creative work in the Humanities.
Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS). Dept. of Education, Science and Training. Measures of Quality and Impact of Publicly Funded Research in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. CHASS Occasional Paper 2. Canberra: CHASS, 2005.
Dawson, Paul. Creative Writing and the New Humanities. London: Routledge, 2005.
Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Creative Writing’ among the Disciplines.” MLA Newsletter 38.1 (2006): 3-4.