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Can You Teach Writing?
Crazy Oiks in France & Facteur Cheval

Publishing and the Internet
Practical Criticism

Can You Teach Writing?

For some reason I find the topic of creative writing teaching quite fascinating and believe this is largely market-driven by Universities and impoverished academics - ie a lucrative scam. The collection of texts in the Workshop section culled from The Paris Review interviews with big name writers has many dissenters although a few grudgingly believe something can be taught. A long time ago I was asked to do it myself by a mate who ran courses for the WEA. Not, I hasten to add, because of any particular skills or qualifications I might have had - he just wanted to unload a task. I declined saying that my specific advice to any oik writer would be quite simple - read - read a lot - read your bleeding head off - and then think about writing. I still think this is the best way and the author of the following review seems to agree. It's the most comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon I've seen up to now - by Elif Batuman in The London Review of Books - this is available on their site but probably won't stay up long so I make no apologies for preserving it here. Hey! I'm a subscriber after all!

It's a long piece so don't start on it if Eastenders is about to begin. Towards the end of her 8000 or so words Elif makes some remarkable statements:

In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

To Elif Batuman's Review

Brett Wilson writes:

Hi Ken,
You seem to be saying that it is better to read and practice writing than go to a writing class? The problem is that there is too much to read. It is said that Leonardo da Vinci was the last man to know everything. I don't think he was. Only a few decades after writing was invented, such a man probably ceased to exist. There have always been too many books. In science this is less of a problem, since it deals in generalisations. We don't need to read Principia Mathematica anymore because the knowledge can be generalised in the laws of motion, the gravity equation and the tool of calculus. In the Arts similarities are less useful than differences so we can't encapsulate everything we need in simple formulae. It's the difference that is in the detail. But 'reading as much as possible' seems to me to be going too much the other way. If I'm reading the article correctly, writing schools have constructed a man-made archipelago and cut themselves off from a large quantity of useful literature. This is evident in the 're-inventing the wheel' effect which has been observed by McGurl. Maybe it's time for writing schools to teach more 'learn by example' but I can't see how we can read enough? Perhaps a great writers oeuvre can be reduced down like a fish sauce? How about a bouillon of Proust? They say that the builders of the great cathedrals only knew seven rules of construction (er yes, I know a lot of the big ones collapsed Ken....)? They read enough books and then they went out and bankrupted economies by constructing their master's vanity projects. I think Dickens and Jane Austen would boil down well. Dickens does go on, and Austen kept repeating the same novel didn't she? Perhaps if we don't have to read everything we can still leave some time for writing.

Marie Feargrieve writes

I think Ken is right. Writing classes like a lot of other classes are principally about somebody making money out of people's hopes and aspirations. A lot of the so called teachers of these classes are not impressive to say the least and very often know little more than the student. Particularly in writing, you have either got it or you ain't! Reading copiously gives you a good diet of a lot of different styles and a lot of ideas and exposure to good structure of language and plot. What more do you need? Go away and write and see what happens but don't hand over hard cash. Your money won't buy you expertise.

Ken replies:

Brett, with this intervention you confirm your status as the craziest oik on the patch. We treasure you for these lunacies (and your fiction is interesting most of the time) but where to start of this bizarre farrago of aesthetic theory? It’s as mad as Adorno or Hegel.

No time? Yis, I’m sure there are lifers in solitary in Strangeways who assert they have no time to read Proust. What this really means is it’s a low priority and I’d be monstrously bored. I don’t claim to know your timetable intimately but I’ll wager a lot is wasted on internet skimming (I’ll soon be posting up a great review on this from the TLS), browsing comics, outings to pop-corn movies (your own description) and wrestling with your fiancée (no, readers, this isn’t a euphemism for Ugandan activities – Brett seems as interested in this mode of intercourse as Ed Hernandez – see Oik 7 – An Italian Journey).

Creative writing classes, I maintain, trade on three bad reasons for wanting to write. These are:

1. Wanting to be rich. Look at JK Rowling, John Grisholm etc – Christ! These people just sit in a room with a keyboard and earn millions! Why can’t I? Surely it’s just a fruit machine. I too could get lucky!

2. Wanting to be famous – driven by the celeb culture in which we are all immersed. A culture which produces an audience which knows everything about Jordan (Katy Price) but nothing about the middle-eastern state.

3. Wanting to acquaint the wider world with the details of your extraordinary existence ie egomania. Writing is better than being the pub bore – their audience gets up glassy-eyed and doesn't come back from a trip to the bog. The writer, however, never sees people closing the book with a groan or even throwing it in the bin.

The best reason for writing is a fascination with the medium – language. No one who calls for a boiled down Proust can have felt this. There are such skits – Monty Python did one - but we don’t read great lit to know the plot or to drop a few names – we read these things because they’re great works of art which can enrich our lives. Great writers are usually energised by reading. Proust noticed this trajectory – for years, as a boy, we was so enchanted by reading that he resolved to be a writer – except that he couldn’t think what to write about. The same feeling is revealed in the little hand-made books in a glass case at Howarth. The Brontes, before their themes emerged, were passionate about reading and fleshed out their inchoate aspirations by constructing these tiny artefacts. That other West Yorks artist David Hockney, realised he had to become a painter because of the pleasure he got from painting bike frames in his dad’s shop. It starts with the medium. The writer likes to read. In your world, when asked about, say, Moby Dick, you'd reply “Yes. Read that. Ahab drowns after finding the white whale” but that’s the least important thing about Moby Dick. We read it for the biblical, Shakespearean sweep of Melville’s language. And yes, as it happens, Herman did have an interesting life as a sailor but so did many others.

So I’m a bit suspicious of writers who don’t read much and wonder if they’re not in the business for the three bad reasons above. In your case I grant that you may not be aware of these subterranean influences and that you might well respond to language as much as content. This must be true if The Wasteland is one of your favourites since it relies entirely on linguistic effects. Even Eliot when asked what it meant called it merely “rhythmic grumbling”

I think you might have got cathedrals wrong too. I don’t know about the seven rules but “a lot of the big ones” didn’t fall down due to incompetence. Beauvais was the spectacular example but the second attempt still stands today – the highest gothic nave in Europe. Nor did such projects bankrupt economies – the labouring peasants didn’t go on a general strike and the masons were proud to spend their lives on such work (they too were enchanted by the medium – stone). Strange to hear from you, a mystic, that these were “vanity projects”. Is God vain? Who's he trying to impress?

And as a final footnote. I’ve nothing against greedy meatheads employing cynical spivs to give them a few pointers on how to get rich and famous. Just don’t call it literature. And don’t claim to teach what you can’t. Yes, the poor, solitary writer does deserve exposure and feedback from his peers but surely this is better carried out by unpaid enthusiasts in the humble precincts of The Crazy Oik and its website rather than the profit driven, careerist helots in academe whose only goal is to pack in more gullible punters. Creative Writing in this environment will soon be as bankrupt as media studies.

Ron Horsefield writes:

Poor Brett! While generally agreeing with some points in your diatribe Ken I feel I must point out several errors. Your theory of the primacy of language in the aesthetic response may have some truth in the case of poetry, but for novelists? It is a fact that most readers of Proust and even more of Dostoievsky and Tolstoy never read a word of these authors – they read translations. Even an eminent critic like George Steiner could write a big book on the two Russians without understanding a word of the language. We must conclude that you can still get a lot out of these works without wallowing in the sensual delights of the original language. Proust is a great psychologist, has fascinating things to say on memory, describes the fin-de-siècle scene in the Belle Epoque, and has thoughts on aesthetics, ethics and the meaning of life; all of which survive translation. There may be more loss with a poetical prose writer like Flaubert but Madame Bovary remains a widely read world classic. Odd, when you think of it, that only literature has this barrier. Painting, architecture and music are all fully accessible to a Jap or an Eskimo.

Brett’s desire for condensed books is accommodated by Reader’s Digest (do they still do these?) but there are respectable academic attempts at this. Back in the 60s there appeared a reprint of a book first published in 1948 - Aphorisms and Epigrams from Remembrance of Things Past edited and translated by Justin O’Brien. I think this would suit Brett.

Perhaps an analogue in painting would be an appreciation of brushwork. Close up one might admire the lively strokes of Titian, Franz Hals or Manet but other great artists have no visible brush strokes (Van Eyck, van der Weyden) and those on the Sistine Chapel ceiling would be visible only with binoculars.

So yes, the sensual beauties of language to English readers are evident in say Milton and Melville but that’s not all there is to it.

Creative writing teaching may well be as dodgy as double glazing sales but that’s free enterprise – no-one is really surprised to see Universities so degraded after Thatcher – saddened perhaps.

On a more general note I thought the magazine’s basic contention was that the talented oik, free from all influence, could write interesting stuff. Now you bang on about the importance of voracious reading. Can you have it both ways?

Finally, Beauvais, as I’m sure you know, doesn’t have the highest nave in Europe. It has no nave at all. It has the highest choir in Europe. It has no nave since it probably was a vanity project which ran out of funds. Of course it wasn’t God who financed it but some archbishop. Vanity would be the least of the faults of this class of money-grubbing paedophiles.

 Ken writes:

Ron makes some good points. I should perhaps expand my crit to say that it is just this aspect of creative writing - sensitivity to language - that academic courses fail to address. It's not a technical trick like structure or plot, it is, I maintain, a talent which can't be taught. It can be developed however, by extensive exposure to masterpieces in the canon (ie reading) - no academic mileage in that though. Elif's extraordinary remark "pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read." reveals the abyss. What is this mysterious ingredient which makes us respond to great lit? That's the nub.

I have added after Elif's review three letters which appeared in the LRB the following week. One from David Craig a professor in the subject at Lancaster. David's credentials as a lifelong radical are beyond reproach. He gave me one of my early breaks by publishing one of my stories, Nietzsche's Birthday in his magazine Fireweed. He's certainly not in it for the money or the kudos. Also, no matter what one thinks of Martin Amis's novels, it's hard to believe that he's trekking up to Manchester for the cash or the prestige. They must think there is something valuable to be taught. But then so did professors of phrenology and astrology.

I came across the following quote in the Paris Review Interviews Vol 1 which supports my view of reading. It's by Toni Morrison:

I think we erroneously give pride of place to the act of writing rather than the act of reading. People think you just read because you can understand the language, but a certain kind of reading is a very high-level intellectual process. I have such reverence for that kind of sensitive reading—it is not just absorbing things and identifying what's wrong but a much deeper thing that I can see would be perfectly satisfying. Anyway, this separation is fairly recent: not long ago the great readers were the great writers, the great critics were the great novelists, the great poets were the great translators. People didn't make these big distinctions about which one was more thrilling than the other.

Writing for me is just a very sustained process of reading. The only difference is that writing a book might take three or four years, and I'm doing it. I never wrote a line until after I became an editor, and only then because I wanted to read something that I couldn't find. That was the first book I wrote.

Marie Feargrieve writes:

Ken, this is for the debate: How anyone aka Brett can have such an opinionated view is quite beyond me. If we are discussing writing I assume we mean fiction and B does not read any fiction or at least very little. As for having no time, that is quite ridiculous and sheer excuse making. Writers groups are most often nothing more than mutual admiration societies. But as I know to my cost, when editing others' work, some people cannot take criticism and so maybe certain people would enjoy sitting in a group and being duped that their writing is good and going somewhere. I personally welcome criticism and can take it . Others cannot and prefer to fool themselves and crazily pay for others to fool them.    Marie

The Irrepressible Brett Wilson adds (Oct 20 2010)

Hi Ken, 

Let's forget about cathedrals. Let's get down to brass tacks, but no horse trading if you please, for you are a principled scholar. I think choirs serve only as a distraction and I suspect you are not such a knave. Consider all the books that have been written and such a short time for you or I to read them. We could do some calculations here, and remove from the usual three score and ten, the hours spent eating, sleeping and having sex. There are further deductions to make, but let’s not be nitpicky. It's obvious that God or fate has made us master of a finite resource and given us reason to spend it wisely. I refer to hoary time. You could blow the lot on reading, but that would be manic, like the action of a crazed lottery winner (in hindsight they show regret, but it appears you have few?), so let's consider the best course of action.

Before I come to the classics, I first want to consider the popular. You may dismiss this as candyfloss, as nutrition free, as burger bites in the hedonistic consumer glamoured, avoiding, bad-faithing, neurotic mass of humanity that we rub shoulders with in Waterstone's, but hold on a minute.... wasn't Shakespeare popular in his day (and thought vulgar by the French literati - branded as 'le poet savage' for a hundred years)? The fashionable are occasionally elevated to the ranks of the elite. We must keep our eyes open for the popular outsider coming up on the rails. We must leave room for the entertaining and occasionally the trivial and perverse.

I now move to the 'literary cannon'. With a hop, skip and a step we are free to consider perhaps less than 0.00000001% of the available literature and thus discard the probably useless bulk of writing that is destined to end up as landfill. I for one am relieved. But this is where you and I must part company. There is still too much literature. While you may want to stack the many mansions of your existence with the collected works of Proust, prolix continental metaphysicians and elephantine screeds of the higher order, I want to leave a little breathing space for the unclassifiable, the hybrid: you call them comics I name them graphic novels; you (and I) call them popcorn movies, I say there is an occasional gold nugget to break a tooth on; you might say ‘empty’, I might reply ‘balance’ and so on...

But I must go further. There is too much reverence Ken. Perhaps this engenders the counter-impulse behind programme writing? We must cut the classics down to size and not feel bad about doing it. Do we need to read all seven volumes of A la Recherché..? Do we need to read all Shakespeare’s plays? The truth is that the four great tragedies are enough. Would one Oscar Wilde play suffice? As a theatre goer or reader I might say no, but as a writer I would say one is sufficient. More importantly, does reading Wilde absolve us from the task of reading say PG Woodhouse? If we have Joyce, do we need Synge? I don’t want two writers on my list who use four fifths of the same ideas or technique. You suggest a digest, but that would not give me the opportunity to absorb a writer’s style and method. So much would be lost in crude distillation. Instead we need a form of uber-selective editing, a slashing blade. And as a citizen of the written word who reads very little, I need a cognoscenti to point things out, and sometimes pick things up and whack me round the noggin if necessary because, if it really is original, if it really is relevant, then I want to know about it. So I entreat the great scholar: “Don’t point me at a thousand books. There is no time to waste.”



France is full of great museums. But embedded in this cornucopia of culture are quirky examples of bathos that you’d hardly credit. La France profonde must have been the trigger for Marx’s warning that rural idiocy can be a baleful concomitant of an apparently paradisial existence.

Take the automat museum at Ry. This little village just south of Rouen was the setting for Madame Bovary. It fits exactly Flaubert’s description of Yonville, and the locals are keen to draw your attention to the gravestone of Delphine Delamare 1822-1848, the original Madame Bovary, whose scandalous adultery and suicide Flaubert picked up from the newspapers. So far so good for the literary pilgrim. But go down the main street to the very end to stumble across the musée des automates. In this darkened barn are a number of brightly lit display cabinets. Figurines, the characters in the novel, enact the principal scenes. Well, not so much enact since they’re mounted on spindles. All they do is rotate clock and anti-clock. You’d probably feel ripped off if they didn’t move. So forget that expensive Pleiade edition just follow the arrows. How GF would have larfed! It’s like something straight out of his dictionnaire des idées recues.

Or the museum at the chateau of Savigny les Beaune. This area, in the world’s greatest wine region, the Cote d’Or of Burgundy, has a very respectable appellation, Savigny les Beaune, but what does the count do? He grubs up a few of those boring vines and assembles in the grounds of the Chateau, a pile of exotic planes. Weird stuff, Mirages, Sabres, a MiG 15, Javelins, Hunters, helicopters. And not only planes, in an outbuilding is a vast array of cars and motor bikes, even farm tractors and fire engines. Inside the chateau are more motor bikes, 2000 model aeroplanes, push bikes and petrol engines. You soon conclude that the count is mad.

Then there’s the Chateau at Vascoeuil, the home of the great 19C historian Jules Michelet. Yes the chateau itself is in fine nick and the immaculate grounds are full of interesting modern sculpture (no that’s not an oxymoron) but just how is our pilgrimage improved by climbing the stair in a round tower to the very room in which the great man wrote, by the apparition which confronts you as you stagger breathless into that tiny enclosure? There behind a desk is positioned a waxwork of Michelet, dressed in a velvet jacket, quill pen in hand, seemingly about to say “Who the fuck are you?” Yep, it takes you right back. We really do think he’s writing a chapter on Robespierre. Marvellous innit? How do they think of these things?

Hang on a minute – now we come to greatest madness. An oik masterpiece. A crazy architectural lash up erected over 33 years by a provincial postman. It looks a bit like Angkor Wat. It is in the village of Hauterives just south of Lyon. Get off the A7 at junction 12 and head east – no don’t press on to Nice or Cannes, you won’t like it and you’ll certainly be robbed. Instead take in the quintessence of Crazy Oikitude. I’m so enthused by this extravagant lunacy that I’ve made a special Crazy Oik website page on it. The materials are combined from the Facteur Cheval website, the literature handed out there, and my own photos. Take heart fellow oiks! Anything is possible!

Yis! Take me to the palace now!

Publishing and the Internet

I attach a review of a book on the transforming effects of the Internet, and specifically self-publishing. The author of the book under review, Clay Shirkey, thinks it's the biggest jump since the printing press replaced scribes. For most writers I don't think the penny has dropped yet. Do writers realise they can now produce a novel, with an ISBN. and inserted into the distribution system. for about a fiver? And that this entity would be indistinguishable from any other on a table in Waterstone's? The new barrier is now clearly defined - marketing - and that's what you get from a recognised publisher.

The future role of publishers is summed up in this quote:

If publishing has only been taken seriously because it used to be costly and difficult, as he suggests, then as the act of publication goes from being hard to virtually effortless, publishers face a grim future. But if the value in publication always consisted less in managing paper and more in making value judgements about what deserves attention, then the removal of the bottleneck which the printing press provides does not necessarily condemn them to oblivion. If you can indeed identify when one book is better than another, then those who can write them, or find them, will surely be able to turn that expertise into hard cash, printing press or no - though it is "still not clear how mainstream media organizations can pull off this vital trick.

For the full review click on this link Sitcoms or Lolcats

And while we're on the subject I attach a note from Tom Kilcourse:

Hello Ken,
I think I mentioned some time ago a new on-line publisher to which I have submitted material. I have just been told that the site is now up and running. Some of your readers may care to look at it, they can download a novel for £3, or some of your contributors may care to place material on the site. The address is: www.writersreadersdirect.com/home

By the way, the character in 'The Winner' died in January and I have written a follow-up about him. If you would be interested, I'll send it.

All the best,

We look forward to Tom's follow up to The Winner - a story which many thought the best thing in Oik 7

Practical Criticism

In the last days of the October Oiklet I squeeze in a note from esteemed editor Alan Dent of the Penniless Press. He picks up on my story Green Sock and, always more than ready to accept negative criticism, I explained my own view of the piece’s deficiencies.


Thanks for your comments on the Green Sock. Yes, a misfire (you rejected an earlier version some years ago). It's not even a proper short story but a follow up chapter to Decline and Fall (the story John Murray anthologised and got picked up by his publisher Aiden Ellis who rang to ask me to turn it into a novel). I wondered if it was because I'd broken Kurt Vonnegut's rule "Always have someone in the story you can root for" since everyone in it was a self-regarding pieceashit. But then again, I thought, Flaubert's novels are full of such - Madame B, Education Sentimentale and Bouvard and Pecuchet.  

However, had I read Alan’s comment more attentively I might have guessed that he was picking up on Ron’s aesthetic theory expounded to his girlfriend Sandra in which he asserts that the final chapter in Ulysses, sometimes seen as a tour de force of psychological insight, is in fact an artifice, a trick, merely a triumph of technique. 

The Green Sock isn't at all a bad story. I thought it rose at those points where aesthetic questions are discussed. The comment about Nora Joyce is pertinent: she knew Joyce better than anyone and he was a bugger all right ! The Molly Bloom monologues are written from a male perspective and I guess most women find them vaguely laughable. But I think Ron's idea that technique is enough is slightly short of complete: the technique has to mesh with something real. Joyce carries off the MB stuff because there is enough connection to female desire. He exaggerates but he's essentially right about the power of female sexuality and he was a pioneer. Of course Flaubert is doing something very similar in Madame B but within the constraints of his time. Had he been free to write frankly about Emma's sexuality, what would he have made of her abandon with Leon ? The technique won't do the trick if there isn't adequate connection. But all art functions through exaggeration. It takes something real and pushes it so it becomes larger than life. Even minimalism does this. No-one was ever so indecisive as Vladimir and Estragon.
I didn't know Aiden Ellis had asked you to do a novel. Didn't you fancy it ? You might now be on the illustrious list of Booker winners.

Your expanded comments have somewhat clarified the crit. Aiden's invite came out of the blue in 86. He'd read the story in Panurge 4 and said, on the phone, that he laughed so violently his wife thought he was having a heart attack. I never met him although in a later exchange I mentioned I'd been staying near Henley on Thames (work) and wondered whether to drop in. He said I should've. He seemed a very approachable bloke genuinely interested in lit rather than making money. He published Marguerite Yourcenar as well as John Murray. I thought it odd to be asked to expand a short story into a novel but promised to have a go but then ran out of steam (You'd have done it in a month - no trouble).

I must also, as a footnote, comment on his last line in an attempt to rescue the reputation of Oik contributor Marie Feargrieve. Some readers seem to be jumping to the conclusion that this shy, retiring, somewhat diffident lady is in fact a horny old slapper. Indeed this projection might be listed as yet another misleading manifestation of technique. Just because she writes about fat horny slappers doesn’t mean she is one. And as far as meeting her goes I am informing Alan that there’s a queue and he’s someway down it, behind Tom Kilcourse.

Marie adds:

Alan I would be very pleased to meet you but you will be very disappointed I'm afraid. My Ada and Renee characters are pure imagination . On the plus side I have a great sense of humour and think the world would be a much more interesting place peopled with characters such as these. They laugh at themselves and this is a great quality . My current piece of fiction is written from the point of view of a cat, no jokes re pussy please. I end on the fact that I consider the current state of the world to be too banal and far too anal. The point of the Oik is larger than life characters and mine are certainly that. Ada and Renee also fly the flag for all women and that can only be a good thing in the Oik! and no I am in no way a feminist, as I said I do have a sense of humour and the two things do not go together. Carry on reading my stuff please . All comments welcome. Marie