THE CRAZY OIKLET 3
Can You Teach Writing?
Crazy Oiks in France & Facteur Cheval
Publishing and the Internet
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
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
Brett Wilson writes:
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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)
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.”
CRAZY OIKS IN FRANCE
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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