As if walking along the street and hearing a domestic row from the open windows of a house, one now and then becomes aware of arguments taking place in the culture. Lately there have been some about creative writing and the state of the novel. They are quarrels in which Malcolm Bradbury might have taken a hand, were he still alive, bearding the razor gang at the London Review cake shop, or squaring up to Mark Lawson on Front Row.
Indeed, he did take a hand in similar discussions in the past, not least when trying, during the late 1960s, to push through the University of East Anglia's MA in Creative Writing as a course proposal, prior to its founding in 1970. As he put it, writing of himself and co-founder Angus Wilson in the introduction to Class Work, a 1995 anthology of fiction by UEA graduates:
What neither of us entirely recognized was the degree of suspicion in which creative writing had come to be held in Britain. It was generally regarded as a dangerous American invention, like the vacuum cleaner and the hoola hoop – and certainly not one that had a place in the literature department of a British university.
Right or wrong, the arguments advanced by critics of creative writing in the academy – that writing can't be taught, that writing courses only turn out deadhead realists, that all writers need to do in the way of training is read etc – are not new. Nor is the jostling effect writers can cause at a university. When Nabokov was proposed for a chair in literature at Harvard in 1957, the language theorist Roman Jakobson is said to have objected, saying 'Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?'
There are actually several versions of this remark and one Nabokov biographer has it being made eleven years earlier. At any rate, it was part of a longer running narrative of friction between the pair, conflict emblematic not just of rivalry between brilliant Russian exiles but also of the role of the writer in the academy.
Malcolm Bradbury was, in these terms, the original English elephant. It's a good time to consider his legacy as on November 27, 2010 it will be ten year's since Bradbury's death. It's also, this year, the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the UEA MA.
As a novelist, he remains most famous for his satirical portrait of the emerging permissive society, The History Man (1975), though I myself think Rates of Exchange (1983) his best novel. Many people directly associate The History Man with UEA. In fact, so I'm told by people who were here then, the links between characters in that novel and individuals on the UEA campus where Bradbury was working when he wrote it are fairly tenuous. At least two other institutions make up the composite model. Playful and elusive, he was a fiction maker in that novel as in others.
To Bradbury as a person, like the Slakan hero Valdopin in Rates of Exchange, 'a great many stories attach; who is to know whether they are true or false'. He would, a reading of his novels and critical writings suggests, enjoy that legacy, with its slight scent of intrigue. After all much of his work, both critical and creative, probes the reliability of human narrative, even of subjectivity itself.
As a teacher, he was mostly regarded fondly. Norwich-based writer Paul Willetts (biographer of Julian Maclaren Ross and others), who studied under Bradbury in the 1980s, recalls "a friendly figure in a grey jacket whose nickname, because of his pallor, was 'Talcy Malcy' i.e. as if he had been dusted with talcum powder". Probably students were not aware that Bradbury had had a major heart operation in 1958 and was not expected to live beyond middle age. Another student of Bradbury's, my colleague the novelist Andrew Cowan (currently director of the prose strand of the MA in creative writing at UEA), has a memory of him teaching 'in a cloud of pipe-smoke'. Those were the days.
As a writer working at UEA, one is very much aware of his presence. His spirit seems to haunt the corridors. And no wonder: along with Wilson, Bradbury was formative in making the teaching of writing at UEA what it is today. In particular, the ethos of the creative and the critical, considered as a mutually informing dynamic, derives directly from him. It has been developed by many others – by critics, by creative writers and, as we sometimes say, by 'hybrids' who do both – but Bradbury is the fons et origo. He is the source of the emphasis on reading (the works of others) and rewriting (one's own work), in the workshop environment and elsewhere, which remains the fundamental basis of creative writing teaching here.
It is invariably said, to me or my colleagues, and not quite correctly, 'oh you do Malcolm Bradbury's old job'. Not quite correctly because universities and the ways in which they engage with writers have changed a great deal since the period in which he was here (1965-1995). But there are still many echoes. Now that the MA in Creative Writing has existed for so long, there is a strong historical sense of the many writers who have taught or are teaching on the course – who include Angela Carter, Rose Tremain, Andrew Motion, Patricia Duncker, Michele Roberts, Kathryn Hughes, George Szirtes, Lavinia Greenlaw, Andrew Cowan, Trezza Azzopardi and Amit Chaudhuri – being wound together in an armature.
That armature is involved with an undeceived belief in the value of literary intentions. A still developing clarity – like mist rolling back over a grassy floodplain – about what can be objectified in teaching of writing and what can't, that's involved in it too. It is, moreover, involved with being honest about the failings of writing, and establishing whether or not they can be corrected (can it be done without losing the essential identity of the piece or should we eschew such old-fashioned notions)? It is involved, above all, with recognition of the importance of reading: with taking best historical practice as a guide, descriptive rather than prescriptive, to artistic strategies. All that we really do is point students to an atlas of the past.
Already many UEA students have themselves become part of the atlas. Writers such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Clive Sinclair, Anne Enright, Deirdre Madden and David Almond determine the literary landscape. Many more recent UEA graduates seem likely to do the same, figures such as Andrew Miller, Tracy Chevalier, Erica Wagner, Toby Litt, Joe Dunthorne, Tash Aw, Diana Evans, Owen Sheers, Naomi Alderman, Adam Foulds, John Boyne, Mohamed Hanif, Paul Murray, James Scudamore, Jane Harris and Anjali Joseph.
This range and depth of talent cannot be claimed only as the product of a single course at one university. That would be ridiculous. In particular, the 'legend' of Ian McEwan, as Cain to Bradbury's Adam, needs some adjustment. As McEwan has put it, writing of Bradbury and that first year when teaching seemed to amount to a complete lack of interference: 'To be the "product" of his writing "course" was to be the beneficiary of an absolute artistic licence.' But even geniuses need soil in which to grow, and it is probably true that McEwan has derived as much reputational benefit from UEA as UEA has from McEwan.
But the list does show the wrong-headedness of those who make blanket claims that creative writing courses are stultifying. Such charges are often levelled by commentators who have failed to produce any substantial literary work themselves. They are like those people who, arriving late and breathless at a bus-stop, shake their fists at those on the departing bus.
Another possible reason for the criticisms is the rapid rise during the past decade of the number of creative writing courses offered, not just by universities but also by 'non-paper' organisations such as the Faber Academy. Ninety-four British universities now offer a range of postgraduate degrees in creative writing and in any one year there are usually over 10,000 short-term creative writing courses or classes on offer in the UK.
It has been said that the popularity of such courses is because of a crisis in so-called traditional Eng Lit. I don't think that's quite true, though it is entertaining to watch how the professors react when the subject is broached – viz. John Sutherland, retired Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English at University College London, comparing creative writers at universities to 'pandas at Chinese zoos'.
The elephants and the pandas, if that is what we must be, have been around a long time now. The debate around creative writing, which provides the context for Bradbury's role at UEA, can be situated historically.
The term creative writing was probably first employed in the sense we now understand it by Ralph Waldo Emerson on August 31, 1837, in 'The American Scholar', an address to the Phi Beta Kappa society at Harvard. Emerson proposed "creative writing" and "creative reading" as antidotes to "the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees", in other words the prevailing philological character in literary studies, which was seen as backward looking and not appropriate for the developing American sensibility. The first writing classes in this new spirit were given by Barrett Wendell at Harvard in the 1880s.
1930 saw the founding of what would become the Iowa Writer's Workshop:
An associate professor from the University of North Carolina, Norman Foerster, became the director of the School of Letters at the University of Iowa. Foerster sought to repair the divorce in the study of literature, the divorce between ęsthetics and scholarship, between practice and theory, and between art and criticism. Foerster did not intend for his school to become "a vocational school for authors and critics," but he did implement classes in creative writing and a new emphasis on literature as an art. Like Wendell and the pioneers of creative writing at Harvard, Foerster saw literature as a collection of works of art and also as historical artifacts. In his school, he sought to synthesize the making and study of literature for its beauty, humanism, wisdom, and historical importance. Foerster's graduate school was the first to contain the basic components of today's creative writing programs: a course of study leading to a graduate degree; seminars for writers on the issues of craft and form; the study of literature as an art; and a creative work for a thesis.
(DW Fenza, The Writer's Chronicle, March 2000)
Over the same period in Britain, writers were beginning to disentangle the creative element in critical writing (which Matthew Arnold's 1865 essay 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time' insists upon) and the critical element in creative writing. T.S. Eliot's 1932 essay 'The Function of Criticism' contains this much-quoted passage: "the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing; this frightful toil is as much critical as creative."
Another historical marker was the appointment in 1912 of the poet and novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, as Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. Perhaps he, actually, was the original elephant in the lecture hall. At any rate the fractious founding of the Cambridge English faculty, that 'Q' oversaw, was from the outset embroiled in a creative-critical dynamic. The conditions in which Quiller-Couch took up his position would soon be overshadowed by the outbreak of the first world war. This meant that the Germanic philological tradition, which along with classical studies was one of the parents of serious literary enquiry at British universities, had to be expelled or at least camouflaged. Its replacement by Quiller-Couch's dreamy English folklorism, which is related to the work of the Georgian poets, would not last long.
Quiller-Couch remained at Cambridge until his death in 1944, but at least a decade earlier his attempt to create an English creative-critical tradition had been blasted to pieces by the twin forces of modernism and the rise of his former pupil FR Leavis at Cambridge. (Though part fiction, Nigel Williams's 1992 TV drama The Last Romantics give a good sense of Leavis's Oedipal relationship with Quiller-Couch.) The Q effect was, for creative writers at British universities, disastrous, as Quiller-Couch came to represent everything against which professional academic literary critics defined themselves.
In America, as usual, things moved much more swiftly. The evolving history of creative writing courses there is well described by D.G. Myers in The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (1995). More combatively, Mark McGurl's The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) examines the substantial influence on modern American literature of MFAs and similar courses. The current situation worldwide is surveyed in Paul Dawson's Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2005).
Creative writing as an academic discipline, just like the writing of literature and study of literature, depends on reading. And, as does any university subject, it depends on the calibre and motivation of the staff and the talent and enthusiasm of the students. It is also informed by the institution in which the teaching takes place: its traditions, its intellectual currents, its 'culture'. In the case of UEA, although the writers who have taught and studied here differ markedly in their creative practice, from each other and from him, Malcolm Bradbury is still the pole around which the whole armature turns.
Partly this is because he was out there. He helped connect UEA to the world, sometimes at the expense of frustrated students. What is the difference between God and Malcolm Bradbury? scrawled one, in a toilet graffito. None. Both are said to be everywhere yet are hard to see. He lived fully and publically amid the contradictions, difficulties and opportunities of being a writer in a university, showing those who followed how it might be done (as he himself followed those who had done it in America, at Iowa and elsewhere). He wrote academic criticism, belles lettres and journalism as well as novels and television scripts, served on many committees and prize panels, and did a great deal of work for the British Council.
In a variety of arenas, then, he gave freely of his knowledge, doing so in the full knowledge that literary knowledge is not the same as writing literature. But in the end, like the rest of us present and past, students and teachers alike, he always came back to his own creative heartland, to a small lamp glowing in a window and on the white paper within, waiting to be filled. No amount of learning can take away the exigencies of that challenge. And that is something we teach at UEA, albeit nearer the end than the beginning of the course: now you're on your own, mate, it's your skin in the game.
Yet, amid that blankness and loneliness, lies the possibility of communion – through language – with other readers and other writers. An awareness that human beings are not discrete units is at the heart of this. This is effectively to say, both 'the writer lives on through his works' and 'I am connected to other writers and readers through those works'.
But neither of those statements quite gets at the incarnate nature of writing, that sense of its having once been produced by an author's hands and fingers, then handled by those of readers. How writing is voiced in the mind, in the mind of both author and reader, seems to me intimately connected with this. (I don't see that reading on screen alters the case categorically; it's simply a different type of handling.)
The words come out of flesh, yes, yet what they are trying to flesh out is not just a fixed fictional scenario within the pages of a novel or poem. The whole business is so much more oscillatory, so much more transitional than that. For the words are also going to flesh; the expressivity goes both ways. What goes between writer and reader is not so much a text as an experience, maintained in phase space between the historico-physio-psychological circumstances of a book's production and those in which its meanings are absorbed and transformed, in the reader's mind, body and environment.
In this way author and reader are briefly correlate. We are all history men and history women, joined in a ghostly turn through variant systems and domains within systems. Our writing and reading is like a mist-like diffusion through these adjacent membranes or surfaces. It's something that travels, a textual nomad, through different narrative environments. Something that changes its nature with each writing and reading but mysteriously remains within the grip of the original words.
How strong that grip is, how long it lasts, comes down to the power of the writing, the responsiveness of readers, and the social conditions in which reading takes place. Critically, it is concerned with the tricky issue of intentionality: the relationship between what an author sets out to do and how the resulting work is interpreted. Since the New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley, since Barthes and Foucault, the topic has not been adequately theorised to take account of the fact of creative writing within universities. Creative writing courses depend on a more resilient sense of intention and a more personalised view of what Foucault called 'the author function' than much modern criticism allows. Bradbury himself put the issue pithily: 'Since Angus and I were both novelists as well as teachers of literature, and took our profession seriously, it seemed somewhat strange for us to be announcing the Death of the Author in the classroom, then going straight back home to be one.' (Class Work).
One route out of this impasse would be the development of a genuine creative writing pedagogy which reconciles pragmatism with idealism, and which modulates positivism (based on stylistics and other methodologies) with a proper artistic respect for the slipperiness of language and the diversity of the individual imagination. I think, when he died, that Bradbury was getting close to developing such a philosophy:
After twenty-five years, I am still not totally convinced myself that writing can be taught – if by that is meant that writers of small talent can be transformed, by the touch of a hand or the aid of a handbook, into significant authors . . . But what certainly can be created is a significant climate around writing, in which talented and promising authors are taken through the problems, general and specific, universal and personal, of their form and ambitions, shown the options and the possibilities, challenged, edited, pressured, hastened, treated as members of a serious profession. (ibid.)
People can dispute the value of that 'significant climate', but after forty years in Britain, and much longer in America, its actual existence cannot be denied. It's time for the many writers in different genres who teach on creative writing courses to stand up and make a case for what they do, and that means meeting head on the criticisms, whether they come from within or without the academy.
Focusing myopically on limits to teaching, antagonists of creative writing fail to realise that taking a good creative writing course is, in itself, a process of idealisation. Its instrumental, pragmatic efforts are directed towards ideal texts. That is, not a single ideal text to which all teaching aspires, but the ideal form of each text to which a particular student is aspiring. That is why this question of intention is very important; but trying to help students discover and realise their aims does not mean ignoring the real liability (and theoretical certainty) that those aims will be misinterpreted once on the page. The workshop system, which Bradbury was the first to bring to the UK from America, and involves about twelve students reading and notating each other's work, is predicated on eliminating as many as possible of those misinterpretations.
In prose forms in which story is the primary factor, the grounds for these misinterpretations often relate to the sequencing of transitions in time and space, to glitches of register, to implausibilities of plot or character, or to errors in handling of perspective: mistakes in those very elements of fiction mentioned above. Of course, the instability of language in general, its fallen nature, means that 'mistakes' will continue to occur. The author will not engineer in the reader's head all the effects he or she was hoping to achieve. But that does not mean one should not, in the space of the workshop, that tenemos in which trust is paramount, make a collective approach to the pearly limit beyond which there are no mistakes.
Frequently, too, the workshop process is an aid to organisation, the paramount factor in novels of this type. By this I don't mean clearing a path to one's desk, though that is important, or using diagrams (as Nabokov did): I mean that in helping students become more detached and judicious about their writing, the good creative writing course allows the novel to become the self-organising entity which, at its best, it is. The ideal that was sought in the first place becomes scaffolding that can be kicked away, to allow the unpredictable trajectory of the self-organisation to deliver something new.
It's when the totality of that evolving creative experience, in which every word set down carries a story forward with ever-accelerating intensity (Flaubert's progression d'effet), is conveyed to the reader, as a kind of call, that the language which the author has encoded can live again in the reader's head. The author's intentions and the ideal to which they were directed, then become ghostly presages of an individual experience. This foundational call and response is akin in some respects to Leavis's idea of literature as a collaborative act of reconstitution between human minds.
With some student writers, the initial map they are trying to follow is much harder for the tutor to decipher. The ideals of these writers are often not conceived in story terms but as something much harder to describe: a voice, a consciousness, some kind of awareness. Often it is described in relief, as explicitly anti-realist. As a teacher in these cases, one must inculcate an authentic openness to the possibilities of language. One encourages the students to go out into the world with a cocked ear. At the same time, one shows them to the work of other novelists. It's in these two places that they can best listen for the elusive mental artefact which they are trying to discover while engaged in composition.
So perhaps we should reschedule our definition of the creative writing course: not a process of idealisation, but a process of defeated idealisation – defeated, transformed, above all experienced. And that, actually, is what is involved in the production of the 'the living novel': the novel which, to quote from VS Pritchett's book of that title, conveys 'a direct apprehension of life'. But the living aspect is not just the writer seeing the realities of his or her world and presenting them in a convincing new way. It is also the writer writing, following his or her intentions, for that is part of life too. Between the demise of biographical criticism and the larger-scale ambitions of historicism, many university critics seem to have forgotten that.
I overstate the case, probably. There are certainly some critics who have bridged the gulfs. The reciprocal experience of the novel, the play of voices calling and responding, isn't a million miles from some recent theorizations of the 'event' of reading, or what Derek Attridge calls 'the singularity of literature'. And it is a mistake, if I give that impression, to match 'critical' with 'objective and disinterested'. The rise of theory has included a number of serious challenges to that idea, hence the more creative, or artful, nature of certain strains of theoretical writing, which are creative in the sense of some form of overt acknowledgement of the subjective and experiential.
Bradbury's close friend and fellow writer David Lodge is the person who has come closest to articulating fully the complexities and paradoxes of the actual experiences of writing and reading, as in this passage in his seminal paper 'The Novel Now' (1988):
Is the implied author of a novel – the creative mind to whom we attribute its existence, and whom we praise or blame for its successes and failures – the 'same' as the actual historical individual who sat at his desk and wrote it, and who has his own life before and after that activity, or an identity who exists only at the moment of composition? Can a novel be 'true to life' or does it merely create a 'reality effect'? Is reality itself such an effect? Is the absence of the writer from his own text that which spurs him to refine and polish his language so that his meaning will be effectively communicated without the supplementary aids of voice, gesture, physical presence, etc., which assist communication in ordinary speech? Or is the association of meaning with presence a fallacy which writing, through its inherent ambiguity and openness to a variety of interpretations, helps to expose?
Structuralists and poststructuralists will give one set of answers to these questions and humanist or expressive realist critics another set. Most writers, I suspect – certainly I myself – would be inclined to say in each case, 'Yes and no,' or 'both alternatives are true.' But the expressive realist theses (that novels arise out of their authors' experience and observation of life, that they are works of verbal mimesis, and so on) are based on common-sense, the grounds for believing them are self-evident. The grounds for believing the antithetical propositions are not self-evident, and the value of contemporary literary theory may be that by articulating them it prevents – or would prevent if it were more accessible – the total dominance of our literary culture by expressive realism.
Like Lodge, Bradbury made an accommodation between the two propositions in his life and work, recognising that the 'elements of fiction' are not reducible to easy understanding any more than are those 'elements of fact' which constitute aspects of the nature of reality. In the introduction to the collection of essays The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction (1977), he expresses a wariness about the parts of the novel, one which we might do well to recover:
We live in an age in which fiction has conspicuously grown more provisional, more anxious, more self-questioning, than it was a few years ago. Looking about us at the novel now, it must seem that many questions about the nature of fictionality and about its constituent parts – the role of plot and story, the nature of character, the relationship between realism and fantasy and fabulation, have come to the forefront of attention.
In the rest of that introduction, Bradbury postulates two critical histories of fiction: 'polar distinctions that have long been made – between, on the one hand, the novel's propensity toward realism, social documentation and interrelation with historical events and movements, and on the other with its propensity toward form, fictionality, and reflexive self-examination . . .' These two reputations have always contested and consorted with each other 'but in our century the process of oscillation has been very much sharper'.
In the next century, too, as some fairly recent critical writing by Zadie Smith ('Two Paths for the Novel') suggests. In this 2008 piece, reviewing two novels for the New York Review of Books, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Smith sketches out two contending futures for the novel in remarkably similar terms to those employed by Bradbury in The Novel Today in 1977 and Lodge in 'The Novel Now' in 1988: 'These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done-in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.'
Smith's analysis is persuasive, but it doesn't quite accommodate a feeling that within O'Neill's perfectly achieved vision there is much symbolic material that does, actually, constitute reflexive self-examination of his own biography and personality. Netherland is really about him, it's the textual residue of Joseph O'Neill's psychodrama. I think there are a lot of contemporary novels that are like this, i.e. which seem to be in the dominant mode of expressive realism but which are actually raking a lexical surface of realism over something riskier and more experimental.
For writers themselves one answer to Smith's forking path is more direct deployment of a gestalt-informed mindfulness of the novel's midway reality between materiality and immateriality. Tom McCarthy's C, which made the Man Booker shortlist in 2010, is a significant contemporary novel which has something of that mindfulness. But so, with their smuggled-in cargo, are a number of notionally realist novels published during the same period, including Netherland. The difference is a question of tone and emphasis not of type. The distinctions revolve around how much the workings are exposed, along with the balance between narrative prose and other discourses. Go too far in any one direction (as JM Coetzee does in Diary of a Bad Year) and the textual entity starts to lose its novelistic identity.
A form of novel which makes a settlement between the astringencies of experimentalism and the narrative satisfactions demanded by public taste has long been a Holy Grail. In Bradbury's introduction to The Novel Today, published over thirty years ago, the promise is held out of writing which seeks to free itself from referential composition, loosing itself into deeper reality to deliver 'a text which is a product of authorial consciousness, but exists provisionally, dominated not by characters, designed perspectives, or systems of values and sympathy, but by the rhythm of composition itself'. Through scratch of pen, the clack-clack-clack of typewriter, or the click-click-click of the keyboard, and for the reader also, turning paper pages or rolling a cursor, 'the text becomes the sufficient event'.
And so to this essay, which I hope is sufficient event for its purpose. I began with an intention to discuss Malcolm Bradbury and creative writing at UEA; if I have done more than that, it is because both 'Malcolm Bradbury' and 'creative writing at UEA' exist in a wider continuum of literary experience, one in which nothing can be taken for granted, either by novelists or those who read and study them.
Giles Foden's books include The Last King of Scotland and Turbulence. He is Professor of Creative Writing at UEA.
© Giles Foden