It’s a truth seldom acknowledged that a writer in possession of a job teaching Creative Writing will not necessarily produce a book on the subject which is both useful and engaging. To this reviewer’s delight, Michelene Wandor has in The author is not dead, merely somewhere else – creative writing reconceived.
Wandor’s involvement in the arts (poetry, music and drama) both as student, writer and latterly as Creative Writing teacher suggests she is well qualified to “historicise, theorise, problematise and reconceive” the subject. She does so with gusto, verve and some diverting side swipes: “The term ‘literature’ applied to Creative Writing ‘textbooks’ carries a nice irony” (Wandor, 108).
The book contains a comprehensive history of Creative Writing and its struggles for existence, respectability, inclusion and autonomy. It begins with Creative Writing’s first appearance in the UK at the University of East Anglia, digresses to show similarities between the scepticism greeting its proposal as an academic discipline and that of English literature which suffered similarly in the late 19th-century. Could “’it’… be taught at all ... certainly (it) could not be examined.” (32) and goes on to document Creative Writing and its relationship with literary criticism and literary theory.
Wandor claims that the “book constructs the first history of Creative Writing in formal, higher education in the UK.” (4). It also details educational trends which have influenced Creative Writing teaching, here and in the US and quotes respected Creative Writing pedagogues such as Bishop and Ostrom. Wandor delivers a few memorable lines of her own, such as her riposte to that plaguing poser: What is creative writing?
“It’s a mode of imaginative thought.”
An unquestioning champion of the subject, she isn’t, however, taking Creative Writing to task for its isolationism, its ‘colonising desires and suspicion/hostility towards the intellectual/theory aspects of literary study’ (159). She argues for Creative Writing to be part of the English faculty.
To whom then, might this book be helpful? People like me, I believe – ordinary writer-practitioners with a day job teaching creative writing. Here, for us, is someone who appreciates the potential gaffes and glories of theorising a subject still on shifting pedagogical ground. She appreciates our other difficulty, that there are few among us who have actually been taught how to teach creative writing. Wandor claims there is a ‘virtual absence’ of Creative Writing training in the UK. “Teaching expertise” must come “by osmosis from the workshop experience.”
She makes a case for why “current workshop practice really must go” (218) the thrust of her argument being that Creative Writing pedagogy is “fuelled by the incompatible pairing of the Romantic Muse and coercive self-expression,” and that in traditional workshops the stress is always on what is wrong.” (219). The classes she describes as part of her Creative Writing teaching sound similar in principle to those discussed in Katherine Cole’s essay “The Elephant in the Room” (G. Harper, ed. Teaching Creative Writing 2006: 8) Both of these clearly excellent teachers know that evaluative judgments have no place in a creative writing class or workshop – call it what you will – though their methods for avoiding these, differ. More intriguing for me, was Wandor’s idea of asking every student about their own linguistic background as a way of alerting them to “the range of ‘Englishes’ they possess as the … material for their writing” (214).
My only disappointment with this book is that her methodologies seem to take no account of large-group Creative Writing teaching, a reality for a growing number of teachers. While reconceiving the workshop she might usefully have considered the role of Virtual Learning Environments. Her workshop-less future seems to be technology free.
In most other respects, this is a satisfying examination of Creative Writing in which the astute author’s passion for the subject is evident. I believe the book will be the definitive text about the history of Creative Writing teaching and its development in the UK for some time to come.
University of Wolverhampton