The Nobel Prize and creative writing programs
Scott Eady, Seeds, 2014, Cast Bronze Maori Potato with attached Broken Quail Egg Shell on Wooden Stool, courtesy the artist and Small Works Gallery.
Last night, Australian time, the Swedish Academy of Literature announced that the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature was Patrick Modiano. The Nobel Academy awarded the French novelist – the eleventh writer from France to win the eight million kroner ($1.26 million) prize – for his mastery of
the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.
One imagines this densely-worded commendation speaks to Modiano’s considerable achievements in post-Holocaust literature, where he has focused principally on the themes of Jewishness, the Nazi occupation of France, and the fragmentation of identity. Modiano has written more than twenty novels, but is best known for La Place de l’Etoile (1968), Missing Person (1978) and Lacombe Lucien (1974), which was made into a film, directed by Louis Malle. The 69 year old is already well-decorated, having won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2012, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France in 2010, the Prix Goncourt in 1978, and the Grand prix du roman de l’Academie francaise in 1972.
News of the win is attracting equal measures of approval and dissent. Modiano beat a field that included Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Belarusian journalist and author Svetlana Alexievich, Syrian poet Adonis, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and, of course, the American novelist (and perennial Nobel loser) Philip Roth. On the Guardian’s blog site, which covered the announcement live from the Academy, several commenters seemed vindicated by Modiano’s win. Others called it political and indicative of an inherent cultural bias. Still others complained that Modiano was unheard of. I watched the announcement live, glass of sparkling in hand, and was mildly amused to see the Guardian misspell Modiano’s name in its enthusiasm, leading one respondent to fire back: ‘“Patrick Mondiano” Guardian so unfamiliar with the winner gets the name wrong in the announcement.’ (The spelling had been corrected by the time I finished reading the post.) Permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund also unwittingly gave credence to the claim of obscurity, noting rather bleakly: ‘Patrick Modiano is a well-known name in France but not anywhere else.’ Part of the problem – if it is, indeed, a problem – is that Modiano doesn’t do press, though this might be part of his charm. His propensity for staying out of the limelight could help preserve the rarefied aura of the prize – with all of its cultural strangeness.
Some of that strangeness was evident in Horace Engdahl’s lively interview with the French publication La Croix, the highlights of which were reported in the Guardian on Wednesday under the eye-catching headline, ‘Creative writing courses are killing western literature, claims Nobel judge’. Engdahl was once the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury and has a habit of making controversial statements on the eve of the prize announcement. He launched a scathing attack on writers working within that loose catchment known as ‘western literature’, arguing that the increased reliance on the financial supports provided to writers was having a detrimental effect on literature. He bemoaned the ‘professionalisation’ of the writer, harking back to days when writers needed to work a day job to support their craft. He told La Croix:
Even though I understand the temptation [to utilise grants], I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions. Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.
Creative writing programs were also on Engdahl’s hit list. He claimed they produce writers who work under the delusion that they are producing novels that ‘pretend to be transgressive’ but are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said:
These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.
This critique of University writing programs and the funding support they provide students is, of course, not new. Every few months, it seems, a major blog or newspaper will carry a story about the perceived fraud of teaching students how to write. In November last year, novelist Hanif Kureishi, who is also a Kingston University professor, told the Times Higher Education Supplement that an undergraduate degree in creative writing was totally ‘worthless’ and ‘you might as well give them a swimming certificate’. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010, Lisa Pryor called university writing programs a ‘racket, the pyramid selling scheme whereby teachers pass on this knowledge to students so they can one day become creative writing teachers themselves’. Clearly enjoying the tenor of her prose, she then went on to say that
funding writers through postgraduate creative writing qualifications … skews funding in favour of the gutless. Enrolling in a postgraduate writing course is a hedge against failure, costing thousands of dollars, for those who are too scared to take off a year to get on with it and write. It attracts those who are everything a good writer is not: compliant, institution bound and approval seeking. Thirdly, and most importantly, good writers risk becoming institutionalised.
In Australia, a group of creative writing academics are preparing to publish a response to Engdahl, addressing his recycled arguments about creative writing as a taught craft, his romanticisation of poverty, and his apparent uncertainty about what actually happens in creative writing classrooms and the success of their graduates. It is a contribution I am looking forward to reading. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Stephanie Bishop’s SRB essay ‘Horses for Courses’, an insightful reflection on creative writing pedagogies, and Rachel Cusk’s 2013 Guardian article, in which she argues that ‘cynicism’ about creative writing programs is beginning to look outdated. It finishes by recalling the ‘tirade’ of an international writer who had launched into a rant about ‘this abysmal creative writing trend’:
the more he denounced them, the more they laughed: it was easy to put them – and us – to shame. Thinking about it afterwards, it seemed to me that this mocking discourse is increasingly becoming obsolete. In a way, it is a form of cultural self-hatred. It was that writer’s own insecurity that required him to distinguish himself from old ladies and housewives, to be the ‘real’ writer, the centre of attention. He had forgotten to honour the principle of freedom that had permitted him to become who he was. If creating writing culture represents only that – freedom – it is justification enough.
Geoffrey Lehmann has produced much of his work while holding down day jobs as a tax lawyer, a legal academic and a partner in a major accounting firm. This week, Sydney Review of Books focuses on his notable contribution to Australian literature. In ‘A User of Masks’, acclaimed Australian poet Geoff Page considers Lehmann’s latest and apparently last collection, Poems 1957 – 2013. Page relishes the ‘opportunity to do two things: enjoy a lot of memorable Australian poems ranging across more than half a century and to examine the trajectory of a long and now completed career.’ His detailed review reflects on some of the indelible moments in Lehmann’s oeuvre – the Nero poems, which reflect his interest in ancient Rome, ‘a milieu in which he seems able to move effortlessly, quietly implying parallels with our own times while also insisting on Rome’s uniqueness’; the powerful poems about Cowra farmer Ross McInerney, which catch ‘the man’s voice and temperament’; and the later poems, which Page sees as Lehmann’s most ‘affecting and personal’. Page argues that Lehmann ‘has been the most protean Australian poet of his generation, a user of masks, but also of those most difficult tones which allow direct confession without sentimentality or self-deception’.
Our second essay, Victoria Flanagan’s ‘Not suitable for children?’, is a review of Sonya Harnett’s Golden Boys, a novel Flanagan describes as an exploration of ‘lost childhood innocence and a transition to adulthood, which involves an emerging consciousness of the world as a morally ambiguous place’. One of the issues the novel raises is that of audience. Harnett is a renowned children’s author, yet ‘she has often been accused of writing books that are too difficult for children’. Golden Boys is being marketed as a ‘novel for adults’. But why? ‘Not suitable for children’ looks at the often arbitrary nature of the distinction between novels written for young readers and those written for adults. As Flanagan notes, ‘Most of us probably have an inherent sense of what a children’s book is and should be, and feel certain that we can recognise one when it is put in front of us. But how do we define exactly what children’s literature is and does?’
From the Archives this week looks at the work of perennially snubbed Nobel Prize candidate Philip Roth. In his essay ‘The Late Unfunny Ones’, Adam Rivett surveys Roth’s last novels and argues that these patchy, odd, tragic works of fitful brilliance and waning energy have been underestimated. Taken together, Rivett proposes, they are ‘plots against nostalgia’.