Elif Batuman recently wrote a piece in the LRB about creative writing programmes. Ostensibly it was a review of Mark Gurl’s history of such programmes – The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. As so often though the review became not just a critique of the book but a critique of its subject matter too.
I’m not going to rehearse the arguments in full. You can read the article online (even if you’re not a subscriber I think) here. That link also has the replies to the article in later issues of the LRB some of which make a very good case in rebuttal.
By temperament, experience and if I’m honest prejudice I’m inclined towards Batuman’s argument. Why I’m inclined to it is best summarised by this quote; the penultimate paragraph of his piece:
The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?
It struck a chord with me because I recognise it. Time and again I read reviews of what appear to be finely written books, but books with little to distinguish them from many other similarly finely written books. Technique alone is not always enough, particularly where technique alone may not be that rare a commodity.
Now, to an extent if I don’t read a book I can’t know if I was right not to read it. That’s a paradox all readers face: we can only really know if a book’s worth reading by reading it. It’s important then to occasionally push oneself and leave room to be surprised (as Maile Meloy is surprising me right now even though arguably hers is exactly the sort of work Batuman is criticising). At the same time it’s also important to recognise that we all only have so much time.
If a reader decides that they don’t much like the sound of sf then there’s only so much value in them checking out sf titles to see if they’re right in that pre-judgement. I don’t much like the sound of paranormal romance, but I haven’t tested that by reading Twilight. Ultimately I only have so much time in which to read and that’s probably not a good use of it.
Similarly, I only have so much time to read and there’s only so much value in spending it on the product of creative writing programmes. The problem is that while it’s unlikely I’d be a Twilight fan if I just gave it a chance it’s not so unlikely that in avoiding skilfully written tales of middle class angst I miss out on some books that I would truly love (Revolutionary Road after all is just such a book).
Where does that leave me? Still hungry for something more than dull but beautiful books, but recognising too that my own instinctive dislike for that form is problematic for me as a reader in a way that another’s instinctive dislike for sf might not be. Caveat lector.