Is creative writing killing literature?

Just before his life changing win of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan was contemplating work in Western Australia’s mines. His second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), sold more than 150,000 copies in Australia. He has been the recipient of the Tasmanian Book Prize, the Queensland Premier’s award for fiction, the WA Premier’s Award for Fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Despite these accolades, Flanagan was unable to live on the proceeds of his work.

His win will change this. The vast majority of other writers, however, are not so lucky.

Earlier this month, Horace Engdahl spoke out against what he called the impoverishment of literature across the Western world through creative writing grants and programmes. Engdahl, one of a panel of judges for the Nobel Prize for Literature, suggests that, while vibrant work is emerging from Asia and Africa, the West’s literary work is corrupted by institutional financial support and an associated disconnection from reality.

But the notion of a Western writer tethered to institutions and grants, rather than employment, seems unfounded. The Guardian reported that in 2013 the median income of a UK-based professional author was £11,000 (just over $AU20,000). This amount is barely the minimum wage. An earlier Australian study by David Throsby and Virginia Hollister for the Australia Council suggested that the median earned creative income of writers was just $4,800.

In 2007, the New Zealand Society of Authors found that only 9 percent of established authors earn over NZ$50,000, while 77 percent earn less than NZ$10,000. Only 30 percent of mid-career writers had received a grant in the four years prior.

So if the literature is impoverished, then so are the writers trying to survive on their work alone. Most writers, however, hold a secondary income: Throsby and Hollister indicate that while the median total arts income of a writer was $11,700, the total income was $35,000.

I am a creative writing student. My cohort will be the third graduating year from an ex-chip factory in one of Auckland’s most socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

As a student I consider my part time job a necessity and, in many ways, a rite of passage. At twelve years old, I started my first job as a mothers’ help and haven’t been without gainful employment in the thirteen years since. I have travelled; I’ve lost friends and family members; I’ve changed a thousand nappies; I’ve taken drugs and made mistakes. I’m grateful for my experiences, but what Engdahl seems to be prescribing is the trope of the tortured artists, which I struggle to swallow. I need to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel: that one day I will have a period of time in which I can write, exclusively.

The aspirations of my classmates are realistic, and their part-time jobs are equally grounded. Matt is a checkout operator at a supermarket. Mary manufactures calendars. Annaleese works in retail, while Jesse staffs a franchised coffee house and I work with children on the autism spectrum. These students-cum-employees hope to be able to create without the daily pressures of steady income, but know that this is a remote possibility.

Thankfully, the New Zealand Book Council lists 77 grants and residencies available to authors each year. Therein lies our opportunity to write.

‘Like all things creative writing can be taught well and taught badly,’ offers Eleanor Catton, who remains a creative writing teacher after her Man Booker Prize win. ‘I would say that the discipline provides many marvellous opportunities to explore and champion things of value, rather than being of value, necessarily, itself. When it is taught well, it attends not only to creative expression, but to creative impression, too: questioning the assumptions, prejudices, beliefs, and ideologies that lie behind and beneath the impulse to write. These challenges are of value because they pave the way to enlightenment, not only on the part of the individual but on a social level as well.’

Amber Esau is in her final year of an Auckland-based Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in creative writing. She’s circumspect in confessing that she would like to make a living as a playwright, as she sees this as a distant goal.

Her hopes for New Zealand’s literature, however, are firmer. ‘I want there to be a better synthesis between Polynesian language and literature and the English language,’ she says. ‘I’m Samoan, Maori and Irish. I think for a lot of Samoans, especially Samoan poets, they have this need to belong and I’ve been there – we all have a need to belong somewhere – but it has overwhelmed the writing.’

She contends that the technical and analytical tools gained through her studies help her to cast a critical eye over this dynamic. And it seems that in a world so saturated with voices opining on all things cultural, there is a need for a place to develop this ability.

A student from a famed American MFA programme, however, is disillusioned with the system. ‘I feel like I’m only as valuable as my writing and I have no worth to them beyond that,’ says ‘Lucy’ (her name has been changed).

Her course of study was presented to her as a brilliant way to complete a novel in a supported environment while making industry contacts and learning from the best. She will emerge with not only a degree but a pedigree, of sorts, making her far more appealing to publishers: an endorsed product.

Since her arrival, however, she has suffered from crippling writer’s block.

‘The whole writing and publishing system is really just a parallel of so many other careers where it’s a fight to the top,’ she says. ‘I think all the grants and residencies and the way MFAs work, as well as the publicity writers get and have to prescribe to, all feed the same thing. It’s so hard to distance yourself from feeling that you’re worth less than other writers because you’re not as successful, and my self-esteem has been hugely affected. I can’t write anymore.’

Lucy’s sentiments mirror Engdahl’s concerns about the ‘professionalisation’ of the role of the writer. But she hopes to graduate from her MFA into full-time employment, and for writing to become the thing she loves once again. One day she hopes to attain a grant to work on a certain project, and has already been offered various residencies across the world. Her approach – work a lot, write a little – doesn’t seem far from the reality of so many writers publishing creative works today.

Engdahl’s authors, however, occupy some romantic plane of imagination, in which they are sustained by language itself – or, alternatively, they subsist on the minimum wage, buffered by meager royalties. The practical implication of his hope for Western authors seems to be pushing for something slightly different: more culture, perhaps. More ‘otherness’. He seems to be suggesting that the West is running out of stories, and the stories that are being told are not to his taste.

In literary history, there have always been patrons to support the lucky few. That this patronage has acquired a governmental and institutionalised aspect perhaps exerts a constraint. But such writers are surely no more constrained than, say, the Cavalier Poets, who wrote works almost exclusively to rave about their king. Shakespeare himself found a patron in William Herbert, the third earl of Pembroke – an incredibly wealthy politician and aristocrat. Allegedly, the bard’s largest source of income, however, was not his literary works but his astute investment in real estate near Stratford.

Jack Kerouac, today famed for his counter-cultural values, wrote to friends and colleagues about the failure of publishers in understanding his brilliance. In one postcard to Viking editor Malcolm Cowley, he claimed of his work ‘than have it demeaned I’d rather it were never published.’ He valued the integrity of his work over its commercial success, and his revolutionary legacy lies in both his style and his own character.

Yet the house where he wrote a significant portion of his novel The Dharma Bums is now a residency for aspiring and established writers, offering accommodation and a stipend for three-month stints. Such residencies are part of what Engdahl’s criticising.

But Kerouac believed in furthering the integrity of literature. In offering space and support, this residency affords the shared dream of writers world over: to write.

There is, of course, a validity to Engdahl’s claims regarding the vibrancy of work emerging from Asia and Africa. It is important that someone in such a position is speaking about the necessity of voices that have traditionally been marginalised. But so many stories of the world remain marginalised, and will be silenced without support.

The 2014 Man Booker longlist was made up of 13 authors, only three of whom were woman and only one a person of colour. The disparity is mirrored in the UK schooling system: by 2017, 38 percent more texts written by men will be studied than texts written by women. Surprisingly, in a socio-political climate moving to embrace gender equality more than ever before, this number is a 12 percent increase on the disparity of 2013’s reading list. Representation of people of colour fares even worse.

The publication industry is also changing dramatically, in ways that we’re only just becoming aware. The 2015 New Zealand Book Awards have been delayed due to lack of support and sponsorship. Presses and bookstores are closing across the globe. Twitter followings are consulted before many book deals are offered. A blog can serve as a resume. The cult of the author mirrors that of the celebrity, because visibility and fans are becoming ever more crucial to success.

We live, now, in a world that is saturated with voices. All of which are offered the same platform: the internet does not demand a qualification or critical analysis. Perhaps it is the great democratiser, but writers must work harder than ever to be heard amid the milieu. The experience of an author who first published only ten years ago will soon be obsolete.

I am surely biased, but my program, at least, appears to be doing it right. As an undergraduate course in a disadvantaged area, where entry is based more on passion than grammar, it caters to a diverse range of students whose other options are severely limited. The most exceptional writers among my classmates have disabilities, are ex-gang members, and are from isolated towns way north of anywhere at all. Attendance is as high as the calibre of our instructors. The acquisition of craft and syntax is juxtaposed with psychology and critical thought. Commercial success is not the goal – indeed, frank discussions around our literary futures are frequent and honest.

What we are encouraged to do is tell stories, important stories, and to tell them well – to speak to our sense of urgency and to craft the things we must say until they must be heard.

The reality is that graduates with creative arts degrees will earn less than graduates of any other degree. There must be something else driving students to such courses. And there must be value in citizens who choose to follow a path of passion when the end of the road looks so bleak.

‘I don’t have any future literary aspirations,’ says my fellow student Annaleese Jochems. ‘I’d like to write good things that will make me happy and be valuable. I don’t think of writing as a process where I try and achieve things. I more think of it as trying to build myself a soul. Building a soul is making a construction and not doing it blindly, doing it with consideration and thought.’

Though Lucy has struggled with her course of study, she still considers good tuition and mentorship to be the key to literary success. And after graduation, she still wants to write. ‘I just want my writing to be a place for me to play and have fun and explore. Through reading things that I really love I do feel like I connect with something bigger than myself. I want writing to be that, without any of the external pressures impinging on it, but that’s so hard. And without financial support, it’s harder.’

Perhaps it is neither the funding nor the education system that needs transformation, but the global cultural narrative around what qualifies as successful literature. Positive mentorship, affirmative action and financial support for emerging writers all have the power to foster such a change. A flood of writers desperately seeking positions as taxi drivers or waiters, as Engdahl suggests, would not be harmful. But it also would not be productive. It is merely privileging a certain kind of life experience over another, while denying people the opportunity to gain the skills required in translating this experience onto the page.

‘Luckily,’ says Eleanor Catton, ‘it’s quite easy to distinguish bad and good educations in creative writing: the bad ones are the ones which promise results.’

Kirstin Whalen

Kirsti Whalen is a poet and writer from Melbourne, now based in Auckland, New Zealand. She studies Creative Writing at MIT and has a cat called Shakespeare.

More by Kirstin Whalen ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. “‘The whole writing and publishing system is really just a parallel of so many other careers where it’s a fight to the top,’ she says. ‘I think all the grants and residencies and the way MFAs work, as well as the publicity writers get and have to prescribe to, all feed the same thing. It’s so hard to distance yourself from feeling that you’re worth less than other writers because you’re not as successful, and my self-esteem has been hugely affected. I can’t write anymore.’”
    Internationally, we have established, emerging, student, and maybe-someday writers working on various projects. Not one of them is read by every literate person – in the world, in Australia or anywhere else. The most successful ones financially are those most widely read: but always by a minority readership in the population at large, which is some of the time a carefully selected and targeted one.
    But every person alive has a story to tell, that may be of interest to only a few apart from themself. I would suggest therefore that the best approach is to write for yourself and tell the whole thing to yourself, expecting no wider readership. If others are interested in it, fine. If not, you still have the book you wrote, which you and any descendants can read at leisure. But the easiest person you can fool will always be yourself.
    Thus to paraphrase The Bard: be true to yourself in your writing, and nobody else reading it will feel they are being deceived, conned, hoodwinked or bullshat.

  2. Hi Kirstin
    I’m intrigued by this post because it’s about writing, and because there is so much in it that I disagree with, which is the same as saying it is worth an extended conversation.
    I think there are numerous problems with creative writing degrees (the degree you describe yourself doing I would run a 100 miles from) but I don’t really want to go into them all here, except to say that I wonder if the commitment to the degree itself can cause a whole raft of problems, because it can prevent someone getting a degree in something that might prove useful to other human beings while giving the writer a chance at an income to support their writing a little.
    It’s true that nobody is going to pay a creative writer to write. And why should they? To be a writer is to be a marginal beast really. It is not a valued activity, often denigrated etc etc etc. Trying to find time to write and to earn a crust is difficult. But that’s the deal now in a world dominated by particularly ruthless types of capitalism.
    Relying on grants and residencies seems problematic and risky and excessively competitive and searching for publishers looks a dead end activity to me.
    There isn’t any reason why writers can’t adopt a policy of working in some kind of ethical career or job and write the rest of the time. We don’t have to be cab drivers and wait in cafes. But it still means to a large extent having a marginal life (where one gives up a lot of things others are striving for) or learning to write in very limited time. If you put writing at the centre of your life, you have to give up a whole lot of other things. That’s just the reality.
    The only question I think any ‘mentor’ or anyone mad enough to think of themselves as a creative writing ‘teacher’ can ask is ‘Why write?’
    I can’t think of any other question worth asking when it comes to writing, or any other question worth discussing. Good luck with your writing. I hope you find a lot of good reasons to write.

  3. Hello Steven Wright,

    I’m a Creative Writing student & admittedly I flit occasionally into feeling the way you’ve expressed in your comment. Usually when I feel that way though, I feel that writing is entirely pointless and I should put all my efforts into attempting to become the world’s most financially successful advertiser.
    Most of the time I believe whole heartedly that writing is the best use of my life possible, because I think literature is valuable & that I’m good at it. If writing’s going to be the most important thing to me (which it unavoidably is), doesn’t it make sense for me to invest time & money into becoming as good at it as possible? To ‘give up a lot of things others are striving for’?
    Ruthless capitalism certainly does put a dampener on things. I agree that writing is not particularly valued, and I agree (happily!) that writers are marginal beasts. Why not create spaces (on the margins of course, this chip factory sounds very exciting!) where the beasts can come together and value their craft? If you love literature, you must love the beasts themselves?
    When you talk about the ‘deal’ for writers in modern society you sound unimpressed but resigned. I see the writer as a protestor against consumerism. A defender of the intrinsic beauty (the art) in people & the world. I don’t want a soft cushioned chair to sit on and dictate poems from. I want to be challenged, I want my work to be taken seriously (or criticized seriously,) and I want to learn.
    Perhaps ‘Why write?’ is the most important question for an aspiring writer to ask but it certainly shouldn’t be the only one. ‘Should you use the word “industrious” or “metal”?’ ‘Should this female character own a bakery or a gun factory?’ ‘What’s most important, justice or loyalty?’ I can think of ten thousand other questions I’ll need to (attempt to) answer and it’s certainly very helpful to have mentors and friends to doing it alongside me.
    I think the biggest qualm expressed in your comment was about grants & reliance on grants. I do, to an extent, share your sentiment. I believe writers should have to work – I work, like Kirsten’s classmates – as I believe we need life experience, and to be free from dependence on any kind of approval (commercial or otherwise.) I also believe grants are wonderful. Writing should be valued & writers should be valued. If someone’s prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to become a good writer they should be offered a little (& remember, it is only a little) financial support when they make the accomplishment.
    I think there’s the feeling sometimes that writing is a selfish, indulgent activity – I think bad writing is. Good writing is joyful, or cathartic, but it will always be generous. The writer should write for love of the craft and feeling (potentially not love) for the subject. Then hopefully their work will be useful to somebody, or will fulfil some deep purpose in the world. Surely anything fuelled by love is good, and will improve the world? The Gift, by Lewis Hyde is relevant here. The writer shouldn’t feel she’s owed anything, but she should give, and society should enable her in doing so.
    I’ve just returned home from a very overwhelming Zumba class. Imagine the emotionally/intellectually lethargic society we would be in if nobody cared about good films, good books, philosophy or science – now imagine the society we would be in if everybody ate junk food all day and never left their house – both of these I think are a capitalists dream. In our second example imagine there was an exercise dance school (you know where I’m going with this!) which dedicated hours to perfecting their craft and offered dance instruction twice a week in a town hall. If nobody attended the classes (or a few did, but refused to pay) would Zumba still be worthwhile?
    Oh yes, & why would you run from the course Kirsten’s studying at in particular?
    This comment has turned out to be very long, but I assure you I’m not at all militant and look forward to hearing what you have to say (I appreciated and related to your first comment, despite finding a lot to disagree with).


  4. Heavens. I’m not sure where to start Felicity, but you certainly don’t have to assure me that you aren’t militant, as though being militant were a crime.
    To say that ‘literature is valuable’ and you are good at it doesn’t answer the question ‘Why write?’ And you equate art with ‘intrinsic beauty’ which I have a lot of trouble with.
    You seem to be positioning my (rather loose) arguments as emanating from a defeated or despairing mind, as though questioning the value of writing automatically consigned someone to a kind of slough of despond.
    Every time a writer sits down to write, I think the question ‘Why am I doing this?’ needs to be present. And it doesn’t require a utilitarian answer – the writing itself can be the articulation of the answer. But if writers don’t question the status of what they do, in a variety of political senses, they (we) participate too freely in conventions of literary discourse that end up taking the writer to the point you are claiming: I write because it’s good. In other words one becomes involved in a non-political exercise, in which case one should maybe take up watching TV or something.
    As far as grants etc go, my concern is what one has to do, or turn into to get one. I don’t think writers should have a day job for life experience. I think it is useful to find ways to benefit other human beings, strive for social justice, take a militant political stance on the suffering in the world.
    These are extraordinary times and writers are writing under extraordinary circumstances. It makes no sense to me to be talking about ‘craft’ or whatever. ‘Why write?’ is a political question that cuts to the heart of what it means to do what writers do. It’s an activity to be engaged in with fear and trembling.
    Inasmuch as I think about creative writing degrees, I see them coming to dominate the production of literature in English. And whether writing can be taught or not, I doubt very much whether a university is the place to teach it. We need new forums for writers to talk abut what they do – marginal, optimistic, politicised spaces – and colonisation by universities is very unfortunate I think.
    I’m not a fan of ‘the Gift’ and I don’t believe society – if by that you mean consumer capitalism – should enable the writer to write. There have to be other ways to be incendiary.
    My apologies for the exclamation of ‘heavens’ at the beginning my reply. It comes across as patronising. But if I try to delete it on this tablet, I’ll risk losing the whole comment.
    I’m wary too of running away with Kirstin’s post into feverish realms she hadn’t intended.

    1. “Every time a writer sits down to write, I think the question ‘Why am I doing this?’ needs to be present.”

      Just let people be, Steven. You are rather dictatorial.

      Secondly, you seem to be advocating a militant politics : “take a militant political stance.” According to the dictionary, militant, an adjective, is defined as, ‘favouring confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause.’

      Are you seriously favouring violence? If you are serious about writing and take your writing very seriously, which I think you do, judging from your posts, then it might be a good idea to choose your words with the utmost care, especially since you see writing and your words as political.

      And yet I would agree with your statements: “Inasmuch as I think about creative writing degrees, I see them coming to dominate the production of literature in English. And whether writing can be taught or not, I doubt very much whether a university is the place to teach it. We need new forums for writers to talk abut [sic] what they do – marginal, optimistic, politicised spaces – and colonisation by universities is very unfortunate I think.”

  5. Hell! (So not funny and I have misbehaving IPad as an excuse!) Seriously though, your swearing is entirely forgiven.

    I think writing is valuable for a number of reasons, but the most frequently recurring one for me really is just that ‘it’s good.’ I think there’s an intrinsic value in writing the same way there is in smiles & endangered tiger species. I think valuing something for its intrinsic beauty is very political. I wonder why you have trouble with my equating art with something intrinsically beautiful? Possibly, you’re suggesting that if something exists solely for its beauty it can’t serve any other purpose? I might have a very elastic concept of intrinsic beauty – I would consider feminism, for example, to be intrinsically beautiful if I thought it was well reinforced artistically/philosophically/politically etc.

    I may have ‘positioned your arguments as emanating from a defeated or despairing mind’ to some extent; not because I think questioning the value of writing is unimportant (I agree that it’s crucial!) but because when you said that studying writing might ‘prevent someone from getting a degree in something that might prove useful to other human beings’ I took it as an implication that writing didn’t have the potential to do so.

    I certainly agree with you on the ‘Why am I doing this?’ front, but I think the question needs to slice deeper than ‘Why am I writing?’ towards ‘Why am I writing this this way?’ ‘Why am I writing this?’ ‘Why this line break here?’ etc. This is what I like about writing school – your intentions and methods are continually interrogated (imagine that with Eleanor Catton!)

    I don’t think watching TV (although I am a massive, enormous fan of Family Guy) is generally that good. I’ve thoroughly questioned the meaning and purpose of writing. My belief that it’s good & worthwhile is informed and considered.

    I agree with you on your reasons for why writers should work, I can’t remember what I wrote about the subject, but I’m pretty sure that your reasoning here is superior to mine. I think though that writing is a useful weapon in the war against human suffering – and that it should be validated as such. I don’t think of grants as monetary payments, so much as gifts of time. So writers should work, and they should write – they should be allowed quality time to invest in both. I’d like to emphasise that I don’t believe that as soon as someone declares himself a poet he should be handed a wad of cash. I don’t expect that I’ll even apply for a grant till I’m at least thirty four (I’m twenty.)

    I’ve never applied for a grant and don’t know much about the process. What is it that you believe a writer needs to become to be considered?

    I think it makes absolute sense to consider craft, once the writer has decided to write they must decide which words to use & in which order.

    I think it’s important to consider the difference between different writing programmes, the course I study in is very similar to how I imagine Kirsten’s, small classes centred on discussion rather than lectures. I don’t agree that all writing programmes can be considered as ‘colonising.’ I wouldn’t hesitate in describing the environment where I study as ‘marginal, optimistic and politicised.’
    By society I certainly don’t mean consumer capitalism. I mean communities.

    I’m sure I’ve run pretty far from the points in Kirstin’s article, but never mind!

  6. Felicity, I think that when you go from ‘why do I write?’ to ‘why this line break here?’ you may have crossed a critical boundary while still believing that you are engaged in a structurally similar enterprise.
    Arguing that writing is ‘intrinsically’ good or beautiful I suspect may well take you up a long, narrow and very blind alley. Something that is essentially made up can’t have an intrinsic quality (and on top if that literature has often been very bad, or toxic or stupid to boot.)
    If it is made up then it is made up of something, and so it is worth asking what it is made up of, what kind of privileges and assumptions for example.
    You might be on better ground arguing for writing as an enterprise that could alleviate suffering – not ‘suffering’ as a generality, but kinds or states of suffering. Most human suffering is unnecessary in the sense that it is inflicted by other human beings and so is avoidable. But even that argument needs to then talk about the politics of suffering. Whose suffering? Where? When? What are the causes of that suffering? I don’t think one can sit down at one’s writing desk and say ‘I’m writing to ease human suffering’ anymore than one can say ‘I’m writing because it is intrinsically good to do so’. That looks to me like some attempt at extra-political activity, which is always problematic.
    As far as grants go, I imagine there is always a trade-off. I don’t know what that might be because I’ve never applied for a literary grant, but I know that in winning prizes one has made oneself acceptable to some self-appointed gatekeepers of literature.
    And to be honest, as far as writing conversations go I’d much rather talk to unknown, unpublished, beginning writers than Eleanor Cattons.

  7. Hi Steven,

    I now realise that my previous comment is in quite desperate in need of rephrasing. I don’t believe there’s ‘an intrinsic value in writing the same way there is in smiles and endangered tiger species,’ I believe there’s ‘intrinsic value in good (!) writing the same way there is in smiles and endangered tiger species.’ & I believe writing becomes good when it places value outside of itself. Perhaps this is why we’re so annoyed by writing about writing/writers. Writing for its own sake certainly is a narrow, dark, tragic and smelly alley. But words (or images, or ideas, or characters, settings etc) can be intrinsically beautiful, & a piece of writing can earn my respect through its veneration of them.

    I would say that any good piece of writing needs to invest value in something, and that declaring anything to be valuable is political – because it contributes to a system of priorities. Questions like ‘which character should be the last one in the story to speak?’ & ‘Is “mournful” the right word to use when our morbidly obese character sits down to eat his pie?’ then become very political.

    I don’t know why something fictitious can’t have an intrinsic quality?

    Ha! I agree that some writing is terrible, if studying writing teaches you nothing it can certainly teach you that! I think the assumption that all writing was worthwhile (to the world outside of the writer) just because she enjoyed it was the problem with my earlier comment.

    I don’t think I am crossing the line from ‘why write?’ to ‘why this line break?’ as if they were structurally similar, one question I think is philosophical, and the other is related to craft & needs to be informed by the answer to the first. When I say ‘slice deeper’ I suppose I mean from the fundamentally philosophical question of ‘why write?’ to questions more technical – but there’s certainly an overlap. Although it sounds sickeningly wanky, I think line breaks can become philosophical problems.

    I certainly agree that we need to consider our/authors privileges and assumptions. ‘What are the inherent values in the work?’, ‘what context is it placed in?’ etc – I feel sure that these questions also bleed fluidly into more technical questions of character development etc.

    I think that Engdahl’s claim that the best work today wasn’t coming out of the west is extremely true & the question of privileges and assumptions certainly has a lot to do with this. The implication that all creative writing courses, and all grants reinforce the Wests’ complacency however I think is inherently wrong.

    I do believe that ‘writing is a useful weapon in the war against human suffering’ (another regrettable quote from my earlier comment) but I feel uncomfortable asserting that mine will be. When I think of my own writing I think of myself as attempting to create meaning, rather than make radical direct changes.

    I wonder what exactly you mean by ‘extra-political activity’?

    Offering your writing to be read is submitting it for the approval/disapproval of others. Writers and readers should be responsible for maintaining their own integrity. I have more faith in myself than to worry that my aesthetics and purposes might waver in an attempt at earning one ten thousand dollar grant once in my lifetime.

    This must be a dream come true for you then! I’m pretty unpublished, and pretty beginning.

    My questions for you:
    1. Why do write at all if you feel it has no value? /Or what value do you believe it to have?
    2. What’s not to love about ‘The Gift’?
    3. If you don’t see the value in discussions on ‘craft’ are you not interested in political journalism as opposed to literature? I would say that journalism ‘states’ facts while literature ‘demonstrates’ them through language and image construction (craft). All though of course there’s some cross over – creative non-fiction etc.

    Thanks for highlighting the holes inherent in my earlier comment!


    1. I might make this my last response Felicity, as this could go on for days.
      I disagree with your main points, and I think they are versions of things you’ve already said. I’m not objecting to writing for its own sake but the idea that literature has any kind of intrinsic good or beauty to it, in any shape or form. The idea that writing can be worthy of respect because of its ‘veneration’ of certain literary conventions is one I don’t understand, because I think you are still imputing intrinsic values to literature. And I always get nervous when writers start tossing in religious vocabularies to describe their appreciation of literature.

      Yes, declaring something to be valuable is a political stance, precisely because you are making a value judgment. But if you claim intrinsic beauty or goodness you’ve ceased making a value judgment and claimed a universal standard that is always present. It makes no sense to claim intrinsic goodness for something and then argue for its ability to contain philosophical or political problems. They contradict each other. So within your definition of the intrinsic goodness of literature (which I don’t think is the same at all as the goodness of endangered species) a line break can’t possibly be a philosophical problem, because things that are intrinsically good can’t have philosophical problems.

      I’m not concerned about writing being ‘terrible’ but about its political interior. Many writers can manufacture a ‘crafted’ sentence but have nothing really interesting to say. And vice versa.

      Grants etc may well reinforce our literary complacency. They don’t have to but they do in the current context and definitions of what literature can be.

      You can’t help but make meaning when you write. Nobody can write meaninglessly.

      And by ‘extra-political activity’ I mean the assumption that something has intrinsic goodness regardless of where it is situated.

      And just briefly, in response to your questions:

      1. Why do write at all if you feel it has no value? /Or what value do you believe it to have?
      I don’t believe that. I think you might though. To believe that something has a universal value is to negate the idea of values entirely. I wrote a post for Overland a while back called ‘Why I Write’ and another that Overland called ‘Defence of print’ and another called ‘On not killing your darlings’ (or something). They may or may not be helpful to you in answering this question.
      Apropos of Anitra’s comment: I myself work three days a week to fund my writing time in a job which I think has some social utility in these weird and savage times. I live where it is cheap to live, on a rural landsharing community because that is what writing requires and make other life-sacrifices so I can find writing time. And I don’t care about finding publishers. I don’t see the point.
      2. What’s not to love about ‘The Gift’?
      I would prefer a book like that to be called something like ‘The Molotov Cocktail’.

      3. …..I would say that journalism ‘states’ facts while literature ‘demonstrates’ them through language and image construction (craft)….
      I have absolutely no interest in the kind of literature you are describing. When writers start talking about ‘craft’, I think they should put on chunky white poloneck sweaters and sit next to fireplaces with their shaggy dogs.
      Ta for the discussion. It was fun.

  8. Melbourne poet TTO (Pioh), an anarchist, refused to apply for grants. He worked in the public service all his working life in the lowest grade of, let’s say (I can’t quite remember) a surveyor. He never took promotion. He retired recently in his 60s.

    He organised his life like this so he could really live and do what he wanted outside 9–5, i.e. what he was paid for. And what he was paid for became so rote it required little distraction or effort. It was like the guaranteed minimum responsibility he paid to society in general. Most of his writing and publishing through Collective Effort Press is not commercial in the accepted sense.

    Okay, so creative people want to be creative but the more political of us find it a bit of a dilemma to think that someone might slog away at a factory or in a hospital and a fraction of their taxes go to us sitting on our twats writing. (BTW I have been funded by public grants so I am not saying I am as pure as TT and there are numbers of sub-arguments to be had over the fact he even worked for the public service.)

    Anyway I know numbers of creative people who do some kind of version on the model of paid work part-time so you can do what you really want w’out need to think of it being paid for the rest of the time.

    In my ideal world everyone would be obliged to work 15–20 hours a week on providing for our basic needs and do whatever was not environmentally or socially exploitative after that — all outside of any kind of money economy.

    The point is that capitalism is the structure that ignores individual creative effort, qualities and skills so creative people — excepting the stars who prove the capitalists rule — will always be pushing up shit creek.

    Capitalism is a structure of exchange values and you, good on you for this, are seeing the world in terms of use values. But I think it would be good to see capitalism — not nebulous people in general — as being unfair and the problem. Indeed capitalism is outright illogical as well as exploitative.

    1. I remember him well, having suffered my first rejection at his hands. He did make a major contribution in calling for a boycott of Penguin books at a time when they would neither publish or consider works by Australian writers.

    2. I’m with you, Anitra, on the comment about taxes funding us to sit on our twats writing. This has been a great discussion. I do like the idea that writers should be valued – the problem is, which writers, and why? The creative writing industry is in danger of homogenising writing and I note the fairly common practice among publishers when you submit of asking you to name another novel similar to yours that has done well. Then of course the people working for publishers have usually done creative writing courses and presumably subscribe to the market-oriented industry philosophy. I prefer my writers to have a life in the real world, not only in their own imaginations and the company of other writers. I continue to believe that writers who have a substantial talent will keep writing no matter what, in the middle of the messiness of their wage-earning life.

  9. Unless you are independently wealthy ala Charles Darwin and free to pursue whatever quests take your fancy, there’s always going to have to be some measure of dancing with the devil.

    The danger of course — as was evidenced by the ongoing kerfuffle over the Sydney Biennale and the ANU’s decision to sell its mining shares — is when people like George Brandis think the artist should have no choice but dance to the tune of a potential patron, sponsor, employer.

    As soon as we enter the realm of advocating punishment for choosing not bow and kowtow like a dancing monkey to the Master of the House, the spectre of slavery plantations rears its ugly head.

  10. Is creative writing killing literature? Hot topic, or what (in the McLuhan sense)? Who knows? Who cares? I’ll tackle the ‘what’: What is Literature? here.
    Often we know, or think we know what literature is (usually with a capital L), but struggle to say what might be meant by the term. Fair enough. Literature, however and whoever defines it, is a slippery term. These days, education curricula wise, it seems to include everything (and nothing): multimedia through to toilet wall scrawl (as it should). Very democratic, seemingly.
    For a definition of literature to make sense, people should be able to explain what is meant by the term. Fair enough if they can’t, as definitions have shifted through the ages, from formally motivated writing (poetry through to non-fiction) to imaginative writing containing intrinsic aesthetic, moral and spiritual values. Generally though, choices as to what constitutes Literature usually come down to two main factors or features: formal or technical features; or aesthetic or more values based considerations. At least that was the old school way of posing the question.
    Old school non-political readings, as I remember them, more than suggested that literature was above class, ethnic and gender differences, that literary texts expressed an author’s thoughts and feelings about the world that were above question, and contained the highest possible emotional, aesthetic, moral and spiritual values.
    More political consideration of Literature consider such questions as whether literary texts are above considerations of class, gender and ethnicity, and if not, why not. It would see meanings more in the plural than the singular. Who makes judgements and how they are made would be a consideration too, as would whether texts in question serve particular or specific group interests to the exclusion or marginalisation of other groups. Also, how do literary texts work to naturalise conflict would be a consideration, as would what particular ways of seeing the world are being privileged by the text in question, and who is being marginalised.
    If what constitutes those forms of writing we call Literature is not self-evident, but the product of such institutions as schools, universities and the publishing industry, I know where I stand. How about you? Is creative writing killing literature? Who know? Not me, I haven’t taken a creative writing course in my life. I don’t need to. I know where I sit, and why.

  11. I like Anitra Nelson’s comment. The thought of being paid to spend time reading/writing while other people work to fund me and buy their own dinner makes me queasy. A good chunk of the population is made to work far too hard, for too much of their lives, for not enough money – but I think that’s the fault of inequality, and I don’t believe getting rid of creative grants is the best way to combat that.

    It’s shameful how simply this comes down to class. The people with the most valuable stories probably are the people working in MacDonalds, and for socio-economic reasons they’ll likely miss the opportunity to even think about ‘intrinsic beauty’ or any other reasoning that might support creative grants. This is perhaps the beauty of the course Kirsten describes herself studying at.

    I suppose it’s a somewhat moot point, because people doing minimum wage work are being forced to fund the arts, but people in more comfortable positions are paying taxes to the same government, & could end up contributing to support people from lower socio-economic families in telling their stories.

    Of course a four hour work day, whilst being the BEST THING EVER, would solve all of these problems.

    Ideally, everyone should be able to contribute to their community by working less desirable jobs & also by developing their passion into talent & eventually something brilliant – whether that brilliance be creative or otherwise. Grants don’t allow writers to free themselves from jobs, & I don’t believe they should.

    I think it’s important to note also that teaching Creative Writing would not be an easy job at all (looks damn hellish to me!), so that’s certainly not a get out of work free card.

  12. Interestingly, if you look at the recent Austlit grants, many of the recipients are well-paid academics (and creative-writing ‘teachers’). I’m not sure why I raise this.

    1. no need to be coy, you can say how *Literature* only has economic and careerist operational validity for publishing industry executives, elite authors and academics / creative writing teachers

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.