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Creative Writing and Canadian Literary Culture

[Y]ou read an artist’s book not with your heart [or] brain alone, but with your brain and spine. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel’. I wonder if I shall ever measure again with happy hands the breadth of a lectern and plunge into my notes before the sympathetic abyss of a college audience.

                                         — Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

The State of Things

Books are definitely still being published. Somewhere over a hundred Canadian novels alone each year. And, with no little thanks to the Internet, people of all ages are reading, and many are reading books. The Kindle and other electronic books really are encouraging people to read more. But they are reading fewer titles. And the real readers, the serious readers, are now often reading nonfiction. We’re in a nonfiction cultural atmosphere at the moment. I remember fifteen years ago telling a group of Taiwanese writers visiting the University of Alberta that the future of fiction lay in reading like nonfiction. They frowned at this. But I do think that even before 9/11, the shift toward nonfiction was underway.

Perhaps the world was already beginning to feel stranger than fiction. Or perhaps fiction has reached the limits of its current conventions. Lifelong fiction readers often switch, late in life, to nonfiction. Fiction can be like classical music: eventually you’ve heard it all, and the new music sounds strictly for the young. Besides, the conventions of fiction are largely there to make credible the kinds of details that nonfiction is full of. After a while, as a reader, either you turn to highly conventional fiction such as detective fiction or you run out of authors using the conventions skillfully enough not to distract you, and so you turn to nonfiction.

There is the strangeness out there, there is possible reader fatigue with conventions, and there is the fact that most literary fiction is based on the idea that there is such a thing as character and that character can change in comprehensible ways, i.e., moral ways, according to “right” and “wrong” choices that characters make. In this sense, literary fiction is moral, in what is essentially a psychological way.  In times of war, or when politics dominates, this idea, this kind of thinking, is marginalized the way the individual is marginalized, in preparation for sacrifice or death.

Anyway, as everybody knows, and feels, after 9/11 the cultural climate changed, radically, and one of the victims has been the sales of literary books in Canada, the UK, and the US. Advances for literary fiction in Canada and the US are a fraction, at best perhaps a third, of what they were ten years ago. And this decline is reflected in the press. How many Canadian reviews can the average Canadian literary novel now expect to receive? Four. One in the Globe if the book has already been deemed good and important enough. A review in Quill and Quire, to give the booksellers a heads-up whether to buy it or not. And one or two in those few city papers that still publish book reviews, written by underpaid journalists, writers, and amateurs.

At the same time, the fashion of international interest in Canadian books as such has, for now anyway, all but disappeared. One thing the war on terror has done is given new life to American xenophobia. Maybe a Canadian novel will be picked up in one of France, Germany, or Italy, but not so often in the US or the UK. The incomes of most Canadian agents are currently down about 50%.

The future lies with e-books, but currently the rate for author royalites for e-books, usually 25%, results in a little more than half the income from royalties of 15% for hardcovers. (E-books currently account for 8% of total book revenues. This is up from 3-5% last year. By the end of 2012, they are expected to account for 20-25% of total sales. Their effect on the book will resemble the effect of the digital downloading of music on CD sales.)

But the reality is that the literary market, by and large, never has been very large. Literary writing has always been a kind of cottage industry, its image embodied in a few big names—Roth, Atwood—while it waxes and wanes in the public eye. About ten or fifteen years ago, Nan Talese, Atwood’s editor at Doubleday in New York, said that a good literary book in the US without exceptional hype could sell at best (including libraries) 4,000 copies. Now she says (and I quote): “You better have another source of income.” Some weeks in the UK, a book on the bestseller list will sell five copies in the entire kingdom. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian when first issued in hardback in Canada sold 27 copies. Recently in the UK, the British book chain Waterstone’s ordered 25 copies nationally of a new novel by a major literary author. Last winter in Montreal, Jonathan Safran Foer was asked what it was like for a writer to be so famous, and he said, You know, this isn’t really fame. Nobody recognizes me on the street.

Literary publishing is a small world, a coterie world. Actual sales numbers are shocking, out of all proportion to the image readers have of famous writers, but they’ve always been shocking. Publishers know the numbers are small. It’s why they need to throw enough junk at the wall so that something will stick and they can stay in business. The reality is that Canadian writers earn on average around $16,000 annually from their writing work.

And then there is the fact of Indigo/Chapters. Twelve years ago, independent bookstores accounted for one-third of the book market. Now they account for one-tenth. One woman (the national buyer for Indigo) chooses 45% of the fiction titles on Canadian bookstore shelves. If she doesn’t like your book, it’s not going to be visible in the majority of retail venues in this country. One thing this Indigo/Chapters virtual monopoly means is that if you’re an author wanting a large market you had better be insider-savvy about the needs of the marketing department. After all, your acquiring editor has to sell to the marketers first if she is to buy your book at all. And later, if the marketing and sales people—or the buyer for Indigo—don’t like it, it’s not going to get onto the shelves.

Here is another thing this decline in interest in Canadian fiction means. This past spring my agent suggested that I transpose the setting of my new novel (which I had already submitted to her) from Southern Ontario to upper New York state. She said it in a way that suggested the idea had come from my editor. When I checked with my editor, she said it hadn’t, but she wasn’t appalled or surprised. She could understand why my agent would want me to do this. So we’re back to where we started, in the sixties, trying to pass as Americans in order to succeed as Canadian artists. And as you know, and as Stompin’ Tom says, the next step is leaving the country.

In many ways, it’s only what we deserve. Last year, the Giller board put an American and a Brit on the Giller jury, with one Canadian. In a March 17, 2009, editorial The Globe and Mail declared this “a wonderful idea.” We had run out of qualified Canadian writers to serve, the Gobe said. This will increase the cachet of the Giller even further. No one, to my knowledge, objected. I wrote a calm, sane letter of objection, which the Globe refused to print. Everybody, apparently, thought it was a wonderful idea. So wonderful that they’ve done it again this year, with the difference this year that there is no Canadian fiction writer on the jury at all. The only Canadian on the jury is a broadcaster.

Now, I ask you, what other country in the world would be pleased to have its literature judged by a jury with a majority of foreign authors on it? Or not one of its own authors on it at all? The Griffin Poetry Prize (which is mentioned in the Globe editorial as setting a precedent) has foreign authors on its jury because they are awarding an International Prize as well as a Canadian Prize. You won’t find a Canadian or Brit on any recent U.S. National Book Award jury, and you won’t find a Canadian or American on any recent U.K. Man Booker Prize jury. The reason the Australia-Asia Literary Award includes non-Australians on its jury is that it is open to non-Australian authors. When are we going to have the confidence of our own cultural judgments? Are we crazy, pathetic, or just still deeply colonized? I think it’s the latter, and consequently the correct answer is the middle one: pathetic.

About the Griffin Prize I have nothing bad to say. I think it’s a remarkable thing Scott and Krystyne Griffin are doing, and I do not think they would have done more for Canadian poetry if they had put the money into a fellowship, which would have been far less visible. Do you remember what Scott Griffin said to the reporter who asked him, Why such a big prize, for poetry? He said, Because of a question like that. The other thing about Griffin is that he actually loves poetry. He reads it and it stays in his head. This is an act of love as well as generosity, and it shows.

But back to the Giller. The Globe editorial said that having an international jury was preferable to having non-writers on the jury, and it’s true that non-writers on literary juries tend to be disasters, in literary terms. But the big prizes are designed not necessarily to choose the most accomplished literary books of the year but to choose those likeliest to sell well and still at least pass as literary, in some cases, one suspects, to be just unpleasant and hard to read and sufficiently good for you to pass as literary. The Giller has with surprising consistency been a prize designed to choose a book that will appeal to the greatest number of people likeliest to read only one or two works of fiction in a year. Beyond these people are the book clubs, who read more, and they must be appealed to as well.

What this big-prize mentality, combined with the rise of the book clubs, the falling away of the independent booksellers, and the collapse of the international market for literary fiction means is that books are still being read in healthy numbers, but it’s now mostly 10% of those being published, rather than the previous 20-30%, and that 10% is not often what could by any stretch be described as literary fiction. Even when the Giller anoints it as such.

Everybody knows how painful it is to to see an intelligent person pushing herself through a so-called ‘good, literary’ book, at least a book that’s been declared such by some prize jury, knowing in her spine—i.e., with her real intelligence—that this isn’t really very good but thinking the fault must lie with her, she doesn’t get it, she doesn’t read enough literature, she doesn’t keep up to the trends, it’s her fault. Whereas the truth is that the woman has been shanghaied. As William Burroughs once said, You can’t fake a good book any more than you can fake a good meal. Not everybody can recognize a good meal, of course, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing. People know. Readers know. They know it in their spine if no way else.It’s not just writers who know a good book when they see one, it’s anyone with an aesthetic sense. Never underestimate the importance of the reader’s aesthetic sense to the success or failure of what you do as a writer. Literature, like theatre, is an extraordinarily powerful form of art. But the economics and the culture of the times in this country are on the side of its emasculated imitations. They always have been, of course. But somehow, without the independent bookstores and with prize juries and reading clubs leading the charge, like politics generally nowadays, the forces of darkness seem more brazen, more barefaced, than ever.
Do you know the derogatory U.S. publishing industry adjective for a literary book? Written.

The problem, of course, is bigger than a Canadian one. There was 9/11, but before it, starting (like the push for a Canadian literature) in the sixties, the universities began to turn against the presumed elitism of literature in favour of the elitism of theory. Since then, university English departments have gone through many fashions—cultural studies was part of the backlash against deconstruction, and now history has been put back into the mix—but what has not been put back in 98% of English departments is literature.

I witnessed this all over again as I watched my son take English in high school and university. As he approached graduate school, he admitted that he’d always assumed that along the way he’d discover a writer or a literary period he could really get into. But it never happened. In university, his primary texts were theoretical. Quite a few of his English courses had no literature on them whatsoever. In others, literature, when it was brought in at all, came in bits and pieces, usually from lesser-quality literary works, because they make for clearer examples. My son, who is now doing a Ph.D, still enjoys his education. He has found theory to be a useful cultural tool, but its materials are cultural texts universally. Of these, literature is one small, marginal part.

In one of his books, David Lodge tells the story about the academics playing the game of who-can-name-the-most-shocking-great-work-they-haven’t-read. When the new hire names Hamlet, he has gone too far. This joke no longer works. I know a handful of young English professors who have never read Hamlet and can’t understand why they should. The bottom line is, it’s far easier to master a handful of key theoretical texts—Foucault, say, or Marx, or Lukacs—than a canon, or the thousands of texts that canon has been distilled from. It’s easier, and there’s more power in it for the teacher, and for the student. The problem is, that as those who know the literary texts themselves continue to retire and die, the theory increasingly floats free of its supposed referents. There are no controls exerted by the infinitely greater complexity of the texts themselves.

The same is happening across the academy. This summer an archeologist friend at Memorial University told me that young archeologists are gravitating to theory, while the work of those who have spent their life in the field is being discontinued and lost. The actual facts, the details, the material evidence of how people actually lived is being lost, while new theorists theorize. This year the University of London required its entire teaching staff to reapply for their own jobs. It was a way of cutting back. Paleography was cut altogether. How can you theorize about ancients texts after there is no one around who can read them?

The thing about so-called great literature, questions of aesthetic quality aside, is that it is complex, and it’s that complexity that theory, understandably, given human nature, shies away from. This is what Flannery O’Connor understood. The world will always aspire to abstraction. It’s simpler and cleaner and it doesn’t hurt as much. A real writer needs to get dirty. To get down into the dust and the dirt.

But forget the academy: I want to say that the Western world has gone off literary fiction, in a bigger way than it has gone off Canadian literature. For a while the novel held its own while the cultural spaces for the short story got filled by TV. It was easier to watch a half-hour TV show than to read a short story, and this is why short stories disappeared from the big-circulation magazines. Simple as that. I used to think that the cultural staying power of the novel lay in the fact that it would continue to offer an extended narrative that submerges the reader in an imagined world for hours, days, weeks at a time, a world the reader can enter into and come out of freely. Nothing else in the culture did that—until, that is, the TV boxed set: Sopranos, Ten Feet Under, The Wire, Lost, Treme, and so on. Like the Internet, the boxed set offers ready entry and exit at any time. Unlike the Internet, it offers immersion in an imagined world over an extended period of time. As that kind of TV gets better, and more convenient (as with the iPad), I fear the novel will continue its slow drift to the margins.

This Is Where We Come In

As we all know, in the last twenty years, creative writing instruction has taken off in universities and colleges in Canada, the US, and the UK, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. This is because students want to take these classes. They will always fill up. If you’re setting up any new program, put in a creative writing component and you will have students long before you have put in place any other dependable courses to draw them in.

It’s often said: the irony is that this proliferation should be continuing at precisely the same time as the collapse of literary publishing. (It’s a little like the irony of Canadian literature taking off simultaneously with the appearance of theory, which precipitated the disappearance of the teaching of literature in the universities.) But of course, now as much as ever, some young people are going to want to write, and many of them are going to want to write well. Some of them will continue to respond to the aesthetic power, the hairs lifting on the back of the neck, of good literature, and many of those will devote their lives to trying to achieve that power themselves. Why not? It’s called being an artist.

There is another reason creative writing courses are popular, and I’m sure you’ve heard this one too, but I think it’s true: they’ve become the primary places within the university where literature is taught as what it actually is: art. Rather than in aid of some cultural or political theory. People’s aesthetic response to literature is real, whether they want to become or ever do become writers. For years this was the basis of the teaching of literature in the university, as a means of engaging the student’s sensibility with those complex works of literary art formerly known as great.

Now this is being done in creative writing courses, which is fine. While I think we do underestimate the importance of the aesthetic response of readers of literature, perhaps it makes more sense, in this age of specialization, to concentrate on the aesthetic response of writers to literature. Or at least of people, young or old, who feel the tingle in the spine a book can give them and would like to find out if they can or should be writers. There is still the problem that there is diminishing cultural space for the education of readers, but maybe this will come back, or maybe literature itself will need to educate readers, as it has always done, when the interest is there. Or maybe, as for music, the market for literature will continue to fragment. Meanwhile, we have the extraordinary opportunity that comes of potential future creators of that literature still being addressed within the institution.

I am saying that creative writing courses in colleges and universities are currently providing an otherwise discarded but crucial educational function for the young: the consideration of literature as the art that it is. I’m not saying by this that we should recreate the old English literature lecture or seminar mode in creative writing classes, with the ‘great’ texts at the centre of  the discussion. I do believe in the centrality of the workshop for teaching creative writing at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels—just not without reference, when appropriate, to the ‘great’ texts. My point is simply that writers need models, and they need good ones; that writers should always be reading other writers who interest them; that the good writing of others is a writer’s daily nourishment; that an instructor needs to be able to refer her student to the writers who are doing best the sort of thing that the student appears to be trying to do; that students should understand that the form and content issues that they are wrestling with have almost certainly been wrestled with by other writers in whom they will recognize a kindred spirit and from whom they can learn a great deal, very quickly, because this is information they need; and I am saying that students learning to write need to look at all literature from the inside, as it were, from the point of view of the artist constructing it, of the artistic process, because that is what they will be doing themselves.

As for the workshop situation more specifically: What I have learned is that the instructor, in being the workshop leader, marker, and grader, already has more than enough authority in the situation, as least in regard to pronouncements on the right and the wrong way to do something. Creative writing teaching is like any teaching: eventually you learn that there is what the student needs to understand but there is also when the student will be ready to understand it. It’s this second consideration that separates the good teachers from the bad and that makes good teaching more like psychotherapy, in a way, in that it’s all about sensing what the student is ready to know. This is particularly true of creative writing teaching, because the student is very likely to have an emotional investment in what is being discussed. Bad writing is a set of strategies for containing, distancing, walling off that emotion, for rendering it safe for the author. A large part of teaching writing is communicating to a writer the hard fact that that emotion is going to need to be reexperienced if it is ever to be experienced by the reader—which should be the primary reason for the story, or the poem, being written in the first place.

What is also true of the workshop, in my experience, is that students learn best not from the instructor, no matter how good his or her timing, but from the best among themselves, from their peers around the table whose work they admire most, whether they would like to admit it, and the instructor’s primary function is to elicit from the best students that feedback that will be of most use to the others. As I see it, the goal of a good workshop leader is, by the end of the term, to be saying very little. As little as possible. You already have authority enough.

That said, I think it’s important that at the end of, or at some point in, the discussion, the instructor make his or her response as clear as possible (as well as doing this in his or her written comments). That the instructor not pretend his or her standards are so high that an honest appraisal would somehow be unfair to someone just “starting out.” An instructor who feels this is not taking the work on its own terms, he or she is importing other standards inappropriately. The purpose of good literature in the context of a writing workshop is to provide material that can be learned from, not to provide a model that cannot or should not be aspired to. It’s there to be disconstructed from a writer’s point of view, not put on a pedestal, with the instructor up there with it.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

I have been talking about the dire state of the market for literary writing and at the same time arguing for the crucial continuing importance of it both in colleges and universities and in the larger culture. It’s where you get the emotional truth and particularity that people will always hunger for and that the media egregiously fail to provide. Because art is not about information, it’s about emotional choices (that is to say, choices made by one’s larger intelligence). Specific emotional choices that signify.

That said, I do think that at this historical moment, literary writing is in need of a breakthrough into a new mode that will re-connect with readers’ spines. I would compare this current period we are in with the wheel-spinning of modern physics since the early twentieth century. Modernism has got old. The Post is by and large now fizzling, and we’re into a new age of quirky-autobiographical sincerity, e.g., Dave Eggers and the whole McSweeney’s phenomenon, early Yann Martel, David Mitchell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Lydia Davis, and so forth. (Pretty much what, come to think of it, I saw coming, to the displeasure of the Taiwanese.) But in my view, not enough is being done with the language as a transformer of perception. Just as physics has stepped back from the true imaginative implications of relativity and therefore failed to move, literature has stepped back from more than merely cerebral innovation and seems at a loss where to go next.

I think this is how we should be thinking when mentoring our students, conducting our workshops, and supervising our creative writing theses. We should have the conscious goal of discovering, uncovering, unleashing, this new, long overdue, breakthrough of linguistic energy and narrative truth. This means that the great works are treated as sources of inspiration and as technical resources, not as (remote and unattainable) models for imitation. This means that not all students should be required to conform to, say, the Alice Munro or the New Yorker or the Chekhovian model of the short story. Not all creative writing students, even at the undergraduate level, should be forced into an apprentice mode. Not that there is anything wrong with an apprentice mode . . . .

This means that all students must be taught that central to the achievement of good writing is the awareness that a human mind that is not their own needs to be able to move with its full intelligence through their text with interest and engagement. This other human mind will be a projection of the student’s own best editor or self as reader (as educated and informed, to some extent by the voices and the insights of their peers), and that is the mind whose real and genuine interests must be met, because knowing where that mind is at any particular moment is the only way an artist can come into what I would call creative writing. This means that students will learn that a first draft will often read more like an explicit memo to the writer about what he or she intends to say than like something being said in any way like the way it needs to be said. That creative writing is a process of drafting and redrafting until another mind, by reading that same passage, revised, can come into that meaning or something close to it for itself, without its being made explicit.

This means that we must never forget that in every class there will be ignorance, but in every class there will also be at least one finer intelligence than one’s own, and that that intelligence must not, at any cost, be discouraged. It should be given the tools and the encouragement to speak, if it doesn’t have them already, because that is the voice the class will listen to. This means that our unofficial motto (adapted from Conan Doyle!) in the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre should be universal in creative writing courses: “Talent recognizes genius, but mediocrity knows only itself.” This means that our task is to do everything to encourage and nothing to discourage those among the ranks of our students who feel the tingle in the spine, because who can tell which of them will one day write the book that tingles the spine of a generation and does not feel written but rather immediate and necessary, like all true literature. This means that the whole ugly commercial story of prizes and book club tastes and big-publisher big-sale expectations and dwindling advances and fragmented audiences and digital erosion of reading time should not be allowed to sully the endeavour. It’s the honest, felt, intelligently-crafted work that makes a good book. Commercial success is a crapshoot, a mug’s game. Writing courses are about good books. The tingle in the brain and spine. Period.

CODA

You’re probably aware that Barry Hannah, who taught creative writing at the University of Mississippi for many years, died this past March. As a creative writing teacher, Mr. Hannah is perhaps best known for once drawing a gun on his class. To commemorate Barry Hannah, Harper’s magazine printed a recent commencement address he gave. At the end of it, Hannah offers a fantasy of a survivor of civilization shuffling through the ashes and kicking up a scrap of paper with writing on it. What the hell is this? He starts to read. Hey, this is pretty good.

 

Greg Hollingshead
Keynote Address at the founding meeting of the CCWWP (Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs)
Calgary, October 2010

Footnote:

 1. The historian G.M. Young says something about doing historical research that I think also applies to writing fiction: “[G]o on on reading until [you] can hear the people talking.” All writing is voice. All writing comes out of other writing.