I read this article http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10594606/Hanif-Kureishi-What-they-dont-teach-you-at-creative-writing-school.html about Hanif Kureishi‘s views on what is missing from the teaching of creative writing to people.

I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Hanif Kureishi. Perhaps if he’d studied with the OU he would have had plenty of practice in recognising the plentiful supply of good ideas that we have. He might also have been taught some techniques to fire up his imagination and to harness it to produce material.

On the other hand I do agree that there is (rightly) a lot of focus in text books on the ‘hard’ skills that writers need. On use of language, structure and the practicalities of how to produce good prose, poetry etc. This is not just down to creative writing schools though, all disciplines have a mixture of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. The masters of the discipline can do both very well, but it is typically much easier to teach the ‘hard’ skill than the ‘soft’ skill. An example of this is interviewing people. You can readily teach people how to structure an interview, what sort of questions to ask and how to document it all. It is very much harder to teach someone how to tell if the interviewee is credible and how to make a judgement based on the given answers.

Creative writing is no different, you know the great from the good when you read it, but even knowing the techniques it is much harder to be certain that what you are writing is as good as it could be. Even when you do your best there is still a level of subjectivity on what is great writing. The avoidance of that subjectivity is what makes universities (and anyone accrediting performance properly) stick to assessing the hard skills and avoiding anything where the marking can be challenged. It is relatively straightforward to write a marking schema that counts the words, looks for a beginning, middle and end, the use of specific techniques in the piece and good spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It is almost impossible to get consistency if you ask people to mark on the basis of how good they though the story was. You only need to go look at Amazon reviews of your favourite books and see the one star reviews of things you believe are masterpieces.

Here are a couple of one star reviews from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

  • “I didn’t finish reading it. Too much backwards & forwards, I found a job to follow the theme. I didn’t enjoy it at all.”
  • “I couldn’t read past the first page.  It immediately gives the tedious impression of book vastly in need of editing. There is scarely anything that is written on the first page that conuld not be expressed more concisely, and this to me was a bad sign: that the rest of the book would be even more verbose. So I jumped ship.  I have a feeling that Dickens is really a writer that appeals to a very narrow sector fo the reading public, but that we’ve all been hood-winked into believing him to be accessable.”


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