Can People Be Taught How to Write Novels?

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Can people really be taught how to write novels? Doubts have plagued the inexorable rise of creative writing workshops. But the cynicism is beginning to look outdated

In F Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned, the writer Dick Caramel tells of a conversation with his uncle from Kansas: "All the old man does is tell me he just met the most wonderful character for a novel. Then he tells me about some idiotic friend of his and then he says: 'There's a character for you! Why don't you write him up? Everybody'd be interested in him.' Or else he tells me about Japan or Paris, or some other very obvious place, and says: 'Why don't you write a story about that place? That'd be a wonderful setting for a story!'"

Anyone who has ever claimed to be a novelist will recognise this exchange. What other grown-up gets told how to do their job so often as a writer? Or rather, what is it about writing that makes other people think they know how to do it? Dick Caramel's first novel, The Demon Lover, goes on to become a wild publishing success, and as a consequence, Caramel turns into an intolerably self-aggrandising bore. He talks constantly about money and his "career", sounding more like a businessman than an artist, then is demolished whenever he meets someone who hasn't heard of him and his book. Fitzgerald's portrait of "the writer" is as riddling a piece of characterisation as any he ever wrote, empathetic and damning and so ambivalent as to be cruel, almost, to himself.

Fitzgerald, like many writers of his time, went to Hollywood in search of a salaried profession: his friend Billy Wilder likened him to "a great sculptor hired to do a plumbing job". Commentators have expressed surprise at how hard working and conscientious he was as a studio employee, as though something other than hard work and conscientiousness had produced Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby. But no amount of toil could disguise the fact that Fitzgerald was no screenwriter. "He didn't know how to connect the pipes so that the water could flow," Wilder added. It is a memorable image, and one that evokes the vulnerability of artistic self-esteem. Those writers who flocked to Hollywood to trade in their one bankable asset, writing, might have come away with the disquieting impression that they were no good at it either.

Today's novelist has what would seem to be a more humane alternative to being a (failed) hack. The ascent of creative writing courses has given writers a different kind of work to do, and is transforming every established role - writer, reader, editor, critic - in the literary drama. Dick Caramel's conversation with his uncle is no longer a stock scene: the writer has become a "professional" with a tenured academic status, a certified technician of language; one would ask him for advice, as one would a doctor, rather than tell him how to do his job. The terrain has become formalised, mapped out, institutionalised. People are paying to have their views about characterisation, setting, theme attended to: if you want a writer to listen to you, you'll have to sign up for an MA.

In one way it's high time writing was formalised: academic institutions offer a shelter for literary values, and for those who wish to practise them, in a way that publishing, being increasingly market-driven, does not. Painters and musicians have long been protected in a similar way - it is both an entitlement and a necessity for creative people to study and refine their craft. Yet creative writing courses are often seen as being somehow bogus, as even threatening those literary principles they set out to enshrine, though the truth is that the separation of literary from popular values in writing has been virtually impossible to bring about. This is a source of great dynamism in literary culture, for anyone can be a writer - at the very least, while the average person believes they could not compose a symphony, a significant minority want to write a novel. There is a demand, among people with little or no track record of writing, to study the art of fiction, and while this might not give creative writing much of an academic profile, it is absolutely reflective of the way the literary world works.

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SOURCE: The Guardian
Rachel Cusk
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