The Professional Writer and the Birth of the Predictable

Tim Parks has an article in the New York Review of Books about the professional writer and how that has lead to a form of sterility in writing. I think his take has a lot of merit, especially with the institutionalization of writing in the universities. I’ve always been a little suspicious of MFA’s and the like. I mean how many books about writers do we need? It often seems like what half the writers who come from those institutions end up producing anyway. It isn’t a depressing article, just one makes me glad I didn’t try and get an MFA. It all seems like a great ponzi scheme.

At the same time the perceived need for an expensive year-long creative writing course on the part of thousands of would-be writers affords paid employment to those older writers who have trouble making ends meet but are nevertheless determined to keep at it. One of the problems of seeing creative writing as a career is that careers are things you go on with till retirement. The fact that creativity may not be co-extensive with one’s whole working life is not admitted. A disproportionate number of poets teach in these courses.

Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey. Much rarer is the sort of book (one thinks of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, or Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This, or going back a way, the maverick English writer Henry Green) where the writer appears, amazingly, to be working directly from experience and imagination, drawing on his knowledge of past literature only in so far as it offers tools for having life happen on the page.