Teaching and the Individual Talent?

Rachel Cusk’s feature in the Guardian Review in defence of creative writing has been nagging away at me ever since I read it.

I have problems with the view of the subject and, more importantly for creative writing, the view of the novel at the heart of the piece. I wasn’t initially particularly concerned with what Cusk was trying to defend, the teaching of creative writing, although, of course, her defence ended up making me question just that.

Here’s where it starts going wonky:

Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels the need to assert a “true” self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every social and personal network, has given rise to a “false” self.

This is presented as the student’s view, but it’s entirely consistent with Cusk’s own work and criticism. The piece continues by noting the hoariness of the cliché that everyone has a book in them:

What is it, this book everyone has in them? It is, perhaps, that haunting entity, the “true” self. The true self seeks release, not constraint. It doesn’t want to be corseted in a sonnet or made to learn a system of musical notations. It wants liberation, which is why very often it fastens on the novel, for the novel seems spacious, undefined, free. In the novel that common currency, language, can be exchanged like for like.

I wouldn’t disagree that the novel can be spacious – its spaciousness might, in fact, be constitutive of what it is – or free, but thought it might be useful to highlight some of the rich critical work that deals with the problem of the idea of this “true” self and attempts to assert it through language. The thing is, there’s not much point me doing that because it’s already been done with considerable energy and clarity by Tom McCarthy (that’s the Booker short-listed Tom McCarthy, so he’s no publishing obscurity) in his essay ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. (I’d love to be able to recommend you buy the ebook, as I did, but sadly its saddled with all sorts of DRM so I can neither copy from it nor read it on any device other than the computer I downloaded it on. I needn’t stress the absurdity of publishing an essay about literature as transmitted information in this kind of imprisoned form and should you want to read it you might want to have a look at scribd).

McCarthy’s title riffs on that of TS Eliot’s most famous critical essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which Eliot described what is referred to as his theory of depersonalisation, a process by which the artist removes himself from the picture to allow the rich tradition of literature to be reshaped by his mediation: ‘What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ In Eliot’s view, the individual poet becomes a collider for the particles of the literary tradition, providing ‘the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.’

McCarthy updates Eliot for the 21st century, quoting the critics who’ve, since Eliot, chipped away at the notion of the enthroned subject summoning great works of aesthetic beauty from some wonderful and mystical interiority. He writes that he’s almost embarrassed to quote the passage he does from Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’, so well known is it. But let’s sample just a touch, because Barthes is great (and available on Ubuweb – take note ebook publishers):

literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

McCarthy glosses this:

Who speaks? For Barthes, the answer is always: language – language speaks me, you, everyone, to such an extent that I and you and we and they are merely shifting and amorphous points, floating islands being continuously made and unmade by language’s flows and counterflows.

Lovely stuff. The thing is, on re-reading Cusk’s piece she seems to sense these problems but is unwilling to push at them, perhaps because of the implications for the self:

The novel seems to be the book of self: the problem is that, once you start to write it, you see that it has taken on certain familiar characteristics. It begins to seem not true but false, either a recreation of the false self or a failure to externalise the true one. It is a product, your product: in other words, more of the same. How, then, to produce the “true” writing?

Rather than working at this problem she defers to Karl Ove Knausgard, whose book was her pick of the year in the Guardian’s round-up.

“Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in A Death in the Family. “That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”

Any the wiser? Nope, me neither. And we all thought post-structuralism was difficult to understand. But wait, there’s an explanation in what, for me, is the most problematic statement of all in this article:

There is a spirituality, or at least a mysticism, to this statement that it seems to me ought to be embedded at the core of creative writing culture.

Is this a direction to go to a séance or a church? Because it reads like one. It strikes me that this is where you end up if you enshrine hugely problematic notions such as the subject and the idea of authenticity at the heart of fictional practice: flailing around, summoning the spirits and trying to divine the self in a concave mirror. A student might be excused for asking for something a touch more rigorous on a £5700 a year creative writing course.

I don’t want to attack creative writing, the particular course, or even the particular teacher, but I do want to make a problem of this mysticism. I realise that creative writing is not literary criticism. Barthes and Eliot might not be what creative writing students want to read (they may prefer Cusk and Knausgard). Fair enough. (ish. I think creative writing should be engaged with the possibilities of literature rather than therapeutic self-expression, and should certainly be aware of current directions in the novel, and let’s be honest, this isn’t even that current: nouveau roman, anyone? But then I’m frequently seen as some kind of utopian dilettante, if a bit grumpy about DRM).

I think even in its own terms this defence is flawed, because what is being advocated here is a type of novel that is in no way free or liberated, reduced, as it is, to self-portraiture. Indeed, Cusk herself describes Knausgard’s book as a self-portrait.

While Francis Bacon’s self-portraits might be very interesting in the context of his collected work, if there were only self-portraits, would we be interested? Even if you don’t want to engage with the questions facing literature, and just want to write a good detective story, should your detective story really be a self-portrait?

The view of the novel that is concerned only with the self precludes the possibility of Eliot’s fusion. It may have some awareness of the tradition in which it operates but it can’t hope to put it under sufficient synthetic pressure to produce work that will be of any value to anyone but the producing self, because this is its only real concern.

An idea of the novel that limits itself to self-portraiture is always going to end up here: this is an artistic correlationism that makes self continuous with work, without allowing for all the things – tradition, computer monitors, exterior soundfields, whisky, metaphor, mess, the continuous flow of information – that make such a notion nonsensical.

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