Tag Archives: Clarín

Hanif Kureishi and the ongoing but tedious debate on Creative Writing courses

9 Mar
"It’s a real nightmare trying  to make  a living  as a  writer". Er . . .right, mate.

“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer”. Er . . right, mate. I’ll take your word for it (but not your course).


As someone who makes his living from the teaching of creative writing I watched warily as the Hanif Kureishi story from the Bath Literature Festival unfolded last week. I had really begun to think that the argument about ‘whether you can teach creative writing’ was dead in the ground, but I was wrong. And the tremors that began in the staid and elegant streets of Bath have even rippled over the South Atlantic.

This morning I receive an email from Jorge Fondebrider in Argentina with a link to Ñ, the magazine supplement to the newspaper Clarín, and the most important cultural weekly in the country. The article suggests that ‘Kureishi’s bitter declarations belong to the hateful species of writers who go to literary festivals in order to spend their time complaining about how much they hate having to do publicity for their books.’ Indeed, perhaps Hanif was bored, and wanted to get something off his chest, or just rile someone. And that’s understandable, although not very professional. But he certainly knew that his outburst would get him publicity for his new novel, The Last Word. I don’t wish to add to that publicity, but do feel the need to make a contribution, as I am getting tired of the argument he has resurrected. Kureishi has frequently been outspoken in a heavy-handed, bombastic way and he is a didactic writer – which to my mind is at odds with being a good novelist. But he has also –and this might come as a surprise to many – written extremely lucidly on the practice of creative writing.

What shocked most people about Kureishi’s rant was the sheer, brazen hypocrisy of it all. Here is someone who makes his living from an activity that he evidently despises – much as he appears to despise the students he teaches – and yet is content to pocket the salary that accompanies this fruitless endeavour, without any consideration for either the people who have paid big fees to study at the university where he teaches (Kingston) or the consequences for the rest of us in having to pick up the broken crockery after this moribund and incredibly tedious domestic turbulence, once again. I am not even convinced how much of Kureishi’s polemic was for real, nor do I really care. The fact is that we have all had thoughts like Kureishi’s on a bad day, but we get over it. The evidence, as Tim Clare’s entertaining response to Kureishi: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick is that many people get quite a lot from a Creative Writing course. From my own experience (I teach at Cardiff University) I would venture that MA students are not so naïve as to expect to make it into the upper zones of the literary stratosphere simply by gaining a qualification in Creative Writing. Most of them would accept that we, their tutors, cannot ‘teach them to write’, but that we can make them aware of certain techniques and strategies by which they can help themselves towards becoming better writers. Most of them would also accept that real talent – whatever that is – is rare (though whether the figure of 99.9% figure cited by Kureishi is relevant or not, I rather doubt: it reeks of the old prejudice about ‘genius’ and a ‘God-given gift’, or the equally defunct and baffling notion of inspiration from the muse). Those who do succeed (whatever the measure of success), and who possess a modicum of talent, begin with a strong urge to write – which often takes on the characteristics of an obsession – and they persevere through rewriting and rewriting until they get a result. Much as I suspect Kureishi did.

One of the modules on the Cardiff MA, taught by a colleague (Shelagh Weeks), is  ‘The Teaching of Creative Writing’ (Module SET203). The assessment comes in the form of a 3,000 word essay, submitted after the students have spent some weeks working with aspiring writers in schools and with our own undergraduates. Here is a sample quotation:

‘Some students have considerable phantasies about becoming a writer, of what they think being a writer will do for them. This quickens their desire, and helps them get started. But when the student begins to get an idea of how difficult it is to complete a considerable piece of work – to write fifteen thousand good words, while becoming aware of the more or less impossibility of making significant money from writing – she will experience a dip, or ‘crash’ and become discouraged and feel helpless. The loss of a phantasy can be painful, but if the student can get through it – if the teacher can show the student that there’s something good in her work and help her endure the frustration of learning to do something difficult – the student will make better progress.’

In marking this, I would have pointed out the clumsy repetition of ‘considerable’. Nor do I much care for ‘the more or less impossibility’, but the argument being made seems sound enough.

In fact, the piece was written by Hanif Kureishi and published in issue 37 of The Reader (Spring 2010). Much more helpful than the Kureishi who tells us that creative writing courses are simply a waste of time.

















The riots: an afterword

7 Sep

Having just read Ken Clarke’s facile, vacuous and pompous account of the recent riots in English cities, Blanco feels moved to chip in.

Clarke makes three points in his article in Monday’s Guardian. The first is that the full force of the law should come crashing down on the ‘feral underclass’ who were responsible for the disturbances and the looting and who now are facing the ‘cold, hard accountability of the dock’. The second is that just about the right degree of ‘robust punishment’ has been exacted on the said feral underclass by the judiciary; and the third is that such individuals – in his opinion ‘the criminal classes . . . who haven’t been changed by their past punishments’ – continue to receive robust punishment in prisons where they learn the ethics of ‘productive hard work’ and where the ‘scandal of drugs being readily available’ is wiped out by paying prison staff by the ‘results’ they achieve rather than by fulfilling ‘processes and box-ticking’.

So far, by my reckoning, he has made more or less the same point, three times.

Finally ‘we need to continue to put rocket boosters on our plans to fix not just criminal justice but education, welfare and family policy’. Wow. How easily that little triptych – education, welfare and family policy – is trotted out. I am bedazzled.

Clarke talks of ‘addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted’ but says nothing of the appalling social inequality that ensure the UK remains the most class-ridden and – ironically – the most apolitical nation in Europe.

Another take on the riots comes from Slavoj Žižek in this week’s London Review of Books. Žižek, like a true idealist, bewails the fact that the rioters had no agenda for change, only acting as slaves to a consumer culture that is forever dangled before their eyes but of which they cannot partake: “You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly” (presumably ‘doing it properly’ would be engaging in what Mr Clarke calls ‘hard graft’ – but alas there are no jobs, or if there are they are total shit and therefore taken by immigrants and would certainly not provide enough remuneration to purchase the goods more easily acquired by lobbing a brick through a shop window and nicking them).

This aspect of things was explored most succinctly in an article in the Argentinian newspaper Clarín, in a report from María Laura Avignolo: “Social inequality divides the poor from the rich, while a ridiculous culture of media celebrity provides a lifestyle model to aspire towards, and ‘reality shows’ a means of salvation and social respectability in a society stratified by a very Victorian vision of class.” Looters, she continues, not only tried on the most fashionable designer clothes for size and fit and chose the best plasma TVs in the store, but destroyed what they could not carry with them “in an attack on the consumer society to which they aspire and cannot belong. The images did not show a social rebellion, but a chilling consumer revenge.”

Such detail is depressing for an idealist such as Žižek, even such an articulate one. One wishes there were something to celebrate about the riots, but sadly there is not. Just a sense of depression, of loss, and of disgust: “And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.”

The most interesting point for me in Žižek’s argument – and at least there were points of interest, unlike the garbage coming from Clarke – was the reference he made to Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher of the 1960s whom I remember reading avidly as a sixteen year old, high on dreams of revolution. Marcuse argued that human drives could be desublimated (the term he used was ‘repressive desublimation’) but still remain subject to capitalist control. “On British streets during the unrest” writes Žižek, “what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.”

How far we have come since the days of Che.



Borges: 25 years on

11 Jul

In Britain we tend to celebrate the anniversary of the births of famous people: in Argentina it is their deaths that are commemorated. Last month I was asked to contribute a piece for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín‘s special Borges supplement, looking at his influence on writers in the English-speaking world. It was published in Spanish on 14 June and is available here.

Here is the English version:

I first read Ficciones when I was eighteen years old and living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut half way up a mountain on the island of Crete. I had found the spot quite by chance while exploring an empty stretch of beach, and I moved in for the summer. I had just consumed The Brothers Karamazov and The Magic Mountain in rapid succession, and the brevity and intensity of Borges’ writing came as a revelation. Borges himself had something to say about big novels: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”

As an eighteen year old I was seduced by the idea that every instant contains the potential for an infinity of outcomes – a recurring motif in Borges’ work – or that our universe is only one in a multiplicity of possible universes, or that rather than being the proprietors of our own consciousness, we are being dreamed by some other entity. Not comfortable ideas to live with, but always pressing at the edges of comprehension, and always dissatisfied with received wisdoms.

Not everyone regarded Borges with such awe at the time, including the friend with whom I shared my idyll on the Libyan Sea. Over the next years I noted with curiosity whenever mention of Borges was made in relation to other writers. From the start, bearing in mind one of my favourite stories was ‘The South’, I always considered Borges to be a deeply Argentinian writer, and many of his stories are parables of Argentinian life. But I learned that there was also an ‘English’ Borges, not least because, due to the influence of his English grandmother, he grew up bilingual, and he reminds us in his cadences of the writers that influenced him; his beloved Stephenson, Kipling and Chesterton. It was perhaps this alleged ‘Englishness’ that appealed to some (although by no means all) of his fans in the UK. In any case, Borges cast a considerable influence over English language novelists of the 1980s, in particular, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death provides a suitable occasion to review that influence.

In his novel The Information (in which the twin protagonists, Richard and Gwyn, alarmingly constitute my own name), Martin Amis uses the concept of The Aleph – “a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere . . . one of the points in space that contains all other points” – as a central trope to infuse the book with astronomical detail, particularly with respect to the life cycle of stars, and the sun. According to the critic James Diedrick, Borges’ influence on the book extends further, ‘The Circular Ruins’ providing an allegory of how all literary works derive from other works, thereby confirming Amis’ own debt to Borges.

In a discussion with Ian McEwan held in London to celebrate the centenary of Borges’ birth, Amis said “Borges’ genius leaves me speechless, his work should not be considered minimalist, but extravagant. His way of facing the horror in the eternal and the transitory is extraordinary.” McEwan, similarly, praised Borges’ “colossal intelligence”, adding: “There is something liberating in Borges’ writing; it is the pure pleasure of the game of literary abstraction.”

Salman Rusdhie has also confessed to Borges’ influence, and in an essay refers to always carrying with him several ‘passports’, one of which is Borges’ Ficciones. Furthermore, in the acknowledgements to The Satanic Verses, Rushdie cites Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings for the description of the Manitcore.

However, in a 1999 review of the Collected Fictions, on their publication in English, Mavis Gallant observed that: “it is all but impossible to find anyone who has read Borges recently (other than Spanish-speaking readers, translators, specialists in Latin American writing and graduate students preparing dissertations).” Not much has changed since then. I suspect that many of the conceits and tropes that are considered ‘Borgesian’ have seeped into the fabric of British and American fiction, often without writers knowing from whence they came. Fantastical cultures, absurd hierarchies, ludic ploys and recurrent self-referentiality might remind some of us of their origin, but for many others they are just the way things are: they have been normalised within the rubric of post-modern fiction. Among younger writers in Britain, Borges would certainly seem to be far less of a force than he was at the time of his death, although his influence is discernible in the works of fine authors such as Geoff Dyer, David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. I teach at a British university and startlingly few of my own students have read him, though most have heard of him. Every year I endeavour to rectify their ignorance, and their reaction is either one of incomprehension or else an astonished and grateful: ‘why did no one tell me about this before!’ Among writer friends his name is still practically sacrosanct, though I am beginning to wonder how many of those under the age of forty have actually read him. Almost everyone agrees that only the stories from 1939-49 are truly great: the later work is found by J.M. Coetzee, for example, to be “tired” and to “add nothing to his stature.” The poems are sadly underappreciated here too compared with those of his contemporaries, Neruda and Lorca. But the great stories of the 1940s are perceived as his enduring strength, and as I suggested above, his influence has been absorbed into a way of seeing the world – just as Foucault intimated, almost by accident, over forty years ago.

My own favourite tribute to Borges comes in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in which a group of Argentinian exiles, led by the adventurer Squalidozzi, and at large in Europe during World War Two, hijack a German submarine. Improbably, they are accompanied by the glamorous Graciela Imago Portales – a ‘particular friend’ of the Buenos Aires literati – to whom ‘Borges is said to have a dedicated a poem’. Two lines are cited: “El laberinto de tu incertidumbre / Me trama con la disquietante luna . . .” Of course, the quotation has puzzled scholars, as it is neatly consistent with the rhythms and motifs of Borges’ earlier work, and yet nowhere to be found in his oeuvre. It would no doubt have delighted Borges, the more so since Pynchon made it up.