Letters to the Editors

from Marcelle Freiman

Dear Editors,

In his essay 'Towards a New Poetics in Creative Writing Pedagogy' in the Volume 7 No 1 April 2003 issue of TEXT Paul Dawson quotes my article published in the Volume 5, No 2 October 2001, 'Crossing the Boundaries of the Discipline: A post-colonial approach to teaching creative writing in the university', stating that my quotation of T.S. Eliot 'demonstrates the persistence of the foundational modernist approach to craft in Creative Writing pedagogy'.

In his enthusiasm to locate my statement as part of a project that is modernist, formalist and New Critical, as opposed to his preferred position with post-theoretical New Humanities, Dawson has seen the name 'Eliot' and automatically read 'modernism'. While it is not unusual to find oneself mis-represented I believe a response would be beneficial to theoretical debate in the field by reconfirming the benefits of the 'sociological', or what Edward Said would call the 'worldly' underpinnings of a post-colonial approach in the teaching of Creative Writing.

Dawson states that I have argued for a 'critical study of exemplary texts which is no different from formalist criticism'. In fact the argument is for the recognition of the application of criticism to the practice and process of writing. Eliot, as a practicing writer (and critic), shows the close and important connection between criticism and writing:

Probably, indeed, the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing: this frightful toil is as much critical as creative. I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism… (Eliot 1923: 30)

It is clear in the above quote (cited in my article) that what Eliot is talking about is the process of writing, not reading of other exemplary texts, not 'reading as a writer'.

Eliot describes the flux of writing, approaching what Roland Barthes would call the text's 'readerliness', which is irrevocably linked to the 'writerly' function, both being functions of reading and writing that keep the text from closure (S/Z 1970). When we write we also read, re-read, re-write, re-conceptualise, re-make, displace and replace meaning. The choices made are critical choices about our writing and the text we are in process of creating. These choices occur for a great many reasons, all within and part of the formation of discourse. We choose whether to write 'with' or 'against' discourse, how we engage with discourse while producing it. In writing, 'writing' and 'reading' cannot be separated into discrete formalist functions; a 'reading' occurs that is 'writerly' alongside writing that is 'readerly' - as a continuum. I would argue that what Dawson deconstructs as a formalist practice, 'reading as a writer', is a function of all writing, always, in every context of its production. It is more than New Critical practice, or formalism.

My second point is that by taking an oppositional stance in prescribing a particular poetics, we are in danger of creating a new orthodoxy from within which we expect our students to write. Rather than insisting on a theoretical orthodoxy of opposition, might we not allow writers like Eliot to inform our writing practice and teaching? Including criticism (as reading) into the writing process exposes the false distinction made between reading/writing, (all writing), and reading for essay writing. It is Eliot, and other practicing writers whose texts are read critically in English, who do this.

In attributing my 'approving' use of Eliot to a 'foundational modernist approach' Dawson's essay has dismissed an argument which might have been appropriated into his discussion, for it in fact goes on to disrupt the 'foundational' approach towards writing by reading it through the post-colonial lens. This reading challenges the very conventional reading practices within which Dawson's argument insists on placing it, that is the New Critical 'anti-ideological' post World War II reading practices defined by John Docker in 'The Neocolonial Assumption in University Teaching of English' (Docker 1978) as universalist and reconciling of all differences. The post-colonial reading position includes difference, allowing difference into the classroom, which is, of course, what creative writing does and which is why it is subversive.

I have argued that the very insertion of Creative Writing into the English discipline disrupts the privileging of reading over writing. Creative Writing in the English discipline is not necessarily a continuation of modernist New Critical writing practices (although it might be perceived that way from handbook models used as defining statements of this practice rather than from the active discourse of the writing workshop). Creative Writing is taught in a number of ways, and significantly, due to its methodology and process, it subverts the traditional teaching and reading practices of English. Creative Writing in itself is a social act, and its difference is applied to the power structures that create a hierarchy of teacher and student. It might also disrupt entrenched reading practices based on formalist approaches to fiction by providing space for different reading and writing positions.

Creative Writing, like post-colonial writing (here the 'colonised' in the hierarchical pedagogical structure being the students and their texts), permits the infiltration of 'lived experience' into the classroom. We now observe how writing is a social act, and how the Creative Writing workshop is an example of a social context. Dawson argues that the workshop is a formalist structure, and that its activities of teaching are formalist - thus equating formalism with an 'aesthetic' or non-social discourse. It has been argued elsewhere in TEXT (Freiman Vol 6 No 2 2002, Webb Vol 4 No 2 2000) that Creative Writing is social engagement that generates learning and knowledge production. It also leads to the production of the creative text as 'worldly', in Edward Said's terms, that is, arising out of and functioning as discourse.

If all poetic practice is formed within discourse, which of course it must be, we should allow that 'criticism' and its relationship to writing, will be determined by the discourse that forms it, including, I would argue, that of Dawson's poetics of a different subversion.

As we endeavour to define our discipline, we need to focus on inclusiveness rather than the sheer oppositionality which simply reverses binary positions. Our students and institutions, and indeed our disciplinary project require this. As we frame our own discipline of Creative Writing, we do challenge the disciplinary frame of English, yet an insistence on a particular ideological position for text production will result equally in the formation of another framed discipline. Isn't it preferable to allow the writing to emerge from the myriad discourses that make up Creative Writing workshop 'minds' and writing positions, and then take the opportunity to explore the social implications and functions of power and control in the 'worldly' texts thus produced?

Docker, J. 'The Neocolonial Assumption in University Teaching of English,' (1978) in The Post-colonial Studies Reader (1995) eds. Ashcroft, Griffiths &Tiffin, London, Routledge: 443-6. Return to letter
Eliot, T. S. 'The Function of Criticism' (1923), T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (1969), London, Faber and Faber. Return to letter
Freiman, M, 'Learning Through Dialogue: Teaching and Assessing Creative Writing Online', TEXT Vol 6, No2 October 2002.
Webb, J, 'Individual Enunciation and Social Frames, TEXT Vol 4, No 2, October 2000.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 7 No 2 October 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady