TEXT Review

A genealogy of writing: Paul Dawson's Creative Writing and the New Humanities

review by Jen Webb




Creative Writing and the New Humanities
Paul Dawson
Routledge, London and New York, 2005
ISBN: 0-415-33221
254 pp. Pb RRP AU$57.00

There is a remarkably small literature on the teaching of creative writing, or on the place of creative writing in the academy. This has confused me over the past decade since it came to my attention. Why is it that people whose whole raison d'être is writing have failed to write about the tentative toehold they have in the Humanities, let alone in the academy as a whole?

Everyone has their own answer to this question. Some of the answers I've heard are: 'We're creative, not academic'; 'Creative writing isn't about institutional questions but about inspiration/craft/communication/[fill in the blanks]'; 'We don't really fit in the academy, so why fight it?'; 'I'm just here to teach writing'; and so on. Paul Dawson, by contrast, has responded to the limits of the literature by giving us this book, a new contribution to the recently and slowly growing list of publications in this discipline of creative writing.

There is something very alluring about any book on one's field, especially when it's a field whose background is not well known. It's a bit like the fascination with genealogy, and the pleasure so many people get out of 'doing' their family tree, finding out where they come from and getting an idea of why they have those particular traits: Your essays look just like Great-Uncle Michel's! Uncle Roland had precisely that trick of the pen I see in your work, just that tendency to slide into criticism at the drop of an apostrophe. For people like me who stumbled into the role of writing teacher from another discipline, it is also invigorating to have this evidence of a historically grounded discipline, proof that we are not the new kid on the block that creative writing often seems to be.

But there's more to it than that. For writers who are working as academics, academics who are teaching writing, literary intellectuals (or whatever definition suits), it is vitally important for members of this clan of writers-in-the-university to be able to demonstrate just what we're doing here if we hope to stay here in the face of the ongoing restructure of the university sector. Are we just the stepchild of English or Literary Studies? Are we just providing a pleasant break for students from the brain-straining work they are doing in communication or cultural theory? Are we what Sue North, in her recent PhD dissertation on creative writing and research, referred to as the 'wild beasts' in the academy (unstructured, irrational, Dionysian rather than Apollonian). Or are we in fact able to take on contractual obligations, to fulfil research projects, to sit on Academic Board and know what is going on?

Paul Dawson's book takes up the critical question of origins and struggles for position, and teases out the complex background to creative writing in the academy, providing a lineage and a valid function for the programs in which we teach, and for the work we do. So principally, it seems to me, the book functions as a very readable history of the development of creative writing as an academic discipline within Humanities and the New Humanities. It also, and very effectively, sets out the quarrels within the field, the perplexities and complexities we face, and the challenges with which so many teachers of creative writing are currently engaged. Dawson does this energetically, in a highly articulate fashion, in a way that encourages, even demands, engagement on the part of the readers. And I did engage, and wrote pages and pages of notes that started off 'Yes but…' and 'On the other hand…' and 'But what about…?'. Inevitably, I disagree strongly with some of the positions he takes (why so little on so central a theorist as Roland Barthes, even if he is now 'virtually antiquated'? (163); why so little attention to the pleasure of reading as a writer, rather than the duty of analysis?; what is that argument about free verse making the craft of poetry more difficult to teach?) and am entirely convinced by others (the parallels between creative and critical reading/writing; the re-definition of ivory towers and garrets; problems with the tendency to leave inviolable and under-theorised the epistemological and critical preliminaries upon which a writing workshop is based).

One of my arguments with the book is that it looks in far more focused a fashion to the US tradition than I found entirely appropriate given the limited attention offered the UK experience and background. (The Iowa Writers Workshop has a whole section plus subsection in the index; Iowa University has a whole section too; but there is only a passing reference to East Anglia University by way of comments made by Malcolm Bradbury, and the UK context doesn't emerge until page 127.) It's worth remembering, as we gaze at Iowa, that the Oxbridge tradition has long facilitated the production of creative responses to works of literature, which suggests a concern in UK universities with the process of literary production as well as with critical interactions. The US model for teaching creative writing is not necessarily the one followed across Australian writing programs, and the heavy emphasis on the US patterns therefore doesn't necessarily shed light on the Australian context.

The book also works from a perspective very much grounded in literary studies, which meant I necessarily had some quarrels with or questions about the argumentative logic and trajectory. Principally this was in the attention given to Theory, not least because the term remains rather under-explained, and in its capitalised form is a pretty archaic term, from a cultural theory perspective. I would have valued a more nuanced approach to the issue, a clearer argument about how it articulates with the creative writing discipline, and more precision about what constitutes Paul's own position on the issues, and what is his discussion of a broader field. I was never clear whether 'theory' or Theory is just another name for cultural studies or whether it is meant to refer to the whole smorgasbord of theories which emerged at the poststructural moment, including all the arcanities of psychoanalysis, feminist theory, media theory, identity theory, Marxism, neo-marxism, social theory, postcolonial theory, Frankfurt School, risk theory, et cetera et cetera et cetera. The reduction of multiplicity to a single term is shown in all its excesses in a quick search of Google.com (my favourite research tool!). Google lists as the second entry (of 114 million) for 'Theory' the website <theory.org.uk>, a site that includes in its disparate band of 'theorists' Jacques Derrida, Julie Birchill, Anthony Giddens, Auguste Comte, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Ulrich Beck, bell hooks and Henri Lefebvre, among others. Such a promiscuous juxtapositioning of time and culture and orientation demonstrates (irreverently) that Theory constitutes a very broad church, and any attempt to collapse it under a single term is fraught with intellectual and political problems. Indeed, as soon as Theory turns up in any text with a capital letter, and especially when it is accompanied by complaints of its dispersion 'to provisional, localized, pragmatic interventions, rather than building to or drawing from a systematic critique' (Jeffrey Williams, cited in Paul's book, 180-81), there is a sense that it has been reified, centralised, rigidified.

This is always going to be a problem when a general noun receives the mark of the proper in the form of the capital initial, because then it begins to work as a master signifier that, in a kind of lay down misere, institutes authorised ways of thinking about it, and makes it a Truth. But this is a small quibble in a response that is in fact filled with admiration, and pleasure that this book has been published, one of the first among (I hope) many about our discipline. And the attention to the question of theory/Theory, which weaves across the book, is a reminder of both its contingency and its importance to creative writing in the academy. It is something that delighted me as I read the book and something I'm confident will continue to be chewed over in conferences, issues of TEXT and other publications for some years to come.

The institutional relations are dealt with in a way that seems to me both clear and convincing, and this is a major contribution. There is often a sense that we writers in the academy are the poor relation. Given that writing is not a highly valued profession (at least in terms of its financial returns), lacks a strong institutional framework, and has come latish to the academy, it is not surprising that it is having trouble making headway across the university sector. We have not yet attained the position from which we could effectively influence the university or have effective input into the landscape of value that obtains in this field. Until we do (come the revolution!) we can only benefit from more such discussions about how writers might set out to demonstrate their function in the academy (beyond the basic and obvious one of teaching students). One of the stronger points raised here, to my mind, was Dawson's concept of applying a sociological poetics to the workshop, something that has the potential to produce creative writers who are sensitive and rigorous thinkers as well - a truly attractive blending of creative and intellectual practice, and a smart tactical move.

By pointing out the many approaches to practice, and the sometimes contradictory legitimating statements made by practitioners, this book indicates the heterogeneity of creative writing in universities, and demonstrates the richness of the field. It also, and very effectively, shows the need for more attention by subsequent research, to the questions unanswered or under-theorised about the complexities of the field, and the shifting relationships between writing and the academy, creative and intellectual pursuits, literature and the market, criticism and the polity. This is an excellent foundation on which we as members of a discipline can - dare I say, should? - build.


Jen Webb is Associate Professor of Creative Communication at the University of Canberra.



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Vol 9 No 2 October 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb