TEXT review

Better than theory…?

review by Shane Strange


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:the-cambridge-companion-to-creative-writing.jpg
David Morley and Philip Neilsen (eds)
The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012
ISBN 9780521145637
Pb 222pp AUD46.95


The incorporation of creative writing into academia remains fraught, with struggles ranging from disciplinary and pedagogical refinement to outright contestation of the grounds upon which creative writing and the academy have anything to do with each other. Arising from these contestations, as a sort of ideological cover-all, is a conservative narrative that acts at once as a justification for creative writing, while replaying its virtues for the academy.
This narrative suggests that somehow the propriety of literature was disrupted by the turn to the novelty of (dare I say ‘French’) theory of the late twentieth century. Writing, the argument continues, has the virtue of a long lineage of being taught as a practical skill in US colleges (though new to the United Kingdom/Australia/New Zealand) and its emphasis on practice, creativity and multi-disciplinarity make it the ideal foil to the hazy detours of theory. Besides, creative writers were the first critics, and they did so out of practical engagement with their craft, not at the behest of some imported faux-logic. Thankfully, all that theory rubbish is behind us and we can get back to the business of adjudging works of literature as ‘words on the page’, slotting them neatly into their value categories. Though, of course, the values that buttressed ‘literature’ are now morphed into the values of practicality and common sense that somehow ‘creative writing’ as a discipline embodies.

Jonathan Bate’s foreword to the Cambridge Companion of Creative Writing rehearses this argument with relish, and it acts as a directive for the rest of the book. ‘Forget about that theory bumpf!’ it proclaims. ‘Here’s the practical way through the various genres of writing– all craft and skills based – no nonsense.’  (‘At last!’ one thinks, reaching for the parchment and quill.)

However, this approach does disservice to much of the contributor’s often insightful work – work that might have found a more suitable home in other publications. The key problem with this book is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Some articles are ‘how to write’ and some are ‘how to teach’. For example, Ron Carlson’s short story writing contribution (‘A writing lesson: the three flat tyres and the outer story’) is a straight up writer’s workshop. Maureen Freely, in the very next chapter (‘In conversation: a new approach to teaching long fiction’), discusses constructing workshops based around ‘purposelessness’. Each has a different audience: Carlson speaks to the writer; Freely to the writing teacher. Is this book aimed at the creative writing student, the teacher, or the enthusiastic amateur? For whom are the series of writing exercises that interrupt or end each chapter intended?

To sully the waters even further, the second half of the book (‘Topics’) deals with issues that are only extant in academic creative writing. But are they of the same interest to the student who read Kim Wilkins’ excellent chapter on writing genre (‘Genre and speculative fiction’)? Who are the intended audiences for A.L. Kennedy’s take on the creative writing workshop (‘Does that make sense?’) and Fiona Sampson’s chapter on translation (‘Creative translation’)?

This editorial uncertainty does great injustice to some of the work in the collection. Bronwyn Lea’s superb chapter (‘Poetics and Poetry’) is a concise and engaging 20-page journey through the poetic form, that touches not only on poetry’s historical and traditional forms, but really hammers home the skill and concision of the craft of poetry – finishing beautifully with a short but evocative account of the composition of one of her poems. Free of the ‘writing as mystique’ or ‘look at how great I am’ school of exposition, Lea’s chapter should be compulsory reading for the ‘it can be anything’ school of poetics.

Hazel Smith’s chapter (‘Creative writing and new media’) while probably more at home in a book from the late 1990s when the love of ‘computers’ and ‘the internet’ seemed to be at its zenith, makes the excellent point that much of what is called ‘new media’ evolves from avant-garde practices or is translated from visual art – an important and clear-eyed riposte to the ground-breaking technologists who find innovation under every key-stroke or embodied in every new media slide show.

Fiona Sampson’s engaging chapter (‘Creative translation’) posits translation in a way I’ve not seen broached before in a creative writing book. This is not only about the disjuncture of translation and the varying chances for misinterpretation that it holds, but rather a call to engage with the creative possibilities that translation offers for expanding meaning and understanding writing in its structure and form. In short it recommends: to read creatively, to engage in ‘literary curiosity’, to understand a work down to its very root, and to rebuild it again.

But what to make of Maureen Freely’s tertulia? It aims to replicate the literary salon in an academic setting and is aimed at formulating longer fiction. The focused ‘purpose’ of workshops or tutorials is replaced by a kind of ‘hanging out’ where ideas and writing flow forth depending on the needs and interests of those assembled. The idea is that good writing will emerge once the yoke of the academy is loosened, though I suspect, given the anecdotes Freely provides, the content of the tertulia quickly devolves into discussion of ideas that she is fond of rather than her students. Nonetheless, what harm can come from taking a few students down the pub and seeing what happens? Now I have a name for it.

Anyone with an academic interest in creative writing will understand a lot of where this book is coming from, but will find its unevenness and confused purpose difficult to congeal into a satisfying whole. In parts it is very good and addresses singular issues quite well. But the tenor of much of it aims for a grey area that is too under-theorised to be considered academic, and too over-theorised to be of use to students. It seems that theory creeps in through the window when the door is shut, which is how it got in in the first place.



Shane Strange is a tutor and lecturer in Writing and Literary Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra. He is a writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction who has been published widely in Australia, including Best Australian Stories 2006 & 2007; Griffith Review; Overland & Heat Magazine. Between 2005-2008 he was a regular book reviewer for The Courier Mail.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste