There recently appeared an article in which one of the Nobel Prize judges, Horace Engdahl, made the following statement:
Creative writing courses are killing western literature, claims Nobel judge
Grants cut off writers from society, whereas past greats worked as ‘taxi drivers and waiters’ to feed their imaginations, says Horace Engdahl
As a professional writer, this should have gone the way of all reactionary statements of this sort…in the mental trash bin. However, it has remained in mind since I read it, and I was plotting a blog response, but Polari winner Diriye Osman posted this beautifully eloquent response on Monday in The Guardian:
Transgressive literature will always be a minority pursuit
Nobel judge Horace Engdahl is wrong – creative writing courses and grants aren’t barriers to becoming a rebellious writer, says Polari winner Diriye Osman
There are many ways to be a writer. Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Wilkie Collins all wrote their novels in serial form for commercial magazines and newspapers. William Burroughs had a private income to support both his drug habit and his writing. MR James was an Eton schoolteacher. Toni Morrison and Diana Athill were renowned editors. William Faulkner hacked out screenplays in 1940s Hollywood to support his more experimental novelistic work. Alice Munro and William Trevor, two of my favourite short story writers, have been on de facto stipends from The New Yorker for decades in order to produce their fiction, while Lorrie Moore, Junot Díaz and Amy Hempel, masters of the short form, have carved out considerable careers as creative writing and English literature professors. Literary legends such as Truman Capote, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer all benefited from respites at artists’ retreat Yaddo.
So when Nobel judge Horace Engdahl attempts to prescribe a single route to the creation of significant literature – the unprofessional literary life, without grants or academic posts, in which writers “work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters” – he seems perversely ignorant of how much of the literature he presumably admires was actually created. While it’s true creative writing classes do tend to promote conventional notions of good literary craft, it is ridiculous to say that they will lead to the death of western literature. Genuine avant garde or transgressive literature has always been and will always be the pursuit of minority or outsider artists – as is literature that speaks truth to power.
Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nuruddin Farah and Wole Soyinka, for instance, are transgressive writers in that they articulated an African consciousness and literary sensibility through a western form – the novel. To suggest that they should not have received fellowships, grants and professorships to support and encourage them in the interests of preventing them from becoming “lessened” by such cosy privileges risks extreme condescension.
My own fiction as a gay British-Somali short story writer encompassesschizophrenic lesbian artists in south London, weed-smoking gay teenagers in Nairobi, and hardboiled transvestite mental health nurses. These are some of the characters that populate my short story collectionFairytales for Lost Children, which last week won the Polari first book prize for a debut about the LGBT experience. The MA in creative writing I undertook at Royal Holloway, while it included the sort of formal framework that might have foreclosed such transgressive writing, in my case did not.
Fairytales for Lost Children is an adult collection of stories presented as an illustrated book, containing images studded with Arabic calligraphy and themes of psychological distress, cultural dislocation, family, faith and freedom. The book has been an extremely unlikely success story – one filled with numerous personal losses and professional rejections. My point is this: even though critics like Horace Engdahl have a romantic view of literary production and a taste for work that is inherently rebellious, the reality of modern publishing is that most commissioning editors are extremely risk-averse. As a result, it is the transgressive writers who get the short end of the stick. It is telling that Michael Cunningham, a novelist whose oeuvre is now embedded in the contemporary western canon, once said of his novel, The Hours, “I can’t help but notice that when I finally write a book in which there are no men sucking each other’s dicks, I suddenly win the Pulitzer prize.” This is why the recent success of Eimear McBride and her novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, is so heartening.
I’m aware that I’m speaking from a place of privilege and good fortune, but this has not always been the case. Like McBride, my book was initially rejected by too many publishers to name before it was picked up by a tiny press. In the end, all we can do as a global community of writers – whether new or established – is try to produce work that speaks to ourselves and hopefully to our readers. In the end, all we can do, regardless of our cultural background or day job, is to keep feeding the fire. No amount of condescension or carping from the Horace Engdahls of this world can alter that fact.
The Guardian, UK