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Creative writing courses cut “writers off from society”, they create “an unhealthy link with institutions” and “when reading many writers from Asia and Africa, one finds a certain liberty again”. Horace Engdahl, Judge of the Nobel Prize, quoted last week in The Guardian, clearly believes the West has a writing problem.
While this debate is, of course, not new, Engdahl’s comments still left me thinking. Is the creative writing course really commodifying and institutionalising writers and thereby impoverishing Western literature?
Ugandan author Doreen Baingana, Africa Regional Judge of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, might well agree. Writing of her judging experience on the blog Sooo Many Stories she laments ‘the overly crafted story’, a trait she observed ‘in the weak stories from the UK, New Zealand and Australia.’ ‘This is not surprising’, she notes, ‘as writers from these regions have greater access to writing classes and MFA programs. The danger here, for a writer who is not confident, is for stories to be workshopped to death as the writer over-edits the story in response to multiple comments.’
If Doreen’s right, and I think she might be, it’s also problematic that despite the array of prizes and the efforts of a great number of people, professionalising creative writing has not led to the widespread recognition of creativity as centrally important to Western life. I’m also doubtful that African and Asian writers always experience the creative liberty that Engdahl ascribes to their writing.
Perhaps it’s time to re-frame the question. If a society that values creative writing feels like a free and successful one – how do we get there?
There seems to be a clue in Doreen’s use of the word ‘confident’. Is this the confidence to speak into a crowded room? The confidence to speak against the market? Or is this a kind of confidence that comes when you know you are being listened to? If so, confidence is another word for community. Confident communities of writers already exist, but like a good piece of writing we want to make ours open, expansive and with no clear centre. We’re listening out for your voice.
Steve Willey, Commonwealth Writers
"A Certain Liberty"
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