I have been charged—by whom is irrelevant—with being “against creative writing.” And it is true that I have been hard on creative writing, both here at A Commonplace Blog and in the afterword to The Elephants Teach. But as I say in that book, the debate over creative writing has been settled. Anyone who would be “against” it these days, in the sense of opposing its very existence, would be wiping at the front of his trousers after he had already wet them.
What is at issue is how creative writing should be taught. What ideas, principles, models, or parallels should be kept in mind when thinking about creative writing as an academic discipline?
My complaint is that not enough thought has been directed at the question. Creative writing is taught in classrooms around the country (indeed, throughout the English-speaking world) pretty much the same way it has been taught for a generation. As I described it in a memoir of Raymond Carver, who taught it like this, “[S]tudent work, mimeographed and handed around in advance, provide[s] the text for study and discussion; and in the name of establishing a ‘community of writers’ which offer[s] its members ‘communal criticism,’ students dominate the discussions.” The photocopier and the .pdf have replaced the mimeograph machine, but the basic mechanism has remained unchanged.
Francine Prose’s Blue Angel contains an accurate, and telling, portrait of the creative writing classroom. Swenson listens to a student reading her story to the class, and then must “think of something to say, some way to improve this heartbreaking, subliterate piece of shit. . . .” He is not permitted to say that, of course; “classroom etiquette” stops him from saying even that a student can do better. He must never say that she—or anyone—should “bag it and start over, as if no real writer would do that, as if he himself hadn’t pulled the plug on dozens of stories and novels.”
Swenson’s first rule in class is this: “We usually start off saying what we liked about the story.” Then and only then is the class unleashed to tear into the story. They criticize it invariably from the standpoint of anecdote and personal experience. The “most sacred covenant of the workshop,” however, is that the author must never defend her own story.
The students offer suggestions for improving the story, primarily by making it more authentic:
“No,” says [another student]. “Close your eyes. Concentrate till you see the street and the girl and her boyfriend. Till you’re sort of . . . dreaming them. Then write down what you see.”
It is not enough. For two reasons. First, good writing requires more than the “power of observation,” even more than the “power of language.” As Auden says, it is sometimes necessary to write badly in order to write well—in order, that is, to tell truth, to realize an intention, to keep a promise to the reader. And, yes, something like research is needed too. In other words, good writing must be a discipline of knowledge.
But this is the second and more significant reason why teaching a faith in observation and the power of language—the current aim of creative writing—is not enough. As it is now conceived and organized in the university, creative writing is not a discipline of knowledge at all. It is merely a bureaucracy for the public employment of writers and the boosting of English course enrollments. It has no larger purpose; or none that has been thought through.
What purpose should it have? I cannot say for certain, but perhaps the question might at least be debated. When it comes to specifics, I am on this question a reactionary: I believe that creative writing ought to return to its original model. Literary criticism and even literary scholarship ought to be integrated into the writing of stories, poems, and memoirs.
But I am not saying that this is the only possible conception of the subject, that the original model of creative writing should be adopted wholesale, replacing a discredited practice with an untried one. In his book Creative Writing and the New Humanities, the Australian poet Paul Dawson argues for a very different model. He says that creative writing should undertake a social purpose, that it should train writers who will “act as a medium between the academy and the public sphere.”
Dawson and I could not be farther apart in our thinking about creative writing. At bottom, though, is a fundamental agreement: creative writing must be reconceived and reorganized as a discipline of humanistic knowledge, with a far more rigorous pedagogy than is now indulged, and with the recognition that writing demands learning. The “power of observation” is something that writers can develop on their own time. Closing your eyes and dreaming may be essential to the creative process, but not in the classroom.
I guess I don’t see how such a stance as this puts me “against creative writing.” Indeed, I am more for it than many of its current practitioners. I think it can be better, and do not subscribe to the etiquette that prevents me from saying so.
 Francine Prose, Blue Angel (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), pp. 51–55. Ellipses in original.
 Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 203–04.