The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived

September 4, 2008

The publishers bill this book as "a searching critique of traditional creative writing pedagogy". Michelene Wandor's wide experience as a writer, critic and teacher certainly qualifies her to offer one.

She rightly challenges the idea that creative writing requires "genius" and, equally, the touchy-feely notion that it is all about "self-expression". She insists on the importance of critical reading, by which students gain knowledge of literary traditions and conventions. All this will sound like good sense to most creative-writing lecturers.

Where Wandor takes a more challenging stand is in her opposition to the writing workshop - the chief means by which the subject is usually taught. The workshop, she argues, focuses not on writing but on re-writing; it tends to concentrate on what is wrong with the work and can be a potentially damaging ordeal for students. These criticisms hold some water, but Wandor pictures only the worst type of workshop and discards the entire practice without considering how it often works effectively.

Even so, I was interested to discover what alternative she would suggest. However, the account of her own teaching practices comes very late in the book and gives only a loose sense of her methods. These involve a focus on form and conventions: the tutor asks each student to write in a specific form and then offers a critique, encouraging the development of the piece. Wandor assures us that her seminars are "intensive, hard-working and productive", but there could be much more detail on how they come to be so.

Such detail would have been a welcome alternative to the book's extensive engagement with post-structuralist theory. The attack on Roland Barthes' notion of "the death of the author" gets itself into a conceptual tangle. The paraphrases of Saussure, Althusser and Bakhtin do not serve a clear purpose - they sometimes include a brief comment relating the theory to creative writing, but such points lack development.

There are some interesting points at the nitty-gritty level. Wandor attacks the way many masters students submit a section of a novel for assessment, arguing that an unfinished work gives no evidence of an understanding of structure. She rejects the idea that the dramatic monologue is a useful route into writing drama on the grounds that drama is fundamentally about the relationships between characters. She insists that students should be assessed by both creative and discursive writing, and that these elements should carry equal weight.

However, the book would be improved by greater concision and a tighter focus on the thesis. It is made up of something like 150 short sections (in 24 chapters), many of which are imperfectly assimilated into the whole. These include thumbnail accounts of such things as the Workers' Educational Association, Bedales School, copyright law and developments in printing technology. All these may have some bearing on creative writing, but more signposting is needed to justify the material.

The Author is Not Dead ... shows the lack of a good editor. For example, we are told on three separate occasions that the critics E.M.W. Tillyard and F.R. Leavis were educated at the Perse School - tangential information at best, and certainly not worth mentioning three times. The book's authority is also undermined by a peppering of errors that should have been spotted during proofreading.

In summary, Wandor's book raises interesting points that may serve as useful prompts for creative-writing lecturers, particularly those involved in curriculum design. However, it lacks the clarity and focus that would have allowed it to contribute more extensively to debates about the way the subject is taught.

The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived

By Michelene Wandor. Palgrave Macmillan 256pp, £47.50 and £15.99. ISBN 9781403934192 and 934208. Published 25 February 2008

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