English literature’s heresy wars

Creative writing, often seen as a heretical branch of English studies, is split into sects. But such schisms are no sin, says Jonathan Taylor

March 5, 2015

Source: Marcus Butt

Some years ago, a lecturer in English literature described one-to-one tutorials to me as a kind of “confessional”, in which she played the role of “priest” or “confessor” absolving students of their essay-writing “sins”.

We’re all familiar with the assimilation of religious and theological terminology by university hierarchies: the titles of dean and rector being, of course, the most commonly cited examples. But, as the English lecturer’s words suggest, even modern disciplines themselves endlessly appropriate, recycle and modify religious metaphors, rituals, methods and models of behaviour: if one-to-one tutorials are confessionals, seminars are Bible classes, lectures are sermons, exams are tests of faith and graduation ceremonies are benedictions and ordinations.

As many have suggested, such religious precursors are particularly close to the surface in English studies. In his essay The Rise of English, Terry Eagleton famously remarks that “if one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’…Literature …was admirably well-fitted to carry through the ideological task which religion left off.” Still, this growth – from Christian ideology to literary ideology – was by no means a simple, smooth transition from one monolithic code to another. Just as Christian ideology was itself fractured and contradictory, so English studies has been riven with controversies, sects, heresies.

Valentine Cunningham, professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford, has remarked that “English literature begins and continues in real heresy wars”. And these wars sometimes re-enact Christian heresy wars in ways that, although less physically violent, are not necessarily much less psychologically violent.

One of the most divisive heresy wars of recent times has been that fought between traditional English studies and its younger, heretical offshoot, the strange subject of creative writing. If English literature is a form of (factionalised) Catholicism, creative writing might be seen – and sometimes even unconsciously portrays itself – as its Protestant offshoot.

In this miniature version of the Reformation, dating back as far as 1970, Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia might be Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms – pointing the way towards the democratisation of the (creative) conscience, advocating the abolition of saintly mediators (critics and theorists) and seeking to establish a more direct relationship with God (the text).

Just as the Protestant democratisation of religious conscience ultimately resulted in the sectarian fragmentation, even individualisation, of religious doctrine, so the subject of creative writing is riddled with sects, competing theologies, heresies, churches and counter-churches. There are, for example, the High Church Newmanites of the universities of Sussex and Cardiff, who seek to reunite creative writing with the mysteries and spiritual mediators of English literature. There are the Calvinistic Predestinarians, like successful author and Kingston University professor Hanif Kureishi, who believe that only an elect few students can achieve salvation (that is, a lucrative publishing contract). There are the neo-Puritans at the University of Kent, who ban the “cakes and ale” of genre fiction and only teach hard-line avant-gardism. There are the Muscular Christians – dotted all over the place, often male academics of a certain age – who seek to compensate for the subject’s apparent “softness” by an appeal to a macho-like vigour and rigour in their critiques. There are the celebrity preachers, who jet into a department for half a day a week to faith-heal their worshippers. There are the Blakean visionaries – authors such as Ben Okri, and some who teach at the University of Essex – who talk of angels, creation myths and inspirations. There are the missionaries, from bodies such as the National Association of Writers in Education, and the Great Writing International Creative Writing Conference, who seek to spread the Word abroad.

Then, of course, there are also the miniature Counter-Reformations, where literary Inquisitors accuse creative writers of political, literary and (anti-)intellectual heresy. No doubt they are right too, at least insofar as theological truth in the new subject has shattered into a million heretical pieces.

In my own ecumenical way, I believe that this shattering is not necessarily a bad thing, and only to be expected at this relatively early stage of the subject’s development. Indeed, of those tiny pieces of truth, the one I align myself with most closely is a kind of eclectic, democratic, Low Church Evangelicalism. Unlike my old friend the lecturer in English literature, I never wanted to be anyone’s priest or confessor – and I certainly don’t feel in a position to absolve students’ sins.

Rather, I always wanted to be part of a lively congregation of fellow writers, some of them new converts, some experienced elders, all of them brimful of enthusiasm, ranting, singing, and, no doubt, bashing numerous tambourines.

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