Hanif Kureishi is wrong about students

There are talents in everyone, and it is the teacher’s role to develop them, says Will Buckingham

March 13, 2014

Talent is a hypothesis we should do away with. It serves students badly and it removes any responsibility for actually teaching

Hanif Kureishi is at it again. In November last year, filled with good cheer at having been appointed professor of creative writing at Kingston University, the novelist and screenwriter told Times Higher Education, “I think an [undergraduate] degree in creative writing is totally worthless.” Now he has clarified his position further by saying, in a talk at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, that “probably 99.9 per cent” of creative writing students are entirely lacking in talent.

One wonders how many students Kureishi has taught since late last year to be able to come up with this remarkably precise statistic. He must be a busy man. But what worries me is not so much the meaninglessness of this figure as how appallingly dismissive it is of students’ potential. When writers – particularly well-established writers such as Kureishi – talk about talent and accuse other, aspiring, writers of lacking talent, I become suspicious. After all, this “talent” seems to be pretty mysterious stuff. I imagine it as being like phlogiston, the undetectable, intangible substance that was once invoked to explain why things burn. Talent is the phlogiston of creativity: great artists, phlogiston-rich, burn brightly, while most of us, damp squibs, are doomed to fizzle and die.

Kureishi, I imagine, assumes that he is a part of that phlogiston-rich 0.1 per cent; and thus, having talent himself, he has a unique capacity for spotting it in others. This makes his melancholy task as professor of creative writing that of separating out the elect from the talentless 99.9 per cent. The former can go on to burn brightly, while the latter can be led gently away from their aspirations to literary stardom.

There is (to paraphrase Blackadder) one problem with all this: it is bollocks. Talent, like phlogiston, is a hypothesis we should do away with. Although it may provide creative writing professors with a certain kind of self-serving gratification, it fundamentally misconstrues the nature of creativity, it serves students badly, it gets in the way of any understanding of the potential value and worth of creative writing and it in effect removes any responsibility for actually teaching.

In all the years that I have taught writing, I have never seen a single student with talent in this abstract, mystical, free-floating sense. But although I cannot recall a single student with talent, I have never had a single student without talents. These talents are not at all mysterious and abstract but concrete: they are rooted in students’ enthusiasms, passions, quirks, in their personal histories and their own unique relationships to language. It is my job to see how these talents can be developed through writing, thinking, reading, critiquing, discussing and investigating. And while it is impossible to identify a single innate talent that is the talent of being a writer, out of this mass of variegated talents, some may be fruitfully developed and put to work in writing professionally, whereas others may be developed in different directions.

Far from 99.9 per cent finding their study of creative writing worthless, many graduates of the course on which I teach have gone on to successfully write, publish and perform. Others have set up small magazines and theatre companies. Some have found themselves working in the publishing world or teaching creative writing. Others still have found that studying creative writing has given them skills useful in other areas: law, medicine or journalism.

What infuriates me about Kureishi’s view is not just its overbearing arrogance but also its abject failure of imagination. In a recent article, Kureishi wrote of imagination as “an essential faculty, [that] can be developed and followed”. But imagination is needed not only in the writing of novels and screenplays. It takes imagination to put aside lazy thinking, to investigate more deeply the many ways in which all writers must necessarily learn the skills they need to thrive and to see how skills developed on creative writing courses may be put to good use elsewhere. On the course on which I teach, we encourage this broader imaginative exploration. It serves our students well. If Kureishi would like to enrol, we are still open for admissions for the coming academic year.

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