A novel old idea about art

Despite prevailing orthodoxies, creative writing is stealthily reviving liberal humanism, says Jonathan Taylor

May 22, 2008

A friend once said that if you want to be "radical" in an English literature department these days, you should become a liberal humanist. Many literary academics, he claimed, still seem to think that feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism and new historicism are revolutionary theories, changing the ways we read texts and the world. They seem to be stuck in the ideological wars of the 1970s - in fact, many are stuck in the fashions of the 1970s - fighting against what they see as literary studies' dominant culture of liberal humanism.

But these academics - or so my friend claimed - are now fighting ghosts. Like the soldiers discovered decades after the Second World War, still manning their outposts, literary academics are often shooting at no one. There are almost no critics left in universities whose ideas you might describe as "liberal humanist". Ideas that literature might encompass the "human condition", that literature might be a force for good, that there's such a thing as great literature and that literature speaks to us as individuals are all dead and gone. Staff and students alike would laugh if you dared suggest that Shakespeare or Dickens were "Great Authors" who "transcended" their historical moments to speak universally to everyone.

No, you can use terms such as "universality", "great", "authorship", "human condition", "F. R. Leavis" and, indeed, "transcended" only in inverted commas. Lectures on critical theory, for example, might start with these outmoded terms, only to explode them with the bombs of Marxism, poststructuralism, new historicism or feminism. "Readers and critics were naive in the past," says the lecturer, "but now we know better because of Marxism/poststructuralism/new historicism/feminism."

So, in English literature departments, liberal humanism seems to be as dead as a dodo, and the Marxists, poststructuralists, new historicists and feminists just keep shooting the corpse to give themselves something to do, something they can react against. As George Orwell recognised, war is necessary, peace politically dangerous. In peacetime, people might dare think for themselves. So it's necessary to maintain the fiction of an ongoing warfare in literary criticism, between the supposed radicals and the dead dodo of liberal humanism.

But maybe, just maybe, the dead dodo's spirit lives on. I've seen it lurking around universities, enjoying a strange afterlife in the burgeoning subject of creative writing. Many of the central tenets of creative writing courses are almost diametrically opposed to the anti-humanistic stance of modern literary criticism. After all, creative writers have to believe in "creation" and "the author" just to do the subject; they have to believe that they can create something original and worthwhile; and they have to believe in human individuality in order to create "believable" characters. To write well, they have to create individual characters with individual traits and problems, rather than archetypes, stereotypes, class types or idealisations.

Creative writing as a discipline is a flashback to a different age, before the Marxification of the literary academy. It belongs to the long-ago Age of the Dodo, in which students discussed subjects that would seem bizarre in literary studies today: "How is this fictional character rounded, three-dimensional, realistic?", "What are the choices facing this character?", "What does this character's story tell me about the human condition?" and so on. These are questions of universality, individuality, characterisation, self-determination, ethics, mimesis, realism and authorship; in short, the core questions of liberal humanist criticism.

All of which means - if my friend is right - that the real radicals of modern English departments are to be found on creative writing courses. It is they who have secretly reanimated the Liberal Humanist Dodo. Just don't tell the Marxist-feminist-poststructuralist-new historicists. They may start shooting in the right direction for a change.

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