‘All Subjective innit?’: Creative Writing and the Politics of Subjectivity

Craig Jordan Baker

It is a rather unilluminating observation that for the last twenty-five years, all that comes and goes as postmodernism has had a powerful and distinctive impact upon the epistemological framework of the humanities1. So too the debate over the co-mingling of mature capitalism with its ironic postmodern bedfellow, and the perennial spats between Marxists and post-Marxists, feminists and post-feminists, Freudians and their postal counterparts has taken on something of an attritional, staple stand-off.

Where I think this subject can still be illuminating is with reference to creative writing. This is for two reasons. Firstly, having only been a widely available subject in the UK for the last ten years, CW burgeoned at a fortuitous time for the business-orientated, managerial superstructure that is now firmly embedded in the university sector. Secondly, the pervasiveness of philosophical postmodernism, combined with the ‘practice’ as opposed to ‘theory’ heavy content of some creative writing degrees makes CW fertile ground to re-engage with these issues. This paper then is an attempt to outline what are important issues for CW in the UK and beyone, how these issues came about and in what ways there are mutually supportive or depreciative.

The Creative Writing condition

In this section I wish to look at state of CW in terms Postmodernity and the business culture in universities. Postmodern literary theory tends to emphasise a brand of reader-response theory to the text which both is subjectivist and individualist. Most of us are familiar with the basic tenets subjectivism and examples of it are ubiquitous both in academia and in the quotidian order, though here I take an example from Barthes’, Image, Music, Text. Barthes claims, “The text is no a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcoming; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination.” 2 Here Barthes expresses both the instability of textual interpretation and the freedom, the ‘explosion’ available to the reader due to the fact that the text answers to no interpretation. Here subjectivism is cast as an anti-authoritarian “subversive force in respect of the old classifications”3 with an accompanying liberation of the reader.

Now with this issue in mind, I think the teaching of CW faces an acute paradox. For if staff and students assent to subjectivism, then how is the teaching of creative writing even possible in principle? Of course the teaching of our own preferences is in some sense inevitable, but if the old Latin adage de gustibus non est disputandum, or ‘over taste there is no argument’ holds, then how is one to organise a course on the short story or the life of the writer? If it is a student’s preference to indulge in the literary delights available on the back of crisp packets and boxes of washing power, then who is anyone to tell them they are would be better off reading Joyce or Sophocles? And this raises another paradox on the part of the student; for why should they wish to pay a significant sum of money per annum for being bored by the often recondite preferences and passions of academics?

I think the answer to these questions is that subjectivism makes a mockery of our attempts both to teach and learn. It leaves us with what the philosopher Richard Rorty has called our ‘final vocabularies’ which he defines as “those words that are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.”4 Now, when applied to the idea of pedagogy this can only mean that we, as Gradgrind did in Hard Times, fill “the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled full of facts.”5 That is, students are passive receptors and if not, force needs to be brought to bear. These are the two options, both of which exclude critical dialogue, debate and mutual respect between student and teacher. So while a suspicious and dismissive attitude towards the idea of privileged interpretation or good advice on narrative construction might seem the best way to preserve respect for the individual’s sovereignty to ‘decide for themselves’, the opposite is manifestly the case.

What we have here is a well noted phenomena of conservatism that is the Mr Hyde to Postmodernity’s Dr Jeckell. This may seem contrary to what is intended by most subjectivists and postmodernists but it is something that has been noted by thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas, Terry Eagleton and Christopher Norris to name just a few. One example of this is from the prominent English deconstructionist Nicolas Royal, who was reported to have said that the best definition of deconstruction he could give is that ‘it isn’t what you think’. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the implications of this, for they are both significant and reactionary. This is because an idea, practice or principle that defines itself on its own indefinability not only relies on a kind of fideism- a leap of faith- but it also makes itself invulnerable to criticism, two moves that have a long a marred history.

And I think it is this kind of conservatism that can link capitalism, the Postmodern and creative writing together into an unholy trinity. As all are aware, grants for UK students have disappeared to be replaced with loans, top-up fees etc and this has introduced with it an entirely different ethos both from institution, and inevitably, from students. This new relationship, is that of seller to buyer. Institutions see students as assets, fiscal objects that are essential in the fulfilment for plans for survival in the marketplace. This is turn can encourage the student to see their education in a very different light.

Of course, as consumers, the student is the possessor of effective demand, that is, their desire is a desire only insofar as they have the capital to pay for it. Though this demand also gives them the right to be the arbiter of what they choose, be that crates of jaffa cakes and twenty-four hour Big Brother or prints of Renaissance masterpieces and subscriptions to the Art fund. For capitalism, a desire for £2.50 is just that- a desire for £2.50. Any pretensions to choose between these desires is generally deemed to be illiberal or –even worse- elitist. What I am trying to point out here is that bred into the very heart of consumer culture is an attitude concerning desires and demands for products that is compatible with the subjectivism that one finds in debates around aesthetic excellence and creative practice. That these two coincide is no accident, though there is not space in this paper to delve into historical materialism so to make do I want to quote from the philosopher Andrew Collier. He argues that postmodernism is,

“…not a reaction against aspects of Modernism like atomism and subjectivism, but a taking of them to their extremes. Global capitalism breaks the internal link between humankind and nature, disguises the dependence of the individual on the whole, markets ideas without reference to reality or truth, and destroys the integrity of the individual by recasting him or her as merely a unit of more or less effective demand; and Postmodernism makes all these violations look like the unalterable human condition.”6

Safe to say that this state of affairs raises serious questions about how these issues should be tackled within a creative writing course. I want to turn now to look at some possible avenues out of these problems and an example that I think shows a way forward.

Creative Writing and its discontents

I wish to stress that what I have so far described is not an overview of the whole field of creative writing in the UK. If there is one thing that postmodernism has taught us is the need to recognise the socio-historical context of even the most parochial of pronouncements. Still, these processes and positions that I have described are in evidence and hold considerable influence on the way creative writing is creative writing. But of course my being involved in and passionate about CW is in and of itself an indication that there are those that resist the state of affairs that I have described and criticised.

One figure which I would like to point to that I think offers a way of thinking about creative praxis that is not only more consistent, but also more vital, is that of the work of the poet Peter Abbs. In his book Against the Flow, Abbs argues that,

“the arts are vehicles of understanding. Fully conceived they are, in spite of all counterfeit nonsense that surrounds us, philosophical necessities; no, even more…they are spiritual forces of which are consumer culture is in desperate need.”7

Here, Abbs is aware of two things that I would promote as fundamental for thinking about CW. Firstly, he recognises that the arts cannot afford any dichotomy of theory to practice, ‘head’ to ‘heart’ or of reading to writing. A sentiment that some of us may have heard from creative writing students is that they ‘wanted to stop reading and start writing’ or that they found ‘theory’ superfluous and so wanted to escape it. But if the arts are ‘vehicles of understanding’; of understanding ourselves, each other, ours and other cultures and crucially, art itself, then can a creative writer afford to distance themselves from either the canon or from theoretical positions that not only reflect and affect reading, but writing also? Kant famously claimed that, “Thoughts without content are empty”8, and in the same spirit one might also claim that creative practice without the canon and critical reflection is meaningless.

The second point that Abbs is aware of is that ‘consumer culture’ and what he refers to as the “prevailing postmodern sensibility where the coolness of irony and relativity prevail” are anathema to this fusing. This is for several reasons. Firstly, this fusing actually asks something of the neophyte or the new practitioner, something that is difficult both intellectually and emotionally to achieve. It means that one cannot simply write, that ones best may not be good enough, that ones preferences may be short sighted, philistine and in need of cultivation. Secondly, the student here emphatically does not consume, they struggle and this process is both generative, formative and I believe the only way to open a student’s mind to possibilities. It is as if when ordering the fillet minion in sauce béarnaise at an expensive restaurant the waiter turns to you and says, ‘that’s an awful choice, sir’. Now this seems jarring because it offends our sensibilities as customers and consumers, but this is a possibility that we should not only be open for as writers, but also something that we should not necessarily find offensive. What I am suggesting here is not simply a willingness to take criticism, but also an appetite to engage in paradigmatic debates about art and the creative process; to wrestle with and create philosophy. And I take this to be something like Abbs’ position; as he said in a recent interview “All our moods are potential meanings. I wanted the poet to begin with such experience, to represent it, to penetrate it, capturing the phenomena for contemplation - but this is philosophy!”10

Now to the managers of many a modern university, creative writing is only a useful asset for keeping their heads above water and the students flowing in. Not only does CW require relatively few resources while providing the same income per student, but its popularity partly due to the perception that creative writing entails i) a less academic route of study and ii) perhaps a more lenient standard of marking due to the ‘subjective’ status of literary works, fits well into the Blairite drive to increase university attendance. The problem with this plan all along was that the drive was accompanied ever higher financial demands on students combined with a ceaseless mission to commercialise higher education. This would have the university as a marketplace rather than as something which assists, in ways too plural to do justice to here, both people and society to develop and flourish. Once higher education responds to demand in the way that the market does, without reflection, with only the fiscal in its purview, then we have the university of KFC, the university of Casiotone. The university no longer speaks and listens, it is spoken to and embarrassed by a society which can only resent it for its pretensions to ‘learning’ and ‘excellence’. The irony is that these are catch words universities use even as they attenuate them, these words are decayed the more cynical and insensitive the university becomes to the project of learning, excellence and –dare I say it- emancipation.

Conclusion: Affording the Unaffordable

I am not trying to paint a dark view of the university and creative writing. Some of what I have argued pertains to now, some of it to what is undoubtedly in the post. And if one were to ask me about the quality of UK universities I would answer that we have some of the best and most exciting institutions in the world. If one were to ask me about the idea of creative writing I would defend its place in higher education and argue that it has long been an absence that needs to be fostered and fecundated.

But the politics of subjectivity in the arts in general are of perennial and I think, universal, importance to any enterprise, academic or extra-curricular, that seeks to stimulate rather than simulate creativity. There are, as I have pointed out, specificities that pertain to creative writing in the UK, as it entered the academic arena in a way incomparable to that, for example, of its American counterpart, which has been a staple in the US for generations.

This paper cannot begin to do justice to what I think we should be trying to achieve in the field of creative writing, it is far too short and the practicalities are far too many. But I have tried to highlight what I think are some central issues and have indicated ways of thinking about creative writing and creative praxis that resist both the expectations of consumers and the often defensive and anti-intellectual resorts to subjectivism. Of our institutions we must fight for there place as open, dynamic and discerning parts of our society, and of ourselves we must discard that peculiar (post) modern confluence of consumerist arrogance and timidity of self. If it really is ‘all subjective’ then there is no point in telling anyone this because even that must just be a matter of opinion, and enrolling on a creative writing course nothing more than a very expensive way to flatter your own literary tastes.

1With the possible exception of analytical philosophy departments.
2Barthes, R. “From Work to Text” in Image, Music, Text () p159
4Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, (Cambridge University Press, 1992) p73
5Dickens, C. Hard Times (Oxford, 1998) p3
6Andrew Collier, In Defence of Objectivity, (Routledge, 2003) p151
7Abbs, P. Against the Flow: Education, the arts and postmodern culture (Routledge, 2003) p61

Copyright Craig Jordan Baker 2008



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