Censorship, Critical Response and the Creative Writing Degree

Kathrina Haji Mohd Daud

Paul Dawson considers that, “since the inception of writing programmes the most prominent discussions about Creative Writing have been concerned with its legitimacy as an academic discipline, [and that] these discussions have tended to revolve around a simplistic polemic, manifested in the perennial question, can writing be taught? and its corollary, should it be taught?” This paper does not seek to add to this debate, accepting that creative writing as an academic venture has become an established fact – what does need to be explored, and indeed, what has become a more pressing subject of concern for researchers of the pedagogy of creative writing, is how it can best be taught. This is a question which revolves back, of course, to the root of all these questions – what exactly are we seeking to teach when we teach creative writing?

Ron McFarland argues that 5 qualities make a writer – desire, drive, talent, vision and craft – only the last of which, he says, can be taught. Is craft, then, all that the creative writing classroom or degree is meant to, and aims to, nurture? Are the rest simply innate, inherent qualities without which there is no writer, only words?

The selection process and criteria requirements for entry into an academic creative writing program, particularly at postgraduate level, would suggest a face value agreement with McFarland’s assessment. Most universities require for entry an undergraduate degree or academic equivalent, but closer attention is generally paid to the submitted portfolio of written work. It can be understood that if one is applying to do a postgraduate degree in creative writing, one is displaying the desire and drive that being a writer requires. Likewise, if one has been accepted for such a program, it can also be understood that one has displayed sufficient talent in the craft of writing that can be nurtured. And the necessity of outlining a research proposal means that one has to have or create a vision for one’s work. Therefore an application and acceptance into such a postgraduate program already weeds out those who fulfil the first four criteria of McFarland’s definition of a writer, and as such, seems to suggest that the creative writing degree is aimed solely at the practice of improving craft.

What exactly can this “craft” be defined as, then? Tim Mayers posits that “craft” as defined by the generally accepted pedagogy of the practice of creative writing is the “faint gray area of overlap between genius and rhetoric. One cannot be taught to be a genius, but one can learn to imitate some of the techniques in which geniuses are expert.” In practice, Tim Mayers suggests that all those who come to a creative writing degree are seeking “desperately to be good writers, and they feel they know exactly what they want to say, but their trouble is that the words, the language, so often won’t cooperate with their intentions. They want to learn the “craft” then, of making language behave, of making it fall into line.”

What does this mean about the nature of the academic creative writing degree? The emphasis on critical reflection and analysis of texts besides one’s own, whether they be successfully published novels or works submitted by other members of a workshop, demands that the serious student of creative writing not only compare his work, but place it in context. This demand, then, means that the focus of the creative writing class, and the creative writing degree, expands beyond linguistic concerns to concerns of subject and content as well, in a way which is very far removed from the first conceptions of the creative writing classroom. (That is not to say that it is not still a matter of craft, of course – in the sense that in order for one’s vision to be realised one must subject it to the boundaries of readership vis-à-vis recognisable forms; but this will be dealt with more thoroughly in a later part of the paper.)

The purpose of this comparison and contextualisation, is of course, a literary one – an enabling of placement of the writer, by himself, into a literary niche, a literary history. Essentially, it is to help a writer define himself by his influences and predecessors, in terms of genre, technique, style, subject matter. Failing all this, a writer can define himself by who he isn’t, or who he does not want to be. Creative writing degrees are generally firm on the stance that good writers are avid readers, if not necessarily the other way around. This becomes an issue of craft – not in the romantic, expressionist mode that was the forte of the earliest creative writing modules, which seemed to focus more on making sure writers felt free to write whatever they wanted to write - but in a more academic, almost postmodern way, which strives to ensure that the writer’s vision is realised in the reader through recognizable signifiers. It is almost an inversion of the Barthe-ian theories of textuality, which is fitting, as these issues arise out of the perspective of the writer rather than the reader. In order words, to some extent what the creative writing degree demands of the student is a firm and grounded knowledge in the modes and forms that readers come to expect of certain types of writing. Whether the writer then chooses to experiment with that form, reject it, or fall in line is entirely irrelevant to the purpose of this exercise – what is important is the necessity of awareness of his own technique, and its subsequent effects on traditional readership. It is only armed with this knowledge that creative writing graduates from inspiration to academic perspiration.

An interesting aspect of this academia is how it would impact potentially controversial works. Controversy over fiction is almost a criteria for success in the world of fiction, and has been for centuries, extending back over Oscar Wilde, Voltaire, Nabokov, Chaucer, even to arguably the first “modern” novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Arguably, however, it may be suggested that the stakes have never been higher than they are today. One need only look at the Salman Rushdies, the Taslima Nasreens, the Orhan Pamuks, the death threats, the enforced exile, both in the East and in the West, to realise that globalisation has created new ramifications in terms of critical and cultural reception of texts.

What role does – or can – the creative writing degree play on this world stage? The controversies, after all, range from issues of representation – for example, the vilification of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston by other Chinese-American writers – to issues of blasphemy – Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code need no further elaboration – to, one may argue, the necessary bringing to the table of new and challenging discourses, such as Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Likewise the reactions have ranged from the mildly unpleasant – critical theory – to the serious – personal attacks on the author’s well-being. Some writers choose to fight back – Amy Tan, for example, has defended her earlier novels, claiming that she writes what she knows, and her China and Chinese-America need not serve any – and should not be taken to serve any – political, racial, or social agenda, and argues against the proclaimed responsibility of “minority” writers in terms of minority representation. Some writers bow to the external pressure – Taslima Nasreen, for example, against who a similar fatwa to Rushdie’s was issued, declared in November 2007 that she would be rewriting the offensive passages in her autobiography in order to “appease” the offended parties. Rushdie made no similar move, and was consequently forced to go into hiding after the fatwa against him was issued – although he recently stated that he has felt no need for any security involvement in his life for the past nine years.

This is not an argument for or against censorship, or freedom of expression. It is not even an argument against blasphemy. The issue here is whether the creative writing degree has a role in shaping content and vision as well as craft. Is it enough for the creative writing workshop, class, supervision – to enable awareness of the reaction one’s work is likely to create in the critical sphere? For minority writers, the often international nature of the creative writing workshop is largely useful in terms of bridging cultural gaps, or indeed, choosing not to bridge them, in terms of what cultural knowledge can be assumed, what can be inferred, and what needs to be explained. One of the greatest problems a student can come up against is one of self-censorship – anxieties about allowing the reader too much access to one’s personal life and agenda, more general anxieties about what the reader will think and infer from and misunderstand about the text. In that sense, the creative writing degree functions as a free space for the writer – the vision is compared with the text and suggestions are offered to align the two, but the writer himself is removed from the interrogation. The academic nature of the class comes to the fore – the writer is surrounded by professional readers, as it were, who are likewise aware of pre-existing norms, modes, literary expectations and history – of what the accepted signifiers are, and why, in other words. In the first case the nature of the feedback discusses communicative barriers, questions of – will you understand if I say this, is it a problem if you don’t – and in the second it discusses questions of intention – are you reading into this what I mean you to read?

Both cases presuppose a desire of the writer to impose and confer a meaning onto the text and therefore the reader. It might, of course, be argued that most writers do not come to the table with any such intention, and are willing and even happy to accept alternative readings and interrogations of the text. All well and good – however, when such alternative readings are not about universalities but the specifics of a sensitive subject, what the creative writing degree can and should do is prepare the student, the writer, for what those alternative readings, and the consequent reactions, might be. This, the nature of the workshop does – almost inevitably, being as it is a microcosm of the publishing world, in the wide readership, the grounding in a wide variety of literatures. (It might, of course, be argued that it is not necessary to obtain a degree in order to achieve this level of awareness for the writer – this is the function of an editor and a publisher. This sort of reading, however, fails to take into account that it is not only the completed text which is being interrogated, but also the entire process of writing, which, within the confines of a degree, is necessarily not, as Royster argues in his essay, Inspiration, Creativity and Crisis: The Romantic Myth of the Writer Meets the Creative Writing Classroom, “a one-way performance, but rather a reciprocal engagement with audiences and selves; [..] the process itself is a text.” ) In any case, what the degree should do is create a confidence in the writer, enabling him/her to fight back, to argue his case, to defend his work, to so thoroughly interrogate those niches of subjectivity, both on an artistic and academic level, that there is no room, once the work has been completed, for doubt of any kind. This doubt should be eliminated during the process of workshopping, through the creation of awareness of exactly how the text can or will be received. This may result in self-censorship, or conversely an even greater conviction that this is exactly what one wants to say.

Does this mean that the creative writing degree is a fundamentally amoral entity, which refuses to take a stand, or comment on the underlying message, existing only to serve the art, the craft of writing, no matter how immoral the message, or how offensive to certain groups? In theory, then, yes. Is this how it should be? Should the craft be prioritized above all else? To say yes is to refuse the place of morality in literature, and to potentially subordinate the craft in service of the immoral. One the other hand, is it the place of the creative writing classroom – considered in the context of an academic discipline – to exercise moral authority? (In fact, is it even possible to exercise this kind of authority in a classroom where authority-consciousness pedagogy is so, as Anna Leahy asserts in The Authority Project , tenuous?)

In practice, however, if the message of a work and the conviction of a writer can survive the rigorous crucible that they are subject to through the course of the degree – from other, equally convinced and articulate writers, then the work can only be considered a valuable addition to current courses and discourses in literature, which is really the fundamental point. Such a crucible is, by its very nature, academic as it is, grounded in what Kalamaras refers to a social-epistemic rhetoric . In that sense, perhaps the creative writing degree can be considered the harshest of all censors and critics, drawing as it does upon every possible avenue of literary knowledge and background.

The world is a battleground and works of literature have long been the bastion of the righteous, the angry, the revolutionary. No texts have been attacked more thoroughly – on grounds of textuality, translation, cultural appropriation, message, language – than religious texts; the New Testament, the Old Testament, the Qur’an - and whatever one’s religious views might be, it can hardly be argued that their defenses have been equally strong, equally well thought-out, balanced and based as they are on research, comparison and grounding in confidence of one’s own correctness of belief. Surely one can ask no better defense of the creative writing degree, than that it provide one with this same strength of conviction in one’s work. Perhaps questions of social responsibility and the creative writing degree are best considered in terms not of moral judgments, but in this insistence that one make decisions which can be nothing other than informed.


Cann, Mary Ann. Sep., 1999. Problematizing Formalism: A Double-Cross of Genre Boundaries. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 89-95

Dawson, Paul. 2005. Creative Writing and the New Humanities. London, New York Taylor & Francis Routledge.

Kalamaras, George. Sep., 1999. Interrogating the Boundaries of Discourse in a Creative Writing Class: Politicizing the Parameters of the Permissible. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 77-82

Mayers, Tim. Sep., 1999. (Re) Writing Craft. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 82-89

Leahy, Anna. Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project. Multilingual Matters Ltd.

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