Monday, May 20, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE WRITING CLASS” by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage / Random House, $NZ37:99)

            Not too long ago, a rather cynical person said to me that, in New Zealand, film-making is the new pottery – the thing that artily-inclined people enter into, but usually in a cottage industry sort of way. Most aspiring film-makers get no further than the short films that are perhaps seen in a few festivals (if they are lucky) before being archived. It is only the very rare film-school graduate who makes an ongoing career in film in any genuinely creative way.

            Now there are some even more cynical people who would say similar things about the Creative Writing industry. Never before have there been so many institutions that teach Creative Writing, and yet it is only the rare graduate of them who makes an ongoing career in literature. This can raise all sorts of questions about both the utility and value of such courses. Indeed, there are some Illustrious Elder Literary Figures who have opined that all aspiring writers really need to do is to read widely, learn how the best writers achieve their effects, and then get on with it, the way writers in the past did. Creative Writing courses, they imply, are a commercial con giving false hope to the untalented.

Stephanie Johnson has the right to write a novel about Creative Writing. Not only is she an accomplished novelist, but she is also a teacher of Creative Writing and has another stake in the culture industry as co-founder of a writers’ and readers’ festival. The Writing Class is an insider’s view of the whole phenomenon.

Ageing Creative Writing tutor Merle Carbury was once a promising novelist, but her writing has for years taken a back seat to her teaching. She supports a chronically-depressed husband Brendan, who was once a documentary film-maker but now plods about the house in his pyjamas, smoking and idling. They have a mysterious German lodger Jurgen, with whose mysterious situation we are tantalised. At work, Merle’s fellow tutor is the younger Gareth, who wrote a novel once but hasn’t been able to write anything since. Intentional or not, there seems to be at least the suggestion in The Writing Class that tutoring Creative Writing isn’t necessarily healthy for the creative energy of the tutors. They have to give so much of themselves to assessing and offering advice on their students’ efforts. A sense of weariness hangs over the enterprise.

The novel plays out in the last term of a writing course’s year, in which Merle’s students are preparing final drafts of the works they intend to submit for assessment. Some are thinking (too optimistically in most cases) about finding publishers. They are a varied bunch – the roughneck male writer; the out-and-open lesbian; the former nun; the Chinese woman writing a fictionalised life of her grandmother; the Indian man going for a generational saga; the sweetie writing a children’s book; the fake Rastafarian. More women than men, of course, but then that is the way of writing courses (and of literary festivals). Egos have to be massaged by the tutors, and criticisms muted so as not to discourage the students. Students also have to be encouraged to read their work out loud to an audience, in an environment where new books are publicised by readings at writers’ festivals. The big emotional story, intertwined with Merle’s sage observations, involves Jacinta, a highly-strung and wealthily-married student, and her affair with the rumpled tutor Gareth.

In presenting what the novel is about like this, I am in a way falsifying it. The Writing Class is very self-referencing, with chapter headings drawing our attention to the fact that it too is a product of the Creative Writing process. (“Ways of Beginning”, “To Be Going on With”, “The Writer’s Life” etc.). This stylistic alienation effect is at one with the novel’s reference (on page 137) to Stephanie Johnson herself; and with the reminders that the main character’s surname, Carbury, comes from an Anthony Trollope novel.
It all opens with a stunning morning panorama of a New Zealand city waking up. (It could be more than one city, but my brain converted it into Auckland.) “What a charmingly old-fashioned way to set the scene,” I immediately thought. But then I saw how Stephanie Johnson was gently teasing us, for the chapter that follows has Merle conducting a class on how to write arresting openings. She reflects on how few of her charges actually read anything. When she presents them with opening paragraphs from well-known novels, to show how it can be done (E.M.Forster, Carson McCullers, Elias Canetti…. and Rosie Scott) she can sense how irritated they are that they have to read this old stuff when they’d rather be flicking around with their I-pads or skimming the ‘net. And she reflects on departmental rivalries. And on how universities are downsizing humanities and how people in the older English departments hardly ever read anything new because they want to wait until books are part of the “canon”.

By this stage, we are alert to how the novelist sets things up and how she is deliberately drawing our attention to artifice. The opening is followed by articulated reflections on openings and indeed by other chapters that could equally validly be openings. We are being asked to scrutinise this story as a narrative construct, right up to discussions on how it should all end.

This does not make The Writing Class a cold intellectual enterprise, however. It has an in-built suspense (how are the students’ writings going to turn out?) and some in-built mystery (what is that German lodger’s secret and what exactly is his muted relationship with Merle?) and a fine and precise way in presenting characters. It also has its scenes of feverish emotion in the Jacinta-Gareth story. But even here, we are forced to consider style. Both when seen from Jacinta’s viewpoint and when seen from Gareth’s viewpoint, their adulterous coupling is close to overwrought romantic writing – but then this is the point isn’t it? After all, he’s a tutor in Creative Writing and she’s a student of Creative Writing; so don’t they both have a tendency to over-dramatize and create fiction about themselves and others? And then there’s that moment where Jacinta, having just bonked ecstatically, sits down and momentarily considers how she can make use of this experience in her writing. Writers as self-conscious parasites on reality, maybe?

What I enjoyed most in this novel were its comments on literature, academe and the writing process. I cannot refrain from quoting some.

When Merle speaks to her students, she thinks with regret of the world before there were writing courses:

“ ‘Before the invention of writing courses, the relationship between emerging writers and established writers was more organic – they would seek one another out and form relationships outside institutions.’ Merle feels nostalgic for those days. Faces of beloved older writer friends float through her mind, some passed on to whatever literary hell or heaven dead-writers may occupy. A lump rises in her throat, which has to be swallowed down before she can return calmly to the subject at hand.” (Pg.81)

Sometimes Merle reveals harsh and bitter truths about her work:

As she stands before the class, Merle reflects on how in our times, writers seem more than ever to flock together. Friendships are forged in courses, more numerous and inclusive than those formed in the old salons of Europe. The schooled are taught to form ‘writers’ groups’ which will endure beyond the course calendar. The unschooled, especially those whose careers pre-date the creation of Creative Writing degrees and courses, will form alliances easy and not so easy at proliferating writers’ festivals around the world. Merle remembers her first writer friend Jay, a man twenty years her senior, who introduced himself after her long-ago debut. She remembers his sensitive, anxious face, and she remembers his kindness and guidance through what proved to be a minefield of petty jealousies. Now first novels by young women are published almost hourly. Then it was rare. Now it is more important to have ‘done a course’ than to have published. The deception is universal and complete: everyone can write, and if they can’t they can be taught. And very often they’re taught by people who have PhDs in Creative Writing and virtually no publishing record.” (p.156)

Merle is aware that her students can be over-sensitive, and have to be treated with kid gloves:

“….she is mentoring Szu-Wen, who has a doctorate in bio-chemical engineering and is working full-time for a huge multinational agricultural conglomerate. The student has never received anything less than an A+ in her entire academic career, but the novel lacks suspense and colour, and Merle lacks the courage to tell her so. How can she? Szu-Wen is so clever, sweet and earnest, and she paid her fees on the understanding that she would be taught to write, that anyone can be taught to write.” (pp.87-88)

In an age where students are too reliant on their electronic gadgets, Merle also gives some sage advice against instant feedback when she tells her class:

 “Before a person can truly say she is a writer, she must have readers. It’s a very necessary equation. All writers long for a response from their readers – a positive one! – but it’s a kind of luxury. At least, traditionally it has been. We waited first to be published and then for reviews to appear in the media. Now, if you put things up on the net, you can have an almost instant response from strangers. I think this is addictive. I think it’s important to let things settle. It’s common to hear writers talk about how they wrote a novel or short story and put it away ‘in the bottom drawer’. Some time later, when the manuscript is retrieved, the writer has an epiphany about how to improve and enrich it. This process of enrichment is endangered by instant publishing and I think in time we will draw away from it. Most intelligent readers want to read intelligent, multi-layered, mature writing, not something cooked up out of a desire for instant feedback.” (p.219)

I am not, however, falling into the trap of seeing Merle as the author’s mouthpiece, although I am sure that much of what Merle says comes from Stephanie Johnson’s working experience. And I do note that other characters also make rueful comments that are credible social observation. Here is the tutor Gareth just before he plunges into an affair with the student Jacinta:

Gareth does not make a habit of sleeping with his students. He is firmly aware of his era. That sort of behaviour is regarded as anachronistic by young academics such as himself. Long gone are the times when professors and tutors openly looked over each fresh intake for prospective sex. There are too many women on staff now, and besides, the students are too aware of their rights and likely to make a complaint of harassment. They complain anyway, just for professional failure to recognise their genius…” (Pg.54)

And here is Jacinta reflecting on the decline in the mystique of literature, as compared with her husband’s career as a surgeon:

Once, a long time ago, novelists were regarded the same way, with awe. They were in possession of an instinctive arcane magic that enabled a long, multi-layered narrative to come together to form a vision of life more humane and glittering than the real thing. Now it is possible to learn how to do it at universities and community colleges all over the world….” (p.135)

I could quote more, but that will do.

This is an urbane and accessible novel, engaging and often ironically funny. In isolation, some passages could be taken as clinching arguments against Creative Writing courses; but whether that was Stephanie Johnson’s purpose is more than I can guess.

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