The novelist Jay McInerney tells a captivating story of writing apprenticeship – of being mentored by his creative writing professor at Syracuse University, Raymond Carver:
“...manuscripts came back thoroughly ventilated with Carver deletions, substitutions, question marks and chicken-scratch queries. I took one story back to him seven times; he must have spent 15 or 20 hours on it. He was a meticulous, obsessive line editor...Once we spent some 10 or 15 minutes debating my use of the word ‘earth’. Carver felt it had to be ‘ground,’ and he felt it was worth the trouble of talking it through. That one exchange was invaluable; I think of it constantly when I’m working.”
Syracuse offers a critical node in the story of growth of creative writing in the US, particularly around the careful simplicity of language showcased in the Carver tradition of fiction. This is the place where George Saunders and Tobias Wolff came to forge their literary friendship. In This Boy’s Life, the cinematic adaptation of Wolff’s memoir, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the young Toby who will head to Syracuse for his early growth as a writer. Eventually, the Carver tradition would come to define fiction writing in American Creative Writing programmes.
I had the opportunity of experiencing this at close proximity during the nine years I taught literature at Stanford, from where Toby Wolff retired a couple of years ago. The famous Carveresque minimalism is all over Wolff’s short stories, though it is undeniable that the striking alumnae of Stanford’s Stegner fellowship program show a wide range of style and ethos in their work.
McInerney’s account of painstaking mentorship is recalled in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl. In this widely influential book, McGurl points to the paradox of education – between rote-learning and standardised tests on the one hand, and its goal to kindle imagination and creativity on the other. Here, creative writing appears as one of the purest forms of self-expression.
Writers or professors?
What, indeed, could be farther from the culture of rote-learning and examinations than the imaginative writing of poems, plays and stories? But the appearance of creative writing at the university comes at a cost. This is the unexpected and the unglamorous linkage of the writer’s life with classrooms and committees and degree-credentialing. Once understood in contradiction to each other, the figures of the writer and the professor are suddenly, surprisingly, no longer in opposition to each other.
“All this represents a very great change,” Alfred Kazin wrote in the 1950’s, by when the process was well under way. “When I was in college in the ‘thirties, it was still well understood that scholars were one class and writers quite another. They did not belong to the same order of mind, they seemed quite antithetical in purpose and temperament, and at the very least, they needed different places to work in.”
Once thought of as a stuffy, bureaucratic place unsuitable to the free spirit of the creative writer, the university, with its programmes, residencies, and writing professorships, quickly came to be the primary patron of imaginative writing in postwar US. There is great historical irony here. The support system for writers moved from the system of royal and aristocratic patronage in the pre-modern age to a wider middle-class readership in early era of print modernity, when a form as the novel enjoyed wide readership in the mass market.
But in the twentieth century, with artistically bold writing losing popular support next to the new cinematic and digital forms of entertainment, literature, no longer purely sustainable in the free market, seems to have returned to the private patronage of endowments, foundations, and universities.
Still, the spread of creative writing culture has been interestingly uneven. Initiated at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Paul Engle, it has expanded across the US but has, in many ways, remained a primarily Midwestern phenomenon, thriving in large state universities rather than elite coastal schools, though important exceptions are offered by Brown, Cornell, Columbia, and Stanford. Globally, it has spread slowly in the Anglophone world – an example is England, where the ancients, Oxford and Cambridge, have been slow to pick it up, but the quirkier University of East Anglia, with its more experimental program structure, has emerged as the most important venue of the institutional culture of creative writing.
How has the teaching and “learning” of creative writing fared in India? Discussions of Indian writing in English – and translations into English – have occupied public and academic space for a long time now. Has there been a pedagogic articulation of the craft? And an institutional culture around this “pedagogy” – if one can call it that?
It becomes quickly clear that the teaching of creative writing, either at the university or outside, has been a rare phenomenon in this country. English arrives at Indian universities easily, as the prized programme in the humanities, driven by a host of right and wrong reasons – with the full force of colonial hangover and neoliberal capital, as a bankable track of upward mobility, even the language of money and power. Not very compatible to the arts, is it?
But Creative Writing does not follow naturally. It lacks institutional precedent in this country, and the consequent solidity of academic and professional prestige. A number of renowned writers, both in English and the indigenous vernaculars have taught in the literature departments of Indian universities.
A few come into mind right away: Firaq Gorakhpuri (Hindi and Urdu), Harivansh Rai Bachhan (Hindi), and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (English) at the English department at the University of Allahabad, Shankha Ghosh and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (both Bengali) at the Department of Comparative Literature in Jadavpur University, and a figure whose memory is personally precious to me – P Lal (English) at the English department of St Xavier’s College, Calcutta University, my professor and first publisher, at the boutique press of Writers’ Workshop, Calcutta.
But all these writers taught literature, as the teaching of creative writing as an academic discipline was practically unknown during their time. Even today, barring the odd creative writing course offered in a few universities, it is hard to find creative writing as an academic discipline in Indian universities, in any language.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and The Scent of God (2019).