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The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived

The publishers bill this book as "a searching critique of traditional creative writing pedagogy". Michelene Wandor's wide experience as a writer, critic and teacher certainly qualifies her to offer one.

She rightly challenges the idea that creative writing requires "genius" and, equally, the touchy-feely notion that it is all about "self-expression". She insists on the importance of critical reading, by which students gain knowledge of literary traditions and conventions. All this will sound like good sense to most creative-writing lecturers.

Where Wandor takes a more challenging stand is in her opposition to the writing workshop - the chief means by which the subject is usually taught. The workshop, she argues, focuses not on writing but on re-writing; it tends to concentrate on what is wrong with the work and can be a potentially damaging ordeal for students. These criticisms hold some water, but Wandor pictures only the worst type of workshop and discards the entire practice without considering how it often works effectively.

Even so, I was interested to discover what alternative she would suggest. However, the account of her own teaching practices comes very late in the book and gives only a loose sense of her methods. These involve a focus on form and conventions: the tutor asks each student to write in a specific form and then offers a critique, encouraging the development of the piece. Wandor assures us that her seminars are "intensive, hard-working and productive", but there could be much more detail on how they come to be so.

Such detail would have been a welcome alternative to the book's extensive engagement with post-structuralist theory. The attack on Roland Barthes' notion of "the death of the author" gets itself into a conceptual tangle. The paraphrases of Saussure, Althusser and Bakhtin do not serve a clear purpose - they sometimes include a brief comment relating the theory to creative writing, but such points lack development.

There are some interesting points at the nitty-gritty level. Wandor attacks the way many masters students submit a section of a novel for assessment, arguing that an unfinished work gives no evidence of an understanding of structure. She rejects the idea that the dramatic monologue is a useful route into writing drama on the grounds that drama is fundamentally about the relationships between characters. She insists that students should be assessed by both creative and discursive writing, and that these elements should carry equal weight.

However, the book would be improved by greater concision and a tighter focus on the thesis. It is made up of something like 150 short sections (in 24 chapters), many of which are imperfectly assimilated into the whole. These include thumbnail accounts of such things as the Workers' Educational Association, Bedales School, copyright law and developments in printing technology. All these may have some bearing on creative writing, but more signposting is needed to justify the material.

The Author is Not Dead ... shows the lack of a good editor. For example, we are told on three separate occasions that the critics E.M.W. Tillyard and F.R. Leavis were educated at the Perse School - tangential information at best, and certainly not worth mentioning three times. The book's authority is also undermined by a peppering of errors that should have been spotted during proofreading.

In summary, Wandor's book raises interesting points that may serve as useful prompts for creative-writing lecturers, particularly those involved in curriculum design. However, it lacks the clarity and focus that would have allowed it to contribute more extensively to debates about the way the subject is taught.

The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived

By Michelene Wandor. Palgrave Macmillan 256pp, £47.50 and £15.99. ISBN 9781403934192 and 934208. Published 25 February 2008

Readers' comments (1)

  • Just in case anyone reads this comment after reading the above review, may I say that this is not really a book review. I say this not because the reviewer didn't like it - he doesn't actually say WHAT in the content and argument he doesn't like. This is not authorial sour grapes. No. It is more important than that.

    Here is an object lesson in how to review a book. First, you read it very carefully and you take notes. You work out (if you haven't picked it up from the blurb and, more importantly, from the Introduction and the summary sections and chapters) what it is about, and what it argues. Then you relate it to the field and to other similar cases/arguments. Then you position your own argument and opinion.
    You do not misrepresent the book by ignoring over half of it - the complex chapters which historicise and theorise the 'subject' of creative writing. You do not cherry pick odd comments here and therer. Above all, you do not blame the book for your own inability to take on and represent its arguments. Lofty digs at a small number of proofing errors are no substitute for taking on the issues the book deals with.

    This is not only bad reviewing, but it is misleading for the field. I have already had comments from a few people about how the book doesn't sound very interesting.

    I suggest anyone involved with Creative Writing and/or English should go to the English Subject Centre website and check out the review of my book in the current newsletter. There is an example of how to describe a book under review.

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