Saturday, 21 April 2012


Warning: rant ahead

I have been asked to write an article about six first-time American novelists and 'recent trends in American fiction'.  The book reviews editor of the Sunday supplement in which this article will appear chose the six novelists on the basis of reviews published in leading American newspapers. The books were delivered to me with a strict injunction that I was not to read other reviews of these books. I found the books well written and competent but not in the end exciting. I didn't come away with the feeling that I had encountered major new talents, and I didn't add any of the author's names to my watch list.  (None of the six books has appeared, or will appear, on my reading list 'Books 2012' here.)

All six of these 'serious' novels begin with an acknowledgements section. Five of the six authors list the writing courses or seminars and certificate programmes they have attended. Three of these five authors list one course; two authors list two. The sixth author apparently has not attended a formal course in writing, but she thanks her writing circle as well as an arts organisation that gave her a grant that allowed her to stay at a artists' retreat for several months and finish her book. All six mention feedback from an impressive array of friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues, as well as the help of agents and editors and other publishing personnel. Three of the authors cite specialists who helped them with points of law, medicine, and psychology. More than any other aspect of these works, these acknowledgements pages attracted my attention. Since that subject is outside my brief for the article I am writing, I decided to discuss it here.

Such acknowledgements are not confined to serious works. As anyone who has glanced at the Books 2012 page here will know, I consume a lot of junk food for the mind, such as mysteries and science fiction. Over the past three decades, writers of such works have come increasingly to include an acknowledgements page listing, among others, the experts who gave them technical help.

Does any of this matter? Without much effort, one could compile lists of competent writers who never had a lesson in writing as well as those who have emerged from writing programmes. It also would take little effort to list many incompetent published writers from both groups. Writing programmes and courses do force an aspiring author to write, and practice in writing is never wasted. Some of these aspiring writers would probably arrive at the same point on their own; the programmes simply provide an environment that forces them to work out their problems with writing. Any participant in these programmes would undoubtedly benefit from the critical eye of a good teacher. Works written for such programmes tend to incorporate the instructors' views, however, especially if getting a good grade in the course and eventually receiving the certificate depends on satisfying the teachers. There is always the danger that rather than helping a writer achieve a personal voice, the programme will teach them to write to a formula or to think of writing in terms espoused by the teacher. (I have found that graduates of such programmes tend, for example, to be obsessed with 'point of view' and to be on continual alert for any violation of a unitary point of view in a work. This seems to be the latest successor to the Three Unities. I think the better advice would be to always be aware of how point of view can be exploited and played with.)

Friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues can be helpful, but advice per se is not necessarily useful. And more often than not one receives a different opinion from each of them. The writer still has to choose, and it's been my experience that authors (like all of us) are quite capable of dismissing, indeed ready to do so, views that diverge from their own or would require a lot of work. Some of the most injurious advice comes from those who praise an author. The last thing an author needs to be told is how good the work is--the best advice deals with how to make the work better. But when confronted with praise from X and criticism from Y, how many of us are going to think more of Y, especially if it means a major rewrite?

By consulting experts, an author may improve the accuracy of the details in works that touch on specialised subjects or fields, but it does nothing to improve the quality of the writing or of the overall work (there are many of the opinion that the accuracy of details is a major factor in assessing quality; I happen to feel that this ignores the nature of fiction, but that is quite a different subject from the one I am discussing here--this may become the subject of a future posting). The apparent purpose of acknowledging the experts an author has consulted is to lodge a claim of accuracy and to make the story seem plausible. I have consulted an expert in dart throwing and hence the poison-tipped dart that pierced Lord Darlington's heart is a realistic means of murder. These claims are often followed by "Any remaining errors are my own", which is nothing more than a disingenuously modest assertion that the credit really belongs to the author.

Agents' opinions are directed mainly towards what needs to be done in order to improve the works' chances of finding a publisher--their concerns tend to be driven by the market (after all, their income depends on pleasing the market). Editors can be extraordinarily helpful in catching inconsistencies as well as grammatical errors, typos, and misusages, but they, like agents, are ultimately concerned with the market--their livelihoods depend on sales.

As must be apparent, I am doubtful about the benefits of credentialing. For me, the interesting question is not Is this valuable? but Why do authors and the publishers who include these acknowledgements think readers will be impressed? Does a certificate from the University of Iowa Writing Program convince us that the work that follow is worth reading? Does a list of the names of the twenty-five readers who offered the author comments on the work as it was being written guarantee that the work is good?

The purpose of all this credentialing appears to be to reassure the reader that the author is qualified to write and has done the research necessary to make the work accurate. Credentialing as a phenomenon seems to have begun in scientific and technological fields. Should I need an operation, the list of letters after the surgeon's name is at least some assurance of competence. I could dress like a surgeon and wield a scalpel, but it would be unwise of you to let me near you with one in my hand. As skills have become more technical and the acquisition of bodies of knowledge more time-consuming, credentialing has assumed more importance. The perceived need for credentialing in these fields seems to have spilled over into other fields, where a certificate of training is less necessary or even totally unnecessary.

Another reason for the growth of credentialing may be the growth of education. Our higher-education systems now offer degrees in an incredible range of subjects, and along with this growth has come a need to justify the necessity of these degrees. There seems to have been a progression from the view that a degree in, say, history indicates some knowledge of the past to the not unreasonable view that those with degrees in history may have more knowledge of the past than those without such degrees to the somewhat iffy view that they are hence better qualified to speak on the subject. The danger is that this sometimes becomes only those with degrees in history are qualified to speak on the past. The last is certainly an option exercised by many academic historians, who can be quite ruthless in dismissing the opinions of anyone without the proper licenses to have an opinion. Granted training in historical 'science' may help develop the skills historians need, but these are not difficult skills to master. The insistence on the proper acquisition in accredited schools of the skills of 'the science of history' owes much to the desires to limit entrance to the field and to justify the ego-defenses necessary to maintain a feeling of superiority to 'amateurs'.

And now credentialing is spreading to fields that depend primarily on talent, such as writing or painting or music-making. All the training in the world, all the mastery of theory or bodies of knowledge, will not make anyone a good writer or a good painter or a good musician. A course in oil painting may introduce one to the basics of mixing paints--indeed one may become a master in mixing paints as a result of the course--and that knowledge may improve the quality of one's output, but it remains no more than a skill. Properly mixed paints don't create a good painting by themselves. Following the precept that one 'should show and not tell' does not guarantee that what one is being shown is worth reading. A unitary point of view is simply a unitary point of view, not a guarantee of a good story.

It seems to me that many of these courses concentrate on the mastery of techniques. This is understandable--technique can be taught and mastered; talent cannot. A writing instructor may point out to a pupil that his characters are wooden and stereotypical and may even be able to show the writer how he should be thinking about his characters to make them more lifelike. But if the student is tone-deaf psychologically and simply can't understand others, no amount of training will help him overcome this defect. Authors offer stereotypical characters not only because they are lazy and resort to clichés but also because that's how they envision other people.

IMHO, aspiring authors should spend their time reading rather than taking courses.

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