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1. Creative Writing
III. Creative Writing and Research

Mind the Gap: Creative Writing Comes to France

Charles HOLDEFER

Résumés

La différence entre la recherche et l'écriture créative est parfois présentée comme une opposition entre la tête et le cœur. D'un côté, un intellect objectif ; de l'autre, une sensibilité sous l'emprise de l'inspiration. Il est temps de regarder au-delà de ce cliché. Les chercheurs parlent souvent de leur passion pour un sujet et de leur quête pour apporter une contribution originale. Les artistes décrivent souvent leur travail comme minutieux et méthodique, un produit de révision qui a pris conscience de la tradition littéraire. Les différences de convention peuvent parfois masquer une entreprise commune dans le domaine de la littérature.
Cet article abordera mon expérience personnelle en tant qu'écrivain américain qui a pratiqué les ateliers d’écriture et qui s'est adapté au système universitaire français où la dichotomie entre « la tête et le cœur » reste largement incontestée. La rigueur réputée du concours et la spontanéité supposée des critiques d’ateliers d’écriture créative offrent un contraste culturel. Mais ce contraste, selon moi, n’est pas aussi évident qu’il y paraît.

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Texte intégral

1Mind the Gap: Creative Writing Comes to France

2The difference between research and creative writing is sometimes cast as an opposition between head and heart. On the one side, an objective intellect; on the other, a sensibility in the grip of inspiration. Scholars, we are told, think their way through problems. Artists, in contrast, answer their passions. This received idea exerts considerable influence in everyday perceptions and it also appears in literature. For instance, Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Richard Tull in Martin Amis’s The Information are in many respects head and heart personified.

3But it is perhaps significant that these characters are also depicted as failures. Beyond their particular interest for these novels, their examples might also underline, more generally, how the head and heart dichotomy falls short. Something is lacking, both Eliot and Amis imply. Edward Casaubon might have fared better if he had summoned more heart, and it is a tragi-comic waste that Richard Tull lost his head.

  • 1 As a fine arts degree, the MFA concentrates on writing workshops and craft courses, and instead of (...)

4I won’t belabor these fictional examples out of context but I will linger on this problem of a conceptual gap, an awareness that something is missing in this received idea. Does this assumed dichotomy really tell us much about writing, or does it rather reveal entrenched thinking about how literary culture is produced and disseminated? How is this thinking reinforced or, conversely, challenged, in a French university? In the event of a challenge, what are the implications for day-to-day pedagogy? My approach to these and related questions will refer to both historical precedent and to my personal experience as a writer from an American MFA program1 who has adapted to the French system. My emphases will be on perceptions, institutions and process.

1. Perceptions

5In terms of perceptions, the head and heart dichotomy is easy to caricature. Film offers a wealth of examples. In John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), a young ink-stained Will works furiously beside his candle, producing text at astonishing speed—no doubt in calibrated iambic pentameter—while in the background, violin music swells. Such is the life of the impassioned writer. Or in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets’ Society (1989), a dry-as-dust textbook instructs students how to analyze a poem’s greatness by employing the coordinates of a Cartesian graph. (“Perfection” is marked on the horizontal axis, “importance” on the vertical). Such is the approach of the cerebral critic.

  • 2 The “MFA Programs” database of the Poets & Writers website presently lists 147 degrees offered in t (...)
  • 3 The “Literary Magazines” database of the Poets & Writers website presently lists more than 900 maga (...)

6These examples are ridiculous, but their usefulness in these films’ plots attests to the staying power of their premises. They reflect attitudes that, in varying degrees, persist on both sides of the Atlantic. To be sure, there are practical and professional generic distinctions between drama, poetry, short stories and novels as compared to essays, articles, and scholarly monographs; and these differences are not reducible to a binary cliché (Eagleton 1-2). Moreover, the conventional perception of head and heart is now being strenuously questioned in new venues (Gutkind). The growing number of “creative nonfiction” degree programs in the English-speaking world now compete with earlier-established programs in fiction and poetry.2 Also, the proliferation of “creative nonfiction” sections in literary magazines (often referred to as “CNF”) points to a desire to avoid compartmentalization.3

7This shift in perceptions is salutary, because the risk of compartmentalization is parochialism. I have heard French university colleagues loftily claim that no author of worth ever came out of a creative writing program, seemingly unaware that in recent decades the reading list for the agrégation—which is an unabashed exercise in canon building—has included authors like Raymond Carver, Ian McEwan, Ernest Gaines, Richard Ford and perhaps most illustriously, Flannery O’Connor, all of whom studied in creative writing programs. Maybe these artists would have worked as well without these structures. It is impossible to know. But at very least, writing programs were not an impediment to their later achievements. It has always puzzled me that France, which has an impressive tradition of Écoles des Beaux-Arts and conservatories, draws the line at offering degree programs in creative writing.

8Anecdotally speaking, I soon learned that it was expedient for me in France, when I was an ATER and doctoral candidate in the 1990s, to dissemble that my masters degree was in truth an MFA. Such diplomas appeared unserious and were viewed by some as a dubious “Anglo-Saxon” import, a sort of New Age intellectual junk food. Would you entrust Tarzan to write a corrigé for a commentaire de texte? Could such a person do research?

  • 4 For example, at Aix-Marseille, Le Havre and Paris 8. See Bisenius-Penin, Carole. Creative writing i (...)
  • 5 Initially, these activities were reserved for non-specialists. The implication was that true Englis (...)

9Now, a generation later, perceptions are changing in France, too. Universities are more receptive to the idea of creative writing and to granting a space for it in their curricula.4 In my English department at the University of Poitiers, I eventually “came out” as a writer, and colleagues have been more or less obliged to accept that, with respect to the traditional conception, I am bi-textual. I have published novels and short stories while also co-editing research volumes, writing articles and teaching preparation courses for the concours, including for some of the writers mentioned above, without compromising the system, as far as I know. Some efforts have also been made in my department to include “creative” activities in our undergraduate courses.5 A number of my students have announced that they are aspiring writers, which in my three decades of teaching in France is, aside from a few exceptions, a novelty. Such students always existed, I suspect, but now they feel relatively more at home in the university, and willing to assert themselves as artists. A change of perceptions is also apparent in professional associations. In 2021, the SAES Congress hosted a creative writing panel, the first of its kind in France, and another panel is planned for 2022. Barriers are shifting, which brings us inevitably to the question of the role of institutions.

2. Institutions

10As perceptions change, how much will French institutions follow? How much will they accommodate and enable, or, on the contrary, push back against the modest efforts made thus far to include creative writing? In many respects these questions are not purely philosophical or methodological. They are political.

11Concretely, for me to suggest a workshop-style class in which groups limited to ten or a dozen students share and critique work, as is the practice in other countries, is not only a change in curriculum. In the undergraduate context at my university, with its rules about minimum group sizes for travaux dirigés, it would be impermissible.. To suggest an exception would add to the charge of creative writing’s putative lack of rigor a rather different objection to a course seeking special treatment or creating an unequal condition, which would be contrary to the values of the Republic and the mission of l’Éducation nationale. What at first seemed a liberating alternative could find itself recast as a form of reactionary elitism.

12Such formulations exaggerate the stakes, I believe, and I strongly wish to avoid them at my workplace. Nothing fruitful will come from framing the problem tendentiously. Nor do I wish to indulge in French-bashing. In fact, I believe that my local colleagues are quite right to ask: should French institutions offer creative writing courses? If so, what kind? The debate is not settled, as far as I am concerned, and I say this while having a foot in both systems, as an enseignant-chercheur in France during the academic year and as a visiting writer to American summer workshops.

13Detractors of workshop method include some formidable figures. Flannery O’Connor, who started her novel Wise Blood while still at a student at Iowa, scoffed at the value of criticism by student peers, and referred to workshop method as “composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite” (86). As for the idea that the workshop teacher could avoid or mitigate such problems by providing necessary guidance, she added, “A teacher who tries to impose a way of writing on you can be dangerous too. Fortunately, most teachers I’ve known were too lazy to do this” (86).

14These assertions come from 60 years ago, when only a handful of writing programs existed. Today O’Connor would surely be appalled at the enthusiastic embrace of MFAs in higher education. As recently as 1972 there were just three MFA programs in the United States. (The University of Iowa was the first, started in 1936.) By 2016, there were 244 MFAs, as well as 152 Masters in creative writing (Yacenda).

15Institutionally speaking, there has been a boom. But ironically, this growth has coincided with a crisis in other sectors of the humanities. In the American context, the Modern Language Association, a flagship organization for scholarly research founded in 1883, sometimes topped 10,000 attendees for its annual conventions in the 1990s. By 2019, the figure was down to 4,500 (“MLA Convention Statistics”). Meanwhile, a junior organization founded in 1967, the Association of Writers and Writers Programs, usually referred to as the AWP, has prospered, with nearly 15,000 attendees to its 2019 annual convention (“AWP Conference & Bookfair 2019”). It is hard to predict what will happen in a post-Covid era, and the convention metric is only one indicator of a more complicated situation, but it is unlikely that this general institutional trend will be reversed.

  • 6 These degrees are offered at the University of Iowa, New York University and the University of Texa (...)

16For good or ill, it is clear that in the scramble to attract students in a post-industrial, service economy, English departments in American colleges and universities have turned to creative writing. MFAs in Spanish are now appearing, too, no doubt a reflection of changing American demographics.6 The larger forces at play are indifferent to O’Connor’s concerns while pursuing other prerogatives.

17O’Connor’s concerns are fundamentally artistic, a defense of “vision” (72) that is at odds with conformity or pedestrian measures of “competence” (86). On the other hand, it is easy to find counter-examples of important writers who speak highly of how creative writing instruction was decisive in their artistic growth. George Saunders has referred to the mentorship provided by Tobias Wolff at Syracuse University, describing an experience of being “acolytes together in the short story priesthood … [it was] a life-changer” (322).

18At root, the question revolves around the problem of how to reconcile institutional imperatives (educational, political, economic) with artistic endeavors. And if one starts with the assumption, as I do, that creative writing classes should not pretend that they are going to manufacture hundreds or even thousands of little Flannerys and Georges who will flood the publishing world with their literary output, then we can see more clearly a broader purpose to creative writing. Namely, it cultivates an understanding of the writing process. This process is not culturally circumscribed (as “Anglo-Saxon” or whatever) but is rather an aspect of how we work with language. It concerns not only aspiring artists but also the development of readers, teachers and researchers.

3. Process

19What do I mean by process? Generally, process sees writing as a series of choices. It shifts the focus from the finished text (that might come later, maybe ten drafts from now) to the act of composition. An emphasis on process is not at odds with critical writing and research, but it often foregrounds different aspects of craft or narrative convention.

20Concretely, how might this approach play out in a French university? It would begin with the acknowledgement that a commentaire de texte or a dissertation are not the only ways to engage with literature. Just as reality itself is not divided into three parts, neither is literary production limited to these options. Saying as much is not to denigrate these exercises as lacking process or as being somehow “un-creative”. On the contrary, my years in France have taught me to appreciate these forms, not as artefacts of objective intellect (a notion which would reinforce the “head versus heart” dichotomy) but as creative, oulipesque exercises, whose constraints not only limit, but also enable. The commentaire and the dissertation can be artful, too, and it would be perverse not to recognize the achievement of skilled practitioners.

21But there are other means, other exercises, other ways to integrate our changing perceptions of how to approach writing in French institutions, which highlight at a more micro-level the choices involved in creating text. For instance, asking a student to practice writing dialogue with attention to speech rhythm or dialect, or to draft a passage with shifts between internal and external focalization, or to experiment with an extended metaphor or various narrative options of characterization. These are only a few basic examples, but they are fruitful activities that develop linguistic and conceptual skills. I would argue that this kind of practice, which depends heavily on immersion, actually helps students write better commentaires and dissertations. It makes them better readers.

22This last aspect is crucial in regard to research, too. To read with precision is essential to any meaningful research or theorizing. In my experience, most recently involving research on George Saunders, my understanding of narratology is indebted as much to immersive practices, to what Saunders calls “those thousands of editing microdecisions” (344) as it is to Gérard Genette’s descriptions of how narration works. A nuance of reported speech or of an intradiegetic analepsis can seem less daunting if you have actually attempted to write one yourself. Swimming technique is more readily acquired in the water.

23But I also hasten to add that I have no agenda to usurp or supplant theoreticians, who can describe with admirable lucidity the results of writing processes. (Genette is a prime example.) Put simply: it is not a choice of either/or. Creative writing is not a Trojan Horse for neglecting “Gallic” rigor. Rather, it is part of the shared enterprise of literature.

24In fact, my description of process is entirely at home with formalist approaches. It does not make claims that creative writing fosters empathy or an individual’s personal psychological development. Those arguments have been put forward elsewhere about writing or the study of literature in general, as humanities departments attempt to justify themselves to an increasingly skeptical public. For instance, Marija Reiff argues:

Creative writing filled the autopoetic void left by the demise of the common curriculum … The idea that writing can serve a moral purpose—and indeed is a moral enterprise—is further evident in the mandate to foster empathy. Creative writing leads not only to the development of the individual authorial self but also to the acknowledgement and understanding of the individuality of others. (16)

  • 7 Claims about empathy can be read as part of a larger historical continuum. Terry Eagleton has point (...)

25Creative writing has also been advocated as instructive in the health professions (Freeman and Phillips) or used in multilingual and transcultural contexts with exiles (Greaves). For my part, while I believe that empathy, autonomy or other desirable effects can, in some cases, be a by-product of creation—and, if so, that is all to the good—I am wary of generalizing this idea or using it to “sell” courses in creative writing, in the same way that I do not wish to reduce literature to a didactic purpose.7

26As for small-group workshops, they are a slippery zone. When I teach them, Flannery O’Connor’s words are forever at the back of my mind. The dangers of groupthink are real, as are the risks of hubristic teachers or wannabe gurus. Also, economic considerations, grubby or otherwise, are never far away. In France, will the state invest in small group instruction? In America, how many hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (if we include degree programs), are writing workshops actually worth? Some highly-reputed and selective programs offer generous aid or stipends to their students, often with the help of benefactors. For instance, a former Iowa MFA graduate who became a successful casino mogul has funded fellowships and a library at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Delaney). The Truman Capote Literary Trust funds fellowships at Iowa, Cornell, the University of Alabama and the University of North Carolina. But such largesse is not available everywhere. How much debt should a student writer incur? Some observers have described advanced degree programs, including from prestigious universities, as a “scam” (Weissman). The question of costs remains a source of heated debate.

27But putting aside economic considerations (to the extent that it is possible), I would argue that the advantages of small group workshops outweigh the pitfalls. They are a venue where apprentice writers can get real-time feedback from readers—not all of it gold, to be sure, but it is an edifying experience to see how what comes out of your head appears to strangers who have no particular reason to like you, or who might even be hostile to your assumptions. Unlike an ivory tower, a good workshop exposes you, and obliges self-examination. Practically speaking, it is also the place where many aspiring writers first encounter hardnosed line-editing and the necessity of working through multiple drafts. (Unfortunately, this is often a luxury in other academic contexts, where large group sizes or a more limiting scholastic approach to the writing process means that revision gets neglected.) In the end, a workshop provides the occasion to explore writing in a more ambitious manner, beyond the leveling idea of competence.

4. Conclusion

28Our universities are changing, and in many respects they are in crisis. The continuation of literary studies or higher education in the humanities cannot be taken for granted. I have no desire to minimize the stakes. But when speaking of creative writing in light of perceptions, institutions and process, I would also like to step back from our immediate context and ask: how new is this conversation, really?

29Other generations have experienced ruptures and rethinking. The university has never been a stable institution, and there is no reason to be nostalgic for an Eden that never existed. University practices, who gets to participate in them, and how, have always been subject to negotiation. The rise of creative writing should be seen against this backdrop.

30As I look forward, I also look backward, to a time when creation and scholarship were assumed to be on friendly terms, including examples which defy facile suppositions about head and heart. Samuel Johnson did not need a writing workshop to make his way as “a man of letters.” That phrase now sounds quaint, but should it? Our era of academic specialization might, in the big picture (which includes of course “the woman of letters” and other versions of a creative subject) be merely a parenthesis in the production and endless conversation about literature.

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Bibliographie

Amis, Martin. The Information. New York: Vintage, 1996.

“AWP Conference & Bookfair, 2019: A Recap.” Independent Publishers Group. June 13, 2019. Web. Accessed 14 December 2021.

Bisenius-Penin, Carole. “‘Creative Writing’ en France : une formation universitaire en voie de légitimation.” The Conversation, February 9, 2017. Web. Accessed 14 December 2021.

Delaney, Edward J. “Where Great Writers Are Made.” The Atlantic. August 2007. Web. Accessed 14 December 2021.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: W.W. Norton, 2019.

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Greaves, Sara. Un atelier d’écriture pour les exilés : une question de statut. E-rea. 14.2 | 2017. Web, doi:10.4000/erea.5666. Accessed 14 December 2021.

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Madden, John, dir. Shakespeare in Love. Miramax Films, 1998.

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O’Connor, Flannery. “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Mystery and Manners, Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1961, pp. 63-86.

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Reiff, Marija. “The Creative Calling.” After the Program Era: the Past, Present and Future of Creative Writing in the University, Ed. Loren Glass. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016, pp. 11-20.

Saunders, George. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

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Notes

1 As a fine arts degree, the MFA concentrates on writing workshops and craft courses, and instead of a research thesis, it requires candidates to produce a collection of short stories, a novel (or novel chapters), or a collection of poems.

2 The “MFA Programs” database of the Poets & Writers website presently lists 147 degrees offered in the United States in Creative Nonfiction.

3 The “Literary Magazines” database of the Poets & Writers website presently lists more than 900 magazines or websites currently considering submissions for “creative nonfiction.”

4 For example, at Aix-Marseille, Le Havre and Paris 8. See Bisenius-Penin, Carole. Creative writing is also present in secondary schools, which are not included in this discussion.

5 Initially, these activities were reserved for non-specialists. The implication was that true English majors didn’t have time for such hijinks. Now our LLCER degree also includes creative activities. This is arguably a silver lining in the sometimes dispiriting negotiations of La Nouvelle offre de formation.

6 These degrees are offered at the University of Iowa, New York University and the University of Texas, El Paso. At the PhD level, the University of Houston offers a doctorate in Spanish with a concentration in creative writing: “Ph.D. en Español con Concentración en Escritura Creativa.”

7 Claims about empathy can be read as part of a larger historical continuum. Terry Eagleton has pointed out that when literary studies in English began in the U.K., it was not in universities but in working men’s colleges like the Mechanics’ Institutes, conceived of as a means to cultivate “‘larger sympathies’ … and the transmission of ‘moral’ values … The rise of ‘English’ is more or less concomitant with an historic shift in the very meaning of the term ‘moral’” (27).

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Charles HOLDEFER, « Mind the Gap: Creative Writing Comes to France »E-rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 01 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/15054 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.15054

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Auteur

Charles HOLDEFER

Université de Poitiers, FoReLLIS
charles.holdefer@univ-poitiers.fr
Charles Holdefer is an associate professor at the University of Poitiers. His short fiction has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review and Chicago Quarterly Review. He has written a monograph on George Saunders, co-edited volumes on pastoral and Philip Larkin, and contributed book reviews to various American magazines. He has also published six novels, most recently Don’t Look at Me (2022).
Charles Holdefer est MCF à l’Université de Poitiers. Il a publié des nouvelles dans la New England Review, la North American Review et la Chicago Quarterly Review. Il est l’auteur d’une monographie sur George Saunders, a co-édité des ouvrages sur l’éco-fiction et sur Philip Larkin, et a contribué à des recensions à plusieurs magazines américains. Il a également publié six romans, dont le plus récent est Don’t Look at Me (2022).

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