The Unwanted Voices

A small stink was raised in Britain recently, when the writer Hanif Kureishi (as reported in the TLS) declared publicly that the great majority of persons signed up in creative writing programs were basically talentless, and wasting both their own time and that of their instructors.  Outrage and umbrage spread like prairie fire throughout the multiple money-making networks of professional writing rackets that dot the British isles.  These programs scoop up scads of sterling, and the idea of anyone calling into question their usefulness was appalling, especially since that person had believable credentials to do so (Kureishi has taught as a creative writing instructor for several years).

The main point, however, is not subject to debate.  Writing programs, whether for poetry or prose, have as their clientele a vast horde of overenthused wannabes who seem to think that literary skills are something you can pick up painlessly and easily, like learning to bake bread, or improving your French.  Pay your tuition, take the ten lessons, and presto—you’re a writer!  Well, it doesn’t work that way, and thank God someone had the cojones to say so.

In the tsunami of vitriol that followed hard upon Kureishi’s remarks, there were a few semi-intelligent responses from the defenders of writing programs.  One argument contended that it was statistically necessary to draw large numbers of registrants into such programs, as this was the only way to guarantee that there would be at least some talented few among the great mass of losers.  This is what one might call the gold-extraction argument: the more dirt you shovel into your wash plant, the greater chance of finding nuggets.

The second argument was a bit more sophisticated, and Kureishi advanced it himself.  It states that the real purpose of a creative writing program is not to produce excellent or even competent writers.  Instead, the primary aim of such a program is to give individuals their unique voice, thereby allowing them to express their irreducible identity.  In a world where the individual counts for less every day, giving persons the means to assert their reality and selfhood is a worthwhile end in itself.

Both arguments have some merit, and should not be dismissed out of hand.  The statistical argument is plausible, I suppose—who knows how many mute inglorious Miltons are scattered  among the troops of boobies that fill a lecture hall?  It’s certainly worth some effort to dig them out.  And the argument about helping people “find their voice” appeals to the streak of sentimental liberalism that nearly everyone suffers from these days.

However, both arguments ignore the elephant in the drawing room (or perhaps we should say the lecture hall).  That’s the pachyderm called money.  Creative writing programs exist primarily to  provide jobs for those who teach and administer them.  In good capitalist fashion, they identify a consumer demand and they work to supply it.  If a lot of dopes with leisure time and discretionary cash want to be writers, say the program organizers, we might as well profit from the situation.  Like the unionized control of K-12 teaching in New York City, the arrangement serves as a disguised welfare program or make-work racket for the less intelligent members of the collegiate middle class.

When I brought up this issue of money to a directrix of a creative writing program in one of my universities, she screwed her face into that little pout of offended disapproval that left-liberals are so very good at, and retorted “We live in a capitalist society!  All of us try to make money!  What’s wrong with that?”  I replied “Nothing at all—but why cover up that fact with all the hype and hoopla about ‘growth’ and ‘promise’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘potential’?  Why not just admit that you’re selling a service, and leave it at that?”

“Because we have to attract students!” she screamed at me.  “We have to put ourselves forward and hustle!  We have to create buzz!”

So—this self-proclaimed left-liberal woman was not only a capitalist, but an ad-agency flack to boot.  Wannabe writers of the world, unite—you have nothing to lose but your tuition fees!

Well, let’s leave the poor directrix to grapple with her ideological contradictions as best she can.  I’m more interested in the question of voice, and whether writing programs actually give it to their registrants.

In the strict sense, voice is the sonic signature by which we recognize persons.  Everyone can identify the voice of a family member or friend or co-worker, as well as a very wide range of prominent figures in politics or entertainment.  Like a set of fingerprints, a human voice is unique.

In the metaphorical sense, as it is employed when discussing writers, voice refers to certain peculiarities of style, diction, idiom, and rhetorical preference that a specific writer tends to use regularly and habitually, to the exclusion of other possible ones.  But it’s more than just a matter of verbal choices.  Voice also means that special tone or ethical frisson that immediately tells you “So-and-so wrote this.”  You don’t just hear a writer’s voice in his sentence structure.  You feel his voice in his characteristic attitudes and approaches, his proclivities and prejudices, even his quirks and foibles.

In this metaphorical sense, a writer’s voice is very much like someone’s personality.  If you have a friend of long standing with whom you have been close, you are well aware of his character, his likes and dislikes, his typical responses, his sense of humor, his vulnerabilities and strengths, his soft spots and bugbears.  When a writer has reached the point where he has a literary voice, this means that he has become skillful enough to project all of these idiosyncratic realities onto the page, giving a portrait of himself every time he pens a sentence or closes a paragraph.  This is a hard thing to achieve, since what it requires is a fusion of personality with linguistic facility that very few people can manage easily.  It demands the complete mastery of both spoken and literary language, and a total lack of inhibition when exercising that mastery.  You’re not going to get that in a ten-week creative writing course.

But the real question is not time, or money, or the development of literary skills.  These are secondary to a deeper and largely unexamined issue that the people who run creative writing programs don’t want to think about, much less discuss openly.  And that is whether they are honestly willing to allow for the development of all possible literary voices.  The quick answer?  They aren’t.

If every human being has a personality capable of being transmuted into a living voice on the page, it stands to reason that we should be seeing a multiplicity of different styles, attitudes, and opinions nurtured by creative writing programs.  But we don’t.  Instead we see a procession of banal sameness, both in style and basic ideology.  Despite all the blather about “diversity,” the boilerplate churned out by the typical writing program shows a rather surprisingly narrow bandwidth of what is an acceptable product.  Those products are different in stylistics—but not in rigidity—from what was the case in Victorian times.  There are different taboos, but they are structurally similar and equally mandatory.  There are different registers of language, but they are still rigorously enforced.  There are new subjects, but accompanied by very strict rules about how they may be treated.  The phrase “different voices” today seems to mean not any differences of approach or opinion, but just different people saying more or less the same thing.

In fact, the most spectacularly impudent lie being pushed in literary circles today is the one about “diversity,” and how we are now seeing an explosion of variegated talent from all sorts of persons who in the past were excluded from the practice of professional writing.  This is a crock of shit of colossal dimensions.  Despite some surface differences,  the most obvious thing that emerges from the mainstream literary scene today is  sameness—in tone, in approach, in attitude, in mannerism, in treatment of subject,  and above all in ideology.  In a world like this, the entire question of voice is a bad joke.  The voices today are as consonant as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

There are many reasons for this essential conformism and lack of distinctive identity.  We in the West live in a primly dictatorial society where a mainstream soft-left ideology is force-fed to children from the moment they enter school. Deviations from it are strongly disapproved, sanctioned, and sometimes punished.  In addition, we are daily afflicted with the brainlessness of mainstream media, mass advertising campaigns, and the smug one-size-fits-all attitude of global Big Business, all of which work hand-in-glove with this soft-left ideology.  The ceaseless drumbeat of its unified propaganda serves to reduce and homogenize individuals into ciphers who tend to think and act alike.  The modern world most emphatically does notwant you to be different.  It wants you to be one of the group.  And fighting against this atmospheric, circumambient, totalizing mindset is profoundly difficult.  The poet E.E. Cummings described it perfectly: “To be nobody but yourself, in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

Now writing programs are part of the warp and woof of our social fabric.  They may indeed work to give people their voices, but in fact they will be only those voices that are approved by mainstream thinking.  If a student gives evidence of having a problematic voice, in the form of a wrong political attitude or a traditional religious creed or anything else that does not jibe with Smiley-Face North American liberalism, he or she will either be carefully coaxed into giving those views up or compromising them in fatal ways, or else be gently (or not so gently) discouraged from continuing in the program.  In short, the voices of those particular students are not wanted.

Dozens of students have come to me over the years with horror stories about how they were mocked, ridiculed, and humiliated in writing programs for daring to express views that went against the grain of soft-left ideology, and in some cases asked to drop the course.  They were being expelled not for their lack of writing skills, but simply because their ideas and attitudes did not comport with pet causes like feminism, gay rights, anti-racism, affirmative action, abortion, Marxist politics, or any number of hot-button issues that make the typical creative writing instructor see red.  One student told me of an asinine instructor who forced him to change every male generic pronoun in his essays to she, her, and hers, and warned that if the changes were not made the student had no chance of passing the class.  Tell me, those of you out there who are still stupid enough to be liberals: what “diverse voice” was being encouraged by that particular bit of dimwitted pedagogy?

A female student told me how she was derided and verbally abused for writing an essay that depicted abortion in what the teacher felt was a bad light.  An ex-Marine told me how his account of firefights in Vietnam was constantly nitpicked and needled by the instructor for no other reason except that it took a negative view of the enemy.  A police officer told me how his narrative of street patrols and arrests was criticized for not being sympathetic enough to criminals.

Again I ask—what “diverse voices” are being encouraged by such pedagogy?  Or is it perhaps that creative writing programs simply don’t want to hear or deal with the voices of political conservatives, rightists, Christians, the police, the military, working-class whites, or anyone else who doesn’t fit into the fake paradigm of a rainbow coalition?

Consider one of the most notable and recognizable voices in American letters: H.L. Mencken.  Mencken’s prose was witty, acerbic, funny, intense, ribald, and philosophical, sometimes all at once.  The man was incapable of writing an undistinguished sentence, and he was infectiously, uproariously readable.  His text screamed Mencken! wherever you cast your eye on it: the portly, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping, German-American journalist from Baltimore was there, laughing as he skewered Temperance idiots, Bible-Belt howlers, and the fatuous blather of progressive Uplift and Sanctimony.  You couldn’t miss him.

Today, a young Mencken would be summarily kicked out of a creative writing program.  The instructors would savage him.  His voice would be silenced or suppressed in favor of the bland and milksop drivel that passes for prose now.  The feminist bitches and the Sensitivity Police would be all over him.  A profoundly talented voice would be told to toe the line, or shut up.  And everyone in Obamaland seems to think that this sort of overt bigotry is perfectly OK and acceptable and defensible.

For this reason I have no sympathy for the writing programs and their problems.  Let them continue to rake in money from deluded types who believe one can learn to write the Great American Novel in ten weeks, until it finally dawns on everybody that the whole thing is just a racket.  Let them shower praise on tepid work that they call “sensitive” and “daring” and “risk-taking” and “diverse,” even as they discourage intelligent and independent students from saying what they might want to say.  Let them turn American writing into one huge wasteland of insipid groupthink, even as they celebrate “difference” and “the Other.”

Ignore them all.  We’ll still have good prose, from excellent writers who have found their true voice.  It just won’t come out of the creative writing programs.













Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.