Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2010

The so-called craft of creative writing…

I have just made the most interesting discovery… there is a school of academic thought that is perpetrating the idea that reading novels is actually bad for a writer’s development!  More sophisticated readers than me might know this already, but honestly, I had no idea and find it bizarre…

I am reading the introductory pages of The Possessed, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by an irrepressible young American called Elif Batuman, and she is writing about how she chose her subjects for study:

It didn’t occur to me to study literature.  I remember believing firmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels, and that as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels. (p10)

Events conspire, however, and she abandons linguistics and indeed manages to graduate with a degree in literature ‘without, incidentally, having read more than seven or eight novels’ (p16),  She then applies to do a PhD literature program, rejecting the idea of doing a masters in creative writing because

they made you pay tuition and go to workshops. Whatever reservations I had about the usefulness of reading and analyzing great novels went double for reading and analyzing the writings of a bunch of kids like me’  (p17).

She is offered a fiction writing fellowship, however (on the strength of a novella written from the perspective of a dog) but doesn’t accept it:

I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of ‘creative writing’.  In this culture … the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer’s formation … why was it automatically good for a writer to … [read] short stories by short-story writers who didn’t seem to be read by anyone other than writing students? (p18) 

Batuman goes on to explain about the ‘puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft’:

What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?  All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words’.  As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits – of omitting needless words.

I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns – like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words.  The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter ‘e’.  They all began in media res.  Often, they answered the ‘five Ws and one H’. (p20)

(This witty summation immediately reminded me of a very brief but exalted short story by Annie Proulx that I had studied when flirting with a Diploma of Professional Writing and Journalism* some years ago.  I was ‘doing’ the short story writing component of the course, and Proulx’s story was very short indeed, a mere 3-4 pages in the ‘brick’ with which we were supplied so that we didn’t need to buy any books.  I remember reading it and thinking ‘Is that it? Is that all there is?’ but lo! we went on to discuss it and its perfection for a very long time…)

The more I read of Batuman’s apparently subversive attitude to the dictates of creative writing courses, the more I liked her.

More about her book later…

*In the event it was not the short story writing that made me abandon this course. It was what was euphemistically called Non Fiction Writing, for which I enrolled because I had enjoyed ‘Writing History’.  Alas, Non Fiction Writing was revealed to be the art of writing ‘journalism’ for tabloid newspapers.  I lasted two classes: passing this component required that I emulate the style of tabloid journalism, something I could not do unless I familiarised myself with it. We spent the first class analysing the sad truth that there were few employment opportunities for any other kind of journalism; the second class involved analysing how a real event had been reconstructed into the house style of our local daily astonisher.  I could not bear the thought that I might have to spend any part of my life doing this.  I left.

Update August 1, 2010

My review of this terrific book is here.

Author: Elif Batuman
Title: The Possessed, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Publisher: Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656644
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


  1. I can add that I’ve read somewhere that Phd programmes (in Lit) ruin students’ writing and tends to make them much more formal and stilted–it just knocks the creativity right out of ’em.

    On another note, I have read interviews by many authors who state they hesitate to read novels when they are writing one as they worry that they will be affected in some way or another (osmosis) by other authors’ styles or ideas. On the other hand, some authors, when writing, will only read certain things to avoid ‘contamination.’


  2. I know what you mean, but I think that’s because there’s a particular academic style that’s required for dissertations and theses and whatnot; academic imprints that publish history books and biographies that began life as a PhD often suffer from this stiltedness unless they are edited quite brutally.
    But I would argue that writers who want to make a living at it have to be flexible and develop mastery of all kinds of writing styles, and that involves reading a wide variety of authors from different periods. Not only that, you’d have to lock yourself up in a cell to avoid ‘contamination’ from conversations with other people (f2f and online) and from film and TV, where you also come across other styles and ideas.
    Of course if would-be writers don’t read very much themselves it is possible that they’d be influenced by the few books they’ve read because they’d have a disproportionate impact, I guess?
    But gosh, it can take years to write a novel – imagine not reading anything in the meantime!


  3. Puritan is exactly the word that I use in my head when I see people online nodding along to rules like “Don’t use adverbs” and “Avoid everything but ‘said'” and “Eliminate ‘suddenly.'” I came across that one yesterday and the blogger’s tone was so oh-yes-my-dears-of-course that I wanted to hunt down examples of revered authors who’d used ‘suddenly’ and mail her a list. And ‘craft’ is loathsome. It makes writers sound as if they’re tapping away at the loose nail in a spoon rack. And those people who say, “I’m going to polish every word.” Don’t waste my time. Write — don’t crouch there with a tin of stain remover and a nice cloth — write. Leap ahead, bound and roar. Make a bloody mistake now and again. Be a human being. I’m not mad fond of John Cowper Powys’ books, but I’d like more eccentric who champion Rabelais, and less of this picking, squeaking, frightened theory of prose.


  4. Amen to that, Deane!


  5. And just to be clear, it’s not that I’m against simple prose, or shortwinded stories, or people who like to be brief and clear, or writers who like to revise, but these rules are a fashion, like beehive hairdos or hipster jeans, and like beehive hairdos and hipster jeans they don’t suit everybody. I used to know someone who’d had ‘Show don’t tell’ so firmly imprinted on his brain that he never told the reader anything, and we were left with wandering pages of hints. Not everyone is Raymond Carver.


  6. I have mixed thoughts about reading. I don’t consider myself particularly well read. When I wrote my first novel – which is about fifteen years ago now – I’d only read two or three hundred books. Mind you they were good books. When I was in my twenties I went through a phase where I only read books by Nobel Prize winners. Nowadays because I’m reading all the time I have all these different voices running around me head and sitting down to write means I have to try to shut them up. I suppose it’s like a composer trying to work with Classic FM on in the background.

    The good thing about not having read too much is that I didn’t have to shake off the style of my heroes. If I can used another example from the world of classical music: when Brahms wrote his first symphony the press called it “Beethoven’s Tenth”, part praise but they were also commenting on the fact that he had yet to find his own voice. I never had that problem and what I find interesting is that when the reviews started I was being compared to authors I’d either never read – like Terry Pratchett – or Douglas Adams – who I only got round to reading years later.


  7. There are many Eng Lit students who get good degrees without reading the set lists. Taking an Eng Lit degree is no indicator of a love of books unfortunately. I sometimes wonder if a university somewhere will take it upon themselves to offer honorary degrees to selected book bloggers on the basis of their reams of posts.

    I fear there are a lot of writers who are in love with the thought of “being a writer”. A true writer can do nothing else whether he/she is published or not. I think creative writing courses should not be offered with public subsidies as they are in the UK – we have enough books already!


    • Hey, Tom, that’s a good thought…I’ve always rather fancied myself in one of those hats that you get to wear if you get a PhD. Do you think a lowly OzLit blogger from Melbourne would have any chance of an honorary PhD (with hat) from Oxford? I do like their architecture best, and I could easily squeeze in a little side trip on my next visit to the UK to pick it up.


  8. Another problem for a writer is the inferiority complex that comes with reading the great writers of both the past and present. Perhaps we should all just read crappy writers, so we can feel good about our own writing.


    • This reminds me of something that my drawing teacher once said. I am *hopeless* at drawing, and as that’s a bit of a handicap for a teacher, I took up classes. Nothing I drew looked remotely as intended, and the teacher said to me that my expectations were unrealistic. Like setting the Mona Lisa as a standard and feeling bad because you couldn’t achieve it…


  9. It’s an interesting point, this contamination, this process of influence. How does it work, and how deep does it go, and how does it affect different people, I wonder? Jim’s point about Brahms and Beethoven got my mind onto the subject of musical fusions, West African highlife, for example, or American blues, or Peter Sculthorpe discovering gamelans, all of them the children of different parents, but all of them themselves. Success seems to mean that you somehow bring your influences together in such a way as to dominate them. It’s that domination that’s the hard part, the imposing of your will, the confidence to leave out those parts of the role model that don’t suit you, somehow knowing that they don’t suit you — but how do you know? Fusion is the key, but how do you fuse?

    It’s not rules about omitting words that we need, it’s the secret of fusion.


    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head…not reading the work of others shows a lack of confidence about the strength of your own self, doesn’t it? Lisa


  10. I’m not sure what it shows. It might just be that you’re like Batuman-when-younger, and you believe that “the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels,” or it might just be that you don’t enjoy reading, like one of Tom C.’s university students. I think Les Murray has said that he refused to read Keats when he was starting out (and perhaps still hasn’t read him) because he felt that people expected aspiring poets to read Keats. So he damned them and wouldn’t.


    • I think that’s a bit odd, to block your mind to something in that oh-so-definite way…


  11. Find me a person who’ll argue that no writer is odd. (I grin.)

    Anyway, Ben Jonson thinks writers should be readers:

    “But that which we especially require in him is an exactness of study and multiplicity of reading, which maketh a full man, not alone enabling him to know the history or argument of a poem and to report it, but so to master the matter and style, as to show he knows how to handle, place, or dispose of either with elegancy when need shall be. And not think he can leap forth suddenly a poet by dreaming he hath been in Parnassus, or having washed his lips, as they say, in Helicon. There goes more to his making than so; for to nature, exercise, imitation, and study art must be added to make all these perfect. And though these challenge to themselves much in the making up of our maker, it is Art only can lead him to perfection, and leave him there in possession, as planted by her hand. It is the assertion of Tully, if to an excellent nature there happen an accession or conformation of learning and discipline, there will then remain somewhat noble and singular. For, as Simylus saith in Stobæus … without art nature can never be perfect; and without nature art can claim no being. But our poet must beware that his study be not only to learn of himself; for he that shall affect to do that confesseth his ever having a fool to his master. He must read many, but ever the best and choicest; those that can teach him anything he must ever account his masters, and reverence. “


  12. Deane, you’re amazing the way you can find the perfect quotation at whim!
    BTW are you going to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival? Tickets go on sale tomorrow!


  13. Found at luck, honestly. I was checking for a different quote in his Discoveries and Some Poems, and started reading it, and that appeared, and this:

    “The third requisite in our poet or maker is imitation, to be able to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use … Not as a creature that swallows what it takes in crude, raw, or undigested, but that feeds with an appetite, and hath a stomach to concoct, divide, and turn all into nourishment. Not to imitate servilely, as Horace saith, and catch at vices for virtue, but to draw forth out of the best and choicest flowers, with the bee, and turn all into honey, work it into one relish and savour; make our imitation sweet; observe how the best writers have imitated, and follow them.”

    No to the festival. If they ever get John Crowley over, I’ll go.


    • That is just gorgeous, isn’t it? Making honey…


  14. Hi there!

    I’ve been thinking the topic of the importance of craft for some time now and I definitely see where Batuman is coming from, though I have learned to have a respect for a knowledge of craft simply on the merit of necessary vocabulary. Without knowing what POV or rising action is, it’s difficult to discuss our own works, much less the pieces we encounter by others. However, in order to avoid repeating myself, if anyone’s interesting in this, you can find a more thorough explanation at:

    I’m not sure how I feel about not reading other works and instead only looking at “life” for influence and inspiration. I found that I liked reading texts, particularly ones that differed from my habitual voice, because then when I wrote, I’d get something different than usual on the page. I can understand not wanting to be like every other book out there and not wanting to take “secondhand life” from one creative work for your own, but I also think that we are being affected by some force or another at any given moment, so whether or not you’re reading a particular vein of creative work doesn’t stop the amount of influence impacting your writing. The influence will just come from people on the street or daytime television instead from those books.

    Either way, I love the discussion you’re bringing to life here. Keep up the great posts and thoughtful writings. It’s a pleasure to now come upon your site. Have a good week and warm regards.


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