Sunday, 21 December 2008

Sheep farming

At the same time as many publishers are reducing the number of books they publish, more creative writing courses are being offered, some of them by the publishers themselves. (Faber offers a six-month course – weekly evening workshops plus six Saturdays – beginning in February for £3,500; or for £500 you can get a four-day course in Dublin inclusive of ‘a complimentary Moleskine notebook’.)

This is part of the professionalisation, even the industrialisation, of literature. Forgive the long words: I’ve been reading (in translation) an essay by Hannes Bohringer entitled ‘The Late Bourgeois Art Industry’: ‘Art is today what science has already been for a long time: it is big business . . . The business makes up a closed, autonomous circuit . . . The business can manage controversial, incompatible definitions at the same time, and switch between them. This is its strength . . . Big business tends to become bureaucratic, to manage what is already in place. Perspectives on the outside world disappear. Specialisation leads to institutional blindness.’ (Bohringer, by the way: I’ve been lent a number of his short books in German; they’re not for CBe, but if anyone has ideas about how his work might be published here, tell.)

Do they work, these courses? Can you teach someone how to write? I think the jury’s still out, and they’ll probably deliver an open verdict. They’ve been out for longer than you’d think. This from Henry James’s notebooks, 1879: ‘Anthony Trollope had a theory that a boy might be brought up to be a novelist as to any other trade. He brought up – or attempted to bring up – his own son on this principle, and the young man became a sheep farmer, in Australia.’

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