I've been reading Elif Batuman's wonderful book on the study of Russian literature aptly named 'The Possessed'. It is about those afflicted with an unquenchable love for the great Russian literary works, and is of course named after Dostoyevsky's famous novel. As I count myself one of these people her book became a must-read for me the minute I knew it existed. And I'm not alone (of course) - 'The Possessed' has shot into The Times best-seller list, an unsurprising development since it is a work of such humorous intelligence as to be irresistible.
She is a natural writer with a fabulous eye for the telling if incongruous detail. Early in her post-graduate life she was offered a writing fellowship at a well respected writing school. She describes her approach to this course and her later thoughts on turning the fellowship down with words which seem summarize so much of what I think myself about 'creative writing':
" I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon... 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. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?
For many years I gave little thought to the choice I had made... In 2006, n + 1 magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod [when she decided against the writing fellowship].
I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by .. the ideal of 'craft'. I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did a 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 darling'; 'Omit needless words.' As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits...
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 collision 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.'"
She goes on to write a marvelous non-prescriptive work breaking every rule she decides needs to be broken. And her book teems with energy and life.