Saturday, 19 January 2013

Ethics in Creative Writing

Is Ethical Judgment in Creative Writing still Relevant ?

In the ninetenth century the discussion of the relation between Morality and Literature occupied a central position in the cultural field. A variety of earnest participants were able and ready to offer practical and theoretical perspectives and to debate the application of literature to life. This cosy relationship was disrupted in Europe by the traumatic experience of the first world war (1914-18).

For many critics in the earlier period there was an intersection between social codes, aesthetics and ethical judgments. The project and trials of decadence in the 1890s began the work of critical interrogation by sending up the tired conventions of a smug, hypocritical, bourgeois society. But it was after the war that the cultural plane witnessed the revolutions of modernity. This movement turned art upside down, and led to the expulsion of referentiality in practical criticism. Art became a self suffcient verbal icons. Moreover, the linguistic turn was in part an inward movement of structuralism. But now I'm indulging in a shorthand that is reductive and unethical! The situation is far less homogeneous and hopelessly nihilistic that this portrait suggests.

Clearly, today's postmodern, post-holocaust cultural world is more sceptical than at any previous time about the notion of culture's civilizing effect. Also, in global, postcolonial terms a heightened self-consciousness about the relativity of ethical behaviour rightly predominates. Ethical judgement appears suspended, foreclosed, outcast, irrelevant, indulgent, misguided. One culture's norms are another's demons. Is there any opening for ethical declarations in creativity or criticism, or in literature today?

But the problem of ethics has not been abolished and it will not fade away. Nor should it, in my view.

There is a vast topic to be explored, I feel, on the ethical benefits afforded by writing as the intersection between self-realization and the wider community of issues and responsibilities. I want to participate in that emerging debate as creative writing and self-publishing is apparently gearing up for a renaissance.

In brief, the notion of ethics in creative writing tends presently to revolve around

  • being honest about aspirations and opportunities
  • avoiding plagiarism
  • respecting the life and experiences of others
  • the creative integrity of the artist
  • professional standards

In researching this topic I came across several blogs and recent articles that outlined the responsibilities of the creative writing tutor to her students. One issue was the perceived requirement to be honest with beginners who are unpublished. If they are unduly confident about the impact of a short course on their likelihood of being published, and moving towards a career in writing, what is the best way to warn them without crushing their hopes altogether? Kate Dempsey, for instance, recently underlined the reality of the situation facing the would-be professional writer in her guest blog:

"Out of every five hundred adult students in beginners creative writing classes, one or two of them, at most, will ever be taken on by an agent or a publisher."

She proceeds to explain that two short stories had to be selected from 300 submitted to a recent anthology. In this sense, the odds are heavily stacked against publication. Writers be warned!

But she also senses that the joy of writing should be cherished in its own right. Concurring, I will be arguing that there are far more benefits to writing than the preoccupation with the routes to publication and self-promotion. I want to explore these in more detail, in a forthcoming blog on ethics and mental health awareness.

In Britain, at least, it is re-assuring that the vast majority of academic courses in English do not promote their academic offering as practical training courses in creative writing; in fact, they seldom claim that they are opening doors to the publishing industry. This approach is wise as there are a hundred times more arts graduates than there are opportunities in the traditional publishing fields. But academia is far from immune to being market-driven, and most colleges are cautiously offering creative writing, or language-arts creative transformation exercises. I suspect that this demand-led trend will continue to grow, not matter how wide the gulf between aspirations and realities.

Yet we still tend to value the success of the published author as something that far exceeds the worthwhile activity involved in the struggle to express oneself, or to serve as the mirror for one's community, or to collaborate with others in creative discussion and production. We recoil from any notion that writing is a chnage agent in society, and that its potential for transformation is incalculable. Time to tip the scales?

Further Reading

Rachel Cusk: in praise of the creative writing course. Can people really be taught how to write novels? Doubts have plagued the inexorable rise of creative writing workshops. But the cynicism is beginning to look outdated. Here.

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