The new mental hospitals?


May 29, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

From Sally: Hanif Kureishi at the Hay festival called creative writing courses (at the university level) ‘the new mental hospitals.’

Leaving aside the fact that he’s extrapolating from one event, or maybe a few (the Virginia Tech killer had been in a creative writing class but I can’t think of other examples), I’m not really sure what his point is. I knew of Rhodes Scholars who were certified as insane, but that doesn’t mean the entire institution is a haven for the mentally unwell. So is he going back to the old ‘creativity connected to madness’ issue – which has been rehashed as much as ‘do creative writing degrees actually teach you anything’?

I completely understand his point about giving all his students the same grade. One professor I worked with made his undergraduate class pass/fail, partly in an attempt to dissuade students from clawing each other’s work to shreds because they thought that was the way to get a better grade. I just wonder what happens when his students compare notes in the pub and realize they all got a 71% (which in Britain is an A – to translate, shift the American grading scale down 25-30 points).

I spent a year in an MFA program and left for reasons mostly unconnected to the program itself – namely, I got a better offer from somewhere else and the scholarship ran out – but the gains to my writing came almost solely through the individual work I did with the actively-writing teachers, rather than the workshop experience. I still wouldn’t call MFA programs mental hospitals, though, but then, unlike Kureishi, I don’t go to my writing desk and contemplate suicide.


4 thoughts on “The new mental hospitals?

  1. kicking_k says:

    It’s only a personal opinion, but I don’t know if I can see the point of giving grades in creative writing, as such. Yes, I know there are concrete skills to learn, but tastes vary so much.

    I have often wondered how the American grading system compares, if only because online acquaintances talk about their GPAs and I have very little idea whether their grades are good, bad or average from the numbers alone…

  2. dfrucci says:

    I agree with him ^^.

    Writing class should be used to better the writing not grading it. Grades differ greatly on writing pieces.

  3. Keith Brown says:

    Could a grade be used to indicate the market potential of a piece of writing, or how well it meets the criteria of a specific assignment, which presumably differ?

  4. tsrosenberg says:

    kicking_k: except in very strange instances, an American GPA is out of 4.0. A = 4, B = 3, C = 2, D = 1 except no one gets those lower grades anymore. At the end of a four-year college career I think 3.7 would be around where you get honors, Phi Beta Kappa, etc.

    dfrucci: yeah, good point, and ties in with what Keith said. Surely a course/workshop will have a lot of writing *exercises* – show me a dialogue without any description, that sort of thing. It may not be sellable or even great, but it’s a specific assignment. Follow the instructions and get an A. That still gives scope for creativity. You have to know the rules before you can break them, or so I always think!

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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