Can’t Lit

How English departments impair creative writing in Canada

It is hard to find a Canadian visual arts grad ignorant of a technical term like negative space, but it is very easy to find a Canadian creative writing grad ignorant of, say, free indirect style or nested narration or unreliable narrators. For decades in Canada, university education in the visual arts and music has been crucial to the careers and the creativity of artists and classical musicians. With the University of British Columbia celebrating the 50th anniversary of its creative writing program, writing workshops in Canada are hardly new. Nonetheless, a Canadian writing education is distinct from its cousins in painting and music in at least two ways. Those latter programs have not recently experienced exponential growth in enrollment, and Canadian creative writing pedagogy remains, despite its institutional expansion and endorsement, wildly scattershot from program to program and even instructor to instructor. Pursue a Canadian bachelor of fine art in visual arts, and you are sure to study colour theory. Pursue a writing undergrad in Canada and you are sure to study—well, there will be words, and, probably, characters.

Twenty years ago, Canadian visual artists studied their craft at university, but writers often did not. Writers educated in the 1980s such as Douglas Coupland, Lisa Moore and Margaret Christakos actually majored in visual arts, not writing. Now, graduate writing programs offer mentoring and peer critique (at a time when book editors are too busy marketing) as well as exposure to visiting authors, experience on literary journals and financial assistance. When Canada has more full-time Canadian artists (140,000) than auto workers (135,000), we are long past delusions about writers shivering in garrets and need to consider the various realities of what Mark McGurl rightly calls creative writing’s “program era.”1

Canada’s art historians and musicologists do not design and manage the education of our visual artists and composers, but English professors (who have rarely published books of poetry or fiction themselves) routinely control the education of our writers. These tweedy vampires do so with obvious costs to national and personal truth telling. The number of graduate writing programs in Canada doubled within the last decade; yet various factors within the Canadian academy (not the internationally popular discipline of creative writing) find most Canadian writing programs devoted more to the head than to the heart and managed, not coincidentally, by English departments. Our writing grads are much more likely to be versed in Elizabethan celibacy or Victorian diarists than what Faulkner so rightly describes as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I have taught writing for more than a decade at four Canadian universities and am worried that—with English professors predominantly calling the shots—few Canadian programs teach or even entertain core writerly skills such as social-emotional intelligence; revealing, engaged and accurate dialogue; dramatic tension; comedy; and, most notably, plot. The current practices of our writing programs and funding agencies generally ask writers to be scholars who simply drop the footnotes, while graduate creative writing education in the United States, the United Kingdom and equally post-colonial Australia values the unique fusion of personal and cultural truth available to the creative writer and his or her reader.

During a two-year stint as the coordinator of the creative writing program at Dalhousie University, I repeatedly noticed our national preference for a colonial ownership of creative writing by an English department. First and foremost, the program there has no permanent faculty. The cart of individual careerism was characteristically put before the horse of national literature in 2009–10 when the Swedish Academy invited Dal English professors to nominate Canadian writers for the Nobel Prize in literature. Save myself (“Go award Alice”), no other Dal English professor bothered to write a one-page nomination to recommend a Canadian writer for the Nobel Prize. Canadian English departments do not respect living Canadian writers, let alone writers who teach writing. However, in the majority of Canada’s writing programs, crucial decisions such as hiring, genre concentration, prerequisite qualifications, and so on, are managed by English professors (many of whom are professionally anglophilic Canadians). The bouncer’s role that Canadian English departments continue to play with the very students and studies that could revitalize them suggests that far too many of our gatekeepers of writerly education have replaced a love of literary wisdom with the lesser love of being well-paid literature professors.

Unchecked discipline hostility appears to be one reason Canadian universities have not responded to the frankly insistent market for more Canadian PhD programs in creative writing, of which Canada only counts two—at the University of Calgary and, en français, at Université Laval—while Australia counts more than 20. In a July 2005 issue of Harper’s, American author and semi-reluctant writing professor Lynn Freed referred to graduate creative writing programs as “the cash cow” of the humanities. As the website of the U.S.-based Association of Writers and Writing Programs says, “creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities.” Amazingly (and to national costs), Canadian humanities programs are uninterested in this cash cow. The trade secret for becoming an English professor in Canada is simple (although regrettably homogenous): do your PhD at the University of Toronto. The faculty pages of various Canadian departments of English find the University of Toronto supplying more professors than any other single school. With one firm dominating the supply of Canadian English departments, other Canadian English PhD programs biannually agonize over one central question: how can we attract more and better doctoral students? I have heard laughably stop-gap solutions from professors who will not recognize that they need to change their product, not their marketing: if we phone applicants, if we blog about the program, if only we had a better poster. Twitter!! English professors, not student demand or even national funding, retard the conception and growth of Canada’s doctoral research in creative writing.

With the federal dollars available to young Canadian writers shrinking, and with our small presses either closing or contracting a finite number of books two or three years into the future, graduate writing programs offer junior writers crucial development time, space and money. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada is theoretically just as willing to fund a PhD thesis that is a Canadian novel instead of a disquisition about a Canadian novel, yet rarely fulfills this promise. Instead, crucial state institutions like SSHRC prefer a junior writer’s scholarly potential, not his or her creative output. In Muriella Pent, Russell Smith’s satire of the culture of culture, an application form for a Toronto artistic residency overtly states “DO NOT ATTACH A WRITING SAMPLE.” This preference for explanations over art is funny in Canadian satire, yet sad in public policy. The very real SSHRC does fund master’s and PhD students (including creative writing students), yet its application similarly forbids a writing sample. SSHRC applicants submit a bibliography, but not their own writing. Come, come, Ms. O’Keefe. Put these canvases aside and tell us who you’re going to paint like.

SSHRC could be a significant patron of CanLit. In 2008–09, it doled out more than $300 million in grants and fellowships to graduate students, faculty, institutions and research projects, yet very little of that money went to storytellers and their traffic in social-emotional intelligence. The searchable awards database at the SSHRC site finds fewer than five fiction projects out of 121 in its Research/Creation Grants in the Fine Arts program for faculty. Projects in this formerly biennial half-program for artists have budgets as large as $95,000. Write about complex, vibrant characters, write like Alice Munro or Mordecai Richler, and you are not likely to win a SSHRC grant. Nano-splice language poetry into genes, wire the project to maybe record trace movements and put it on the Web, and SSHRC opens the coffers. Not funding stories means not funding characters and, arguably, emotions and the inner life.

Our national preference for argumentation and citation over emotion in creative writing pedagogy is further manifest in the oral thesis “defences” required in Canada’s hybrid English writing MAs. The title and ritual of a “defence” suggest that candidates can argue the merit of their collections of poems or stories instead of simply presenting stories or poems that are their own argument. At Columbia University, the largest and arguably most influential master’s of fine arts program in creative writing in the United States, a thesis passes or fails exclusively as a written document. If it passes, the committee then meets with the student at a “thesis conference” to discuss strengths and challenges. Canadian thesis defences are a clear hangover from the aped scientism of New Criticism (the zombie engine of English). In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl warns, “with its penchant for specialized vocabularies and familiarity with the less-traveled regions of the library, literary scholarship is at least partly in sync with the scientism of its wider institutional environment, the research university. Creative writing, by contrast, might seem to have no ties at all to the pursuit of positive knowledge. It is, rather, an experiment—but more accurately, an exercise—in subjectivity.” Canada’s institutional fear of the inner life wants arguments, not poems, and rarely aesthetic arguments at that. English as a subject in Canada remains hostile or indifferent to evaluative criticism. CanLit scholars are notorious for assigning books that are supposedly influential, not good (from As for Me and My House to The Book of Negroes).

The political fallout of Canada’s creative writing hostage taking extends beyond where and what is studied by whom and includes, perhaps most significantly, what is written. The academic preference for arguments over art making risks a hyper-rational ghettoization of graduate creative writing material. For almost half a century, Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” has proposed that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”; yet we keep steeping our writing students in hermeneutics, not aesthetics, focusing on buzz terms like pataphysics and palimpsests. To its credit, the University of New Brunswick’s annual Poetry Weekend invites its current creative writing students to read poems alongside published faculty and alumni. Notably, though, those students always invoke Jacques Derrida when reading their poems. Contemporary musical acts such as The National and Iron & Wine (or Canada’s Field Assembly) are known for their moving lyrics; none of them cites music scholars while they sing. When university writing programs deny emotion, novice writers easily succumb to affectedly marginal voices to recover it. For example, university-trained (American) writer Sandra Cisneros states overtly that when she wrote her breakthrough novel, The House on Mango Street, she consciously used “a child’s voice, a girl’s voice” as an explicitly “anti-academic voice.” The marginalization of emotional complexity within so-called humanities disciplines can additionally distance the marginal voices many professors claim to serve (as when women write as girls).

Canada’s disregard for emotional complexity creates a creative writing pedagogy that denies students literature’s fundamental work with empathy. Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me (too intimate to be a Canadian title) has the best, and shortest, definition of education I have ever read: “managed revelation.” Too often in Canada, a creative writing education involves conscripted decorum or endless reading lists from some elsewhere (whether it be England, the past, or the developing world) instead of “managed revelation.” Days after 9/11, Ian McEwan published an article in The Guardian that hinged on literature’s stimulation of empathy: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” Aesthetic theoreticians and cognitive psychologists recognize the ways in which literature, especially narrative literature, allows us to expand our minds by thinking like others. In a section of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution called “The Uses of Fiction,” Denis Dutton concludes: “fiction provides us … with templates, mental maps for emotional life.”

A national creative writing education that privileges literary analysis over literary production shuns interpersonal intelligence. One can hear the trendy phrase “rhizomatic poetics”—a term, popularized by Deleuzians, that signifies the connection between two points without the burden of beginnings or endings—in any Canadian university English department (including those that offer creative writing); one rarely hears the word “empathy” or, in the context of empathy, the excitement that attends to rhizomatism. We adore the fragmentary but disparage feelings. In Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, Daniel Goleman rightly called social-emotional intelligence “a meta-ability, determining how well we can use whatever other skills we have, including raw intellect.” In a land of methodology, thesis defences, bibliographies and Kenneth Goldsmith’s institutionally celebrated “uncreative writing,” the crucial meta-­ability of emotional intelligence fostered by literature is not meeting its maximum audience. Who would decree that engineers should never actually build a bridge? Canadian English professors.

Story schools tell stories, and ours is not very flattering. Without significant overhaul, the ballooning writing programs that could save CanLit from its yarns about yesteryear or saccharine imagistic somethings are simply going to waste more of our money and hope. Good writing educations can be found here, but they are too scattershot. I learned far more about writing, both fiction and poetry, in one full-year undergraduate acting class than I did in countless undergraduate and graduate classes devoted to faddish, B-grade literature or nothing more than professorial whim. Our students come to university with almost no respectful attention given to the creative arts, and when they arrive multiple factors show them that writing about novels is much more important than writing novels. Even when the production of literature is taught, it is almost always a marginal discipline, merely an indulgence from the colonizer (e.g., an English department). A lack of respect breeds a lack of rigour. As a university discipline, creative writing should be a thinking and communication tool, and it deserves a place at every Canadian institute of higher learning.

Unacceptably, however, writing in Canada is managed (and sometimes even taught) by professors who have never published creative writing or have not published it in decades. Not even Canada would short-change its music or fine arts students in this way, yet we will appoint unqualified English professors to direct or even teach story writing. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs knows: “in addition to advancing the art of literature, creative writing workshops exercise and strengthen the resourcefulness of the human will, and it is the exercise of will not over others, but for others, as stories and poems are made as gifts for readers and listeners.” Canadian university after university in province after province has created a writing education that cheats its paying students of what Henry James calls the “great generosities” of literature and social-emotional intelligence.


  1. See Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2009).