Cultural Beliefs About Writing or Plain Economics?

Inspiration or craft? Can writing be taught or is it an innate talent? Well, the answer to that may often be culturally determined. From what I saw at the Quais du Polar last week and, following a bit of debate about it on Twitter following this article announcing the demise of the British short story, it seems to me that French culture leans more to the ‘inspiration’ school of thought, while Anglo-Saxon culture believes more in the capacity to hone one’s writing talent. Hence the proliferation of MFA courses in the US or MA courses in the UK. Hence the different way of discussing the writing process and getting under the skin of the main female character (although Ron Rash seems to be more French than American in that respect).

Queuing up for their literary fix in Lyon…

As usual, I am somewhere on the fence on this topic. I believe no amount of tuition or feedback will turn a truly tone-deaf writer into a sterling one. But, on the other hand, I also believe even innate talent needs to be tamed: whether this is best done through courses or feedback groups or mentors or even self-study of other authors – whatever works for you. As long as you are aware that you can always learn something, that you can always do better. A musician or a dancer can become very competent if they put in hours and years of training – and so can a writer. They might not have the spark of genius that turns them into the next Mozart or Anna Pavlova, but they can run alongside many of their contemporaries. Sometimes stamina and resilience counts for more than that elusive inborn talent. (Another great recent debate has been around the failed novelist.)

Perhaps there is something else at work here other than definitions around the locus of talent.

In France (and Germany and probably quite a few other European countries), it is possible to make a living from writing alone: there is tax relief for writers (and other cultural contributors), book prices are fixed, writers are paid for festival appearances etc. Because the contract is directly between publisher and writer (literary agents are practically non-existent in France), authors achieve a larger proportion of the royalties. You cannot underestimate the freedom a modest income gives a writer to truly focus on their writing and perfect their craft. As most French writers do: they retreat to Provence or Dordogne in winter, when there are no tourists or book festivals to bother them, and work hard to produce a book in time for the rentrée littéraire, that publishing bonanza in autumn. Many of them produce something every year, or every second year, so they work as hard as their English counterparts (but often without the additional teaching obligations). There are some ateliers d’écriture in France, but these are either targeted at schoolchildren or else a kind of ‘writing circle’ organised by and for the local community, often heavily subsidised, without much expectation of future publication.

Quais du Polar had 80,000 visitors this year.

Meanwhile, costs of MFAs or their UK equivalent, MA in Creative Writing, are soaring, so it is difficult to justify them (to oneself and one’s family) if you do not have expectations of being published or at the very least working in the field. In the US in particular there is much discussion whether getting an MFA is ‘worth it’ or if it is a pyramid scheme designed to give employment to writers. Everyone dreams of being a writer, so a whole industry of publishing, editing, proofreading, coaching etc. has spawned alongside the official courses. Some of them valuable, some of them money-making schemes which prey upon the gullible.

However, things are beginning to change even in France. At the Quais du Polar in previous years there had always been a competition for best short story or dictation of a passage from a crime novel or reading out loud for young people. This year, for the first time, there were also writing courses for 12-15 year olds, plus workshops on self-publishing and Open Pitch sessions for adults.

In addition to this, the City of Paris has recently launched (with some fanfare) a writing school Les Mots which is specifically targeting innovation and publication, across all genres (from memoir to writing for children, poetry, theatre, graphic novels, blogging etc.). Authors, editors, literary critics will be helping budding writers to improve their manuscripts and some of the names on their list are truly impressive: Karim Miske, Jerome Ferrari, Antoine Laurain. The venue will also harbour a bookshop and a literary café. With a full price of 15 euros per hour (reductions available for students and the unemployed), it is clear that these workshops are deliberately designed to be accessible and inclusive. It remains to be seen how viable this price point really is and what success stories will emerge from this.





39 thoughts on “Cultural Beliefs About Writing or Plain Economics?”

  1. Very interesting post, Marina. I hadn’t realised how much better off French and other Continental authors were than British as regards who receives the royalties. I wonder why attitudes seem to be changing towards creative writing courses.

    1. Perhaps creative courses are appearing because of the American/English influence and because there are people willing to pay for them. Interestingly, the Paris one is linked to business innovation and entrepreneurship, so it might end up being something like a copywriting school.

  2. The famous British writer Colin Wilson had this to say about the arts:
    “A singer, ballet dancer, writer, artist…..each has to spend years developing a technique of self expression. But unless (the person) has something to say, all the technique in the world is useless. Technique is the servant of creative impulse. Neither is much use without the other, but a (person) with creative impulse and no technique is in a much better position than a (person) with technique and no creative impulse; (they) can still make a start. Rules and techniques are the basic conditions for any kind of creation, but what matters is how the creator uses those rules. The (person’s) choice is a higher principal.
    A shoemaking machine is governed by the law of mechanics, but it’s higher principle is making shoes. Writing is governed by the laws of grammar, it’s higher principle is to convey ideas. Smash the machine, utter words at random or make a chess move without purpose and the higher principles will vanish”

    The italics around “person” are mine, a substitute for Colins’ misogynist “man”, “his” etc.

    1. Hmmm, food for thought, certainly, and I tend to agree with Wilson. But I’ve seen far too many with undisciplined talent fritter away their gifts as well. Especially if they wait for inspiration to come and deliver the perfect product, without being prepared to fail, learn and grow. (I’m lambasting myself here, but I’m much better at dealing with imperfection now.)

  3. Your post has remind me of a sentence often applied to many talented people, Picasso and Edison among them: Genius is the result of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration

  4. Really interesting post, Marina, and I hadn’t realised the differences between us and France – sounds like in many ways the art and craft of the writer is more appreciated over there. I sit on the fence like you – I think inspiration is vital but you have to be able to turn than inspiration into a work of art others can get something from. I’m wary however of courses that turn out people all applying the same rules and writing in the same way – I don’t think the great writers of the past would have produced their masterpieces if they’d had that kind of training…

    1. I suppose in a way you could argue that it’s more democratic to expect that writers are not ‘born’ but can be made with effort, willingness to learn etc. But at the same time, when I see a week’s writing retreat in Italy retailing for nearly $5000, I wonder who the people are who can afford to ‘improve’.

  5. No course replaces time on your behind. Just sit down and bleed your heart out. Selling is a different thing. But even that a course can’t do for you. That’s mostly just ….luck or already having a name? Stephen King, J.K.Rowling or some so-called celebrities could publish a shopping list and there will be people buying it

    1. I agree about the hard work (and that I probably don’t do enough of it). But I also agree that it’s all too easy to dismiss luck and privilege, they have a part to play. Just read an article about it earlier this morning.
      ‘We have a cult of success in America. We believe that if we just work hard enough, we will achieve. It is certainly better to hold these beliefs than a fatalist vision of the world in which fortunes are determined entirely by factors outside of oneself (social position, nepotism, economic status, etc.). Nonetheless, there is something naive about our way of looking at things, and cruel too… It isn’t always true that failure has direct correlation to insufficient grit or ambition. We resist the fact that race and class play a significant role in what we want and whether we are provided with the tools to make an attempt at getting it. The humbling, and unsettling, reality is that all obstacles are not surmountable.’

      1. Bien sure race and class play a role. Writing itself (nearly) everyone can do that. It’s the selling point that’s making the difference. I guess it’s the same for blogging. Sometimes you write something that’s, in your opinion, close to perfection. Nearly no one reads it. The next time you just scribble something down, because it’s Monday (in my case). And you have a new record number of people visiting your blog. It doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of what you’ve written. It’s just pure luck (or the fact that you have a name (foir whatever that means))

  6. Is writing a trainable skill you ask? Like you I’m on the fence with my answer. I’ve worked in the communications profession for more than 30 years (journalist and then public relations) so not only had to hone my own writing skills but had to coach others. I found that it was possible for everyone to improve the standard of their writing – for some people this was a question of learning how to use grammar correctly – and to turn out reports or emails that were at least coherent. But no amount of guidance or tuition could turn a pedestrian writer into someone whose prose would gladden the heart.

    On the creative writing side I know (since I’ve joined several creative writing classes) that the pattern is the same. The people who come with good ideas and a reasonable style of writing can be helped to improve – I learned a lot about point of view for example – but there are some who will never, in a million hours of teaching, make it.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, I completely agree! Having taught writing skills myself, I would agree that you can help anyone become clearer, more on-point with the message, relatively competent especially when it comes to letters and memos and reports, but it’s quite a different kettle of fish when it comes to writing fiction.

  7. What a fascinating question, Marina Sofia! As someone who has taught academic writing in the context of the classes I teach, I think that the roles played by innate ability and coaching are very hard to tease apart. I’ve seen students with greatly varying degrees of comfort and ability with writing, and they all benefit (as we all do) from coaching. In that sense, coaching makes a difference. and for those who have less innate skills, a big difference. But it’s not everything.

    1. I remember at a workshop once reading the first few pages of a novel which was going to get published very soon (not my own). The editor (not the one who had acquired that novel) said: ‘It’s good, perfectly competent, it will do quite well, but it’s not got that special sparkle.’ In other words, it ticked all the boxes, but it was not unforgettable. And that is exactly how it fared.

  8. From the comments, I think we all agree with you – it’s some kind of “talent” or skill or inspiration, plus training, plus hard work, plus luck etc. I hadn’t realised writers get tax relief and other financial help in France. I do think that being able to retreat to Provence or Bretagne or wherever instead of having to deal with making ends meet would make writing a book a very different challenge!

    1. Ah, yes, one can but dream of that. Incidentally, France is not the only onw – Irish writers are not taxed either on income deriving from their writing (but they are on their income from teaching, for example).

  9. I do wonder if the MFA really works. It’s a bit like the MBA, which became so fashionable a few decades ago, leaving us older managers scratching our heads a bit about how the world had managed to survive for all these centuries when managers only had example and experience to learn from. And, in the same way as MBAs led to a kind of jargonisation of management, I find there’s a particular style of writing, and even subject matter, that tends to emerge from MFAs, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I’ve commented a few times in reviews that hopefully the writer will find her own style and put her writing courses behind her in time…

    To continue the analogy, with MBAs, I came to the conclusion over the years that I never saw a bad manager turned into a good one through doing the course, but I did see good managers turned into better ones.

    1. A very recent example of MFA type writing which grated a little bit (although there were some good moments too) was Emma Cline’s The Girls. And I find many instances of that in some of the American literary magazines (usually the ones published by the schools where they have MFA courses – I suspect they are so immersed in that language that they don’t even realise). However, the best of these courses will support and develop each writer’s individuality. For instance, Steph Broadribb, Ron Reynolds, David Young were all on the same MA course in Crime Writing, and they all write very different kinds of novels.

  10. This post has enlightened me a lot about how things work in France. I’ve been working with UK and US people for a year and I know more about the way things are done there than in my own country! Thank you for the information, it’s very useful and interesting!

    1. Yes, I have to admit that happens to me too. I’m sure I don’t know much anymore about how things are going on with writers and royalties in Romania either!

  11. Fascinating post, MarinaSofia. I had no idea the difference between the UK and France as to how writing is viewed and approached. I change my mind about this all the time – I get tired of a similar style of writing that emerges from these courses, but then I find a writer I really rate who is a graduate of such study and seems to still have a unique voice.

    1. Perhaps it’s like a gemstone: if it’s good quality, an extra polish will make it sparkle all the more; if it’s inferior quality, it will just disintegrate… OK, bit of a metaphorical stretch there, but you know what I mean!

  12. That is such an interesting post, MarinaSofia – I had no idea things were so very different in other countries. I guess it is, as you say, a mix of BOTH – and, probably extreme avoidance of one or other position. Skills can and will be refined but as FF says, there can be a tendency to something formulaic in Creative Writing – a kind of house style, almost, and you might even be able to say to yourself.hmm I bet this person has done a creative writing course (and not be saying that in a good way) But you can also read equally bad books the other way where someone who actually doesn’t have that much inspiration seems to splurge self-indulgently and you really wished they had ‘murdered their darlings’ or had some idea of how to structure, or even write coherently! I liked your gemstone quote.

    But I do think the ability to make a living as a writer in some other countries must make a difference. I am thinking of a fine (published) literary writer acquaintance, who, at the end of the initial ‘deal’ is now back at the original day job, which is a very demanding one.

    Unfortunately, this means that the time and energy to pursue the writing of the next book is just not there. And, to be honest, the amount of time it took to write the books, given the fact the author really does their research impeccably, means it must be quite difficult to make a living doing this. So this probably takes us back to Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own, Private Income, not inconvenienced by the demands of family, territory

  13. Can writing be learnt? This question has baffled me for ages. I think the writing talent is something you are born with. But you can improve upon it with the help of a training course. You know- like it would point out the big mistakes that we all would make when we start out, so it saves time by not making the writer learn by trial and error. Ofcourse I might be wrong – it is just what I have thought so far. That said, the high costs of such training courses often make people not enroll for them. I don’t know if they will be affordable to all who have the same dream and talent

  14. Well, I agree with Guy. Talent can’t be taught.
    As long as these creative courses don’t give books as standardized as pasteurized cheese, I’m fine with them.

    I’m not sure writers manage to live off their writing in France better than elsewhere. Philippe Djian said he could concentrate on literature only after he wrote famous songs for Stefan Eicher and got royalties from them. Lots of writers seem to be journalists or teachers, which is also a problem. Like politicians they come from the same background.
    This is why Delphine de Vigan sounds different, she used to be a corporate executive.

    1. I love your comparison to standardised cheese…
      Yes, I agree that many French writers are also journalists or reviewers etc., which is also the case in the UK, and this can also lead to a uniformity of style. I don’t think they can make a good, comfortable living purely from writing, but it just about meets minimal requirements, which it very often doesn’t in other countries, especially in the US, where healthcare is so costly. That certainly frees you up to worry about your books rather than about hospital bills.

  15. Can good writing be taught or is it inherent? It’s a complicated issue. Certainly over here it’s hard for people to write and earn a living because there isn’t government support for writers or other artists.
    But what is good writing? I look at the NY Times Best-seller lists every week and groan. Many of the books listed are not written well. Some of the popular books made into movies are not written well. Excellent books are perhaps reviewed and then one has to hound the library to buy them or do that yourself.
    I think about my own writing non-fiction articles that I have worked at it for many years and it’s better than it was when I started. But I know I am not a great journalist, and I am content with that. I don’t have to earn a living doing that.
    But some talent is inborn. My sister is a beautiful classical singer. She worked very hard at it but she sang lovely harmony when our family sang together, and she has an amazing ear for music and language which I just don’t have. Our mother had it.

    Also, though, about coaching, one thought arises. The Irish writer, Frank McCourt wrote an op-ed in the NY Times explaining that of all those to whom he taught writing, the best classes he had were at night. The students were people who worked all day, many of them immigrants. He said their ability to write about everyday occurrences, their work, families, friends, was the best he’d seen. And he
    encouraged it.

    1. I think this is what happens: people see some of the very mediocre books getting published and think ‘Surely I can do better than that!’ And they probably can, sometimes mediocrity is because of celebrity status or topic area or fashion.
      As for my own reviewing – I’ve become more professional in some respects, but I’ve sometimes lost that unjaded freshness that I had when I wasn’t churning out a sizable number of reviews per month.

  16. P.S. I’m reading “Missing, Presumed,” and I can’t put it down. Your review drew me to do. The best intentions to dig through my TBR pile and lists went astray again.
    But I did not know it was going to be funny. Within the sad story is a lot of wit. And I’m so glad of it. Nothing I like better than to read a mystery and see humor, the type that just unexpectedly jumps out at you. And the reader thinks, “Oh, no, that writer didn’t just say that, did she? Yes.”

    1. Oh, I’m so pleased you’re enjoying it! Sometimes we need to be led astray. I like a combination of wit and humour to alleviate the miserable human condition…

  17. Yes. If I had to read another police procedural that goes “by the book” without humor, I would be annoyed and bored. The genre has to be interesting, quirky and funny or else it’s just dead bodies and investigations.
    The Trespasser by Tana French is a police procedural, but well-written, full of surprises and has dialogue that is witty and snaps, crackles and pops.
    And in Missing, Presumed, the characters are quite well fleshed-out, not cardboard cops at all.

  18. Took a day and finished Missing, Presumed. I laughed and I cried. Not too many mysteries make me cry, but this one had some poignant and sad moments. And it also brings up social justice issues which also were quite moving.
    Can’t wait for Susie Steiner’s next book, supposed to be out at the end of June.

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