Monday, 17 November 2014

A Question About Writing

A very interesting question was proposed to me recently about the nature of literary criticism. Since it is of such high relevance to me as a student of English literature, and also a writer of creative fiction and poetry, I thought I would try to explore the question and its possible answers. The question is this: can creative writing make us better critics? My answer is yes, it can, and almost always does. I say almost because one might argue that it can get in the way of criticism, but that is uncommon. Now, when I refer to creative writing I mean anything from fun newspaper articles and travel writing, to poetry and novel writing – really, I am referring to anything that attempts to evoke an emotional response, which is surely what all creative writing attempts to do. By literary criticism I mean commenting upon any sort of literature; this involves anything from a passing comment to an in depth analysis. It is interesting to note that many of the most famous literary critics were also poets or authors, including Plato, Alexander Pope, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and T.S. Eliot, amongst many others. Indeed, I highly doubt that there has ever been a critic who has not themselves attempted to write their own work, be it a short story they have written in school, or a published novel. It is not the creative writing produced that we are concerned with, it is their experience of the process of writing. I am not saying that their writing must be good, just that a critic who has attempted to write at some point will be better for it.

Creative writing helps literary criticism in a number of ways, but the most obvious argument is this: if we have never written creatively ourselves, we surely struggle to judge someone else’s ability to do so? If we have never written a poem, is it not much harder to know what it is like to write one? Without having experienced the process of writing creatively, it is very hard to imagine what it is like, and without this knowledge we might not be able to judge adequately a writer’s merit. We need to understand what writing actually is before we can make a criticism of it, and this knowledge surely requires some personal writing experience? For instance, a critic who has never tried to write a poem will be unaware of how hard it is to write a poem, and so they may think that a lot of poetry is terrible. On the other hand, someone who has written poetry will know how tough it is, and so will appreciate every good poem. Yeats observed that the more a critic knows, the better his criticism is likely to be, and this knowledge constitutes a knowledge of the creative writing process. Thus, an attempt to write creatively will give a critic a certain empathy that is necessary in writing about literature.

It is also worth noting that a lot of fiction is about the process of writing, and in order to understand this sort of fiction, one must surely have some experience in the process? For instance, someone who has never had writer’s block may find it harder to fully understand the meaning of Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 1: “I sought fit words to paint the face of woe, / Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain…” Someone who has never felt bereft of inspiration may not fully relate to this poem, whereas someone who has struggled for words may understand it better. As the Ronald S. Costar notes in an article entitled “Literary Criticism and Creative Writing,” a good critic has “breadth, perceptiveness, and insightfulness,” and has an ability to respond to “not only what is in the work, but what lies around and behind it,” and this surely requires a knowledge of what it is like to write creatively. Thus, someone who has experience of creative writing may understand more fully the creative writing of others.

Someone who writes or has written creative writing of their own will also be more used to editing works, and so will be more accustomed to looking out for certain aspects of writing that significantly weaken it. For example, a critic who also writes poetry will recognise more easily in others’ poetry what they themselves try to avoid in their own poems. Of course this is subjective, and also readers, like writers, will also have their own preferences. Nonetheless, the editing process can improve one’s perception and analysis of literature, since it makes one more thorough.

However, some might argue that creative writing is very different from literary criticism, and that a commitment to both pursuits will lead to a weakened mixture of the two. Because literary criticism is analytical (and some might argue objective), and because creative writing is creative and subjective, it might lead to perhaps weakened criticism. However, completely objective criticism is surely impossible, because any critic will be unconsciously influenced by not only their own surroundings, but also their gender, their colour, their sexuality, their beliefs, and even their emotions at the time of criticism, and so this argument is defeated. It is, nonetheless, possible to argue that a writer of creative writing may be too influenced by their own preferences in terms of writing style, language, subject matter and purpose, and that this prejudice may influence and weaken a criticism. However, surely a literary preference is not something that is only found in authors and poets – normal readers are prejudiced too. Moreover, if an author-critic is so egocentric that he dislikes writing that is not like his own, this is due to his own arrogance, not because he has experience of creative writing. A relative judgement of creative writing (be it relative to one’s own or someone else’s) is always preferable. Therefore, although it is possible to argue that a literary critic who also writes creatively will be unable to see the wood for the trees, this is the fault of the critic alone. A good critic looks at the overall picture, and this can be seen better if one has experienced creative writing themselves.

To criticise literature without having tried to write any yourself is like travel writing about a place you have never been to, or being a food critic without ever trying to cook yourself. Yes, it can be done, but it may fail in its detail, understanding and, in particular, empathy. To understand the writing of literature, and indeed to understand literature itself, requires experience, and so creative writing can, and does, improve literary criticism. But if a creative writer has an advantage when criticising others, does the reverse thesis also hold some truth? Do literary critics make better writers? Arguably they do, on the basis that being a critic will make one more analytical and scathing of one’s own work, and so perhaps lead them to improve it. Moreover, a critic has a knowledge of other works (which every critic has), and this comes to good use in creative writing. As Eliot observed, a writer of fiction should write with a knowledge of tradition. Thus, some of the most famous critics also wrote their own literature, and all of the most famous authors, poets and playwrights must have also analysed and criticised literature, if not on paper, then in their mind. The two work together, the one helping and improving the other, and vice versa.


  1. While personal experience of writing certainly isn't going to do one's critical prowess any harm, I'd hesitate to subscribe to your implication that the best critics must necessarily be writers. If we must be able to do something oneself to appreciate something (fully), then the absurd conclusion is that only those who have written a novel can read one, only those who can play music can listen to it etc. etc.

    1. No I didn't mean that you must be a writer/musician/poet etc. to enjoy those arts, just that it will help if you have tried them! So if you have tried to play an instrument you will understand how hard it is and thus appreciate music more!

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