Mr. Creative Writing

September 4, 2007 by  
Filed under Latest

I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for Robert Harlow. Like him I’m a novelist, although few know this yet, since my first novel has just been launched. At age 64, I’m definitely a late starter, but I have three short-story collections in print, for which last year’s royalties amounted to $4.10.

It could be said that Harlow hasn’t done much better, having at 83 years of age to keep his seven novels in print through the publication-on-demand service at www.Xlibris.com in Philadelphia. And anyway, it’s not sympathy for a fellow loser that attracts me to him. I admire Robert Harlow immensely, and I worry that I won’t be able to show why accurately and with respect.

Harlow’s first two novels, while amateurish, contain some fine descriptions of the country and society in and around Prince George, where he grew up and where I happen to have spent most of my adult life and hope to see out the rest of my days. More importantly, his last two novels are good, better than any novels by, say, Jack Hodgins who works, like Harlow, in a realistic vein with a regionalist streak, or Rudy Wiebe, who writes, like Harlow, novels of ideas — featuring cerebral characters who try to solve or reconcile themselves to their problems by thinking back to first principles. The kind of novel that Harlow was driven to write — the novel of Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner—is, in my opinion, supreme.

Harlow is also a sort-of colleague. He was, like me, a writer-professor, though we’re both retired now. I think I know what he went through to get to his last two novels. Admittedly he worked at a higher level, UBC Creative Writing, where he was the first head of that department, and I worked in the English department at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George where I taught mainly business and technical comp and rose to prominence only in the union. But I completed a PhD, and that’s surely an indication that I can claim a piece of the Ivory Tower even if it’s covered in moose moss.

I’ve been there, man, and what I feel is this: Harlow went (to switch clichés) upriver ahead of me to the inner station: creative writing. This is the place where the English Department sticks its neck out the furthest, saying, “because we understand the objects of our study, we can replicate them.”

Robert Harlow suffered horribly, judging by his third novel, (which is his most famous and also his most embarrassing) and by his fourth and fifth novels which are barely equal to his first two. But he didn’t, despite the horror, turn into Kurtz. He wasn’t hollow inside. His “gift of words,” which remained stubbornly “unattached” through most of his teaching career, triumphed in the end. He was a man with plenty to say, and he said it.

But I should probably lay off the Heart of Darkness allusions. Most writers have to work at jobs or look after kids and keep house, right? Their lives are not really theirs, their best hours lost to the daily grind. And while some writers (like A. M. Klein in “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape”) think that any job taken by the practicing writer should be “menial,” to keep (one assumes) the mind clear for writing, most consider it wise to do something connected if possible, like journalism or English teaching. And what could be sweeter than a connected job that also pays well? Braver sorts, like Mordecai Richler and Ernest Hemingway, go into journalism, but for most of us, teaching is the natural choice. The working conditions and benefits are better, and the facilities and organizational structure are more less harsh, at least on the surface.

Also, there’s lots of companionship. Fully half the members of any college/university English department are or think of themselves as poets or novelists. A century ago, once the English Department got up and running, writers flooded into it, attracted by the idea that they would, a la Arnold, be spreading culture and fighting anarchy. By expounding on literature they would be providing students with, as John Dewey put it, “equipment for living.” They would be more important, less (Klein again) “schizoid.”

Once in, they tended to make themselves comfortable, backing off a touch from the Arnoldian cause, coming up with the New Criticism or reading for technique more than message, sneakily easing their passion into the job of expounding on literature and marking on spelling. Finally they invented creative writing, whereby half their work involved writing poetry and fiction for themselves: Nirvana. If Harlow and I walked into any sort of cage, it was a gilded one, built by writers for writers.

But gilded or not, it is still, I think, in its bravado or pretense, injurious. It’s an ongoing experiment that might not be working out. With creative writing — with the New Criticism, even — we writer-profs may have gone too far. To me, Harlow’s career points at the dangers — prolonged artistic adolescence, permanent apprenticeship, and fascination with technique instead of with meaningful subject matter and messages. The result: AirBooks. But Harlow himself is a living illustration that the smart and brave can survive creative writing.

Here’s what I think, on the basis of a lifetime in the academy, happened to him. To accentuate the drama of the story, I’ve put it in chapters like a novel and used (in italics) some of both Harlow’s own words, and those of his critics and associates.

Chapter 1: Harlow gets out of the RCAF after two years of flying bombers over Germany. He’s at loose ends, but has the Distinguished Flying Order and a chance to go to school at the expense of Veteran’s Affairs, which will pay his fees and a salary of $60 per month. His only other choices are being a lumberjack, driving a truck and working on the railway. He registers in the BA program at UBC.

Chapter 2: In his second year he decides to major in creative writing. To get in, he has to have a story approved by Earle Birney, the English department prof who brought the whole idea into Canada. The story is submitted and, a short while later, Harlow goes for his interview: Earle took my story from his in-basket, glanced at it . . . and tossed it onto the desk. It was never mentioned during the rest of our interview. What he was interested in was what I’d been, what I was now and what I wanted to be so that he could judge whether it was a potential writer he was talking to . . . . It was scary. He wanted to feel in me, I sensed immediately, a long-term commitment, and I’d never committed myself to anything except staying alive during the war and having enough money to get drunk on Saturday night. Earle finally leapt to his feet, said I was accepted and gave me his wonderful grin-cum-smile. That yes, based on what could only have been wild surmise, changed my life.

Chapter 3: Harlow gets his BA and goes off to the University of Iowa, then and now the biggest and best-known creative writing school in the English-writing world. He graduates two years later in 1951, the first Canadian to do so – (others are Robert Kroetsch (’61), Kent Thompson (’62), Clarke Blaise (’64), Rudy Wiebe (’64), Dave Godfrey (’67), W. D. Valgardson (’69) and W. P. Kinsella (’78)) . Harlow regards Iowa as the Left Bank . . . the first time in my life that I was surrounded by a group of professionals, people who took writing seriously. His master’s thesis is a novella about the RCAF.

Chapter 4: Harlow returns to Vancouver, gets a full-time job as a CBC producer and a part-time job teaching creative writing for the UBC Extension Department. He publishes his first novel, Royal Murdoch in 1962 and in 1964 is given a full-time job in creative writing, under interim head Jacob Zilber who is, ostensibly, a writer of dramatic scripts. In 1965 Harlow becomes the department’s head and publishes A Gift of Echoes. The two novels are in the familiar realist, mimetic mode, third person, from three or four points of view, everything tied down in terms of time. Critics think both books are amateurish work — contrived, clumsy and self-conscious, the action melodramatic and the characters overly introspective. But Harlow is identified as promising. Harlow later agrees with the criticisms, saying: I didn’t do these books as history in quite the way I wanted to because now I’ve grown up a bit as an author . . as a person, perhaps.

Chapter 5: However amateurish the critics thought the books, they were published in hardcover, impressively bound, and produced by a major publisher, Macmillan. This is good because Harlow’s most important audience, now, is the dean, who is even less likely than Birney to read any of Harlow’s writing, but who will wave them at upper management, senate and board of governors. He will suggest that Harlow is clearly a star and can be trusted with power. He sets up the new department with Iowa as a strong influence. His philosophy is that he can’t teach inspiration, but only preach awareness of the conditions that allow originality. His program will not pressure students by offering fixed courses or threatening them with failure. Nor will they be forced to do much in the way of analysis, as in the English department. Creative writing teaches synthesis wherein never the twain shall meet. Approval of a manuscript gets students into the program, and also guarantees them a pass, their specific final grades being determined more by the instructors’ impression of whether or not they have it in them to be writers. His program will be a local substitute for the Left Bank or Greenwich Village. Bohemia is an ideal, is portable, found by the practicing artist at different places at different times. It represents “freedom from compromise . . . from commercial commitments . . . from the pressures of the manners and mores of society. . . . It is intellectual freedom. . . . It is the best suburb of the conscience, without which the whole of our moral and cultural heritage might perish.

Once students learn something about writing in these ideal circumstances, the theory goes, they will leave the university, because the university is only a good thing for the emerging writer provided that he is not simply a product of the campus and has never left it.by the time the writer has shown he has talent and has begun to develop, the experience he will use as a basis for his work has mostly been gathered. Also, for faculty, writers, like gamblers want to be where the action is . . . the university is a centre of influence and therefore a good place for the writer. And faculty will be forced to take full advantage of their privileged position. In his department, as in the UBC English Department, it will be publish or die. Some students may come back to the campus, later, to teach. This is fine, because

Chapter 6: Harlow is attacked by Warren Tallman, English prof and member of the 1957 committee that first set up creative writing as a program, with most of the courses taught using the Iowa workshop model. Tallman now thinks the Iowa curriculum is too scattered — most writers shine in one genre only, and students at the university level and interested in writing literature should already know what genre they have a passion for. Tallman also thinks that a writer’s dominant passion ought to be for language and literary form, for the act of writing, rather than for any “material”or idea. Students, he suggests, should be given a good base in linguistics, foreign languages and poetics. Synthesis and analysis must go together. Finally, Tallman believes that this is happens best in the English department, as at Simon Fraser University, which has just hired Robin Blaser and Lionel Kearns (both poets of considerable accomplishment, with Kearns as a linguist) to teach the new poetics. Tallman recommends that Harlow hire George Bowering and Fred Wah to do the same at UBC—which he doesn’t.

Chapter 7: George Woodcock, an English prof who speaks with authority as a widely published poet, critic and biographer and as the editor of the English department’s flagship periodical Canadian Literature, attacks from another direction. He regards Harlow as a personal friend, because he and Harlow have done some CBC productions together, but he sees a dangerous contradiction in Harlow’s assertions that the university is both safe and influential, a suburb and a centre at the same time. Woodcock believes that the university is actually a kind of limbo, and no place to duplicate bohemia or to be a writer. The freedoms that Harlow lists are freedoms from subject matter and motivations to write. Students would be caught up in that combination of inverted academicism and competitive ambition which characterizes the ingrown atmosphere of the writing class. They might not be chasing marks in the usual way, but some of them would be chasing jobs, just like English-studies students, who (like me) found the university warm and safe and stayed on for doctorates and then immediately moved to the other side of the podium, where they stayed for the rest of their working lives. As writers, they will suffer from association with the cautious and mediocre spirits who make up most university faculties. And they will be permanently distracted from writing. For this latter point, Woodcock is himself evidence. He is in his mid-fifties when he attacks Harlow and, after only a dozen years up the river, already a mess. Everyone around UBC knows that he’s had a mental breakdown and heart attack as a result of the excessive eating, drinking and smoking that resulted from the loss of self-esteem which itself resulted from the inability, due to his teaching load, to get all of his many, many, many writing projects done.

Chapter 8: Harlow’s back isn’t even safe inside his own department. J. Michael Yates, recently hired by Harlow, with a doctorate in comparative literature, ardently promotes European theorists and surrealist models and the writing of “metafiction” — fiction that turns back on itself and questions its own assumptions and techniques. Then Harlow hires Michael Bullock, a widely published freelance writer and translator, who promotes “surrealism” through his own writings and his newsletter Melmoth. Yates starts a press, Sono Nis, to spread the word even further. The department’s magazine, Prism, takes on a surrealist tone.

During Harlow’s twelve-year tenure as department head, surrealism spreads like cancer. It even invades two magazines started and run by students, Andreas Schroeder’s Contemporary Literature in Translation and Geoff Hancock’s Canadian Fiction Magazine. Schroeder later testifies to the effect of Yates’ promotion of surrealism: It fostered a climate at the Creative Writing Department in those days which said, in effect: ‘We’ll be as experimental and obtuse and impenetrable as we like, and if readers can’t stick with it, then screw them.’ This is not Iowa, which teaches marketing and promotion and studies audience. Harlow doesn’t have what he calls the scholarly acumen to argue with Yates, and worries about his department being tagged as the home of “west-coast surrealism” because such a tag could affect the reception of literature written by his students, his faculty and himself.

Chapter 9: Under Harlow’s leadership, despite external and internal dissent, creative writing doubles and then triples in enrolment and faculty, and Harlow himself is stimulated into a burst of writing, reading and thinking: I didn’t stop. I was reading and writing sixteen, eighteen hours a day. Whether it was student writing or my colleagues’ or my own. Unfortunately, this frantic activity results in no publications except for a few articles in Maclean’s and Canadian Literature. Harlow needs to publish novels to give authority to his teaching and leadership, but he is blocked in the course of two novellas that are connected in style and subject matter to his first two novels. In addition, he is trying to rewrite the RCAF story that had gotten him his degree. By April 1968, he has about 70,000 words written on his three stories and has to put it all away to do a stint as Associate Dean.

Chapter 10: Harlow returns to his writing on April 7, 1969: I came back, opened up the manuscript and began writing. I read it through and immediately asked for a leave . . . .I was simply struggling with three stories and had to find a way to write three stories at once. And besides the three stories in the book there are three different levels. The history of the thing and what’s happening to somebody who is watching other people happen . . . . I locked him in a hotel room . . . I gave him a wife and three daughters and a mistress and that seemed enough because he was saddled with all this other stuff, saddled with the whole history. Then I gave it to Scann and said, ‘Okay, you write it.’ He’s enthusiastic because he has had the idea of putting himself in a novel under the fictitious name, Scann. In this way, he figures, he can unite and complete his three stories:

Chapter 11: Harlow decides to go to Europe to write Scann: I wrote it on the boat. I wrote in Southampton while my wife visited relatives . . . . I wrote on the boat to Spain and finally finished it in Majorca . . . with my long-suffering family . . . in November. . . then another four months to revise it and type it the way I wanted. Scann is a long novel, some 140,000 words, but it is written quickly because Harlow has another batch of material to add to his three unfinished novellas. Scann’s meditations as he writes are Harlow’s lecture notes — the ones developed and used through ten years of part-time and five years of full-time teaching: All the way through Scann are rules on how to write the novella. All Harlow has to do is add a connecting story about Scann getting to, living and writing in, and leaving the hotel room.

Chapter 12: But at some stage past the halfway point in writing the novel, a contradiction becomes evident. If Scann possesses relatively profound knowledge of writing, if his theories about time, beginnings and endings, symbology etc aren’t merely bullshit, if the rules can actually be used for synthesis, if his monologue (Harlow’s lecture material) makes any sense, his writing should show signs of improvement, his novellas should be resolving themselves. But there are no signs of this. There’s no movement towards a resolution of the story sequences. Increasingly Scann derides himself as obsessive and questions his own progress or, he engages in eloquent defenses of his blocked writing — the main defense being that he is trying to be honest. He even winds himself up in the possibility that honest stories can only prove that humans are absolutely ignorant, in which case they wouldn’t be able to write honest stories.

Chapter 13: Harlow decides that there’s some humor in Scann’s negative narcissism, his idea that he has to fail to prove his own point. He introduces another perspective, that of Scann’s superego, or of the book’s author himself, or of another character imagined by Scann who is attacking Scann’s novellas. This figure, however it is taken, is both eloquent and learned, citing an authority, even, to prove that Scann is hopeless. The authority is a book that Harlow used in his lectures, E. K. Bennett’s A History of the German Novella. The new voice is also funny — good at pompous invective. Scann’s new critic sounds more than a little like David Solway.

Chapter 14: This merely creates another problem. The more it becomes clear that Scann is a confused idiot, the more evident it is that much of the 70,000 words of his novellas and 40,000 words of his professor-like meditations on his stories should be cut. In a realistic novel, you don’t bore and confuse the reader to prove that a character is boring and confused. You don’t produce dishonest writing to prove that writing can’t be honest. If this happens, the reader puts the book down. But Harlow can’t go back to where he started. The dean is waiting, expecting to see some return on the university’s investment. So Harlow has his intrusive narrator suddenly concede that there is some hope after all — in a story (a sort of northern BC “Beverley Hillbillies” in the style of William Faulkner) that Scann tells to the hotel chambermaid in an attempt to seduce her (she doesn’t go for it even though the story has lots of sex): We must confess that research into the origins and the writing and the reality of Scann’s first novella have turned up oddly significant shards from the dump of his waste materials. Thus blessed, now more of an idiot savant than an idiot, Scann leaves the hotel confident that he will return to finish his book.

Chapter 15: Harlow, having finished his book, immediately sends it to Macmillan. The response is not good: It was sent back to me not by an editor, not by a sub editor, but by the commercial manager. Along with it somewhat later was a note saying they’d found fourteen copies of the other books in the basement and as a gift they’d like me to have them. That was a downer to say the least. Harlow’s feelings are understandable; he’d been dumped by a major publishing company that had been loyal through two amateurish but marketable books. Harlow then sends the manuscript to a publisher in New York and one in England. No luck. Then, John Robert Columbo . . . an editor and a friend . . . sent it back to me and said, ‘This is the only piece of fiction I’ve read in my life that I can’t do anything for.’ His advice was to publish it myself because nobody was going to publish it the way it is. Nobody ever said it was bad writing . . . nobody made any suggestions at all. Finally, something good, sort of: J. Michael Yates is interested in publishing his boss’s book: Then Sono Nis said they’d like to see the manuscript. They wrote back and said they’d like to publish it and I said, yes, go ahead.

Chapter 16: So, seven years after becoming head of creative writing, Harlow has a novel out, a gigantic one, justifying his position as professor and head, the expense of his sabbatical and his argument that faculty in his department would publish or die, an argument considerably weakened by the fact that Jacob Zilber is still around and that Scann has been published by a fellow faculty member. But the book is hardcover, nicely printed and bound. The dean hefts it and smiles. The fallout elsewhere, however, is not so nice. The eastern newspapers ignore the book, telling Harlow he should write something more the length of Surfacing and then they will be able to get through it. Reviews in the smaller papers and the academic periodicals are grouchy. They attack Scann on the same grounds that they’d criticized Harlow’s first two books as overly self-conscious, but now they claim to see a particularly academic sort of self-consciousness at work. Ken Adachi and Robin Matthews call the writing in Scann professorial, and its central character academic. John Moss complains that the book reads like an exercise in form and technique. Ken McGoogan (a graduate of UBC creative writing) calls Scann a technical tour de force. In a summarizing account, written a dozen years after the appearance of Scann, Peter Buitenhuis says that there is a self-consciousness about the narrative that reveals that Harlow has spent much of his time reading and teaching fiction as well as writing it.”

Chapter 17: One review, in Canadian Literature, really hurts because it questions the happy idea at the centre of Scann. It’s by Audrey Thomas, a young novelist much admired by Harlow. She had studied and worked for a time at UBC and was still in contact with the English and creative writing departments, acting as advisory editor on Hancock’s magazine etc. Thomas doesn’t allude to Scann’s “academic” content, but she says that except for certain episodes in Scann’s novellas that are terrific stuff and real history, is trash. First, she says, the puns are stupid. Second, there is a lengthy authorial “aside” that identifies Scann as an obsessive fuck-up. Why would a reader be interested in the meditations and writings of an obsessive fuck-up? Thomas concludes that the reader tosses the bathwater (the novel) out with the baby (Scann). Her advice to Harlow: Rewrite it without him and you may have a major novel on your hands.

Chapter 18: Harlow’s friends, colleagues and students leap to his defense, though their resources are limited. Most of their reviews appear in Hancock’s magazine. They utilize Yates’ dust-jacket blurb (of which Thomas has made fun) which depicts the book as an experiment conducted out of patriotic concern for the Canadian novel: Scann works with Canadian materials in a very new way . . . . Mr. Harlow establishes an idiom of time-structure and point-of-view intelligible to both traditional naturalists and the most avant garde of readers and writers. By bowing neither to the genteel nor the hallucinated tradition, yet spanning and “scanning” both, this book fixes a fulcrum in the present polarized situation of Canadian novelistics. Doug Barbour praises Scann as a very self-aware fiction, one in which the nature of the whole fictional enterprise is deeply probed. He duly places it with Surfacing as one of the most important Canadian novels of 1972.Scann is particularly Canadian in its self-consciousness: The discussions of fictional aesthetics, both by Scann and the intrusive narrative voice, result in a self-consciousness that is an integral trait of contemporary Canadian thought. Hancock himself avoids the patriotic rhetoric and puts Scann in the company of Johnny Crackle Sings (Matt Cohen), Gone Indian (Kroetsch), The Studhorse Man (Kroetsch), Lord Nelson Tavern (Ray Smith), The Invention of the World (Hodgins) and Mrs. Blood (Thomas), and offshore classic works like One Hundred Years of Solitude, all of which feature extremes of character and situation and pages of prose so effervescent they tingled in me like champagne. Robert Diotte says that

Chapter 19: Harlow, appreciating the efforts of his friends, colleagues and students, and perhaps concerned about the possibility of the dean and enemy profs, alerted by Thomas’s review, investigating Scann, steps into this potential breach. He affirms that Scann is metafiction. He is encouraged by the fact that McClelland & Stewart have decided to publish Scann in their New Canadian Library Series, an unexpected piece of good luck. But his heart is not in metafiction. In a long interview with Hancock concerning, mostly, Scann, Harlow reveals interests that are likely at the very least puzzling to Hancock, as well as to Bullock and Schroeder who are on Hancock’s advisory committee. When asked about literary influences, Harlow lists E. M. Forster as number one, and Faulkner as number two. His example of a great Canadian prose stylist is Ethel Wilson in her novels and Hugh Maclennan in his essays. His favorite exercise for students is the historical novel and the model he recommends is Robert Graves’ I Claudius: I mean, people put it down . . . but you’ll find some of the best language, novel language, that’s been written. Damn good story and fine history . . . That’s the novel which deals with time in the sense that we were talking about in Scann: time buried in or amalgamated with, or woven into, the Times. Hancock, who is passionately committed to magic realism, to Marquez and Kafka, is forced to wash his hands of Harlow: I have neither the intellectual stamina to passionately assess the mythic underpins (if any) of his work, nor the inclination to write a slash and burn critique. Let it be enough to say that Robert Harlow is my friend.

Chapter 20: Harlow, with McClelland & Steward as his new publisher, writes Making Arrangements (1978), a marketable entertainment in the Damon Runyon mode. This book, he tells Hancock, gets him through a troubled time in his life. Critics (me among them) note that it is over-written, sentimental, full of clichéd pimps, prostitutes, jockeys, hotel detectives and writing and is not nearly fast-paced enough for a detective story. But everyone admits that the book is readable. It sells, and M&S takes Harlow’s next novel, Paul Nolan (1984) as well as re-issuing Making Arrangements. Harlow is perceived to be back on track again; Paul Nolan is identified as a novel of ideas, though an unsuccessful one. It’s seen by Robert D. Callahan as “a self-conscious flirtation with aesthetic failure,” because one of its themes is the impossibility in Canada of having a serious theme. Harlow is setting up infinity mirrors again, as he did in Scann. The novel fails, and M&S dumps him.

Chapter 21: While working on Paul Nolan, in August of 1981, Harlow spends a month in Poland as a guest of the Canadian embassy. He sees Warsaw when Solidarity is facing the final confrontation with the communist puppet regime and the Soviet Union. He visits Auschwitz, a troubling experience in the usual way but also because it reminds Harlow of his bombing runs over German cities. He believes that he has participated, albeit unwittingly–or worse–thoughtlessly, in an atrocity. His experience is, cathartic. Eventually, the shaping of experience on the spot became so fierce that I began, in September, and finished in March, a novel, not about Poland, but fuelled by the experience of it. This is the first time that Harlow has spoken of his writing in terms of its origins in experience and as anything more than tinkering with a mechanical device, the first time he has broken off work on one novel to write another, and the first time that he has written an entirely new book so quickly. The novel, Felice, is accepted and edited by Ron Smith — whom Harlow praises as his best editor ever — and published by Smith’s small press, Oolichan.

Chapter 22: Most critics receive Felice with delight — and maybe also relief. Harlow has had the balls to ignore Yates and Hancock, to put the debacle of Scann behind him. He hasn’t believed his publicity after all. He has, for the first time in 20 years, shown progress. The critics — even the major ones — had always sympathized with Harlow, even while they were trashing his novels. They may have focused on his academic, professorial self-consciousness, but they also perceived, and wanted to commend, his courage (Lawrence Matthews) his sincerity (Ken Adachi), his social conscience (Robert Callaghan) and his ambition (William French). Of course, such comments are generally good sportsmanship awards handed out to losers, but they indicate that in the opinion of the major critics Harlow tended to lose in good company and in a good cause — the novel of ideas. Now he was back in the game. Burt Heward, in The Ottawa Citizen, very impressed by the main character, compares Felice to Margaret Laurence’s Hagar. Most critics found that, as Louis Mackendrick said in a summarizing account in Canadian Writers and Their Works: “Felice is that rarity, a well-made novel, with an outstanding coherence of craft, action, and philosophy. Everything comes to fit and mean . . . . It is a novel of ideas, never far from Harlow’s continuing practice — which are ardently proposed, dramatically illustrated . . . and almost didactically repeated . . . rather than being warm, human, and compelling, Felice is topical, intelligent, and challenging. Even the dissenting critics have some praise. Laurence Matthews sees Felice as dramatized argument, and wrongheaded argument at that, but admits that the novel is partly redeemed by its moral urgency. He finds the book infuriating . . . because it should be so much better than it is. This is another good sportsmanship award, but a more passionate one than usual.

Chapter 23: In 1988, Harlow follows up Felice with The Saxophone Winter, also edited by Smith but published by Douglas McIntyre, a larger press. This book is criticized for having cerebral characters who, given that they’re in their early teens are too young to be cerebral, but this criticism is questioned by others and overall, the book is well received.

Chapter 24: Harlow goes into retirement on the Gulf Islands and stops writing.

My Coles-type summary of Harlow’s history suggests that creative writing prolonged Harlow’s writerly adolescence — what most of the critics referred to as his academic self-consciousness — into late middle age. Of course any real proof for such an interpretation waits on the application to authors and texts of brain-scan technology and other advancements in the application — to which this paper hopes to make a necessarily preliminary contribution — of psychology to canonized artists and their works. Obviously anyone with a knowledge of and interest in the poetics of the novel could have written Scann — an English prof who writes novels, a novelist gone on poetics, a literary critic moonlighting as a novelist. A prof is most likely, because a prof is under no pressure to make money from a book. More lucrative benefits come straight from the university. Also a prof might be more inclined to confuse literature and life, to cross the line between lecturing and writing. It’s also true that lots of writers have friends who are critics, and some might even have critic-friends who will praise everything they write, and even assist in the building of elaborate rationales. A few writers might have publisher friends who put out books to help the “polarized situation of Canadian novelistics” rather than to make money. But each of these situations is more likely if you are a professor of English or creative writing.

What saved Harlow, kept him ready for the catharsis of Poland, was what kept him away from success for so long — idealism and determination. No matter how confused he got by the crap he taught — and Scann shows how contradictory it was and what it could do to the mind — he always had his mind on target. That target was the novel of ideas — the main features of which Callaghan identified in Paul Nolan and other critics had picked out in earlier novels, including Scann. These features are intensely cerebral main characters and philosophical themes. About Felice, Harlow said: “Nietszche said the most radical thing you can do is get to the bottom of a problem. A novel is quite often considered to be an entertainment, which it is. But the best novels always try to get to the bottom.”

The motivation to write such a novel is moral, as most of the novelists of ideas affirm in their poetics. Tolstoy believed that the dominant idea of our age, to be expressed in all great art, “is the consciousness that our well-being . . . lies in the growth of brotherhood among men.” Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech advised the writer to focus on “the old verities and truths of the heart — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacifice.” Great writing cannot be “of the glands.” Conrad affirmed that, “the novelist “must believe in the possibility of the world being made good.” All said that conscience begins in humility — the novel of ideas cannot be allegorical or didactic. As Conrad says, “a novelist who would think himself of a superior essence to other men would miss the first condition of his calling.” Conrad further affirmed that the novel cannot be rhetorical in essence: “To have the gift of words is no such great matter. A man does not become a hunter or a warrior by mere possession of a firearm. It is in the impartial practice of life, if anywhere, that the promise of perfection for his art can be found, rather than in the absurd formulas trying to prescribe this or that particular method of technique or conception.”

Humility and impartiality in the practice of life — exactly what creative writing and literary studies work against. “Absurd formulas” — that’s what they teach. A more rationalized, less visceral version of Conrad’s point, applied to creative writing, might be this: Students are required to engage in formalized imitation. Usually they are straight out of high school and upper-middle class homes. They are good-natured and idealistic but have nothing to express except horniness, self-reverence and what Thomas M. Disch, a freelance journalist and writer of horror and science fiction novels, described (no doubt after some frustrating experience in the classroom) as “the protective contempt that adolescents feel for the oppressive vistas of history and the intricate machineries of the world they never made.” They want nothing from the university beyond credit towards the acquirement of lucrative employment and some acknowledgment of their God-like talent. They necessarily produce “workshop writing” — deliberated, laboured, self-conscious and either experimental or imitative (most often, both at the same time). And their profs, among whom Harlow was prominent, engaged as they are in rationalizing and dumbing-down their writing experience into a methodology that they can use to lecture these obtuse students, mark their amateurish drivel, and explain these marks in painful one-on-one office coaching sessions, necessarily produce similar crap themselves, though the deliberation it exhibits may be more sophisticated.

Evidence for this is coming in from a surprising source — the creative writing professorate itself. B. W. Powe, a well-known literary critic and a prof at York, prefers the term “creative composition” to “creative writing.” He says, “With few notable exceptions the university poets and authors, writers-in-residence and creative composition teachers have created a literature of narcissistic self-contemplation and mandarin staleness, of conventionality and acceptance.” Lynn Freed, an American novelist and (only when she’s really hungry) creative writing prof, recently described in Harper’s what teaching does to her: “When the classroom is so present in my life,” she writes, “everything I write begins to sound like a teacher writing — intended, crafted, lifeless, and too clever by half . . . ‘There are many forms of stupidity,’ said Thomas Mann, ‘and cleverness is the worst.’ This cleverness, this stupidity — is the creative equivalent of an autoimmune disease. And it is ongoing. It lasts right until I emerge from the classroom . . . and sometimes longer than that.”

Also, for the past decade, poet-profs with doctorates in creative writing, who are interested in pedagogy or who like Tallman see poetics as a branch of rhetoric and linguistics, are criticizing the Iowa approach. Patrick Bizzaro, whose poetry has appeared in eight or ten books and hundreds of magazines, and who is (probably more importantly) Director of University Writing Programs at East Carolina University, is busy with surveys of students who have done Iowa workshops. He wants to find out why their writing is so bad and what the essence of this badness is. These studies are appearing in the Mississippi Review and College English. He agrees with Kelly Ritter, Coordinator of First-Year Composition at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, that the whole idea of hiring “elephants” (major writers) to teach “Iowa lore” is dangerous. If it continues, the elephants should be accompanied by keepers, trained in rhetoric and pedagogy, who can quickly sanitize the tons of shit produced by the elephants. Students must not get the idea that they are learning anything more than composition.

Bizzaro and Ritter point out that Iowa lore makes lawnmower tune-up instructions look like nuclear physics. Teaching this lore in isolation from rhetoric and linguistics discredits the university and them. Furthermore, while this lore might belong in isolated exercises in public school and freshman comp classes, beyond that its use is dangerous. This is because, while Iowa lore is usually delivered as non-prescriptive, to be used as needed, it is accompanied by the attitude that practice makes perfect. Iowa lore builds what is a necessary technique in the classroom into a writing habit. It celebrates the idea of practice for the sake of practice.

The technique is called “brainstorming” in composition rhetorics, and “pre-writing” or “automatic writing” in Iowa-method handbooks like Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative. The exercises after the first chapter of this book ask the student to “’Free-fall’ a page of ‘automatic writing’ to follow each of these opening phrases: (1) The most frightening person in my childhood was . . . . (2) If I were Prime Minister I would . . . .” Hodgins advises that, once these pages pile up, the student should sift through them for vivid images, effective tones, and hints of stories. He then asks that these be elaborated upon, built up into stories. And Hodgins insists that his moronic exercises be done: “Don’t just read them and think, ‘A person should try this sometime.’ They are meant to be done. Anyone can sit around and think about writing. Real writers write.”

According to the new creative writing theorists, this is cruelly misleading, like posting “arbeit macht frei” at the entrance to Auschwitz. The method of writing your way into writing and then applying Iowa lore to the pitiful results kills inspiration and leads directly to what it is trying to avoid: workshop writing. It is the equivalent of advising someone to sand and polish a badly made piece of furniture into a work of art.

Bizzaro and his friends can be accused of not being objective about Iowa, of being prejudiced against the workshop approach. Obviously they are motivated by personnel ads in the journals that read “English Instructor: MAs only. No MFAs.” They know that a knowledge of Iowa lore is considered at most a minor prerequisite for teaching public school and freshman writing, which is what most creative writing grads end up doing. They know that if their grad students don’t get jobs then creative writing will quickly disappear, and they’ll be back to freshman, technical and business comp, where their literary prowess is (believe me) not wanted. They want a whole new English department, where English studies, creative writing and composition come under rhetoric. But whatever their motivation, in the university, politics and theory go hand-in-hand; theory is tested in pedagogy. The poet-profs with doctorates in creative writing could prove to be right.

Harlow did what he taught his students to do — what has to be done in the classroom, where you write whether or not you have anything to say or are too busy with other things to concentrate, and then use your lore to fix up and justify the results. He did this doggedly himself, was obviously a believer. And this was not just because he was paid to be. His defenses of creative writing show his idealism, and his dedication has been fulsomely described by students and colleagues. Hancock praises him as a teacher, revealing in both what he says and how he says it exactly how Harlow, with modesty, humor and the best of intentions, fucked him up: “Harlow . . . has helped nearly a generation of prose writers sharpen their technical axes, to go after the literary timber in the Canadian woods. My own stories were a mixture of pandemonium and tropical disease. But Harlow, with a few well placed appraisals, created a technical smorgasbord from which to draw nourishment on a hungry day. Fiction has a focus, unlike life with is in constant flux. Each long fiction requires a different tactic so you don’t become a technical caricature of yourself . . . . A short story is not a novella or a novel. He made sure his students knew how to light the fuse on their fictional dynamite.”

The danger is obvious: Hancock, with an MFA, doesn’t seem to know that his tribute to an honored professor reads more like an advertisement for a pickup truck. And when did Hancock himself “explode into fiction”? Have I missed something in the past few decades? For his bombing runs over Germany, Harlow got the Distinguished Flying Order. For surviving creative writing he should get another medal — though maybe the appearance of his last two novels on the permanent list of a real publisher would be a more meaningful acknowledgment.

John Harris

7,371 words

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John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.