How might the idea of working within a culture or tradition be specifically relevant to contemporary creative writers?

This was a 2016 essay for my degree in creative writing.

2000 words

In the past when the world was much larger, pre-internet, worldwide marketing and communication English Literature tradition was, more or less, exactly that: English. However, in these days of information technology the borders have changed to a point where culture and tradition receive much wider and varied influences. The world is no longer a simple place where one English writer influences the one that came before. The world is multicultural and on the move. The modern day sees immigration and cultures blending with other cultures. In the essays opening section it deals with where and what literature is. Following with an examination of the tradition cascaded down to the modern writer and what tradition is. It further examines how the modern writer learns from tradition and culture. In the final section it examines two writers who are culturally separate but ultimately linked and part of a culture and tradition. This essay examines and argues what the diversity of culture and tradition is in the modern world and how it affects the creative writer and their influences.

Looking at literature must start by defining literature; Wellek and Warren argue “One way is to define ‘literature’ as everything in print.” (Wellek and Warren, 1982, p20). However, they emphasise that this would cover a lot of print concerned with very diverse subjects and go on to define it thus “We must approve the idea that students – particularly beginning students – should read great or at least good books rather than complications or historical curiosities.” (Wellek and Warren, 1982, p21). Their argument being that defining a book as great, or good, for the consumption and gaining of practical creative knowledge for the new writer is an important reference or definition of literature, as opposed to a huge back catalogue of curiosities and printed material.

All writers are drawing from a tradition of some kind, as Leavis argues “the major novelists … change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers” (Leavis, 1973, p2). Which debates that the modern writer cannot help but be influenced by what has gone before, and in their turn can redefine and improve for the next generation. Eliot agues the point of culture: “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind.” (Eliot, 1920/1997, p39). However, Eliot warns, “A blind or timid adherence to ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged ... novelty is better than repetition.” (Eliot, 1920/1997, p40). He is suggesting that while the modern writer should look back to the tradition and culture from which they came; attempting to be original is also highly desirable, indeed preferable. We can refer this to Junot Diaz and his desire not to be the new James Joyce, but at the same time acknowledging the culture that has influenced him. According to Eliot, this is indeed a shrewd move on the part of Diaz. While Diaz appreciates the work of Joyce, he has carved his own path from the traditions and culture that he came from. As Singleton argues “most artists, writers included, see the past as a vast junk shop littered with goodies to be borrowed at will.” (Singleton, 2001, p201). Writers of today have a vast selection of influences from which to choose to embellish their own art. He goes on to say that recycling material is more than accepted in modernist and post-modernist writing. The modern creative writer shaping their own work from the past.

The modern creative writer needs to learn from tradition as Woolf argues “our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking them for having shown us what they might have done but have not done.” (Woolf, 2003, p1). The ‘them’ refers to writers that, in her view, have not made the grade. Therefore, modern writers can learn from the past in what not to do, as well as, what to do. Bloom also makes this point: “strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.” (Bloom, 1997, p1797). Similar to the Woolf and Diaz argument that while the modern creative writer should take reference from the tradition that shapes the writer, not wishing to be, or copying exactly, that tradition is a sensible technique. Tighe argues that: “We cannot easily get away from tradition since it is our language, our identity, our accumulated knowledge of the world and how to survive in it.” (Tighe, 2005, p23). He goes on to comment that while the modern writer is a part of that tradition, which should be learnt from, and cannot avoid learning from, that breaking that tradition can be a tradition of its own. This can be summed up as, knowing where one fits as a writer, but using that knowledge to break new ground as a writer. As Singleton argues “For the sake of Shakespeare and Dickens, we need to write as well as we can … they have given us the templates and set the sights for us.” (Singleton, 2001, p197). He goes on to explore the wealth of influence from many different authors and how the modern creative writer has much to learn, borrow and reshape from the masters of the past. Williams argues between learning and literary tradition “[with] ‘the autonomy of the writing process’ there is a set of problems which are unlikely to be solved by some flat common-sense” (Williams, undated, p1). He is contrasting a common-sense of writing, the mechanics of the process “mastered in childhood”, with learning from a tradition of writing. He goes on to explore the deep complexities of the form in period and influence, in that it is not a simple as it first appears.

This would suggest that there is nothing new and that each creative writer is simply plagiarising the previous generation, however Wellek and Warren argue “To stress the individuality and even uniqueness of every work of art – though wholesome … is to forget that no work of art can be wholly ‘unique’ since it then would be completely incomprehensible.” (Wellek and Warren, 1982, p18). Similar to the argument of Singleton in that the wealth of knowledge and expression cascades through from influences of the past. The Modernist work of James Joyce redefined writing and expression but the unique style makes it a very challenging read as it had pushed new boundaries of style moving away from Realist writing that has come before.

James Joyce was part of the Modernist writing movement after the wars, where “Experimentation and individualism became virtues” (Rahn, 2011). Modernist writing was very much part of the new age, a new way of looking at society and the individual. In contrast to the rather formulaic Realist writing that had gone before, Modernism encouraged experimentation. Parsons argues that “The sense of living in a new age was acute ... conventional forms of fiction seemed inappropriate, even hostile, to the depiction of their contemporary movement.” (Parsons, 2014, p2). The past realist writing no longer represented society that had moved on after the upheaval of war and the rise of technology and industry. The modernist literature of James Joyce now belongs to the English Literary Canon, and it is surprising to discover that a South American writer should cite Joyce as a literary influence. One would expect, in the past, that the influences would come from the same culture and tradition. However, in this age of world travel and immigration we find that this is not as clearly defined as it once was. Junot Diaz in an interview mentions Joyce: “I’m a Joyce fanatic—the Irish have had a colonial relationship with the English a long, long time and that’s one reason they’re so useful to immigrant writers of color in the US—but I don’t dream of being Joyce” (Diaz, undated). This suggests that the Joyce influence on Diaz is other than an information age influence and instead comes from an inherited cultural influence. Namely the Irish colonials in the US. Diaz then is taking his culture of South America and the U.S. immigrants and shaping it with a tradition of English Literature. Diaz is indeed influenced by his own culture, which has permeated Joyce though to him as an influence.

Joyce was very concerned with Irish society as Tratner argues “Ulysses is a novel that presents society as radically pluralistic, formed of myriad blocks that are bound together by myriad conflicting ‘laws’ that are constantly shifting.” (Tratner, 1995, p184). Very similar to the immigrant politics and experience of Diaz. In that Ireland, the U.S. and the Dominican Republic shared these issues of different societies and cultures thrust together and the resulting political turmoil that develops from that, including of course, the colonial experience of occupied societies. In relation to Joyce the argument from Baym “Diaz appreciates the rich duality of any immigrant’s experience.” (Baym, 2012, p1204). As Diaz lived in the Dominican Republic when young but at the age of five moved to the United States as an immigrant. Baym outlines Diaz’ experience of writing about a culture living in the U.S. and, not only removed from their homeland and looking back at life there, but the culture left at home looking to their removed family away in the U.S. Very similar to the Irish experience. The cultures are heavily influenced by where they came from but are very much involved in the culture in which they now live. We can liken this to Modernism, being the product of a new age. As Baym concludes “Not so much people of two worlds. Diaz’s characters are creatures of a new world fashioned by multicultural factors and ultimately shaped by their own ingenuity.” (Baym, 2012, p1204). This argues that while it seems a simple process of a divided community, the influences both ways and the redefining of the culture by living in another, are the product of a new age where the rules are being redefined. Hence the influence on Diaz of the Modernist Joyce, both looking to redefine expression in creative writing within their culture and tradition.

As shown in this essay the culture and tradition influencing the modern creative writer in the modern world are many and diverse; the writer still needs to reference the past literature to craft their own writing successfully. The essay has addressed defining literature and gone on to examine in detail what academics regard as the necessary influence of tradition: how the modern writer learns from the masters and what we should and should not bring into their own work. The essay then went on to examine a modern writer of a different culture who has been strongly influenced, due to a shared cultural situation, namely immigration. The essay sought to understand the influences on modern creative writers, in a complex modern world, and where our tradition and culture has given the modern writer the tools to express their creativity and individuality.

 

Bibliography

Baym, N. (2012) The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W.Norton & Co Inc.

Bloom, H. (1997) ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, Leitch, V. (ed.) in The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism New York: W.W. Norton (2001)

Díaz, J. (undated) Danticat, E. BOMB: The Author Interviews. [online] Available at: http://bombmagazine.org/article/2948/ (accessed 21 April 2016)

 

Eliot, T.S. (1920, 1997) ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in The Sacred Wood. London: Faber & Faber

Leavis, F. R. (1973) The Great Tradition. London: Chatto & Windus

 

Parsons, D. (2014) Theorists of the Modernist Novel : James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. e-book. Available at: http://uel.eblib.com/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=292751. (Accessed 12 April 2016)

 

Rahn J (2011) Modernism. [online] Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/periods/modernism.php  (Accessed 18 April 2016)

Singleton (2001) The Creative Writing Workbook. London: Macmillan

Tighe, C. (2005) Writing and Responsibility. London: Routledge.

Tratner, M. (1995) Modernism and Mass Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wellek, R. Warren, A. (1982) Theory of Literature. New York: Penguin

Williams, R. (undated) Writing in Society. London: Verso Editions

Woolf, V. (1925, 2003) The Common Reader [online]. Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300031h.html#C12 (accessed: 25 Apr 2016)

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