In an interview with French paper La Croix, Engdahl said that the “professionalisation” of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect on literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”
Engdahl is repeating Hemingwayesque cliches about literature that do not predate the rise of journalism. Hemingway, I suspect, got them half from Jack London and half from Tolstoy, in both cases with a lot of noxious ideological implications evidently still taken seriously among the European intelligentsia, a kind of totalitarian socialist discourse (that often appeals to elites) about the dignity and purity of labor as against the degenerate aristocratic effeminacies of leisure.
“Professional” is a modern category, certainly, but the writer or poet has usually had a place set aside in western society, at court or in academies or in the church. There is nothing new about this; in hard-scrabble war-torn Anglo-Saxondom, there was a person whose job was to sing about Beowulf, for God’s sake! Why do you think that when Virginia Woolf advocated for women’s full participation in literature, she focused on their exclusion from educational institutions? Precisely so that women could become “professional” writers, since those institutions granted professional credentials. The job of the writer was always to be expert in the literary tradition, the assimilation of which is no less a part of “society” (whatever that means if it does not just mean “everything in a given context”) than waiting tables.
Also, what does Engdahl think average middle-class writers today do before and during their college years? Does he think that from, say, 15-25 even those of us who end up with some kind of institutional support in adulthood didn’t ever work shit jobs? I bagged groceries, I stocked shelves, I did lightbulb and other light maintenance (don’t ask), I did a call center, I did a science museum. All in all it was experience, but I have no idea if it helped my writing. Mostly I feel now as I felt then that it was an enormous waste of my time. I suspect my time would have better been spent learning Latin.
Speaking of Latin, from a source no less august than Wikipedia, I learn that Engdahl’s namesake, the Roman poet Horace, after his elite education and a spell of military service (notice that the right thinking Euro-intellectual Engdahl does not recommend the army for the young writer), “obtained the sinecure of scriba quaestorius, a civil service position at the aerarium or Treasury, profitable enough to be purchased even by members of the ordo equester and not very demanding in its work-load, since tasks could be delegated to scribae or permanent clerks,” until he got into the good graces of a politically-connected patron (famous Maecenas) who gave him a farm. In short: elite education, cushy bureaucratic job, literary success in a patronage system. Swap out patronage for the market, and you have the ideal trajectory of the modern university-connected writer. The money has to come from somewhere to free up the time to write (and read!—don’t forget that!). There is a loathsome elitism in the populist position that good writers can come from any circumstance; it is a smug way of enjoying the fruits of plenty while pretending that those who have to do without can enjoy the same fruits. I recall Levin in the fields in Anna Karenina, drinking water out of a rusty tin cup with his peasants, calling it the best water he ever drank in his life. That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever read in my life.
My own “constructively critical” argument against creative writing programs is that they generally do not, as far as I can tell, give sufficient education in the literary tradition—a phrase that should be interpreted very generously; I’m not trying to make a pro-dead-white-male argument—but that is a separate topic and was covered well in Elif Batuman’s oft-misinterpreted essay. To give Engdahl his due, he is surely right in his later point about fake transgressiveness in modern literature, which may well be the overcompensation of sheltered sensibilities: Mrs. Grundy is long dead and long buried and has fully decomposed; sexual intercourse began in 1963, which puts it well into middle age; nobody at all cares anymore if you write “fuck” and “cunt.” The cure for that, though, is more historical awareness—i.e., more learning—not some job as a taxi-driver. To ask that writers come from squalor and labor, as Engdahl does, and with not a little colonial condescension in his appreciation of the “liberty” of African and Asian writers, is to indulge in the self-serving elitist populism of bored bureaucrats who ask others to live authentic lives on their behalf. I have only ever heard the well-heeled professors and guilty aristocrats of the world praise menial and manual labor; all the working people I ever knew just counted their pennies and counted the days till the weekend.