Working my way through the latest issue of the London Review of Books (I must finish it before the next fortnightly issue arrives, otherwise low-level panic sets in), which is chock full of far too stimulating reviews and articles. When will I find the time to read an actual book? This issue (cover date 23 September 2010, though it dropped through my letterbox late last week) contains a long review of The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Mark McGurl, Harvard). The reviewer, Elif Batuman, states early on that she is not a fan of programme fiction (defined in the book as the prose work of graduates or teachers of creative writing degrees), so I eagerly read on in order to reinforce my own scepticism about the impact of such courses. The focus of McGurl’s book, and of the review itself, is primarily post Second World War American fiction (more specifically, the novel), of which, of course, I’m largely ignorant – but Batuman’s piece is genuinely thought-provoking (for a perennially introspective writer, at least). So, I may be able to congratulate myself on opting out of the now nigh on compulsory literary equivalent of finishing school, but I am easily hauled up on the charge of lacking a sound knowledge of literary history (a charge Batuman levels at the writers who have emerged from the USA’s creative writing programmes). Other thoughts provoked by her article include: What is it to be a writer? Why does one choose this strange vocation? Or, is it rather a compulsion than an active choice? And then, how academic or polemical writing (such as her piece) can be both exhilarating to read – but also vertiginously challenging, verging on undermining. Why don’t I have a coherent, thought-through position on the purpose of literature? Blimey, as I wrote in my journal, reflecting on this hornet’s nest of introspection. The only answer, of course, is to put pen to paper. And then have a lie down.