Tennyson, famously, was averse to the word "scissors". Something about the s-es. I don't know if Tennyson had a lisp. When I was a child of six or so, I did. Scissors would be a treachery. My own aversion is for the word "craft". How I hate to hear "craft" applied to writing! The "craft" of the story, poem, whatever. It repulses me, with its overtones of some genteel, antiquated hobby. Engineering, that would be alright, I suppose. Art, design, plumbing, all of that, which puts writing where it should be, in the world where people build, repair, create fixes, mob up, make spaghetti, help their kids with homework, and are alternately illuminated and tired. Craft comes from the early modern guild economy, the fierce nostalgia for which has fed the fascism and reaction of the 20th and 21st century. (Even though I should add that guild organizations, from doctors to profs, have endured to our day with more vigor than unions. Alas.)
So where did it come from, this blight of "craft"? I suspect it came by way of the conservative modernists, the agrarians, the Tates and Ransoms, who viewed modern society as a blight in contrast to the organic societies of the pre-bellum South, i.e. societies held together by slavery. As opposed to the Russian formalists, who were seeking a vocabulary of devices and machinery, in line with their sympathy for socialism and the stripping away of superstition, the conservative modernists wanted a vocabulary that would make supplant the radicalism of, say, the futurist with the dark port wine views of a Spengler, moaning for an aristocracy.
In spite of this, "craft" did, to an extent, democratize literary culture. That culture was overwhelmingly masculinist, and I feel that it is turning. Put that in the balance with the trivialization effected by craft, the mini-industry that has sprung up around it, the mystification of the culture producer's position in the system of media and entertainment. Everything that I value in literary culture is anti-craft. Sloppiness, guesses, rants, jibes, reportage, stories told while waiting in line, raps while drinking in the park, emails, tweets, porno fan fic- these are the forms I want to go back to.
The margins to the center – that was briefly a slogan of the Italian extreme left in the 70s. The margins cannot be margins and go to the center, however – structure resists that kind of simple minded restructuration.
The earliest use of the term craft in the current “creative writing” sense that I can find is by Vernon Lee, in the Contemporary Review, 1895. It is, I admit, a pretty good essay on literary construction, and gets the construction part right. Here’s how she begins: “The craft of the writer consists, I am convinced, in manipulating the contents of his reader’s mind, that is to say, taken from the technical side as distinguished from the psychologic, in construction. Construction is not only a matter of single words or sentences, but of whole passages and divisions; and the material which the writer manipulates is not only the single impressions, single ideas and emotions, stored up in the reader’s mind and deposited there by no act of his own, but those very moods and trains of thought into which the writer, by his skilful selection of words and sentences, has grouped these single impressions, those very moods and trains of thought which were determined by the writer himself.”
From thence one can draw a line to Shlovsky’s writing as a devise and Benjamin’s writing as a social function. Vernon Lee was no goof. Violet Paget, to use her real name, had her eye on what Henry James was doing and satirised him in a story that put a finis on their relationship. He wrote to his brother that “she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent-which is saying a great deal. . . . She's a tiger-cat!"
She wrote in three languages – French, Italian and English – and was nobody’s fool. It is the impress of this multi-lingualism that allowed her to see that the “deposit” of a language’s bits in the writer’s mind is not a willed thing, but a force internalized. And to that extent – to the extent that craft works on a resistant material – she is utterly justified. Unfortunately, the word craft has migrated from witch and iron to arts and … It signals, to me, a certain hobby-lobbyness. As well as a whole ethos about “good” writing being hard, which is just bullshit.
Writing’s a doddle.