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October 13, 2004
Too many creative writers

Here is an interesting if depressing Guardian piece about the baleful effects, at any rate as DJ Taylor sees it, of creative writing courses at university.

This week sees the publication of Concertina, the annual anthology of work by recent graduates of the University of East Anglia's creative-writing course. The noises emanating from this literary hotbed are usually so upbeat in tone that I greeted the remarks recently attributed to Paul Magrs with faint incredulity. Dr Magrs - lately employed as a tutor on the much-celebrated creative-writing course - had been reflecting on the calibre of his students, and the verdict was horribly damning.

The bulk of the UEA habitués, Magrs suggests, "tend to be people of about 30 who've burnt out doing something else, who've read some Kundera and some Rushdie and think they're going to reinvent the European novel by writing about their gap year and Ronald Barthes. Somebody even turned up in a beret one year."

No doubt the irritations of the modern academic life can be insupportable at times. No sooner had I finished reading Dr Magrs' piteous lament (he has since moved on to Manchester Metropolitan University) than the printer began to disgorge details of this autumn's inaugural Norwich literary festival. Among other attractions, the event will be sponsoring a "lab" at which half a dozen writers in residence will be offering advice to aspiring talent.

I concur with DJ Taylor in wanting to hold the word "lab" at arms length, given that scientific experiments are not involved here. (See also: "workshop".)

Later in the piece:

Meanwhile, the proportion of novels and poems written by people who are not graduates of, or tutors on, creative-writing courses grows correspondingly smaller. One doesn't have to be a throwback to the age of the man of letters, ear finely attuned to the thump of the creditor's boot on the tenement stair, to wonder whether this is the best training for the embryo writer. Reading the chapters of Jeremy Treglown's new biography of VS Pritchett devoted to the 1950s, I shook my head in horror at the revelation that, even in his fifties, the most influential critic of his day was so cash-strapped that he was obliged to write up his annual vacation for Holiday magazine. And yet a Pritchett safely established as professor of creative writing at the University of Neasden would, you imagine, have lost something of his distinction in the transfer.

Back in the 21st century, the fatal urge to cram campus lecture halls with graduates learning how to produce novels or "life writing" continues apace. Last month, a press release winged through the door announcing that the University of Essex is introducing a creative-writing course. No offence either to the university or its very distinguished founding staff, but: why, exactly?

Why indeed? Well, of course, one answer is that people like studying this kind of thing, and who am I, who spent half of today learning to play with Photoshop simply because I felt like it, to complain? However, I certainly don't see any case for taxpayers picking up any part whatsoever of the bills for such bourgeois pleasures.

Dare I hypothesise (and please note that's all it is) that universities actually solve a problem with courses like these? I'm thinking: universities are being nagged to process lots and lots of graduates. And this would presumably be a delightfully cheap way of doing that. Real labs are much more expensive.

Now, where can I get a course in destructive writing?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:30 PM
Category: Higher education

Maybe they should try NaNoWriMo instead -- National Novel Writing Month -- an annual attempt by thousands (the number grows each year) of people to write 50,000 words of fiction during the month of November. (Perhaps it should really be International Novel Writing Month because people from around the world attempt it.) It's free (although donations are requested) -- certainly cheaper than university tuition. (You can also purchase NaNoWriMo t-shirts.)

Comment by: Jim on October 14, 2004 04:40 PM

Having been a product of an MA in Creative Writing, I must admit that I am ambivalent, at best, about their worth - see www.elfparts.com entry 'Tomorrow's chip wrappings'. I don't really agree that a creative writing course is a 'bourgeois pleasure', however. Too often this is the case but they don't need to be. They can be just as rigorously academic in focus as any arts course. Of course many arts courses are not rigorously academic in focus but in this age of expansion that is true of far too many university courses of all disciplines. Creative writing courses are only a small part of this problem.

Comment by: Kate on November 3, 2004 09:22 PM
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