Independent Bath Literature Festival: Don’t write it off - Hanif Kureishi’s criticism of creative writing courses riles new authors

Rising stars and academics respond to dismissal of creative writing courses as ‘waste of time’

Hanif Kureishi may not see the value of creative writing courses, writing them off at a talk on Sunday night as a “waste of time”. Yet those who chose to hone their craft in the classroom include a string of Booker Prize winners from Ian McEwan to Eleanor Catton, as well as rising stars of the literary world.

Many have been quick to point out the importance of academia to the advancement of their careers. Rising star Emma Healey, whose first book Elizabeth is Missing has caused much excitement in literary circles ahead of its publication in June, completed an MA in creative writing for prose at the University of East Anglia in 2011.

“The course made me take writing more seriously as a profession and a craft. It made a huge difference,” she says. “I found it incredibly useful; it gave me an idea about how to take my writing on.”

Naomi Alderman, who was named on the once-a-decade Granta list of best young British novelists last year, says a creative writing MA was a “proving ground”, adding: “You can find out whether spending a year on your work makes your work better.

“You find out whether you enjoy dedicating a year to your writing. You try it out. You meet other people who are dedicating themselves to writing. You’re around teachers who’ve published books themselves.” She adds that she would not have discovered these things about herself without the MA.

Mr Kureishi told an audience at The Independent Bath Literature Festival that many of his students “just can’t tell a story”, adding: “It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

But Sarah Moss, professor of creative writing at Warwick University, says: “It’s a funny thing to say. If you can teach someone to write a sonata you should be able to teach them to write a novel.” She adds that she has heard similar sentiments expressed, “but most of us are not so cynical”.

Jonathan Myerson, director of the creative writing MA course for novels at City University London, says learning the right skills takes time. “You can teach it, but you need two years to do it. You can nag the students until they get enough plot. The one thing they find hardest is plotting.”

Discussing and analysing your own work with teachers and other students can also be helpful, says Rufus Purdy, editor of new writing at Curtis Brown Creative, a creative writing school. “So much writing is done in isolation that when you’re in a group situation with people you trust and respect, it can focus your mind and critical skills,” he says, adding that Mr Kureishi’s comment were “not particularly helpful”.

Creative writing courses first became popular in America. The term was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in The American Scholar in 1837 and was first used as a course title by Hughes Mearns, who brought the subject into the Lincoln School in 1922.

Possibly the most celebrated institution for creative writing on either side of the Atlantic is the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was set up in 1936. Its alumni include 16 Pulitzer Prize winners and this year’s Man Booker Prize winner Ms Catton, for The Luminaires.

The first creative writing MA in the UK was set up at the University of East Anglia by Malcolm Bradbury, who had lectured in the US, and Angus Wilson. Mr Bradbury said in 1992 that the British initially viewed such courses “as a suspect American import, like the hamburger – a vulgar hybrid which, as everyone once knew, no sensible person would ever eat”.

The founders hoped it would help breathe new life into the British novel. Alumni of the UEA course include McEwan and Alderman as well as Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote Remains of the Day, Booker Prize winner Anne Enright and many others.

Mr Myerson said: “The UEA course was the first in the UK by decades,” adding there were now “hundreds of courses, and they do vary hugely in quality”. Wannabe writers can now enrol in courses at universities around the UK. Publishing houses such as Faber and Random House also provide them – and there’s even one at trendy Groucho Club in Soho.

The teachers on the creative novel writing MA course at City University have all had work published, which Mr Myerson says “isn’t true of all of them”. “My analogy is to surgery, you wouldn’t want to be operated on by someone who had only learnt it from a book. You want to learn from someone who’s done surgery and the patient survived.”

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