More or less magical realism

FISHTANK: An Anthology of New Writing University of East Anglia pounds 4.99
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The Independent Culture
POETS and novelists who teach creative writing still have to justify why they do it. It's all right for musicians and painters to learn craft and technique, but we go on claiming that writers are born not made. People used to sneer at degrees in English Literature too, the idea being that any civilised person read all that stuff anyway. With the rise of literary theory and associated quarrels, and a more self-conscious awareness of why and how we read, that view is perhaps a little discredited.

Presumably the reason creative writing teaching has been so frowned upon is that Eng Lit itself has been an academic discipline for only 100 years or so, and started off, apparently, not in England at all but in Scotland and India. "Our" literature had to be puzzled over; was foreign. That brings "us" down a peg or two, doesn't it?

Among the many enlightened academics currently offering all sorts of writing courses is the University of East Anglia, and this anthology, edited by the post-graduate students themselves and published by the University's Centre for Performing and Creative Arts, showcases the talents of the MA class of '95. The wildly disparate offerings on show confirm that there's no enforced house style or tutor-cloning. The book appears as an experimental space in which writers can test out their solo dance steps, backed up by the rest of the team.

Some of these authors are already published. There's Sue Hubbard, already known as a published poet and art critic, and Elizabeth Ridley, whose lesbian ghost story The Remarkable Journey of Miss Tranby Quirke is just out from Virago. She wins this year's non-sequitur prize for the sentence from her new work: "What happened between the time of the newspaper article and nine months later, when Mary Jane fled to Escanaba to run a bait-and- tackle shop with a Cuban man named Carlos whom she met at the Greyhound station?"

You get the impression that the course isn't just a launchpad; it's more of a sabbatical in some cases, simply offering the time to write, which all writers are desperate for. Trawling through the biogs of these writers, I discovered a new art form. Sophie Stewart wins the prize for her CV: "Sophie Stewart lives in London. She describes herself as beautiful and available."

Theatrical spectacle remains a favourite metaphor for a couple of these scribes. Magicians and ballerinas pop up in more or less magical realist ways. Other genres cheerfully raided by these frenzied imaginations are horror - comic or otherwise - poetic monologue, realism, whether domestic or social, TV channel-hopping. Jeremy Sheldon, for example, energetically performs a kind of hysterical shimmy through TV culture, his prose flashing and blinking like a video promo. Lisa Selvidge comes up with more than just exoticism in her story about a cockroach freezing on a train rolling through Siberia. pater le bourgeoisie is a wish that fuels many of these stories, and quite right too. The relish with which modern urban alienation is attacked and described is positively medicinal. The extracts from film scripts are equally lively.

I'm only sorry that I haven't got space to name all the writers in this collection. As an example of how the course can nurture a gifted storyteller I'd point to the work of Julia Bell, whose tale Box jostles with satire, magic, sharp writing, and a tenderness towards her characters that enriches her humour. A fiver well spent.