The success of Malcolm Bradbury's course at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which he started in 1970 with his fellow novelist Angus Wilson, changed all that. With the publication of novels by two of their early students, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, the course's reputation was made.
Although the UEA course is still the most famous, it is by no means the only one: about 50 have sprouted at universities around the country. And, if the study of creative writing needed academic endorsement, it finally has it: Oxford University has launched its own Master of Studies (MSt) degree, to begin in October this year.
The top courses attract top names, and a certain literary glamour - Blake Morrison is professor of creative and life writing at Goldsmiths College; Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, directs the course at Royal Holloway; and George Szirtes is teaching poetry at UEA. However, the biographer and critic DJ Taylor says that our great writers risk losing "something of their distinction" when they occupy chairs of creative writing. Taylor also claims that English literature has become institutionalised, with all these courses turning out works of tedious similarity.
"If teaching is too didactic you do get standardised fiction," concedes the novelist Maureen Freely, who teaches the MA course at Warwick. Jane Rogers, the author of Mr Wroe's Virgins and professor of creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees that some creative writing programmes can lead to homogeneous prose. But at Sheffield, students are allowed to follow an individual path because the teachers are different, she says, although there may be a problem when they are all asked to produce a narrowly defined project at the same time. Then you may get a pattern.
At Oxford, according to course director Clare Morgan, the aim of the new Masters is to "develop an individual writerly stamp" in students, not to turn out graduates who can produce a good structure but have nothing to say.
Although they have not yet finalised the teaching line-up, Professor Jon Stallworthy will be teaching fiction, and Morgan hopes that Christopher Ricks, professor of poetry, will make occasional appearances. The course is based on a series of residential weekends, and students develop their work between meetings. They are expected to produce a "very substantial creative project" in the second year.
Some creative writing courses expect students to produce a novel or screenplay and teach them how to sell it. Sheffield Hallam asks students to compose a publishable piece of work, and gives them up to six years of tutorial support to get it done.
Other courses seek to broaden students' critical faculties. "Warwick is not necessarily turning out little writers," says Freely. "On a well developed programme, students go in not to write the next Booker, but to learn about different kinds of writing they could do. Some people who fork out for an MA just want to know how to get a foot in the door and that's it, they're Martin Amis. By the end, they slink away with more realistic expectations."
UEA now offers modules on life writing (autobiography and biography), poetry, prose fiction and screenwriting. It's important to consider what a creative writing course can do for you as a writer and an intellectual, says the author Patricia Duncker, who teaches prose with another writer, Michele Roberts, at UEA. "It doesn't mean you will go on to be a professional writer. We do look for people who have a novel on the go: it's what you want to write that matters, having a driving passion. A lot of students have something they want to say, but not the means to say it."
St Andrews runs an MLit in creative writing, with modules on fiction (taught by John Burnside and AL Kennedy), poetry (Douglas Dunn), and research skills for creative writing. One of the more established courses, it expects a high academic standard from students, who will take on intensive critical study of their chosen forms.
Andrew Motion, having spent some years expanding the course at UEA, has now designed his own MA at Royal Holloway, with a strong poetry strand. But he emphasises that it is not a course in how to preen and impress agents or in how to get published. Like Oxford and St Andrews, Royal Holloway offers an academic syllabus, with an emphasis on critical reading. Motion believes strongly that students need to have their reading stretched.
Students have to produce a dissertation on their own work, discussing their literary influences and looking at themselves in relation to other writers. "There is a danger of disappearing up their own backsides," admits Motion. The aim is to make them self-critical, to encourage self- consciousness, "not in the mirror-gazing sense, but an awareness of what they are doing, the need to be super-careful about how they say things."
One reason for the proliferation of such courses is their popularity (most are interviewing between 200 and 300 candidates for fewer than 20 places), and the fees that universities can charge. It costs about pounds 3,000 for a year's full-time course, which in some cases involves comparatively little teaching, and a lot of writing time. Oxford is charging up to pounds 2,950 for a two-year part-time course; a two-year, full-time MA at Birkbeck costs pounds 5,958. Prices are at least double for non-EU students. For many, however, it is worth the money because they receive ongoing critical analysis of their work - something that they can't get anywhere else.