Dreaming spires to summon literary muse

The dreaming spires of Oxford should inspire a new generation of writers as the university becomes the latest academic institution to offer a master's degree in creative writing.

From this October, the university is to run its own course for aspiring novelists, dramatists and poets, after the example of the 35-year-old course at the University of East Anglia (UEA) offering practical tips on writing and being published.

The two-year, part-time master of studies degree (MSt) will offer 12 students a year the opportunity to join the ranks of an estimated 110,000 people on writing courses in Britain.

But Clare Morgan, the Oxford course director, said they aimed to be distinctive in two ways. First, it will marry the practical experience of intensive writing exercises and placements in the publishing industry with the kind of high-level critical analysis that might be expected of Oxford. Second, it will offer a multicultural diversity of tutors from American novelists to Eastern European poets to expose students to as many different "writerly voices" as possible.

Christopher Ricks, Oxford's professor of poetry, and the critic and academic John Carey are supporting the course, although other writer-tutors are yet to be confirmed because the university gave the go-ahead to the new programme only last week. An undergraduate diploma in writing the university has run for mature students for the past seven years has been tutored by authors including Brian Aldiss, Barbara Trapido and the city's most famous contemporary chronicler, Philip Pullman, as well as poets such as Jo Shapcott.

Dr Morgan, who studied at the UEA under its founder, the writer Malcolm Bradbury, said establishing the course seemed a logical step for Oxford because many of its English literature students were keen writers and the present diploma students were being forced to advance their studies in master's courses elsewhere.

"Coming out of the Romantic tradition, we've thought for long that writing is about lone inspiration," she said. "Lone inspiration is terribly important, the creation of the space and time for real deep imaginative engagement. But I'm convinced there are skills to be learnt."

Clive Scott, the head of the school of literature and creative writing at UEA, said there was enough interest to justify another course. The school at UEA gets 450 applications a year for 45 places on its MA courses which have produced stars including Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tracy Chevalier and Ali Smith.

He said he believed it was the quality of writers teaching the courses that counted. They include Patricia Duncker and Michele Roberts. But he added: "You have to warn people that the world of writing is extremely competitive. The idea that you can come to the UEA, do an MA course and your future is assured is not an illusion we want to perpetuate. It's tough out there." Susan Fletcher is a good example of the difference such an intensive dedication to writing can make. At 25, she won the Whitbread first novel prize for Eve Green, not long after graduating from UEA.

She praised the workshops where the students discuss their writing. "The real advantage was that I was surrounded by people who wanted to write. They really wanted to talk about it and swap ideas."

Applications for the Oxford course need to be made by 27 May. Details can be found on www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/postgraduate.asp

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