Rowan Pelling: Spare me 'The Last Tuna'

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The one thing writers don't need is any encouragement. So I was dismayed to learn that in just 12 years the number of universities offering postgraduate degree courses in creative writing has risen from eight to 85, while there are 11,000 short-term courses.

I speak as someone who has to read about 120 novels by August as part of the sadomasochistic requirement of agreeing to be a Man Booker Prize judge. I already have around 40 piled up at home and while a few are very good indeed, a couple seem indifferent and several are astonishingly bad. I wonder how many of these masterworks have been hastened to me by Professor Novelist at the University of Stoke Poges, who is enjoying income and acolytes for the first time since he fell off Penguin's list after his last book sold 200 copies? Not that I'll ever find out, since only the very smug or the very gauche list a writing course on their CV.

Smug writers want you to know that the likes of Michèle Roberts handpicked them for hothousing, while the gauche, on less rarefied courses, don't realise that their Professor Novelist is not a man to invoke when his oeuvre is best described as "Jeffrey Archer without the plot or plausibility".

Neither camp seems to realise that the very words "creative writing course" can trigger a prolonged bilious attack in any critic whose skin crawls at the thought of all those earnest, soul-searching scribes munching digestive biscuits as they listen to one another's lyrical outpourings. We don't want writers cosily wrapped up in halls when they should be suffering in the time-honoured manner of Kafka or Camus - or experiencing the same infernal torment as the reader trying to wade through 500 pages of The Last Tuna, a postmodern satire about a flooded dystopia ruled by evil talking dolphins.

Added to all this is the unavoidable suspicion that some courses create a mould for certain sorts of stylistic tics. My husband worked on Granta magazine in the Eighties and came to dread a certain shade of yellow envelope appearing in the slush pile. They were always from the same American university (Iowa, he thinks), written in a studiously everyday style along the lines of: "It was a breezy fall day when Mother died. The clothes were flapping on the line in the yard and the apple trees had shed the last of their leaves. Father looked grim." Since they also invariably featured a melancholy alcoholic, it was evident they'd all been taught to write kneeling at the shrine of Raymond Carver.

Not that any of these caveats will stop people enlisting on the courses. Writing is a lonely business and most authors I know will stop at nothing to find some excuse to gaggle together, gossip, drink and sleep with one another. Creative writing courses provide the same opportunity for unpublished authors to do this that literary festivals afford to published ones. Which is fine; you just don't want to go mentioning the fact that you've been on one. Far better to follow the example of two novelist friends who, on being asked how they'd met, said, "It's our dirty little secret." Thumbscrews revealed they'd once been classmates on the celebrated UEA course, established by the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury. But instinct told the duo that the days when this meant you swanned around town being hailed as the next Ishiguro were over. Literary fashion now favours gritty or startling CVs, like the Glaswegian granny writing gangland sagas on her council estate, or a career con man, such as last year's Booker Prize winner D B C Pierre. Show-pony writers are becoming as anachronistic as Rada-trained Shakespearian actors in a world of Robson Greens.

As usual, it will be the innocents who will suffer: all those people who hand over a couple of grand to enlist on a Peter and Jane writing course without realising that a spell in Broadmoor would have served them better with the marketing men at HarperCollins. What will happen when all these surplus writers are released into the wild? Surely the baby seal problem poses little threat to our civilisation in comparison with the uncontrollable spawning of would-be novelists?

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