Universities cash in on creative writing courses as aspiring novelists abandon the lone struggle

By Ciar Byrne,Media Correspondent
Sunday 13 October 2013 03:08

Aspiring writers are no longer likely to be found burning books for fuel in a freezing garret as they learn their craft from the real world. Today, it seems, they are far more likely to be signing up for a creative writing course.

In 12 years, the number of universities offering postgraduate degree courses in creative writing has increased from eight to 85.

And there are a total of 11,000 short-term creative writing courses and evening classes in the UK. Last year, an estimated 110,000 people enrolled on some kind of writing course.

It helps that several big-name authors teach the subject in universities. Perhaps the most famous is the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia (UEA), founded in 1965 by the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury, which has produced a host of best-selling authors, including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.

The surge in interest in creative writing courses - in 2002, 40 people applied for 20 places on a course run by Warwick University - mirrors a similar trend in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

The novelist Debbie Taylor, whose latest book The Fourth Queen was published in paperback by Penguin in February, has researched the flowering of this new academic discipline for the latest issue of Mslexia , a Newcastle-based magazine for women who write.

Ms Taylor, a graduate of such a course, debunks the myths that creative writing cannot be taught, that people with ability will succeed without help, that the courses create only clones and that it is impossible to assess works of fiction.

She believes there are several factors contributing to the booming numbers of people taking post-graduate and other courses to try to become published writers.

"More people are going to university nowadays," she said. "A lot of creative writing departments have been set up in what used to be the old polytechnics.

"People are prepared to pay to do these courses, which means the English and arts departments are keen to set them up. The universities see them as useful cash cows." Although Ms Taylor admits the universities have financial incentives for establishing such degrees, she is far from cynical, and believes her own work has benefited massively from writing classes.

"If you read very widely you can do it by yourself, but it's so much quicker to get that kick-start, like getting a shot in the arm. You can save so much time that beginning writers often waste."

University courses are also providing a source of income for writers, aside from what they earn from their published work. "The plethora of courses means there is now a career for writers," Ms Taylor said. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Proof that the postgraduate MA courses are turning out successful authors is provided by the number of literary agents who are queuing up to sign on young writers from courses such as that at UEA, Ms Taylor said.

"Centres of excellence are being built up and down the country. We have these very good writers who are taken on by the universities and they act as mentors to the new writers coming through, almost like the old apprentice system you had in painting."

These teachers include Michele Roberts and Patricia Duncker at UEA, Sean O'Brien, Jane Rogers and Lesley Glaister at Sheffield Hallam and Julia Darling and Jackie Kay at Newcastle.

Women outnumber men on creative writing courses by a ratio of about two to one.

But not all writers are convinced that the art can be taught. William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart , whose collection of short stories, called Fascination , is coming out in October, is among the sceptics.

He taught creative writing for a term at Reading University. "My feeling is that writing can't be taught, but you can learn about the business," he said. "I think it's more pragmatic than creative. You can learn the tricks of the trade, but I have a feeling that writers are born and not made.

"I think you have to have a clear-eyed view about what you're going to get out of it.

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but you may learn about agents and submitting work. If these were the magic key that would unlock the door to success, everybody would be doing it."


Ian McEwan:

The Booker-prize winning author of Enduring Love and Amsterdam was Sir Malcolm's first student at UEA. His fellow Booker winner Kazuo Ishiguro was also part of what came to be known as the "creative mafia".

Tracy Chevalier:

The author of Girl With A Pearl Earring, the "word-of-mouth" best seller about a serving girl in the house of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer that was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johanssen, took an MA in creative writing at the UEA.

Andrew Motion:

The prolific poet laureate and Whitbread award-winning biographer of Philip Larkin and John Keats. He took over the creative writing course at UEA in 1995 from Sir Malcolm but he left last year to set up a new MA at Royal Holloway College, London University.

Sean O'Brien:

The author of award-winning poetry collections including The Indoor Park (1983), Ghost Train (1995) and Downriver (2001), co-founder of the literary magazine The Printers Devil and regular reviewer and radio broadcaster, teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University.

Julia Darling:

The winner of the 2003 Northern Rock Foundation award is a Royal Literary Fund fellow at Newcastle University, where she studied for an MA in poetry. Penguin is republishing her first novel, Crocodile Soup in June. Other works include the short story collection Bloodlines.

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