What do you think of creative writing? Or at least the teaching of it? Can people be taught the craft of creating convincing character, constructing plot, writing vividly and passionately? Many think so. After all, despite the troubles the publishing industry faces, creative writing courses, in the UK at least, are oversubscribed. Or perhaps it's because of those troubles; after all, it has never been easier to make a book available to the public. Yesterday I downloaded the new IBooks Author app. It came with a free damaged liver. I was crestfallen to learn you still had to supply the text. What are Apple playing at?
There has been a bit of a brouhaha about creative writing courses over here in the UK recently. A very important and prestigious writer and critic - or at least that's what he sees when he looks in the mirror - called Philip Hensher attacked the plethora of courses and said that academic institutions "will always prefer the second-rate and self-limited writer to the dangerous maverick." You don't need to be Freud to realise that Hensher sees himself as having a foot, clad in a brightly coloured sock to prove how really crazy he is, firmly placed in the maverick camp.
Giles Foden, another very important and prestigious etc, who is professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where the first UK graduate creative writing course was founded 40 years ago, hit back in suitably bitchy style. Hensher, he claimed, wanted his job and lost out to him after interview and is therefore bitter. UEA has just produced a collection of work written by its alumni, edited by Foden, and features stories from the likes of Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. The point of it being, 'Look how many great authors we've produced.'
But that's the UEA course, and even then only around 20 of the 300 or so who have taken the course could be counted as household names, according to Hensher. Many more have been published. But that still leaves the majority who never have been. There are hundreds of other creative writing courses now. Most of those who attend will never be published. Does that mean they have failed? Are they eaten up by anguish and regret? Or are they thankful for the experience? Do these courses still offer the talented writer a route to the book shops (or the route to the Amazon online store)?
I'm not sure. I know several writers who teach on some of these courses. Most enjoy it. It gets them out from behind their desk and into a room full of people, whose enthusiasm for and appreciation of literature energises them. There is great satisfaction, I've been told, in helping a student formalise their thoughts, structure their story and produce a convincing piece of fiction. Many of them tell me that they encounter some fabulous writers, who start the course hesitant and self-conscious, but then grow more confident and assured as it progresses. It is for that reason, they say, the courses are worthwhile.
But that also means, and these friends confirm it, there are those who are probably wasting their time. But rarely are they told this. Their presence means funds. In this climate, it's a rare and bold academic institution that will turn down cash.
For what it's worth, I think there's some merit in these courses. But only for those with a bit of life experience. I'm talking about those who have always wanted to write but have worked in other jobs, or raised kids, but are teeming with ideas and just need some guidance to turn those ideas into a sellable work of literature. I'm less convinced in the merit of taking teenagers straight from school and breeding them for a life in literature. They would be much better off getting a 'proper' job, living a bit, better still living alot, writing for their own pleasure, and then producing some work when they or it is ready, and attending a course if they need to. (But still keep the proper job. It's a bloody snakepit out there.)
And if I needed any proof to back up these thoughts, then I would need to look no further than two of my fellow blogmates, Stan and Michael, whose Edgar nomination for Death of a Mantis - richly deserved - proves the adage that age and experience beats youth and a terrible haircut any day of the week, and that a wine gets better as it matures (and that when it does, Stan and Mike are likely to drink it...)
Well done chaps!
Dan - Friday