Sleight of hand, but no magic yet

Bedford Square
February 10, 2006

I should declare an interest: I, too, am a graduate of a creative writing programme. There, now you know. Fifteen years ago, I spent a year in East Anglia, living in a freezing farmhouse and making weekly pilgrimages to the blasted concrete campus of the University of East Anglia to sit at the feet of Malcolm Bradbury - who had started what would become the most well known (or notorious) of these courses in Britain - and Rose Tremain. I would scurry back to my gas fire and write and write and write; I would drink, argue and laugh with my fellow students. Did I learn anything? Now, there's a good question.

Andrew Motion took over the UEA course from Sir Malcolm, as he became; in 2004 he would begin the programme he now runs at Royal Holloway.

As he remarks in his foreword to this anthology of writing from the first year of that course, ten years ago he "often met people who told me that writing couldn't be taught". Now, he says, things have changed; the creative writing programme can be an accepted part of a writer's path. What remains to be discussed, he says, is how one course might be differentiated from another, and how creative and critical acts might be better integrated.

I believe he is correct; if I have any reservations, they are of a slightly different nature, and centre on the expectations of those who go on such courses (including myself) and the expectations, too, of those who read the product of those courses.

If you wish to accomplish anything, practice is necessary, whatever your craft or art. Knitting, playing the violin, writing novels: keep at it and you are bound to improve. Yes, teaching can help. You can learn to make a cable stitch, how to hold an instrument, the difference between first and third-person narrative. If you work at it, and if you have a good and patient teacher, you may find greater satisfaction in your work than if you had gone it alone: not everyone is built to be an autodidact, though some do very well that way.

But - perhaps in part because early alumni of the UEA course included Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan (Bradbury's very first student) - an unrealistic expectation has, I think, grown up around creative writing courses. I smiled when I saw that this anthology was published by John Murray, now an imprint of publishing leviathan Hodder Headline. When I was at UEA, we produced an anthology, too - only it was, to all intents and purposes, self-published: a little black book called The Word Party . I designed it myself. We found a printer (Billing and Sons, I am reminded by my surviving copy), and we selected the typeface. I think it was sold in Waterstone's in Norwich. I don't think it was ever sold anywhere else.

This will not be true for the writers in Bedford Square , who will, at least, find themselves distributed in the shops for a while. There are similarities; the fondness of the anthologised writer for beguiling self-description. I read of my younger self that I had worked "as a stonemason, a cook, and a thatcher's apprentice"; I do not say that anymore. Bedford Square's Pat Borthwick has been "writer in residence for a canal, a coal mine, a cabbage and a chalk cliff". David Hass is "a psychotherapist who began life as an actor and writer and is now returning to his roots". I do not mean to be cruel: I only mean to say that none of this actually matters. What matters are the words on the page.

If you think I have come to these belatedly, I will now explain why. I wanted to love this book. I wanted to be excited by it, to hear the sound of new voices ringing in my ears. But that is not quite how things turned out.

The book is made up of extracts from novels and, at the back, poems. All the writing is fine; there is nothing bad here. I really quite liked one of Borthwick's poems - a delicate, felt construction titled Snow. But hardly anything made me want to read more or made me think "I must remember the name of so-and-so and get hold of his or her book when it comes out". Which is, you might say, a bit of a shame.

But is it? Andrew Motion, I know - because I have seen him in action - is a good teacher, indeed better than good; he is interested, committed, true.

The work he has done as Poet Laureate, and in setting up this course, is good and worthwhile - because it is good and worthwhile, those who believe they have voices should learn to use them better.

In the end, however, art cannot be taught. Skill can be. In this book is some skill; but, to this critic's eye, little art. Yet that is the reason that true art - the real thing, the intangible magic that makes the hair on the back of your neck prick up - is rare and precious. Most writing - whether self-published or brought to you by Hodder - will never come anywhere near. And that's just fine.

This does not mean the effort is not worth making. It is. I am no less eager to see what the next batch of Royal Holloway students will do; and don't think that I have given up on this bunch either. This year sees the birth centenary of Samuel Beckett, who recalled for us the artist's task: Fail again. Fail better.

Erica Wagner is literary editor, The Times .

Bedford Square: New Writing from the Royal Holloway Creative Writing Programme

Editor - Foreword by Andrew Motion
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 287
Price - £7.99
ISBN - 0 7195 6822 6

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