Budding of suburbia

October 5, 2007

What induces big-name authors to teach on the growing number of creative writing courses, and is it a subject that can be taught anyway? Harriet Swain meets two new converts to the academic cause, Hanif Kureishi and Rachel Cusk

Writer Hanif Kureishi says he is amazed at the number of creative writing courses that are "set up by people with no qualifications whatsoever" and by people who are "bad writers, otherwise they wouldn't be doing it". The author of, among other works, My Beautiful Launderette and The Buddha of Suburbia says: "Having an MA in writing is no proof you can write in any way at all." This has not deterred Kureishi from teaching creative writing to MA and PhD students at Kingston University, however. This term, he starts his first full academic year, having taught students since January. Steadfastly refusing to teach at the university, he meets them at the cafe around the corner from his home in Shepherds Bush to go through their prose and suggest further reading.

Although avoiding universities, Kureishi says he has always taught since he was a young playwright at the Royal Court. "If you know something, you have a duty to pass it on." He was taught to write by his father and by Jeremy Trafford, who, as an editor for publisher Anthony Blond, looked at Kureishi's first attempt at a novel, written at 14. Trafford, now a friend, lent him records and books, guided his reading and writing and wrote him letters about the nature of fiction, about creating structure and character. Kureishi tries to do something similar with his own students, giving talks to undergraduates and supervising dissertations. "I'm not a big fan of being in academia. But it's a way of reaching people who are interested in writing," he says.

Certainly, the number of people pursuing their interest in creative writing through a university course has grown dramatically since the University of East Anglia first offered such a course in 1970. Most universities now offer some kind of creative writing programme and strive to secure the biggest-name authors they can in an effort to lure students. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion - who succeeded Malcolm Bradbury as professor of creative writing at UEA - now heads the MA in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Last year, Fay Weldon joined Brunel University as a professor of creative writing. This year, Manchester University achieved a well-publicised coup when it announced that Martin Amis would run postgraduate seminars at its Centre for New Writing, which launched last month.

Meg Jensen, field leader in Kingston's department of creative writing, which started its postgraduate programme in 2004 and now has 40 MA and five PhD students, says the interest comes not only from people's desire to be published but from their compulsion to tell their life stories. The rise of blogs, social networking sites such as Facebook, personal websites and webcams all demonstrate a desire "to bear witness to their own lives".

It is a desire from which institutions are benefiting, particularly as it is concentrated at the more lucrative postgraduate level. Author lecturers benefit, too. Rachel Cusk, another new Kingston appointment, whose books include Whitbread Award winner Saving Agnes , The Lucky Ones and Arlington Park , says a university post offers her an intellectually sympathetic environment that is a tempting alternative to family life with two small children, writing alone and the limited literary world. She also cites "the desire to communicate", enjoying the student contact and the chance to connect with people whose desire to express themselves is still raw.

Along with a regular pay packet, such posts offer flexible working arrangements because universities are necessarily sympathetic to their authors' creative needs. Cusk notes that it would be "a bit pointless" taking on a teaching job that destroyed her ability to write. She has found teaching stimulating rather than obstructive to her work and says that after managing to fit her writing around small children - including the book A Life's Work , about just how all-consuming becoming a mother is - accommodating students is a doddle.

Teaching has also taught her how to express herself more clearly and simply - she says one reason she writes is because she finds it easier than talking. While she thinks the students were at first intimidated by her intellectual view of the world and did not necessarily share it, the process of understanding each other has proved enriching on both sides.

Kureishi agrees that teaching makes him think about what he does and gives him a rare chance to discuss it. Writers don't tend to have work colleagues and so don't talk about writing with each other.

What the students get out of it all, meanwhile, is unpredictable, says Cusk, who adds that you cannot teach someone how to write. What you can offer is the kind of comment on their work that established writers get when their latest book is published. You can also give time, a sympathetic environment for writing and advice on things to read that will enrich their work. You can help students make the connection between their desire to write and what other people have written, tell them what to cut out, steer them without changing fundamentally the kind of writers they are.

She is aware that her response is prompted by her particular aesthetic. "That's why I'm quite glad I have waited to do something like this," she says. "I have written a lot of books, and I am confident that my aesthetic is shared by people who care as much about these things as I do." There is also the odd trick to pass on. Cusk says she would, for example, always encourage people away from subjective musing and towards hard reality.

Kureishi insists that while you cannot measure creative writing students' work academically, you can certainly improve it by telling them that the most important thing is the story and that what makes a story work is the characters; that you usually need central characters and lots of different ones around them; that you cannot introduce too many characters all at once; and that you need to distribute information for readers throughout a novel so that by the end they have all they need. He says he has been surprised by how much he knows, after 30 years as a professional writer, writing most days.

But Kureishi stresses that his response to students' work is subjective - in the past, he has seen an unpublished work that he thought was terrible but which went on to find not only a publisher but many readers. He argues that publishing is driven more by the market than by the quality of the writing, and that university creative writing courses should recognise this more than than they do. "People in universities don't know anything about publishing," he says. "They don't know how books are published and how marketing works. There should be closer links with the industry."

He fears that some creative writing teachers are misleading their students and fostering illusions of future fame. He believes that what makes the difference between an average writer and a great one is not the ability to write but the ability to imagine, and that this is something that cannot be taught, which is why he admires J. K. Rowling. Her ability to imagine, he says, makes her a sort of genius.

So the relationship between creativity and academia is not a straightforward one, despite the burgeoning popularity of creative writing courses, and Kureishi and Cusk reflect this ambiguity. Both are comfortable with the intellectual environment that university offers, yet uncomfortable with its constraints - a tension that dates back to their own undergraduate experiences.

Kureishi started as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, but left and later found studying philosophy at King's College London "deeply stimulating".

Cusk studied English at New College, Oxford, where she "found everything in life so amazingly emotional and personal. The idea of structured university learning - I couldn't bind myself to that." She was no good at exams, but "suddenly there I was, among like-minded people who read poetry and had very interesting ideas and expressed them in very interesting ways and read books because they felt they were alive".

Teaching at Kingston has reminded her of the wonder of university life, "these places where you are not only allowed but encouraged to sit around and read French poetry", which she finds cheering. This year she will teach undergraduates, and she hopes to become more involved in teaching literature as well as creative writing, although she still remains wary of committing herself to academic life too much.

Interviewed when his Manchester University appointment was announced, Amis hinted that he may get a novel out of his teaching experiences. While Cusk dismisses this idea for herself, Kureishi, whose next novel Something to Tell You is due out early next year, says he could contemplate writing a campus novel, with one proviso - that he wouldn't actually have to spend any time on a campus.

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