Novel thinking

Creative writing is as popular today as critical theory was a decade ago. Why the change, asks Penny Hancock, and how does it fit in with the study of English literature?

July 10, 2008

Until the 1990s, masters in creative writing existed only at the University of East Anglia and Lancaster University. Even ten years ago, courses at BA and MA level were virtually unheard of. English departments at universities focused on the study of literature, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Being a writer of fiction or poetry did not require a degree, and writers evolved regardless - as many, of course, always have. Nobel prizewinners Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing, for example, didn't do a BA, let alone an MA, in anything.

So how is it that there are now, in addition to more than 70 universities offering undergraduate degrees in creative writing, at least 50 masters programmes? There are various theories to explain this proliferation. One is that the courses replace the editorial input once provided by small publishing houses to promising new writers. Another is that students erroneously imagine that writing will offer a glamorous career - and one that can be achieved by taking creative writing at postgraduate level. Yet another suggests that there may be a crisis in traditional English studies, and that creative writing is taking over where the dusty academic study of literature leaves off.

A look at the creative writing masters programmes on offer at British universities reveals that what they have to offer (and the claims they make) vary widely - from those with an emphasis on the market for fiction, sometimes including a module on the publishing industry, to those with a purist attitude to the creation of literary fiction for its own sake. Between the two lies a spectrum of options including screenwriting, poetry, drama, writing for TV and radio, as well as modules on literary criticism and theory.

Not only does the content vary, but so does the pedagogy. Some courses rely solely on workshops, where students critique each other's work, while others combine lectures, seminars and tutorials. A programme at City University London encourages students to complete a novel over the two-year part-time course, while another devotes just 12 weeks to a novel in progress.

Students embarking on a costly masters - whose fees may be twice as high as those of other postgraduate arts courses - need to be very clear about what the course offers, and what, realistically, they are going to get out of it. In a recent interview, the novelist Hanif Kureshi said that such courses set up false expectations that a literary career would inevitably follow. "The fantasy is that all the students will become successful writers - and no one will disabuse them of that. When you use the word 'creative' and the word 'course', there is something deceptive about it."

A former student from a full-time masters programme (who did not want to be named for fear that "it would prejudice my fate in the publishing market") agrees with this.

"What I thought I was going to get was a nuts-and-bolts approach to redrafting my novel," he said. "I was not interested in spending hours in workshops looking at the microscopic detail of other people's work. Neither was I interested in poetry. Poets, in my opinion, are a strange breed with their own ways.

"In the workshops, the students did most of the work themselves. The teachers seemed too scared to offer opinions. I would have preferred to be taught by a famous novelist who could say: 'This is how I do things.'?"

So how do staff in English departments respond to these concerns? Laura Dietz, a novelist and senior lecturer on the creative writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University, believes that the hunger for writing classes at postgraduate level reflects a wider demand for personal development.

"These days people are more comfortable with the idea of masterclasses," she suggests, "whether it's paying for a trainer to help prepare for a marathon or a life coach to help search for a job. Writing is no different. We want to keep on improving in our lives. People who write don't want to stagnate - they look for ways to develop, and an MA is a good way of continuing this development. It's not just about your name appearing on the cover of a book in Waterstone's, and most students are aware of this."

Dietz, an English literature graduate, attended Stanford University, where writing modules were offered but not an entire degree. She sees creative writing as a natural development of the teaching of English literature that offers a more accessible way of introducing the study of literature than time-honoured approaches involving the reading of texts and critics and the writing of essays about them.

"Many 17-year-old kids see creative writing as an exciting way of approaching literature," she elaborates, "by analysing Jane Austen's themes, for example, but also her technique and craft. Experimentation in writing can illuminate and bring to life literature in a way that traditional approaches don't. Those interested in studying literature at a higher level find that creative writing enables (them to) study from the inside out."

Julia Bell, a novelist and tutor on the MA creative writing programme at Birkbeck, University of London, has no doubt that creative writing is taking over from the study of literature in English departments.

"Ten or 15 years ago the dominant subject in English literature departments was European critical theory. Students were studying theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Now creative writing has taken the place of theory. Universities have to justify their courses financially, and creative writing courses are what students want. They want transferable skills, and deem creative writing to be something important that they can apply to a wide range of professions, even if they never make it as novelists."

Yet Bell is convinced that English literature and the study of criticism and theory should be an integral part of creative writing at postgraduate level.

"Personally, I feel a sense of anxiety about creative writing courses that are situated outside English literature departments," she says. "Students on creative writing programmes need to see where their writing fits into an historical and cultural body of literature. There are students who believe they can write without reading, and it just isn't the case. The more you read, the better you are going to be as a writer."

The former student mentioned above disagrees heartily. As a mature student on a creative writing MA, what he didn't want was another course in English literature.

"I'm not interested in literary theory," he asserts. "It's the other side of the fence to being a novelist. At masters level, most students will surely have studied literature on their undergraduate degrees. I wanted to get on with the business of writing a novel."

"Some courses do limit intake to those who have studied literature at BA level," agrees Dietz, "but this isn't true everywhere. And not many creative writing MAs spend much time on literary theory or history."

One exception is the masters in creative and critical writing at the University of Sussex. Nicholas Royle, a professor of English who created the course, is adamant that creative writing cannot exist without a critical component at masters level.

"I wouldn't teach creative writing by itself. It doesn't interest me," he explains. "For me, there really is a problem in giving a percentage to a short story in a vacuum, it's such a daunting thought. The idea that a student can write a sonnet or a novel without having a sound understanding about its history, and where it fits into literature as a whole, seems to me to be manifestly daft.

"What is rewarding for students is to submit a piece of creative work with a critical accompaniment. It is this that provides the evaluative framework. The critical piece may look at broader issues relating to the creative piece, such as genre or theme, or it may look at critical approaches. But the critical side is really necessary for the creative side to flourish. I want my students to read great writers, great thinkers and great critics. It's an obvious way of dealing with the problem of evaluating and teaching creative writing."

Like Bell, Royle is concerned that universities are becoming more and more market-driven and that this threatens academic courses that have less immediate appeal than creative writing.

"If we turn everything within education over to a business model, we're going to have to do what the customer wants. If customers want creative writing, and there is evidence to suggest that they do, there is a danger that the study of English literature will be pulled out altogether," he says.

Unlike the anonymous student, Shelley Weiner, a novelist, teacher and Royal Literary Fund fellow, found that studying literature rather than creative writing was an extremely rewarding path for her as a practising writer.

"At the time I decided to take a masters degree, there were no creative writing courses in London," she says. "I'd already published a couple of novels and I took the MA in English literature by default, but I loved it. It added to my frame of reference as a writer. I deliberately chose subjects that were unrelated to novel writing, such as poetry and drama. I found this enormously nourishing for my own work ... You are so vulnerable as a creative-writing student, putting yourself on the line. An English literature degree can be a good way of gaining insight into ways of writing without baring your soul before you are ready."

Some English literature academics, on the other hand, see the encroachment of creative writing courses into their departments as a positive influence. Sarah Brown, a professor of English at Anglia Ruskin, believes that critical theory can definitely benefit from a more creative approach.

To this end, she organised a colloquium, "Criticism and creativity", held this month at Anglia Ruskin. A group of critics and practitioners explored the role of creativity within criticism and scholarship, and the role of criticism and scholarship within creative practice, including theatre, fiction and painting.

Speakers at the colloquium included Jo-Ann Goodwin, who studied English at the University of Hull and whose novel Sweet Gum draws on her experience of studying Spenser's Faerie Queene. Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey offered a presentation on their co-authored fiction Dunsinane: A Creative Response to Macbeth.

Dietz points out that in some ways it is odd that English literature academics have traditionally not had to practise the subject of their own studies - creative writing.

"In engineering, chemistry, drama or music, students expect to be taught by a combination of practitioners and academics. English literature is unusual in that the academics who teach it are rarely creative writers themselves - although there are notable exceptions. It is good that now there is a movement towards the production of writing as well as its study within English literature departments."

Creative writing, argues Bell, needs to be taught by people who are not only practising writers but excellent teachers as well. "What we don't want is writers who are simply bashing you over the head with their own egos," she says.

"In many ways, English departments are the last bastions of literary fiction, where academics are free to write and to encourage their students to write outside the pressures of the publishing world. English departments are able to encourage students to write experimentally. In publishing, the bottom line is that every book has to make a profit. We are free from that pressure in universities, and we need to recognise and take advantage of it."

"Given all this, we should be thankful that universities are taking writers in," Bell adds. "Where, otherwise, would the interesting writing be happening? We need these places in order to discuss and read. Creative writing needs to be driven by passion, not by money. It needs to address grand themes. And it needs to happen within a literature department to be close to ideas, and to be taught by writers who are passionate about their work and about what great writing can achieve."

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