Oh strange new world that has such genre writing in it

New wave of creative-writing courses embrace the notion of marketability. Matthew Reisz reports

October 28, 2010

"Creative writing" once meant something pretty highbrow.

The first and most prestigious British MA in the subject was set up at the University of East Anglia by the authors Sir Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury in 1970. Its alumni include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tracy Chevalier and Anne Enright.

Even today, the university's website is absolutely clear that "neither the poetry nor prose fiction strand is primarily commercial in direction and neither teaches conventional genre forms or, in the conventional sense, marketability".

Although many of the course's graduates "continue to write", potential applicants are warned that "literary success is never easy, and many writers never publish".

A number of universities have followed in the austere footsteps of UEA and still offer courses focused on poetry and "literary fiction".

Yet in recessionary times, it is perhaps not surprising that there is an increasing focus on teaching rather more varied and potentially lucrative kinds of writing.

The MA in creative writing at Edinburgh Napier University, for example, openly offers students the chance to "develop vocational skills and to specialise in commercial forms, including crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy or life writing".

The BA at London South Bank University allows students to learn from "comic book writers, video game story designers, radio dramatists and screenwriters", while the University of Winchester has offered an MA in writing for children for a decade.

"Creative writing has changed," said Farah Mendlesohn, reader in creative and media writing and publishing and media at Middlesex University. "It has moved away from literary fiction to embrace genre fiction."

She herself teaches on the two-year part-time course on "creative writing (science fiction and fantasy)", which already has as many students as the standard "creative writing (fiction)" option.

"One of our students is already published, and I expect a couple more to be published by the end of the year," she said. "You can make a career in genre fiction because readers want so much from authors in terms of quantity. Science fiction and fantasy writers often produce a novel a year to cater to them."

At Roehampton University, Ariel Kahn, senior lecturer in creative writing, tells a similar story. The university now attracts more than 100 students to its single and joint BAs in creative writing and about 35 more on the MA.

Numbers continue to rise, notably among members of ethnic minorities.

"We try to respond constantly to changes in the market," said Mr Kahn.

Students may be interested in literary fiction, familiar types of genre fiction, but also erotica, queer fiction, black fiction, even songwriting and stand-up comedy.

One of his own specialities is the graphic novel. On courses such as this, "marketability" is no longer a dirty word.


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