Twenty-five years ago, Angus Wilson and I - fellow professors of literature at the then new University of East Anglia - came up with a shared literary inspiration. In the previous two or three years, we had seen and worked with a good deal of rema rkablefiction that was being written by some of our students - notably Rose Tremain and Clive Sinclair. We were also worried about the state of the novel in Britain. The reports were grim ("The End of the British Novel") and publishers were growing doub tful about quality fiction's prospects.
Our notion was to start up a postgraduate programme in something that we decided to call "creative writing". We disliked the term, and certainly the idea then had a very negative aspect to it. In Europe, "creative writing" was generally thought of as a suspect American import like the hula-hoop. True, American universities had been teaching "creative writing" since the 1890s, and many distinguished writers had emerged from them. But they seemed to reflect an instrumentalist, technological, pos t -cultural view of the arts that wasn't shared in Europe The European notion of the literary arts was very different. Literature came from gifted individuals, innate talent, the divine fires of inspiration. It was born in bars and cafes, studios and salons. It came from an instinctive citizenship of the arts and a taste for the modern. It certainly didn't come from taught courses in cold classrooms or from the solemn world of the university campus.
These suspicions were shared among our academic colleagues. In most universities in 1970, "contemporary literature" was thought a contradiction in terms; after all, a signed death certificate was required to turn writing into literature Writing surely could not be taught. If it could be taught, it could, surely, not be properly examined. And even if it was taught and examined, it was hardly worthy of a postgraduate degree. The business of a university was research, scholarship and literary theory. Literature was what universities studied, not what universities produced.
Still, Angus and I started our course. It would last a year and be built around a writing workshop. It would take in writers of evident talent, allow them to work intensively and analytically on stories or a novel, make some academic study of literature,and, if all went well, award them an MA degree at the end, primarily judged on the quality of the fiction they had written. Good fortune struck at once. The first student was Ian McEwan, who in our trial year produced the contents of his first two booksof fiction.
Twenty-five years on, I'm now in the process of retiring from the programme which, after Angus Wilson left, I taught with Angela Carter and then Rose Tremain. Just short of 200 students - mostly writers of fiction but more recently also screenwriters - have passed through.
Of these something like a third are known and publishing writers. There is no school, no common way of writing and each generation has its own distinctive qualities.
A quarter of a century seems a useful time to pause for reflection. Has it all been a good idea? Has it made any difference? Has it done anything of value to the atmosphere of literary studies and the work of universities? And where does the teaching of writing fit into the changing cultural climate?
One thing is certain. Creative writing is no longer a distant American phenomenon. Like rollerblades and serial killers, it has crossed the water and is here to stay. Whenever I lecture in Britain or Europe, these days, I find the most common questions Imeet are those to do with the matter. Many people have written a book, aided by the technologies of word processing, the multiplication of handbooks and …