Magazine article The Spectator

The Creative Writing Controversy

Magazine article The Spectator

The Creative Writing Controversy

Article excerpt

It came as a bit of a shock to learn from Philip Hensher's review of Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (31 December) that there are now nearly 100 institutions of higher education in Britain offering a degree in Creative Writing.

I suppose for many it's a merry-go-round.

You get the degree and then you get a job teaching Creative Writing to other aspirants who get a degree and then a job teaching . . .and so it goes. This, after all, has been the way with art colleges for a long time.

I sometimes think I must be one of the few surviving novelists who has neither studied nor taught Creative Writing. I was, admittedly, long ago, a writer-in-residence at a couple of universities, had indeed the title of Creative Writing Fellow at one of them, but there was no Creative Writing course to teach. I was merely expected to make myself available to any students who were sufficiently interested to come and talk about writing with me, even to show me their work and invite comments. So I sat in a room and waited for callers.

At Edinburgh I was fortunate to be approached by some very talented students, among them Ian Rankin, James Meek and Kathleen Jamie. All were studying for degrees in traditional subjects: English Literature, History, Foreign Languages, Philosophy. Our meetings were enjoyable - for me anyway - but I doubt if I was of any great help to them. All would have become the writers they are if they had never met me. Indeed Kathleen Jamie's poetry had already won her a Gregory Award.

According to Hensher, a good Creative Writing course can move a gifted but unconscious writer from the point where he says 'I don't know - it just seemed to come out like that' to where he can say, 'I see how I did this, and how I can do it again in different terms.'

Perhaps it can indeed do this. 'Writing, particularly of fiction, is', as he observes, 'a matter of dense craft. Characters are structured in particular ways.'

Certainly writing fiction is a craft. You have to consider questions like the point of view - though many good novelists have always switched this as seemed convenient to them. You seek to achieve a balance between narrative, dialogue (which should also often be narrative), reflection, description, sometimes analysis. …

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