May 8, 2014

MFA vs LDN: the “viral contagion” of creative writing courses in Britain


Yours for just £4,000: a chance to write your novel next to lots of other people writing theirs. Image via Shutterstock

Yours for just £4,000: a chance to write your novel next to lots of other people writing novels. Image via Shutterstock

The publishing industry was yesterday coming to terms with a fact many of us have known to be true for quite some time now: there are a hell of a lot of creative writing courses in Britain these days.

The Bookseller compares figures from 2003 and 2013:

In 2003 the Higher Education Authority’s Good Practice Guide stated that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) were offering 64 creative writing programmes. A decade later, its Beyond the Benchmark report revealed that 141 HEIs offered 504 degree programmes in which creative writing was a major or significant element.

One thing I like to do is pause over the advertorials in newspapers and trace the number of creative writing courses popping up at the rate noted above. “How curious, the Guardian is running a Masterclass on how to write the first word of your bestseller novel…” I might say as I read the Guardian. Then, later, flicking through the LRB, “Ah, so Oxford is now offering a Creative Writing MA…” Other ways to learn how to write historical fiction, compose your memoir and perfect your non-fiction pitch might be found at the Faber Academy, Random House’s The Writers’ Academy and Curtis Brown Creative.

Professor Andrew Cowan, who is director of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the UK’s original creative writing MA puts it a different way, “It’s like a viral contagion.” He watched such courses taking off in the mid-1990s but now describes the recent explosion:

They are everywhere and because they are so ubiquitous it has become unavoidable that publishers and agents are looking at them as one of the main channels for finding the next generation of literary talent.

Indeed, despite the fact that many of these courses are an excuse for universities and media organisations to make a lot of money off of the hopes and dreams of the public, publishers are using such courses to find new books and writers, and thus making those hopes and dreams come true.

And the courses in return are becoming wiser to the industry, and hopeful writers are demanding more contact with it, from an earlier stage. The Guardian runs about as many Masterclasses on breaking into the industry and self-promotion as it does on writing itself, while Cowan reflects that:

…because of the competition it has become increasingly important for us to emphasise the successful history of the programme and, in the second half of the MA, our relationships with the industry.

It’s judicious for hopeful writers to know about the publishing industry. After all, it is the industry that will buy the writer’s work, disseminate it, and if the author is lucky, clothe and feed them for some years to come. But a writer can also know too much: what publishers think they like, what publishers think they want, and what a successful book reads like.

Publishing MAs in particular give writers time to write, and a space away from a full-time job which makes dedicated writing time hard to fit in around work pressures. Frequent visits from hungry publishers and agents looking for the next deal impair these freedoms somewhat.

But the above issues relating to the would-be-writer/publisher relationship mask a concerning new development that cuts the publisher completely out of the picture. People are buying fewer books and so advances are falling and royalties take a long while to kick in. Getting a creative writing MA and then a publishing deal does not a sustainable career make. It is the MA itself which is leading young writers into a new career stream: teaching creative writing to other would-be writers. In his recent essay on the death of the novel, Will Self writes that creative writing courses are:

a self-perpetuating and self-financing literary set-aside scheme purpose built to accommodate writers who can no longer make a living from their work. In these care homes, erstwhile novelists induct still more and younger writers into their own reflexive career paths, so that in time they too can become novelists who cannot make a living from their work and so become teachers of creative writing.

It’s a gloomy view, but not necessarily an incorrect one. And then again, not necessarily entirely negative: many American writers, and particularly short story writers are doing very well out of such a system. But care should be taken to coax the novel away from the academy, where it could easily become a minor sport, with no relevance to outside, and general, readers. This can be achieved by a publisher finding the novel a wider readership, or by continuing to find writers who have not partaken in such courses. Alex Bowler, editorial director at Jonathan Cape takes the right approach when he says:

It doesn’t really interest me if someone has been on a course or not. Using it as a shortcut to a publishing deal doesn’t excite me. A lot of what we see [from creative writing students] is very similar, so it still has to be one of a myriad of ways to find new talent.




Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.