This first appeared in The Bangladesh Daily Star, whose literary pages can be seen here http://bd.thedailystar.net/literature
Hanif Kureishi caused a stir at the Bath Literature Festival by describing creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’. He said that most of his students at Kingston University have no talent, and talent can’t be taught. He gets no marks for tact, but does he have a point?
In recent years in Britain there’s been a huge expansion in university courses in creative writing. It’s no coincidence that this has coincided with a shift from public to private financing of higher education, and the growing pressure to respond to consumer demand. Creative writing is what the customers want. But can the universities deliver on their promise?
Novelist Lucy Ellman thinks not. She used to teach creative writing at the University of Kent, but now describes such courses as ‘the biggest con-job in academia’, suggesting that universities charge fees on false pretences. If people take these courses in the expectation of getting published, many will be disappointed. If they have fame or wealth in mind, they’re almost certainly deluded. But students I talk to often have more modest ambitions. They speak of wanting to improve their writing, or of needing the structure to help them write a story they’ve been thinking about for years.
Asked if he would consider studying creative writing himself if he were starting out now, Kureishi said, ‘No… that would be madness. I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me.’ That’s easier said than done. Most aspiring writers work in isolation, sometimes with no one to consult but family members or friends who mean well but don’t really get what they’re trying to do. You can’t pluck a good teacher out of the air. The university course provides a community of students and teachers who understand the urge to write and respect the struggle to produce good work.
The defenders of creative writing courses often talk about the elements of craft that can be effectively taught. Novelist Matt Haig says that courses can be ‘very useful, just like music lessons can be useful’. I understand the temptation to liken this new subject to more established kinds of training, like studying an instrument. But there’s a huge difference. Playing music is a precise discipline. Predictability is an asset. It’s best to start young, and you can’t expect to think about self-expression before you’ve achieved some level of technical mastery. In contrast, people typically take up novel writing in adult life, sometimes in midlife. It’s an activity that springs from individual experience and celebrates personal vision. It’s not a skill that can be acquired in predictable stages. Publishers may value craft, but they continually seek fresh voices.
To this extent, Kureishi is right to emphasise the importance of individual talent. But, for the very same reason, startlingly good work can sometimes emerge from apparently unpromising students. University courses may not be able to teach people to become writers, but they do provide an environment in which writers can find themselves.