Philip Hensher gives a critical insider’s view of the Creative Writing industry
It has always been a challenge to get a novel or poem published. Twenty years ago, I went about it in the traditional way. I read a hell of a lot of books. I did a couple of literary degrees. I got an interestingly peculiar but rather gruelling job. I wrote a novel or two in the evenings or on holiday. Then I met a literary agent at a drinks party and he took one on and sold it to Hamish Hamilton — and has possibly regretted it ever since.
The traditional way has, in the last few decades, been supplanted by a more professional sounding one called the Creative Writing degree. It honestly never occurred to me that one ought to learn how to write on one of those programmes But I suspect that most would-be authors nowadays don’t think there is any other route to publication.
They embark on a Creative Writing MA for three reasons. The first is to get some writerly skills together. The second is to spend some agreeable time in the company of other writers (I don’t think I ever met a proper writer until I was in my twenties). The third is to use the certificate and a letter of introduction to get a hearing with a London literary agent, who, of course, may perfectly well think your MA not worth the paper it’s printed on.
But of course the Creative Writing degree, despite its ubiquity these days — there are nearly 100 institutions of higher education offering it in this country alone — is not the only path to publication and acclaim by any means. This anthology of writing about the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing programme sparks off a number of thoughts, principally about its claimed excellence.
The UEA course has been running for 40 years. It is by far the best-known in the country. Probably most people who want to become writers would like to study there. In short, the teachers can have their pick. So why do they struggle to produce 20 famous names from the last 40 years? And why don’t UEA alumni dominate contemporary British writing in the same way that students from St Martin’s and the Glasgow School of Art have influenced art for the last few decades?
There is a list of published UEA graduates in this book, something under 300 — it is hard to be definite, because at least one is listed twice under different spellings. Of these, I’ve heard of precisely 50, and have read work by 20, not all of whom I would regard as significant or even particularly interesting authors. Why doesn’t UEA do better?
There’s rather an arid debate, continued in these pages, over whether writing can really be taught at all. Of course, the work of the imagination can’t be bestowed in the classroom. But writing, particularly of fiction, is a matter of dense craft. Characters are structured in particular ways. The proportion of different modes, such as description, historic narration and dialogue in a text can be adjusted for expressive purposes. The particular style has its own components, which may be consciously addressed by the imaginative writer. To 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 can see how I did this, and how I can do it again in different terms’ is what a good Creative Writing course can do.
The UEA does this through workshops, in which participants sit around and talk about each other’s work. That, in my experience, can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful. The best essays here reflect, almost without exception, on charismatic teachers like Angela Carter, and hardly at all on what participants in classes expressed or shared. There is a lot to be said for the top-down method of teaching from a richly experienced and big-brained writer, sometimes even standing at the whiteboard parsing a Henry James sentence.
What can’t be found here is any consideration of how the institution has changed and influenced writing. I don’t think there’s much doubt, as one contributor says, that the experience of critical thinking from other parts of the university had a terrible effect on poor old Angus Wilson’s novels — which grew worse and worse and groovier and groovier. The institutional process, perfectly all right for works of academic scholarship, can be disastrous for novelists, with its unceasing question: ‘But what is it going to be about?’ Much easier to settle for a historical novel, or one with specific political biases, than a modest, tender tale of private lives.
A grim example from my own experience might help to illustrate this. About four years ago, I wanted to start work on a novel about Nainsukh, the 18th-century Rajput miniaturist. I’d loved him for years, had been going round the world to see as much of his surviving work as I could, and thought he would make a good subject. My publisher thought so too, and left me to it. When my turn for a sabbatical from the institution at which I teach Creative Writing rolled round, they insisted that I detail the research findings of my unwritten novel and apply for a grant of public money from the AHRC, the research-funding body for the humanities. No application: no leave.
I applied, gritting my teeth. Back from the AHRC came a ‘peer review’ of risible ignorance, arguing aggressively that no non-Asian should ever be allowed to write a fictional treatment of an Asian topic, with various skim-read allusions to Edward Said’s well-known book on the subject. Faced with this brutal appraisal, my will to write the book evaporated. I mourn my unwritten Nainsukh novel like —well, not like a dead child, but perhaps like a well-loved family pet.
Most institutions are going to find it a distinct challenge to contain the carnivalesque and unpredictable workers in the imagination. The majority will always prefer the second-rate and self-limited writer to the dangerous maverick. Even UEA. Some of the writers who here celebrate its excellence are really superb advertisements for its results. Others, including a couple, I am sorry to say, who actually teach on the programme, are, on the evidence of their submissions, truly shockingly bad writers.
Two depressing facts emerge about the UEA programme. The first is that ten of the listed graduates have published ‘how-to-write’ books, feeding the industry in an absurd manner. The second is that a startling number of writers celebrated here did well with a first book, but have faded, with each successive work, before disappearing into total oblivion. To sustain a long-term career remains a real challenge for any creative programme.
One can understand why institutions might prefer the safe hauler-in of grants to the bold spirit. After years of spouting abject guff in the classroom about how literature is ‘subversive’ and ‘dangerous’ and ‘undermining’ of institutions, the teachers of English Literature may discover the unsuspected truth of their assertions. They may not like the fact that these subversive writers have in their sights the very institutions of learning which so generously offered them a paid haven. Writers, pathologically ungrateful as they are, are ceaselessly interested in the workings of the individual within and against large institutional structures, and are perhaps more dangerous creatures than those institutions really understand.
Even in this celebratory volume, there are contributors who decidedly chafe against the course’s restrictions, or against, for example, Malcolm Bradbury, one of its founders. The Russian linguist Roman Jakobson remarked that he would not appoint Nabokov as a professor of Literature, just as he would not appoint an elephant as professor of Zoology. The elephants are within the institutions now: and the institutions are pretending t
hat there are no bars, and no cages involved.