Michael Amherst

Creative writing courses made me a better reader

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As I came to the end of my English degree I applied to several universities for further study on Joseph Conrad, along with UEA for their creative writing programme. Owing to a misunderstanding with my tutor her reference arrived at East Anglia late and I was told my application would be deferred to the following year. Like many graduands I’d enjoyed university, enjoyed my English degree and believed that further study would be every bit as intellectually and socially stimulating. However, over the summer I began to have my doubts. I was going to do a Masters by Research and increasingly realized that being in a strange city, without the benefit of course mates, reading and re-reading the complete works of Conrad, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche might be rather depressing. Then one of those events happened that afterwards you forever feel had something of fate about it. I decided I wouldn’t do the MRes after all but spend a year working to support my writing. Almost immediately I was called by UEA to say they had two vacancies for the year coming and wanted to interview me there and then. Having been offered a place I had under a week to find a flat and after that but three days to pack up my stuff and move to Norwich.

Of my fellow students I was less experienced, with one of the slimmest portfolios. I naïvely hoped that we would be taken through some basic lessons, such as where to start, how to select your subject matter, what your routine should be and the like. There was none of this. In hindsight this was the course’s greatest strength: we were encouraged to find our own way and repeatedly assured that, ‘You write how you write’, as the inevitable comparisons with one another began.

At the heart of the course is the writer’s workshop: three hours dedicated to the work of three students. You submit a piece that is then picked apart by the group of twelve who both praise and criticise – never condemn – and then hand back copies of your work with their own annotations and markings. I still have all of these: nothing brings home better how different people’s tastes are, how differently they read, and how profoundly different are their insights. Every month, when it was my turn, I would take myself out to dinner afterwards as a treat, armed with my twelve copies, anxiously thumbing through for the handwriting of those I recognized as especially helpful. I am still in touch with these readers today – a mutual relationship of drafts flying back and forth via email.

Looking back, I wish I had done my Masters prior to my English degree. What can easily pass for textual analysis as an undergraduate appears hopelessly insubstantial when you’ve spent hours and days pulling apart your own sentences. Your awareness and appreciation of the repeated choices a writer makes becomes so much more acute. That word you may dismiss or pass over as a literature undergraduate is suddenly imbued with both great importance and a series of substantive choices. UEA includes creative writing as part of its English BA and I think this should be more widely encouraged throughout universities. Students of Music and Fine Art are expected to perform and compose as well as critique, and undoubtedly one informs the other. I can see little reason, other than intellectual snobbery, for the same not to be true with literature. I’m not advocating a wealth of Literature and Creative Writing BAs but I do think students who work at the latter gain greater insights when tackling the former.

Yet Creative Writing courses continue to receive a bad press, such as Elif Batuman’s recent critique of MFAs in the London Review of Books. Her criticisms are the standard ones: that they turn out clones of their tutors; often their writers obsess about finding an original voice that bears little relation to their own experience; they produce work full of imagery and beautiful sentences but no narrative or story. Another criticism is that they teach students to ignore their literary inheritance, with a faux innocence of literature and culture.

I found none of this at UEA – we were encouraged to read as widely as possible and examples were often given in workshops from a range of canonical and contemporary authors as well as literary theorists. What we were encouraged to do was get on and write, without cramping up with the weight of our own reading. This is good advice because every bit as annoying as Batuman’s MFA student who thinks they’ve ‘invented intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration’ is the MFA student who mistakes intertextuality for substance or constant literary citations for originality. All of one’s past reading is there anyway and there’s no benefit to a writer to dredge it to the forefront of their mind when they’re trying to create something new.

But Batuman has a point. Arguably part of the problem is the commercial construct that is literary fiction – this is not literature, but it purports to be. In reality it is merely another genre. Like any genre, literary fiction favours a particular subject matter, and is usually written within a particular range of tropes. Literature on the other hand is harder to define but is writing of originality, merit, substance and longevity and one could and would include writers working in other genres, for example Ursula le Guin and Patricia Highsmith. The conflation of Literary Fiction with literature jettisons certain kinds of writing or genres – unless appropriated by an already established author of Literary Fiction such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood – and leaves us all weaker for it.

Martha Schabas, one of my course mates, whose debut novel Various Positions has just been published by Random House Canada, told Open Book Toronto:

‘Creative writing courses are strange creatures by nature. There’s very little that’s actually pedagogical about them; instead, you get a bunch of aspiring writers projecting their own preferences and uncertainties onto each other’s own work … I think I learnt the most that year through spirited argument with my peers and writing tutors, trying to get at the crux of what makes good writing “good”.’

The problem occurs when mainstream literary culture – including the publishing industry itself – finds it all too easy to give up the ‘spirited argument’ over what defines literature and instead codifies a genre called ‘literary fiction’ and pretends it is the same thing.

Yet this is the direction that literary culture is heading in. Does it serve readers and writers well? Towards the end of our year we were visited in Norwich by a publisher from a well-known publishing house who confidently told us Ulysses would never be published today and that he knew a good book when it made him want to turn the page. But is that a real measure of literary value? There’s an apparent consensus in publishing that no one will take any risks, but the problem is that agents and publishers are complicit in this: passing the buck, hoping that someone else will address the challenge. The recently launched The White Review is a rare example of some trying to stop the rot Batuman describes as ‘”great literature” … replaced by “excellent fiction”’, but it is not enough on its own.

Writers and Creative Writing courses can be guilty too. There’s a clear difference between compromising for the market, which writers have always done – Dickens and Dostoyevsky, for example – and settling for the genre of literary fiction with its codification of literary value in a manner that is limited, both in terms of focus and shelf life. A writer should write what they want, what they believe in and do it to the best of their ability regardless, in the hope that one day that nebulous term literature may apply.

So do these courses serve any useful purpose? Ultimately if you are a writer you will write and the words will come. What UEA taught me was how to edit, how to interrogate my own work and that of others. To never leave anything to mere chance or a sleight of hand. It taught me to be a better, more intelligent and giving reader. That can only ever make you a better writer.

Michael Amherst is a novelist. To find out more, visit his website www.michaelamherst.com