It’s that time again when the academic year draws to a close for thousands of students and professionals alike across the country. It is now that many students begin to think about putting into practice the fruits of their education, earning from their accumulated wisdom. For students of postgraduate creative writing courses this is no different. It is now that the best postgraduate courses (such as UEA, Bath Spa, Manchester, Cardiff etc.) begin to display their talent to the industry-at-large, and the critical and commercial success of their alumni in turn guarantees the success of the course itself. A creative writing MA, after all, is only ever as good as the writers it produces.
There has been much criticism of the ‘industry’ of creative writing courses, mainly from the mouths of successful, established writers who utterly misunderstand the natures of the best courses. The criticism is that it creates an industry ‘standard’ and encourages the stymieing of natural creative adventurousness. The reason being that it is impossible to ‘teach writing’, and therefore what these courses must teach instead is ‘market’. Some writers I greatly admire have been heard to opine such misinformed tosh. The point being that, yes, you can quite legitimately argue that one cannot ‘teach writing’, but it is irrefutable that one must ‘learn how to write’. Why it is inconceivable that creative writing courses are forums for ‘learning’ rather than ‘teaching’ is beyond me.
The truth is that it is the publishing industry that imposes an industry standard upon not only writers but readers too. The best creative writing MAs do not teach their charge how to write a hit novel, but they do provide a communication network with an industry that will quickly impose a set of false standards, largely market-driven, upon them. I would argue that an anthology such as Bath Spa’s ARC, an annual collection of extracts from students’ novels or poetry collections, is proof that the notion of the ‘creative writing novel’ is a myth.
I should point out that I am one of those writers who has benefitted from (and so experienced first-hand) a creative writing MA; the one at Bath Spa, in actual fact. I prefer not to think of myself as a ‘product’ of that institution, as many prefer to insinuate that writers who come out of a CWMA are moulded, coached, and spat out onto Orange longlists or the shelves at Tesco. Nobody is a ‘product’ of their creative MA. The students may have learned to cut clauses, to change narrator, to explore character motives more thoroughly (or indeed to leave a little more for the reader to work out), but that comes from a nurturing, critical environment, not from an attempt to create a production line of Model-T novels.
A skip through the ARC anthology sees a wide range of styles, topics, genres, environments, ambitions and ideas. Sure, there are disappointing trends (the first-person-present-tense narrative is a fad, the adoptees of this perspective convinced that it suggests immediacy and swagger, in the same way the Coldplay-duped 8/4 drum signature in pop music now seems to fabricate the emotive anthem). But trends are about taste, sometimes market-driven, sometimes artistically formulated. What you will not see is a ‘creative writing novel’.
In ARC – to pluck just a few – are some novel extracts one could easily imagine the completed form of which going on to find success with a publisher. Hannah Ballinger’s comic crime thriller set in the West Country has a particularly distinctive voice and vocal confidence; Jessica Sarah Rose Cook’s Adulstescence (although infuriatingly in first-person-present-tense narrative) has a wonderfully off-centre premise that suggests a dark urban fairy tale; Amanda Dixie’s Follow the Line of Dance (although being a first-person-present-tense narrative) is an ambitious literary novel that uses several plot strands to span a century-long narrative; Sophie McGovern’s magical fantasy, (House of Mirrors) is a tantalisingly short glimpse into a novel that promises to be a powerful metaphor for modern life; Hadiza Isma El-Rufai’s The Orphanage is a tale of international child-trafficking; Victoria Finlay offers an extract from her fictitious history of a year in the life of Carlo Goldoni, the eighteenth century Venetian playwright; there is a novel set in Persia at the outbreak of the First World War, a novel set on Uranus, one about a single-handed yachting venture in the Irish Sea, one set in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. I could easily go on. The quality of writing is high – but of course that has very little to do with whether the reading public ever get the opportunity to see these novels finished and in print.
As an alumnus of the creative writing MA at Bath Spa, and now as a teacher, I encourage students whom I think are right for it to move heaven or earth to get on the course. The reason I do this is because I see courses such as the one at Bath Spa as the next stage for young writers trying to find their feet, trying to find their people. And without these courses many important writers could just get lost in a dreary landscape of call centres and anti-intellectual political manoeuvrings.
As Samantha Harvey says in her foreword to ARC, when she decided to do the MA several years ago it was so she could ‘take my own writing seriously. It’s hard to do this when unpublished, isolated from anybody else in your line of work and surrounded by people whose most loving hopes for you are that you should give up and get a job that pays.’ Well, a major function of an MA like the one at Bath Spa is to instil legitimacy in the mind of the writer. Make no bones about it; this is not an outreach programme, the standards for acceptance to this course is extremely high, and the workload extremely testing. Vindication comes from a recognition of the varying levels of raw talent that can take advantage of peer-reviewed work, of an environment that unashamedly encourages in an individual the exploration of the creative voice (don’t worry – you’ll be the first to be told when something is not working). It is about creating a critical environment in which the best new writers in the country can better themselves. That is not ‘teaching writing’, no more than The Inklings taught each other, or the Bloomsbury Lot. In many ways such courses are carrying on the traditions of such gatherings. To be a member you need talent, you need to be accepted, you need money, you need ambition, ego, self-confidence, and perhaps even a sense of how you see your career.
And here the industry creeps in once more. The best courses do provide lines of communication with the top agencies and publishers. And here we see, perhaps, a widely-resented new format for the publishing industry. Just as agents recently took on the role of editors (in the traditional framework), so the CWMA has taken the role (almost) of slushpile intern. Those accepted onto the course are the ones naturally graduating from the ‘slushpile’ of the applications.
A visiting agent during my time at Bath Spa advised the congregated students to always put acceptance, participation and graduation from a prestigious creative writing MAs in the first line of any cover letter to any agent or publisher to whom you may submit a manuscript. The entrance standards to these courses are now widely accepted as warranting at least a glance at the novel in hand. What MA courses do is provide a new layer to the sifting processes of publishers. But the MA is also providing an invaluable development for writers that few would ever have had just talking to an editor or an agent. On the MA everywhere you turn is another writer, battling with problems, wrestling with perspectives and plot points. In this year’s ARC will be some of tomorrow’s published writers, but there are also life-long friends, those to whom one will turn for decades to come when encountering a structural problem or needing a second opinion of the success of a dangerous perspective-shift. MA groups invariably carry on for some beyond the classroom walls. And it is from this continuance of strength-in-numbers that literature will truly benefit.