The Creative Writing Degree
Creative Writing has undergone nothing short of a remarkable – and for some, controversial – transformation in the UK over the past 30 years. Back in 1970, when distinguished novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Sir Angus Wilson convened the inaugural MA in Fiction at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, the critics and academics sneered. After all, writing couldn’t actually be taught, could it? Even today, there remains some debate over the role and value of Creative Writing Departments for contemporary literature and its practitioners. Is professionalism in practice something that can really be applied to the making of literature? Can a Creative Writing degree make you a writer? Well, yes - and, of course, no. Talent itself can’t be created. But talent has always required mastery, discipline and focus.
Since the establishment of the groundbreaking fiction-based MA in UEA, Creative Writing faculties in universities have flourished throughout the UK, the last decade witnessing what can only be described as a boom-time. The interest in, and uptake of, courses shows no signs of levelling off. Big demand equals big supply. New courses are on the increase year on year. The MA has developed, incorporating genres such as Poetry, Scriptwriting and Life Writing. And you can now take a BA and a PhD in Creative Writing. Creative Writing has entered the mainstream of higher education.
Could the success of the Creative Writing Department in UK Higher Education ever have been predicted by its early detractors or, indeed, its advocates? In many ways today it seems entirely unsurprising. Despite the difficulties for literary publishing in the commercial age, it’s a fact: more people want to be writers than ever before. And the Creative Writing Departments would seem to have a very particular relevance for writers now. The move towards a sense of professionalization in practice is bound up with the market forces that are currently driving and, in many ways, some might argue, limiting the opportunities for publication and indeed publishing itself in Britain. It is not always enough to possess achieved talent (though was it ever, really?). Today, especially in the field of Fiction – where the real money can be made or lost – you have to be marketable and you have to have polish.
Writers have had to become tougher, more pragmatic and, more business minded, even – alert to successfully pitching and directing their writing, to identifying and writing to a market. If it was always partially true that writing is not simply about creating taste in an audience but also satisfying to some extent an existing one – then it’s never been truer. While the central purpose of the Creative Writing degree is to enable the writer towards building up an achieved portfolio of work and deepening their understanding of the contemporary literature within which they practice, Creative Writing courses do not simply deal in the matters of creation, but also in understanding and ‘breaking through’ the market, and refining those all important critical skills. Agents sadly seldom have the time or resources these days to bring on and develop a talented writer through their flaws and uncertainties. Writers today - particularly those pitching their work to the big-hitting agents and commercial publishers - are often expected to come to the table more or less the ‘finished’ article.
The good Creative Writing Departments focus strongly on the process of writing for publication and count among their faculty some of the most notable and award-winning writers practising in Britain today. Many an ambitious and focused writer will regard the Creative Writing degree as a way to get the ‘inside track’ or perhaps even be ‘talent spotted’. This can and indeed does happen – from time to time. But the reality for the majority is, of course, never quite that simple. For every writer who enters the Creative Writing Department and lands the longed for two book deal after graduation, there are many, many more who never do. Enrolling on a Creative Writing degree is no guarantee of results in the long term – or even publication. Therefore before enrolling on a course, a sense of perspective is not just healthy – it’s absolutely crucial.
A Creative Writing degree may not promise publication or a flourishing literary career. Nonetheless, a very sound case can be made for the important role which the best Creative Writing Departments can play in the encouragement and development of talented writers, particularly in helping them to sustain their focus on their major projects over the long term. Coupled with which, a Creative Writing degree offers the opportunity to attain a level of accomplishment within a dedicated and enthusiastic environment. Judging by the feedback from many of those who have passed through the system this proves just as significant a factor. A year – or more – on a Creative Writing degree allows the writer to truly ‘live’ their art among their peers, and many graduates talk about the importance of the environment itself in increasing their confidence.