image from fast-web.com
These days, creative writing courses are offered by so many universities, publishing houses, newspapers or literary agencies, you can’t order a cappuccino without tripping over one or open a newspaper without being invited to go for publishing stardom.
So ubiquitous is their presence and acceptance, we’re in serious danger of forgetting that literature has been flourishing and blossoming for hundreds of years without any need of them: from Chaucer to Charles Dickens, from Tolstoy to Tagore, from Rumi to Rowling. Across the world, writers have been producing novels, plays and poems of such distinction, intelligence, subtlety and sophistication that we’re bewitched by the beauty of their words, engaged by their stories, challenged by their ideas.
So how is it, that in the twenty-first century, a creative writing course has come to be considered de rigueur for any aspiring author? The idea that creativity – nebulous, indefinable, unknown – can be imparted through lectures and seminars? Goodness gracious me, it’s enough to make you wonder how William Shakespeare ever penned a word without the advice of a creative writing tutor, Jane Austen complete her books without having a creative writing degree, or Charlotte Bronte produce Jane Eyre without having studied the dialogue between theory and practice?
So what’s really creative about creative writing courses? Their hefty fee of course. Forget PPI, it’s the miss-selling of creativity I object to.
Creative writing courses garner thousands of pounds. Universities charge around £9000 a year, and even one day courses can raise impressive amounts of money. Danuta Kean noted in an article for Mslexia magazine that a one-day masterclass by the Guardian newspaper, made approximately £38000. It’s the new gold rush folks.
The open secret is this: what creative writing courses really create, are jobs. Jobs for academics and professional writers. I don’t begrudge anyone a salary, particularly writers, as it can be pretty difficult to follow your muse and pay the bills. However, it’s time for some clear-eyed honesty.
The writer Hanif Kureishi, himself a professor at Kingston University, teaching on their creative writing course, condemned them as ‘a waste of time’. In the same Guardian article novelist and former creative writing teacher Lucy Ellman, described creative writing (courses) as “the biggest con-job in academia” and pointed to the poet August Kleinzahler’s comment in the Guardian that “It’s terrible to lie to young people. And that’s what it’s about.”
In the interests of full disclosure, I should here state that I set up the Asian Women Writers’ Workshop (later known as the Asian Women Writers’ Collective) whose work has been archived by SADAA. So, why, you may ask, am I being so critical of creative writing courses? Because workshops are an entirely different beast. They’re informal, collaborative, no fees are taken and no academic qualification is offered.
Historically, writers and artists have been the rebels of society, the outsiders, the interrogators. Defiantly putting life and society under the microscope, showing up its false gods and values, deceits and injustice; examining the human heart; good and evil; performing post mortems on history and convention. Let’s not forget that D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of an obscenity trial, and Rushdie’s Satanic Verses put him under a fatwa.
Throughout the ages, like other artists, writers have been fiercely independent, toiled at their craft, followed their truth, whether it gave them worldly approval or not – whether it earned them a creative writing degree or not. I wonder if Lady Chatterley’s Lover would have made it unscathed through a creative writing course, given the examining, commenting, discussing, advising….; I wonder how distorted, diluted and tamed it would have become.
So, I’m genuinely filled with dismay by the number of writers flocking to creative writing courses, and ask, what’s happened to their defiant confidence and independence? That burning intelligence and passion which produces originality, provokes thought, grips our hearts, points to truth and justice?
Universities and other creative writing organisers point to their alumni, the writers who’ve been published, to demonstrate the purpose and success of their courses. Begging the question – out of how many thousands? It’s probable those very few writers would have been published anyway.
Literature contributes to the universal pool of knowledge, from which we all partake. Stories aren’t ‘made-up’ stuff. They’re as tied to the material and imaginative eco-system of our existence, as our minds and bodies. If literature loses its dissension, its unknown, its instinct, its ‘attitude’, we’ll all be the poorer for it. Let’s never forget that literature came before creative writing courses, but creative writing courses may well kill it off.
First published: Huffington Post U.K.