At the end of the 1960s, at about the same time many English departments were announcing The Death of the Author, Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, both authors and both very much alive, huddled together at the back of an East Anglian ale house to hatch an heretical plot.
The plot, borrowed from an already existing American narrative, was bold but simple: to formalize the teaching of creative writing within a British academic setting. More specifically, to set up an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. But their whispers reverberated around the stone walls, and the plot leaked. According to Bradbury ‘A good many of our colleagues doubted the idea. Some thought writing couldn’t be taught. Some thought, if it could be, it shouldn’t be. Some thought it couldn’t be properly examined. And some thought that even if it could be taught with propriety and examined with rigour it still had no place in a university…’ Beyond the fens could be heard far more hysterical cries. Such thinking was, and still is, rooted in the Romantic notion of the writer as solitary genius, as the muse-struck divine. For all their demagogic posturing, this elitist brand of thinking was propagated by Wordsworth and Keats, and was in part motivated by their desire to construct an exalted image of themselves.
Over recent decades such notions have been undermined by the success of those who have passed through courses of formalised instruction. Seventeen Pulitzer prizes have been accrued by alumni of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for example, whilst graduates of the UEA course have garnered most of the major literary prizes between them. The course at UEA, whilst slow to pick up, gathered pace soon after one of its alumni, Kazuo Ishiguro, landed the Booker Prize. Since then there has been an explosion of university courses seeking to replicate the UEA model, at undergraduate, masters and PhD level, a trend that continues amid the arctic winds of the recession.
Twenty five years after Bradbury set up the course, he observed ‘…the whole nature and status of creative writing had changed completely in academic and public perception. Once an object of suspicion, it has now become an ever more central part of higher and further education, and education in schools.’
Most English departments now incorporate, or in some extreme cases, have been almost totally displaced by, creative writing, and the professional writer, or writer-critic, is a familiar campus sight. We are entering a period, as Bradbury put it shortly before his death, ‘when the problem may not be too little creative writing, but too much of it.’
And this is a question I intend to address in a subsequent blog.