Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Rise of Creative Writing

Apparently, creative writing has increased in popularity in recent years, equaling the popularity of critical theory a decade or so ago. Who woulda thunk it.

To be fair, this is article is set in England, not the US, where MFA programs in writing have proliferated enormously in the past 30 years.

From the Times Higher Education blog.
Novel thinking

Until the 1990s, masters in creative writing existed only at the University of East Anglia and Lancaster University. Even ten years ago, courses at BA and MA level were virtually unheard of. English departments at universities focused on the study of literature, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Being a writer of fiction or poetry did not require a degree, and writers evolved regardless - as many, of course, always have. Nobel prizewinners Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing, for example, didn't do a BA, let alone an MA, in anything.

So how is it that there are now, in addition to more than 70 universities offering undergraduate degrees in creative writing, at least 50 masters programmes? There are various theories to explain this proliferation. One is that the courses replace the editorial input once provided by small publishing houses to promising new writers. Another is that students erroneously imagine that writing will offer a glamorous career - and one that can be achieved by taking creative writing at postgraduate level. Yet another suggests that there may be a crisis in traditional English studies, and that creative writing is taking over where the dusty academic study of literature leaves off.

A look at the creative writing masters programmes on offer at British universities reveals that what they have to offer (and the claims they make) vary widely - from those with an emphasis on the market for fiction, sometimes including a module on the publishing industry, to those with a purist attitude to the creation of literary fiction for its own sake. Between the two lies a spectrum of options including screenwriting, poetry, drama, writing for TV and radio, as well as modules on literary criticism and theory.

Not only does the content vary, but so does the pedagogy. Some courses rely solely on workshops, where students critique each other's work, while others combine lectures, seminars and tutorials. A programme at City University London encourages students to complete a novel over the two-year part-time course, while another devotes just 12 weeks to a novel in progress.

Students embarking on a costly masters - whose fees may be twice as high as those of other postgraduate arts courses - need to be very clear about what the course offers, and what, realistically, they are going to get out of it. In a recent interview, the novelist Hanif Kureshi said that such courses set up false expectations that a literary career would inevitably follow. "The fantasy is that all the students will become successful writers - and no one will disabuse them of that. When you use the word 'creative' and the word 'course', there is something deceptive about it."

A former student from a full-time masters programme (who did not want to be named for fear that "it would prejudice my fate in the publishing market") agrees with this.

"What I thought I was going to get was a nuts-and-bolts approach to redrafting my novel," he said. "I was not interested in spending hours in workshops looking at the microscopic detail of other people's work. Neither was I interested in poetry. Poets, in my opinion, are a strange breed with their own ways.

"In the workshops, the students did most of the work themselves. The teachers seemed too scared to offer opinions. I would have preferred to be taught by a famous novelist who could say: 'This is how I do things.'?"

So how do staff in English departments respond to these concerns? Laura Dietz, a novelist and senior lecturer on the creative writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University, believes that the hunger for writing classes at postgraduate level reflects a wider demand for personal development.

Read the whole article.

Later in the article they make a good point, and one that I often made when I taught poetry way bvack in the dark ages -- the best way to learn writing is to study great writers. So not only do we learn to be better poest or fiction writers, but we also learn a lot about literature -- how it works, how it's structured, and why it fails (when it does fail).

Here's the quote, from a student:

"Students on creative writing programmes need to see where their writing fits into an historical and cultural body of literature. There are students who believe they can write without reading, and it just isn't the case. The more you read, the better you are going to be as a writer."


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