More than a Big Ponzi Scheme?
About six years ago I started teaching creative writing to undergraduates. When I took the job at Royal Holloway, I had never taught creative writing, and when I was younger and struggling to get published, I never took creative writing classes either. I was pretty suspicious of them, for the usual reasons. They always made me think of Woody Allen’s joke about the kid who cheats on his metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to him.
But the truth is, a lot of people want to learn. Creative writing as a university discipline started out in America in 1936, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but it didn’t reach England until Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson set up the course at UEA in 1970. (Peter Taylor wrote a great story about the scene at Kenyon College in the 1950s called ‘A Sentimental Journey’, which I like to teach.) But it’s spread rapidly in the past few years – more people apply, new departments open up. And not just in universities: publishers (including mine, Faber) have started writing academies, newspapers offer intensive novel-writing workshops, and places like the Arvon Foundation have turned the business of writing creatively into something you can pick up at a country retreat.
So you’ve got this funny thing going on. Just as bookshops are going out of business, and review pages are thinning out, and publishers are losing the price war with Amazon, and everything but a few bestsellers die stillborn from the press, more and more people are paying more and more money to learn to write. A university degree in creative writing will now set you back £27,000. The average advance for a first novel is something like £3000. Very few of the people we teach will ever publish a novel. As a friend of mine, who both writes and teaches, put it, I feel like I’m part of some big Ponzi scheme here.
Part of what’s happened is that writers have moved from a commercial economic model to an academic one, because universities turn out to be very good at monetising the kind of thing there isn’t a clear-cut market for. Art needs patronage. It used to be generous toffs or rich parents, then it was readers, and now it’s students who pay for the supply of literature.
But creative writing programmes aren't designed to fund the arts: that's a side effect. They're designed to teach something. So what do they teach? You learn how to write by learning how to read, and in that respect a creative writing course isn’t so different from an English literature degree, though the difference in emphasis makes you (teachers as much as students) ask different questions: about literature’s biases, towards certain ideas and expressions over others; about the tendencies of editorial intervention (the Lish-effect, which writing workshops produce). I joke to my students that they probably signed up for the degree because they love certain books and that we hope by the end of their three years on the course to have totally destroyed their ability to enjoy them.
In fact, most of my students want to write for the same reasons I did. Because self-expression is fun. And because becoming a writer is tied up with their idea of making the transition from childhood to adulthood without settling for secondary ambitions, or accommodating themselves to a world that thinks they are less interesting than they feel. It's just a shame that the second part of that answer turns out to be a pretty good description of a writer's working life.