More than a Big Ponzi Scheme?

Benjamin Markovits

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.


  • 27 October 2012 at 4:42am
    Ubique says:
    Ponzi scheme is perhaps a little harsh. Self-expression is fun, as you say, including the self-expressive act of enrolling in a creative writing course.

    I also venture that most people, not only writers, must sometime face the fact that the world thinks them less interesting than they feel. Part of the human condition, and not so much a shame as an insight. So buck up old chum and be thankful for being able to share your gifts with others, fee-paying or not.

  • 27 October 2012 at 2:22pm
    outofdate says:
    It must be useful in some ways, especially for people who hope to make a modest living from writing. Obviously famous ones like Iowa are toxic, but looking at Adam Mars-Jones' review of The Casual Vacancy there can be no harm in helping students get certain things clear, if only what to avoid. Of course some people figure them out for themselves, but that doesn't mean you can't offer pointers to those who don't, if that might significantly improve their writing. A lot of imaginative literature isn't all that ambitious; people just want to tell engaging stories, and if these courses help them do it more competently then that's got to be a good thing.

    The problem is that graduates tend to write alike, they write MFA novels, which once they reach critical mass end up moulding the tastes they were only meant to serve, so that (as with method acting) the tool kit becomes the gold standard.

    Also, as in every institution, there seems to be a lot of dogma about: show-don’t-tell, the obsession with ‘scenes’, the Divine Fucking Details... Plus the format tends to favour short stories, which are easier to produce week to week, and their tropes and intrinsic tweeness can spill over into the novels that graduates go on to produce.

    All I’m saying is that these courses do have a function, but it’s a humble function -- they’re vocational classes for journeymen writers -- and the humbler they are, as Benjamin Markovitz by and large seems to be, the better they’re likely to do the job.

  • 30 October 2012 at 12:44am
    loxhore says:
    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.

    Paying to have the world confirm an idea of yourself which it otherwise wouldn't sustain. Subsidised unworldliness: the situation of the west in microcosm.

    Hm, I have a feeling this phenomenon has to do with the individualism of late capitalism. It's on a continuum with the X Factor. The human need for meaning, etc.

    We have some money, now. And what are we buying but meaning for ourselves?

    All of this has made it necessary for serious writers to avoid such courses. Don't you think?

    Unless new courses are designed offering modules in which students learn to subject themselves to merciless criticism just for having enrolled.

  • 1 November 2012 at 9:07pm
    Blonde on Blonde says:
    I like to write. And, I'm not bad at it. I've never taken a creative writing class. Even the descriptive is irksome. All writing has to adopt an element of creativity, otherwise good luck finding a faithful readership. Or, one that can stay awake long enough to trudge through your dull written dross. And what about all the writers we admire. Did they all take a course in creative writing? If not, how did they manage to hold our attention.

    The truth of the matter is you can't teach writing per se. It's a craft, and it can only be honed. And you do this by writing, and writing, and reading, and writing some more. You can however teach a specific style of writing. Your writing can be stylized. But first, you have to have the straight up goods. And they're not for sale.

  • 2 November 2012 at 3:21pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    While I don’t know if the situation in Britain was comparable at the time, in the U.S. during the period roughly from the 1890s to 1960, the role of “informal school” for aspiring writers was journalism (Hemingway is the most famous instance of this, but he was far from alone in this respect). The immediate successors to this era were young men and women who had been avid readers as adolescents and who studied literature at college during the 1940s and early 1950s; they were inspired by it enough to consider taking up writing themselves, but they certainly had no “systematic approach to successful writing” as part of their reading and educational experience, unlike a large percentage of our current crop of writers. Both journalism and the earlier college experience had the virtue of producing writers whose exposure to the world was haphazard and driven by the events of the larger world in which they dwelled (the extra-literary world is quite large, lest you need reminding, and writing about it points in a direction just the opposite of the need for “self-expression” or “self-expression as fun”). The systematic and “professional” approach of writers’ workshops and MFA programs in writing took off by the 1970s and is responsible for “writing as a career” with its few spectacular successes and its legion of dreary souls who write with a uniform voice and an extremely limited range of topical interests and approved perspectives (and of course, writing about "the self", a truly beaten dead horse). So we readers get what they paid for – their only successful competitors are a few amply rewarded masters of pop genres, indicating a serious division in taste (and willingness to buy books) between two very different audiences. The audience for literary fiction is relatively smaller than it used to be for a variety of reasons, the three most prominent being: (1) Writers of literary fiction are seldom regarded as either necessary or plausible spokespersons about contemporary society, as they have been in the past -- perhaps the loss of this oracular role is not such a bad thing for either writers or society. (2) The mass audience prefers other routes of acquiring knowledge and entertainment in the age of the internet. (3) Literary fiction has become fissile into many small audiences who are devoted to reading specific genres. Given the increase in general literacy and the above trends, the need writers have to stay alive has moved many of them into the welcoming embrace of the academy (with its ancillary apparatus of the “little literary magazine” strongly tied into its own faculty and students – there’s very little individuality and self-motivated impetus coming out of this milieu, and its products suffer for this lack). These constraints on writing are just facts of life in the U.S. (and probably the UK as well), and only a collapse or total transformation of the goals and purposes of colleges and universities will change that. For the time being we’re stuck with it. There are comic possibilities in this situation of an expanding number of trained writers competing for a shrinking number of readers of literary fiction, its logical conclusion being one author for each reader. This would be the ultimate Ponzi scheme, with a reversal of roles in which each reader could dictate content and approach to his or her writer. Now that’s funny.

  • 4 November 2012 at 10:41pm
    ViewReview says:
    Benjamin Markovits suggests that creative courses can be accused of creating their own markets. One could argue that university creative writing courses are no more Ponzi-like than English lit or philosophy courses, or any other arts course, each spawning its own adherents, who in turn research and publish for their peers and their students, a number of whom will go on to do the same. Your comment, Timothy Rogers, observes that 'the need writers have to stay alive has moved many of them into the welcoming embrace of the academy'. But where would the philosophers be without the academy? The historians? The creative writers, at least occasionally, produce something the market wants, whereas some university departments - and this is not to suggest that everything in life should be about the market - do little more than self-perpetuate.

    As a mature MFA student I pay my fees to be surrounded by like-minded people and to learn what I can from them, in the hope that my writing will benefit. I hope my novel-in-progress will prove to be more than an 'MFA novel', and that it will find a few readers somewhere. A two-book, big-figure deal would be a bonus, but the course for me is about the writing - which I'm going to do anyway, well or badly, with or without the book deal - not about the writers' market.

  • 6 November 2012 at 11:56pm
    C. D. Rose says:
    This does all imply that the only valid writer is a published writer. Are there not other routes to follow , ones that do not lead into the marketplace?

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