Saturday, 5 November 2011


A couple of months ago I became an associate lecturer in creative writing at the University of Plymouth, teaching a module on their MA program. The job resurrected all kinds of issues for me – not least whether the production of fiction can be taught, something I blogged a little about here. Of course you can instruct on elements of fiction – character development, creating tension, the scope of various narrative techniques – but can you make someone a better writer? One of the most salient and vocal criticisms of such courses is that they produce structurally competent writers but ones with little originality, ones who take few risks, who don’t push their aesthetic, artistic boundaries, as if the creative aspect of their minds was somehow manipulated, driven to literary inanity. The pejorative term ‘creative writing fiction’ emerged, an industry term used for a brand of supposedly formulaic fiction churned out since the proliferation of such courses.

So is an MA in creative writing necessary to become published these days? Obviously not, and yet such programs remain remarkably popular. Personally, I have nothing but praise for these courses and those who undertake them – and it’s really not for the faint-hearted, composing fiction for strangers to rip to shreds in front of you the following week.

Another concern is that students occasionally have unrealistic expectations (particularly in the current climate) of publication – that graduation will bestow immediate book deals upon them. Or that a strict vocation is being pragmatically sought: Yeah, I think I’ll become a writer this month. Again, this doesn’t resonate with my own experience. Mostly students merely want to improve and better understand their art/craft, to gain insight and a critical awareness, to explore a burgeoning calling, a compelling urge to produce fiction that mimics the impact their favourite books have had on them.


Julia Bohanna said...

Many good points, Tom. The most pertinent I think is that sense of entitlement that many MA students have after completing their course. As you say, they may expect publishers to grovel in the dust before them, weeping and begging for their words. Or thereabouts. MA courses (to me) can unteach bad habits and help a student produce more dynamic and muscular prose. But finding a voice is entirely their own responsibility.

TOM VOWLER said...

As usual, sagacious Bohanna words.

Paul Lamb said...

I've heard it said of the Iowa Writers Workshop (one of the few here in the states that is well regarded) that they don't attempt to "teach" creative writing as much as create an environment (and a requirement) where it can be pursued.

TOM VOWLER said...

Yes, I like that Paul.