Creative-writing courses have increased in popularity and prestige
OF THE SIX novels shortlisted for the Booker prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, four are debuts, six are by women and four are by writers of colour. Many readers and critics praised the list’s range of authors and subjects when the announcement was made on September 15th (others criticised the dominance of Americans). Few noticed that half of the writers hold Master’s degrees in creative writing, or MFAs. Of the 13-strong longlist, the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop produced three nominees, all of whom graduated in 2019. Anne Tyler, another longlisted writer, took creative-writing classes at university; Colum McCann teaches an MFA in New York. Studying the craft, once scorned by the literary establishment, now seems a route to prize-winning success.
In Britain, the creative-writing industry is booming, Co-ordinators of Master’s programmes report a sharp increase in applications this year. Students are “much more serious about it,” says Julia Bell, a professor of creative writing at the University of Birkbeck. “Covid has forced them to reconsider what they’re doing with their lives,” adds Philip Langeskov, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA). In lockdown, those impatient for September start dates turned to short digital courses run by publishers. For every two online students at the Faber & Faber Academy in 2019, more than five logged in this year. Joey Connolly, a poet who leads the classes, quotes Ted Hughes: his students are “taking ‘fuller possession of the reality of life’”.
Some writers’ motivations are more prosaic. Many of the recent applicants to the UEA programme, considered the most distinguished in Britain, work in the arts, a sector decimated by the pandemic. Philippa Lawford, an aspiring director, was running two small theatre companies before the coronavirus hit, but her work has “totally dried up”. She is now starting a new course in “Writing for Performance”, while her business partner pursues an MA in playwriting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Clamour for postgraduate qualifications during a recession is not new: in 2009 applications to such courses more than doubled at some British universities. But in 2020 writers’ workshops look very different. In the format pioneered in Iowa in 1936, a dozen or so writers gather round a table and critique each other’s work. Malcolm Bradbury brought the model to UEA in 1970, tutoring the likes of Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro with a pipe in hand. Bradbury and his pipe have gone and now, in its 50th year, the curriculum will be taught digitally for at least the first term.
Mr Langeskov says students need courses to “carve out space for creative goals”. He has overcome his initial concerns and now finds digital classes “energising”: “You lose the ambience but you gain other things, one of which is the focus”, he says. Sharing writing online is straightforward and lectures work well on Zoom, especially for digital natives such as Ms Lawford, who is 23. Classes are also more accessible. Sarah Fox retired as a nurse in December due to a chronic heart condition. She has shielded through the pandemic and will start an MA at Bath Spa University from the safety of her home.
For some, online education will never replicate the real thing. Di Langford, a recent graduate from Surrey University, was disappointed with the switch to digital teaching towards the end of her Master’s. “Discussion was difficult” and online workshops “dwindled to a few lines of feedback”. Sean O’Reilly, who runs workshops for the Stinging Fly, a literary magazine based in Dublin, is “very deeply concerned by claims that workshops can move online without any loss of that integral thing that happens”. Founded in 1997, the programme has uncovered some of Ireland’s brightest literary talents and its syllabus is respected. “I look at the people in their separate little Zoom boxes and my heart just drops for them,” he says. Though Stinging Fly’s digital summer seminars had record demand, he has cancelled his six-month workshop. This is, in part, because he fears students won’t receive value for money.
MAs may cost up to £9,500 ($11,200) for those without bursaries and there are few controls on quality. Ms Bell criticises the “write by numbers” approach of some academies. Hanif Kureishi, a British-Pakistani author who teaches creative writing at Kingston University on the outskirts of London, said in 2014 that paying for an MA was “madness”.
For some, however, completing a Master’s degree is an end in itself. Ms Fox, who hopes to fine-tune a novel about an NHS nurse and amateur sleuth this year, seeks to “hone my craft and enjoy it” first and foremost, adding that “getting published would be a dream”. Earning literary acclaim is another matter. Time, and perhaps the Booker longlist in 2022, will tell.
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