Writing courses

Are Creative Writing Classes a Waste of Time?

Hanif Kureishi caused a sensation at the Bath Literature Festival when he described the creative writing classes as “a waste of time”. He said most of his students at Kingston University have no talent and talent cannot be taught. He doesn’t get any tactful rating, but does he score a point?
In recent years in Britain there has been a huge expansion of university courses in creative writing. It is no coincidence that this has coincided with the shift from public to private funding of higher education and the increasing pressure to meet consumer demand. Creative writing is what customers want. But can universities keep their promise?
Novelist Lucy Ellman doesn’t think so. She taught creative writing at the University of Kent, but now describes these courses as “the biggest scam work in academia”, suggesting universities are charging fees under false pretenses. If people take these courses in the hope of being published, many will be disappointed. If they have fame or wealth in mind, they are almost certainly deceived. But the students I talk to often have more modest ambitions. They say they want to improve their writing or need a structure to help them write a story that they have been thinking about for years.
When asked if he would consider studying creative writing himself if he started now, Kureishi replied, “No… that would be crazy. I would find a teacher who I thought would be really good for me. ‘ It’s easier said than done. Most aspiring writers work in isolation, sometimes with no one to consult, other than family or friends who have good intentions but don’t really get what they’re trying to do. You can’t tear a good teacher out of the sky. The college course provides a community of students and teachers who understand the urge to write and respect the struggle to produce good work.
Advocates of creative writing courses often speak of elements of the craft that can be effectively taught. Novelist Matt Haig says that lessons can be “very helpful, just as music lessons can be helpful.” I understand the temptation to assimilate this new subject to more established courses, such as the study of an instrument. But there is a huge difference. Playing music is a specific discipline. Predictability is an asset. It’s best to start young, and you can’t expect to think about expressing yourself until you’ve reached a certain level of technical mastery. In contrast, people usually start writing novels in adulthood, sometimes in their forties. It is an activity that stems from individual experience and celebrates personal vision. It is not a skill that can be learned in predictable stages. Editors may appreciate craftsmanship, but they’re always looking for new voices.
To that extent, Kureishi is right to stress the importance of individual talent. But, for the same reason, surprisingly good work can sometimes emerge from seemingly unpromising students. University courses may not be able to teach people how to be writers, but they provide an environment that writers can find themselves in. © Joe Trésor

Joe Treasure is the author of two novels, “The Male Gaze” and “Besotted” and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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