Hanif Kureishi, the grumpy old man of modern English literature, ruffled a few feathers at the Bath Literary Festival recently. Kureishi, who is Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University, was reported in the Guardian to have told his audience that creative writing courses are "a waste of time" and that the idea of a one-year MA in Creative Writing was "madness".
Kureishi's comments concerned his experiences teaching prose fiction, but they touched a few chords that were familiar to me as a poet. He criticised the unrealistic expectations of his Creative Writing students, their preoccupation with the style of the writing rather than the substance of the story, and above all the idea that writing talent could be hot-housed in the compressed timescale of a university course. "After about five years [students] really realise something about writing," he said. "It's a very slow thing. People go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, 'A weekend?'"
I have to admit I find it hard to argue with his line of reasoning. I've always taken the view that poetry is a craft that requires patience. Just as poems need time to mature, so poetic talent isn't something that can be rushed. I blogged not that long ago about my concern that Creative Writing courses were trying to rush people into publication before they, as poets, had really found their voice. I can't help but suspect that many Creative Writing graduates are the literary equivalent of forced rhubarb. Quick to flourish, their output is full of flavour, for a short time; but take away the supports, and they collapse.
There are other agendas at work here too, over and above the largely benign one of hot-housing literary talent. Universities are commercial enterprises now. In the wake of the Dearing Report, the imposition of tuition fees, and the constant 'reforms' of the academic sector since the 1990s, universities can only survive if they bring in the cash. Universities can only bring in the cash if they can show measurable output. And churning out dozens of aspiring writers with Creative Writing MAs and premature publications is a way of demonstrating 'measurable output'. It's the only way the institutions can justify the frankly astronomical price tag that the ConDem government has imposed on university education.
This is where I start to feel very uncomfortable. It would be a sorry impoverishment of our cultural life if the only way for an aspiring writer (in whatever genre) to develop their craft was to fork out £9000 a year for a Creative Writing degree. Much of society already accepts the lie that writing and literature is something a little bit elitist. My socialistic instincts balk at the thought of education only being available to those with the means to pay for it.
We are not yet at a point where the dominance of the Creative Writing degree is absolute. There are plenty of grassroots, amateur writers' groups (our own York Writers, for instance) willing to provide ongoing support and instruction to writers for a tiny fraction of the price tag of a university degree. There are individual writers and promoters who give unstintingly of their time and expertise to nurture the talents of the up-and-coming poets and authors who will be packing out the festivals of tomorrow – and often do it for nothing. There are writing programmes designed to take creativity into the streets, even into Young Offenders' Institutions, to improve the quality of life of people for whom a £9000-a-year tuition fee bill would be inconceivable. And long may it continue to be so.
Don't get me wrong. It's the system that's at fault, not the Creative Writing degrees – and not the fantastic tutors, poets and authors who teach the courses (several of whom are friends and colleagues of mine – all of whom I admire and respect). Where I think Kureishi misses the point is by reducing the Creative Writing degree to a purely utilitarian concept, a production line to turn people into marketable writers. It's more than that. Any university course is more than that.
He's forgotten (or perhaps it doesn't bother him) that, for many people, the impulse to write is a lonely, misunderstood state of being. We're lucky, in York, to have so many writers and a great support network for those who choose to tap into it. But not every writer has that. I've met many who confess that friends, families, even partners are indifferent to their urge to write, or downright hostile to it. An aspiring writer who grows up laughed at, belittled and shunned for his – or her – passion will find, in a university, acceptance, support, encouragement and the chance to expand their horizons. They will find people who are genuinely interested in what they are writing, and why. People who get that it matters. They will, in all likelihood, find themselves – or at least find how to start out on the journey.
And even if they never sell a single piece of their writing, that's still something you can never put a price tag on.