Creative Writing degrees: waste or wonderful opportunity?

I posted a set of concerns about MA creative writing courses a while ago. I argued that they had far too little connection with the publishing market as it is today.

After writing that, I looked at some course prospectuses. Here, for example, was the blurb in 2011 from UEA.

“The MA does not function through exercises but by considering fiction as a form of aesthetic, psychological and cultural enquiry. Neither the poetry nor prose fiction strand is primarily commercial in direction and neither teaches conventional genre forms or, in the conventional sense, marketability.”

Marketability in the conventional sense?

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.

If you wanted to be a writer – the sort who writes books that are sold in bookshops – then considering marketability in a conventional sense seems like a good idea.

Here was the blurb from Goldsmiths:

The inter-relationship between theory, scholarship and the creative process is key to the Goldsmiths MPhil/PhD in Creative Writing. … Doctoral students for the PhD in Creative Writing are expected to combine their own creative writing with research into the genre or area of literature in which they are working, to gain insight into its history, development and contemporary practices. … They are also expected to engage with relevant contemporary debates about theory and practice.”

I doubt publishers care. They’re probably just happy publishing good books.

Here, really, is the point of this post. I’ve realised that the best courses do indeed do a stunning job for a proportion of their students. UEA can boast of the following alumni: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tracy Chevalier, and plenty of others. Bath Spa says, ‘Two [of our recent students] were long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, three for the Orange Prize, one for the Costa Prize and one for the Guardian First Book Award.’ Those are strikingly good achievements.

On the other hand, I’m still sceptical. A minority of talented writers may bloom to a wonderful degree. A large majority will, I think, end up being rejected by the industry, having quite possibly not been properly equipped with the skills that would have allowed them to thrive.

So the conclusion remains the same. Don’t assume these courses will launch you as a writer. Research them carefully. Know what you want to write and what they want to teach.

Check out your tutors. Check out what these tutors like to read, and their biases, for instance, if you’re a writer of children’s or genre fiction. Check out teaching methods. Talk to past students (and not only those who ended with a book deal.)

And if you go for it – then have a wonderful time.

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.