University courses in creative writing have become ever more common, in both the US and the UK. But are they worth it?
Personally, I think many people who do such courses can be let down by them. I think the teaching is often far too removed from the market, and the writers who graduate can be underprepared for market realities.
In the first place, it’s important to realise that agents and publishers wouldn’t care about your academic qualifications. My degree is in economics. I spent ten years working as an investment banker. There was nothing in my history to suggest I had any talent at creative writing, and no one cared. There’s only one aptitude test which matters, and that’s whether you can write a good book.
Yes, it is true that agents will tend to stay in close touch with various creative writing schools, watching for emerging talent, but so what? The most that’ll do is ease your path into the industry. If your book is good enough, and you’re not a numpty about finding agents (we doubt you are), you’ll secure representation.
Good genre fiction is quite simply good writing. It deserves proper teaching, as much as anything else. One of our first clients came to me after having completed a creative writing course at a highly respected university. He had written a thriller – clever, stylish, nasty, memorable. But it wasn’t right. It spent too much energy on the style, too little on the thriller.
I helped that client out with a couple of editorial reviews. He had much talent and a great concept. The things that needed fixing were obvious, fixable. But why was I providing that feedback? Why hadn’t this guy’s tutors already told him what he needed to know?
He said that they were all literary writers who didn’t relate to what he wanted to do and had hardly ever read the full-length manuscript. I feel that’s inexcusable. (Oh, and we got that writer a top agent within weeks of his having finished his final edit with us.)
And even if your interest is in writing literary fiction, I’m unsure most courses will set you on the right track. Fifteen years ago, there was a market for the ‘slim’ literary novel. You got paid £5,000 for it. It sold 200 copies in hardback. It sold 3000 copies in paperback. It got some nice reviews. No one made any money. After two or three such novels, everyone agreed that enough was enough, and an author’s career ended.
That just doesn’t happen now, and it shouldn’t. Novels need to command an audience. The best debuts are loud, clamouring, unforgettable things that demand attention. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. That’s what agents are looking for. Those are the books that can launch a career. Those are the things that MA or MFA courses should be teaching.