Archive for January, 2012

Shut the Doors, Go Home

January 24, 2012

In a sense, any book is blasphemous. Whenever someone reads Nineteen Eighty-Four, or The Ruba’iyat or Slaughterhouse-5, there sits someone who isn’t reading the Bible or the Koran. Even a holy book can be blasphemous, if it is interpreted wrongly or translated into the wrong language.

The Satanic Verses still seems more blasphemous than most. Twenty-three years after the book was published and burned and banned, its author Salman Rushdie has had to pull out of the Jaipur literary festival due to threats of assassination. Even a planned videolink address was pulled.

The novelist Hari Kunzru and the Indian writer Amitava Kumar decided, without telling the organisers, to highlight the ban at their afternoon event, and to read from Rushdie’s novel, in solidarity with the exiled novelist and with freedom of expression. Two other writers, at separate festival events, did the same.

It’s worth quoting from Kunzru’s statement at the festival.

Today, one of India’s greatest novelists, Salman Rushdie – a writer whose work enshrines doubt as a necessary and valueable ethical position – has been prevented from addressing this festival by those whose certainty leads them to believe that they have the right to kill anyone who opposes them. This kind of blind, violent certainty is in opposition to everything the festival stands for – openness, intellectual growth and the free exchange of ideas. There are many rights for which we should fight, but the right to protection from offense is not one of them. Freedom of speech is a foundational freedom, on which all others depend. Freedom of speech means the freedom to say unpopular, even shocking things. Without it, writers can have little impact on the culture. Unless we come out strongly in support of Rushdie’s right to be here, and to speak to us, we might as well shut the doors of this hall and go home.

After the event, journalists and officials descended on the venue in battalions. Kunzru was asked to sign a statement, drafted by a lawyer and the festival organisers, ‘making clear that the festival was not responsible for our actions.’ He was then advised to leave India immediately to avoid the risk of arrest.

The Jaipur organisers scrambled against this heresy. Kenan Malik describes the process:

The Festival organizers distanced themselves from what they called Kunzru and Kumar’s ‘unnecessary provocation’, and put pressure on other speakers not to follow suit. ‘Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken’, threatened a subsequent press release.

The press release states with prissy restraint that ‘certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers.’ Whatever next!

Freedom of speech is something that local government officers, festival organisers and arts admins say they value – right up until the point where it actually has to be defended.

It’s a feature of the Rushdie debate that so few of the censors and frothers actually bothered to read the work of fiction in question. The Iranian secularist Maryam Namazie has published an extract here, so I will too.

It happens: revelation. Like this: Mahound, still in his notsleep, becomes rigid, veins bulge in his neck, he clutches at his centre. No, no, nothing like an epileptic fit, it can’t be explained away that easily; what epileptic fit ever caused day to turn to night, cause clouds to mass overhead, caused the air to thicken into soup while an angel hung, scared silly, in the sky above the sufferer, held up like a kite on a golden thread… Gibreel begins to feel that strength that force, here it is at my own jaw working it, opening shutting, and the power, starting within Mahound, reaching up to my vocal chords and the voice comes.

Not my voice I’d never know such words I’m no classy speaker never was never will be but this isn’t my voice it’s a Voice.

The Closing of the English Mind

January 23, 2012

Censorship is never really a happy thing, but Joan Smith of the Independent points to a couple of incidents that are particularly depressing.

The first has received very little public attention, despite the fact that students who belong to the college’s Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society were unable to go ahead with a perfectly legal discussion of sharia law. They’d come to Queen Mary, University of London to hear Anne Marie Waters speak on behalf of the One Law For All campaign, when an angry young man entered the lecture theatre. He stood at the front and used his mobile phone to film the audience, claiming he knew where they lived and would track them down if a single negative word was said about the Prophet. The organisers informed the police and the meeting cancelled.

The fact that in a democratic country a religious extremist is able to frighten anyone into calling off a meeting is shocking – and so is the lack of a public outcry about this egregious example of intimidation and censorship. Tellingly, what has grabbed media attention is the second incident, when a secularist organisation at University College, London came under attack for publishing an image on its Facebook page of ‘Jesus and Mo’ having a drink together. The Muslim group that wants to ban the image got a sympathetic hearing in the media, despite arguing openly for censorship. Extremist websites, meanwhile, reacted with the fanatical language that so often appears on such sites: ‘May Allah destroy these creatures worse than dogs,’ wrote one blogger.

Via Nick, who adds that ‘I heard on Thursday night that one of the UCL secularists had gone into hiding in fear of his life.’

Why are these reports particularly depressing? Because they happened on campus. Universities are supposed to be places of freedom and fun. But for many students, undergraduate life seems to be increasingly difficult.

Last year Goldsmiths fine art student Noam Edry made ‘Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life’; a conceptual show based on her experiences at the university. Here she describes a general atmosphere of conformity, intimidation and groupthink.

In the first year at Goldsmiths I lay low, I tried fitting in, I refused to make work about my Israeli identity or anything that had to do with it. But it was simply not good enough. Because I was constantly confronted with questions, accusations, labels. It would happen on the way back from a party or over a casual cup of coffee. I saw more posters and protests and boycotts slandering my home, the place that made me who I am, a place that was barely recognisable in those posters. I saw the crass misrepresentation of my region and its de-legitimisation on a daily basis and I felt powerless. I did not have the words, I did not have the flashy slogans and the fashionable labels.

When I attended a meeting of the Palestine Twinning Campaign at Goldsmiths I felt like it was 1939 all over again. I was expecting a real dialogue but instead they were calling for academic boycotts of Israel, they were rallying young students who were desperate to be passionate about something to silence people like me; to silence artists and intellectuals who believe in human beings and mutual tolerance, who are the real hope for peace and for a bright future. I was horrified. What next? Would they start burning Israeli books?

Minorities can face hassle, ostracisation and even outright, racially aggravated thuggery. Most students, as Smith’s examples show, have to deal with the fact that there are certain ideologies that can’t be questioned or challenged.

In the New Humanist, Paul Sims writes that ‘The manner in which [the UCL story] has developed over the past week suggests that there is a degree of pressure on atheist, humanist and secular societies at universities to moderate and censor what they do in order to avoid causing offence to religious groups.’ The case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have taught UCL authorities that it’s not a good idea to give extremism a free pass.

This is fucked up. The majority of people go to university because they want to read books, have a good time and say what they feel. It’s supposed to be an open environment free from censorious traditionalism – god knows there is enough of that outside the academy gates. You shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells for puritan gatecrashers.

It’s time to kick fundamentalism off British campus.

Update: I have been reliably informed, by Richard Gold of Engage, that Noam Edry is a woman. I have changed the pronouns and apologise to Ms Edry.

(Image: New Humanist)

Cait Reilly and the Pundits

January 22, 2012

The geology graduate I mentioned in this post is being shaped up as a Laurie Penny-style hate figure for the British right. Cait Reilly is a recent graduate and a JSA claimant. She wants to be a curator and had arranged a relevant work experience placement to that end. The Job Centre yanked her off it for two weeks unrenumerated shelf stacking at Poundland. There was no training element or possibility of graduation to full time paid work there. Reilly concluded that the programme was aimed not at ’empowering’ young jobseekers but at propping up dying retail chains with unpaid labour. She went to the press, and launched legal action.

Conservatives are incensed. Richard Littlejohn has had a go, Stephen Pollard, Anne Widdecombe in the Squawk. The flightiness! The arrogance of it! A middle-class girl who wants to work in a museum (well, la-di-da, Mr Frenchman!) refuses to stack shelves for a pound an hour because apparently Europe says there is a human right to a reasonable wage. (Note the use of the dimunitive ‘Miss’ in Jan Moir’s piece. Shut up, you silly little girl, and stay in your place.)

This criticism does grate when it comes from people who are paid well above the average wage to produce what is, in my view, not very good writing. Take Toby Young, who debated the journalist and charity boss Martin Bright on Reilly’s action and DWP policy. Young defends the workfare programme: ‘I approve of these sorts of schemes because they denude young people of their sense of entitlement.’ He adds a story of his own personal struggle.

I once participated in a work experience programme. This was in 1980. I’d left school at the age of 16, having failed all but one of my O-levels, and my father suggested I join this scheme whereby I had to do unpaid work as a condition of continuing to get the dole.

For four months I had a succession of manual jobs: washer-upper, lavatory cleaner, etc. Having never worked a day before in my life, I was utterly appalled. It was a brilliant stroke on my father’s part because I quickly realised that if I didn’t go back to school and get some proper qualifications – which he’d been urging me to do – this would be my lot in life. So I retook my O-levels, managed to get into the sixth form of a grammar school and, from there, went on to Oxford. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the four months I spent doing work experience were the making of me.

Young is an Brasenose graduate and the son of a life peer. The wealth and opportunities chance has flung at him are not enough. Young wants the authenticity of proletarian survival.

Bright’s debating Young in his capacity as head of New Deal for the Mind charity, which places unemployed young people into sustainable, interesting, productive work. Martin Bright has probably done more for the Big Society than a slaughtered rainforest of DWP policy papers. As ever, he’s reasonable and restrained when debating Young. He makes good points which are worth banging on about and expanding upon.

Retail is a hard sector to work in. I’ve known people who have and it is stressful, demanding labour for little prospects and not much money. In terms of net income per hour you could probably make more slinging drinks.

Plus: the high streets are being hit by online retail and the recession. Strategic directors now think long and hard about whether they can justify a store in every town centre. These jobs are not always going to be available and we too should think long and hard before we encourage young people to go into them.

Despite these disadvantages, people do genuinely want to work in retail. A Primark opened in the town centre where I work. It had a few hundred openings and received over a thousand applications. By making people like Cait Reilly work these jobs for nothing, we are excluding people who really do want to work there for pay, people who do not necessarily have Reilly’s advantages and career scope.

Also, we are paying the claimant’s dole even when s/he is working at Poundland for nothing. We lose money, the claimant loses time that s/he could be spending looking for an actual job, so no one wins, except Poundland. You would think you could trust conservatives to at least be concerned about the effective allocation of public funds.

While not a working class hero on the scale of, say, Toby Young, I have done entry level work and agree that there’s nothing wrong with shelf stacking, in principle. But when the government says ‘Actually we don’t have to pay you because this is a placement/internship/empowering sustainable work-experience opportunity’ an important line has been crossed. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is the cornerstone of every economic civilisation worth the name.

There is no reason to spend your money or mine on the current system of outdoor relief for incompetent private providers, disguised as welfare reform. It would be better to make serious investment into jobs and growth rather than waste public money on expensive and ineffective workfare schemes.

But practical economic arguments will not sway the wealthy middle-aged columnists of the political class who are mainly interested in seeing young people work for nothing, and to suffer while they work.

Cosy Moments Cannot be Muzzled: Censorship in an Age of Freedom

January 19, 2012

3:AM carries my review of Nick Cohen’s excellent free speech polemic. The book is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, who never got a chance to read it. But the great man’s angry spirit haunts its pages.

My title comes from a Hitchens essay on Fleet Street journalism. Looking back over his own adventures as a working newspaperman, Hitchens pays tribute to an early P G Wodehouse novel, PSmith, Journalist:

The near-unchallenged master of English prose sets this adventure in New York, where Psmith pays a social visit that acquires significance when he falls in with the acting editor of the floundering journal Cosy Moments. The true editor being absent on leave, Psmith beguiles the weary hours by turning the little weekly into a crusading organ that comes into conflict with a thuggish slumlord. Threats and violence from the exploiters (which at one point lead to bullets flying and require Psmith to acquire a new hat) are met with a cool insouciance. A fighting slogan is evolved. ‘Cosy Moments,’ announces its new proprietor, ‘cannot be muzzled.’ He addresses all his friends and staff by the staunch title of ‘Comrade’. At the close, the corrupt city politicians and their gangland friends are put to flight, and Psmith hands back the paper to its staff. Some years ago, when I wrote a book for Verso (the publishing arm of the New Left Review), we were sued by some especially scabrous tycoons and our comradely informal slogan became, to the slight bewilderment of our lawyers, ‘Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled’.

The Lonely Grave of Margaret Thatcher

January 15, 2012

One of the curiosities of the recent Thatcher biopic and accompanying hype is that people write about Margaret Thatcher as if she were already dead. I wonder how the government and the media are going to handle it when the old girl finally does check out. How will the Telegraph and the Sun report on the inevitable street parties and celebrations in the Northern cities and many parts of the capital? What will a Conservative prime minister say about the mass protests that will accompany any state funeral? Where will she be buried, and what arrangements will be made to prevent the grave from being pissed on or defaced in some way? We are finally going to feel like the divided country we have always been.

This is all so ghoulish. I don’t care when bad people die. But I think that conservatives have a point when they say: ‘Look, this is an eighty-six year old woman with terrible health problems. I know you don’t like her, but, for Christ’s sake.’ For all the British right’s viciousness and nastiness, it doesn’t have a countdown clock for Tony Benn or Tony Blair. It’s striking though that middle-class leftists born in, say, 1987 hate Thatcher with the rage of older working-class men who saw their livelihoods and communities destroyed under her rule.

What gets people about Thatcher isn’t so much Orgreave or the Beanfield or the Belgrano. It is her worshippers’ rhetoric of freedom and opportunity, in what is becoming a static and closed society. Thatcher’s admirers say she launched a meritocratic capitalist revolution. It is a generational belief. John Rentoul describes the process:

A professor told me, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, that he had marked out in chalk on the pavement outside his house the steps of the jig he was going to dance when she left office. By the time she was brought down, however, he was on the way to becoming respectable, and, anyway, his attitude to her had started to change.

That happened to a lot of people who are now over the age of 35, for whom her government was the reference point of their politics.

This is the narrative of my parents’ generation. It’s a tale told in rueful self-satisfaction. You start off young, poor and ferocious in your socialism. You get older, make money, get married, find a home and – what do you know? – become a little more practical and conservative. I remember a dinner party scene, up in Leeds Hyde Park, when we were talking about politics and I questioned Thatcherite monetarism. I was immediately put in my place: ‘It had to happen, Max.’ Middle-aged suburbanites shake their heads and say, ‘What she did was painful, but necessary.’ These are rarely the people who actually have to feel the pain.

Today Britain is ruled by a government of aristocrats and Etonians. Many of the top professions are locked to people without the right connections. Even the firebrands went to Oxbridge. I think that is what underlies the fury – this apparent legacy of freedom and opportunity, in a country defined by exclusion, unfreedom and lack of opportunity. The rhetoric is get up and go. The reality is stay in your place, you.

I would guess that the twenty-year-old struggling radicals of this age will still be struggling at thirty-five, and probably still quite radical. Working and middle class people will find it increasingly hard to find a secure job and a secure home, never mind a meaningful career and the pursuit of ambitions. University provides a potential route up or at least a three-year breathing space, where you get to study interesting things, before the looming grind of the supermarket shelves or the call centre. But that door will be slammed soon.

What impacts is not planned policy but a subtle and insidious lowering of expectations. The right wing lament that ‘all the kids want to be pop stars these days’ gets it completely upside down. The reason Britain is in a mess is not that people have high expectations but that their expectations aren’t high enough. If you don’t have a future, a stake or a dream, then who cares if you go to prison, or make life hell for your neighbours, or have more and more children you cannot support. The bright lad from Longsight isn’t going to think: ‘I could get to Oxford if I had more money.’ The possibility just won’t enter his head.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Louise Mensch is probably the most intelligent, capable and pragmatic of the 2010 Conservative intake. Her hard questions hurt Rupert Murdoch far more than that idiot who flung a pie at him. She was admired too for her casual, devastating response to some prudish hack, who approached Mensch with a sly and insinuatory story about her recreational drug use in the nineties. Leftwing males slag her politics with real loathing while fantasising about what it would be like to sleep with her. She will engage with political opponents on Twitter, and often they come away with an altered view and a reluctant respect for her.

Mensch told Decca Aitkenhead that ‘I take the classic Reaganite view that if you want something, you have to do it yourself. You know, the more Thatcherite view that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’

Isn’t that kind of easy for you to say, Aitkenhead wondered? Mensch came from a wealthy stockbroking family, who educated her privately. All due respect, but wasn’t success easier for you than it might be for others? No, Mensch said.

That only works if my father was subsidising me when I went out into the workplace – which he was not… I was educated privately for free because I was a scholarship girl, 100% scholarship girl. I got it on my own merits. I would never dispute that I am a privileged person. Nevertheless, when I started work I made 11 grand a year.

As Aitkenhead wrote: ‘There you have it. No amount of socially liberal opinions has altered the implacable conviction that the only difference between Mensch and some jobless loser on a council estate is a go-getting attitude.’

Thatcher may not have destroyed socialism, but she destroyed the British working class, which is now lost in a wasteland of sentimentality, hatred and self-pity. There is no working class movement for change, and many people in working class communities have no interest in the forces that shape their lives. I had a drink with a woman from Burnley, who told me that she hadn’t bothered to vote in the last election. ‘They just kept slagging each other off,’ she said. ‘It was stupid.’ I thought: how exactly am I going to convince this person to participate in the democratic process? How can I possibly argue that it will make a positive difference to her life, or be anything other than a waste of her time and energy? What am I supposed to say to her? That she failed us?

The thing is this. The people in charge right now do not believe that working class people can become great artists, scientists, doctors, businessmen or political leaders. The tuition fees vote was the clearest illustration of this. It’s not a conscious exclusion. The possibility just doesn’t enter their heads.

The Tory party may well end up destroyed by its hero. Their last election victory was twenty years ago. After so long out of office, David Cameron understood that Thatcher’s legacy was electoral poison. He worked hard to detoxify the Conservative brand. He even directly contradicted Thatcher’s idea that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Still he couldn’t win a full majority and probably never will.

As prime minister Thatcher got some things right – the Falklands, right to buy – but her record doesn’t justify the fervent psycho-sexual admiration. She wasn’t a statesman in the same way as Attlee or Churchill. Her belief that unregulated capitalism will make everything all right went smash in the fall of 2008. The idea that free markets guarantee free societies is just laughable. China combines a communist tyranny with roaring capitalist success.

Maybe, instead of being this great, defining force, Margaret Thatcher was just as much a prisoner of the verve and flow of history as the rest of us.

What’s Wrong With Criticism in 2012

January 12, 2012

Thoroughly approve of this new award for adversarial literary criticism:

The Hatchet Job of the Year Award is for the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months.

It aims to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote honesty and wit in literary journalism.

Newspaper book pages are on borrowed time. Readership is dwindling, review space is shrinking, reviewers are paid half what they were twenty years ago. The professional critic has yet to draw his last breath, but there’s no mistaking the death rattle.

We’ve not stopped reading – the UK book market was worth over £3bn in 2010 – but we are increasingly going elsewhere for literary recommendations. According to a survey by The Bookseller, only 15% of people said they found out about new books and authors from a newspaper or magazine review, with growing numbers relying on Amazon, blogs and Twitter. A single tweet from Stephen Fry will have an infinitely greater impact on a book’s sales than a dozen broadsheet reviews.

This means asking why many people who like books think the book pages aren’t for them. It means challenging notions that professional criticism is inward-looking and self-serving. It means making sure book reviews are not simply informative, but entertaining.

Hatchet Job of the Year is a crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking. It rewards critics who have the courage to overturn received opinion, and who do so with style.

This prize has been set up by Anna Baddeley and Fleur MacDonald of the Omnivore site. The shortlist consists of harsh and stylish demolition jobs of prominent titles. In a Guardian interview Baddeley expanded on the motivation behind the prize:

We do get annoyed as we read hundreds of book reviews a week. So many of them are really boring and a lot are just plot summaries with just a couple of sentences of cliched opinion tucked at the end.

Any close reader of print book reviews would find it hard to argue with Baddeley’s analysis and the Hatchet Job manifesto. It is a welcome response to the twee, anodyne and deferential consensus of broadsheet criticism. Indeed, there’s far too much backslapping and logrolling in mainstream, establishment, online and underground litscenes and anything that promotes a little more fire and spirit is to be applauded.

Things One Simply Does Not Do

January 9, 2012

There has been a thing going round the blogs, networks and creative writing fora recently about ‘Thou shalt not’ rules for writers. Here’s my contribution. It’s just how I see it, and I’m sure there’s loads of good stuff I’ve left out.

Do not go on forever.

It took me a while to learn how to kill my darlings. When I finally learned (from a drink with a very good, published novelist whose casual advice is worth four years at UEA) my writing moved on, palpably. You must be economical, and unafraid of deleting treasured sentences, characters or concepts. You need to get to the stage of E I Lonoff, happy to spend the afternoon reworking the same para fifty times. If in doubt about a word or line, cut.

Don’t be half-arsed (1)

Don’t pass off good or reasonable or mediocre writing as your best writing. If there’s a sentence in your story that you have doubts about – chances are it needs working on. Go back to it. Walk around all day thinking about it. Rewrite. Leave it for three months and rewrite again. Faulkner told readers of the Paris Review that: ‘Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.’ If it still doesn’t feel right – again, cut it out.

Don’t be half-arsed (2)

You need to be writing for at least two hours a day, six days a week. It’s essential for flow. You’re thinking: ‘But I have a job, I get tired on weekday evenings.’ Tough. Get some coffee on, get at your computer, get iTunes on and stay there for two hours. People worry that all this writing time may overshadow other, more important areas of their life. They are right to worry. Be prepared to wake up in the middle of the night with a perfect line or edit that just can’t wait until morning. And no one’s putting a gun to your head. No spare time? If you want to write, you’ll find time.

Don’t talk (1)…


It still astonishes me after all these years how many aspiring writers you meet who do not read fiction because they are afraid that exposure to different styles will corrupt their unique individual voice. In fact the opposite is true. Influence and eclectism will deepen and personalise your own writing. Read anything. Read everything. You’re not the Tower of Babel. We become people through other people and we become writers through other writers.

Don’t talk (2)

Read more than you write and try to go out a lot, too. Try to meet as many different people as possible and let them do all the talking. People are natural storytellers, everyone’s got a story to tell and there is more joy and tragedy (and elegy and complication) to the dullest suburban real-life mediocrity than to the majority of fictional characters. You don’t have to travel the world. You can just find a town or city and walk around it and keep your eyes open and know it. There’s more material out there than there can ever be inside your head.

Don’t overpromote

Of course you should submit and network and get it out there. But, as Red says, ‘do it objectively, because there is nothing worse than a mediocre writer blowing their own trumpet.’ In particular, don’t set up a Facebook or Twitter profile called ‘[Your Name] Writer’ or ‘[Your Name] Author’. It always reminds me of Rincewind writing ‘Wizzard’ on his hat.

Don’t pay

Be careful of who you submit to and, if someone asks you for money, turn right around. Remember Yog’s Law: money flows towards the writer. There are a lot of clever people out there who want to make money out of writers. The slack-jawed futurism and revolutionary rhetoric of unpublished literary circles make it easy for the twentieth-century vanity publisher to make a old-fashioned killing. The charge may be called administration levy or marketing contribution or specialist promotional package fee – whatever name it goes by, it’s not worth paying. There are good people out there who will help you watch out for the scammers.

And, for Christ’s sake, don’t self publish. If you have talent someone else will publish your work. Which brings us to the final point…

Don’t call it ‘work’

I have never understood anyone who has told me that writing is a curse or a chore. Writing is not torturous or laborious. Writing is fun. Writing is good times. It’s exhausting, sure – but in the good honest glow of football or sex. It is a physical buzz. For me the afterglow of two hours’ good writing is like a mild shot of ecstasy or cocaine. You may be afraid at first. You may fear that everything you write will be terrible. Maybe it will, at first. But go on and exercise that muscle and you will produce good stuff. Because that is how it works.

You may have demons. So what. So it goes. You have the opportunity to tell stories, create new realities and explore other worlds. This is an amazing thing. The imagination is a mortal miracle.

The enigmatic classical tutor of The Secret History erupts in incredulous passion when one of his students describes their seminars as ‘work’.

Work?… Do you really think that what we do is work?’

‘What else should I call it?’

I should call it the most glorious kind of play.’

Where the Borderlands Begin: The Beautiful Indifference

January 8, 2012

Over at 3:AM you can read my review of Sarah Hall‘s marvellous short story collection The Beautiful Indifference. In it I declare with ill-advised scholarly confidence that ‘Cumbria has few literary antecedents’ – apart from, er, Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.

Thanks to Nick for pointing that out.

The UEA Brand

January 4, 2012

When I was first applying for postgrad stuff there were only around six universities that offered creative writing MAs. The University of East Anglia was the most well regarded university in terms of that kind of MA, and still is now that most universities offer them. UEA retains its huge reputation and is seen as number one. Malcolm Bradbury was discovered there! Ian McEwan! Er… some others!

I was knocked back from UEA and studied in Manchester. Once I began my postgraduate work, I met UEA refugees, who had doubts about the course, and had bad experiences there. I was even taught by ex-UEA lecturer Paul Magrs, who told DJ Taylor in 2004 that:

[UEA students] tend to be people of about 30 who’ve burnt out doing something else, who’ve read some Kundera and some Rushdie and think they’re going to reinvent the European novel by writing about their gap year and Ronald Barthes. Somebody even turned up in a beret one year.

There is now a huge book, Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA. It has fifty contributions from past students and teachers. From the blurb:

The collection, which includes 18 previously un-published essays, describes what it’s like to be a student, teach on the course or be a visiting writer at UEA, as well as the excitement, disillusionment and possibilities of life as a writer in a rapidly changing world.

The pieces also clarify fundamental problems across the field of literary composition, through a mix of practical advice, personal testimony and critical perspective.

The novelist Philip Hensher reviewed the UEA book, for the Spectator. You should read the review. It is devastating.

Hensher asks some hard questions about UEA. Among them:

The UEA course has been running for 40 years. It is by far the best-known in the country. Probably most people who want to become writers would like to study there. In short, the teachers can have their pick. So why do they struggle to produce 20 famous names from the last 40 years? And why don’t UEA alumni dominate contemporary British writing in the same way that students from St Martin’s and the Glasgow School of Art have influenced art for the last few decades?

There is a list of published UEA graduates in this book, something under 300 — it is hard to be definite, because at least one is listed twice under different spellings. Of these, I’ve heard of precisely 50, and have read work by 20, not all of whom I would regard as significant or even particularly interesting authors. Why doesn’t UEA do better?

Hensher also provides a good, workable response to the timeless debate of whether writing can be taught. And he goes on to discuss the effect of academia on the writer. Institutions, Hensher says, prefer groupthinkers:

Even UEA. Some of the writers who here celebrate its excellence are really superb advertisements for its results. Others, including a couple, I am sorry to say, who actually teach on the programme, are, on the evidence of their submissions, truly shockingly bad writers.

Two depressing facts emerge about the UEA programme. The first is that ten of the listed graduates have published ‘how-to-write’ books, feeding the industry in an absurd manner. The second is that a startling number of writers celebrated here did well with a first book, but have faded, with each successive work, before disappearing into total oblivion. To sustain a long-term career remains a real challenge for any creative programme.

UEA does seem to represent a certain kind of unreadable establishment complacency. Even the writers from it I admire, like Ishiguro and McEwan, exhibit this kind of literary groupthink in later works: you can practically smell it off the page.

There is a UEA style. A kind of twee verbosity and giggling obscurantism. People see it’s a style that sells. They copy it. I remember an editor telling me that she was struck by the uniformity of the submissions she received from UEA students on a particular module, who had all tailored their fiction to the style of the module tutor.

The creative writing boom is a marvellous thing but these institutions can breed conformity and undermine individual talent. It’s not even a top down thing. It’s a problem of system and process.

Hensher says, again:

Most institutions are going to find it a distinct challenge to contain the carnivalesque and unpredictable workers in the imagination. The majority will always prefer the second-rate and self-limited writer to the dangerous maverick.

That’s the problem, right there.

Update: My old tutor Paul Magrs just got in touch to alert me to his own blog post on the UEA book.

Back in the day: when UEA was relevant.