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.