Skip to Content

Boom time for creative writing

4 February 2008

This weekend has seen the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in New York City. It's a sold-out event with 7,000 attendees. The Association was founded in 1967 with 13 members, at a time when creative writing was in its infancy, to support the growing presence of literary writers in literary education in the US. It now has 400 colleges and universities as members and there are 720 degree-conferring programmes in creative writing in the US.

AWP says it has 'helped to establish the largest system of literary patronage the world has ever seen'. It was founded by 15 writers who represented 12 writing programmes which had been set up in the teeth of fierce opposition from scholars, who felt that the study of literature should focus on the greats, and should not involve actual writing.

Expansion has not been quite so fast in the UK, but there are now around a hundred university courses for creative writers, as well as a host of evening classes and privately run courses. In the meantime this is a booming area across the globe, with many new courses being set up to satisfy demand.

The huge expansion in creative writing is a response to soaring demand from a wide range of aspiring writers. This is part of the booming world of writing, but it's also a result of the growing realisation that knowing how to write well is a really useful skill. It would be interesting to know how many of the students on these courses go on to make careers as writers, but perhaps that isn't really the point.

Creative writing courses are very lucrative for the colleges and universities, with full student rolls and plenty of demand, including a large number of mature students. On both sides of the Atlantic many universities have well-known authors teaching their courses and attracting students. In the States Wallace Stegner's course at Stanford was highly influential and the pioneering University of Iowa course was once taught by Kurt Vonnegut, amongst many literary luminaries.

In the UK the Professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway is the Poet Laureate, Andrew MotionEnglish poet, novelist and biographer; Poet Laureate of United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009; during his laureateship founded the Poetry Archive, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work. The search for celebrity has recently hit the headlines with the news that novelist Martin Amis will be paid £80,000 ($157,258) a year to teach 28 hours at Manchester University, a stupendous £3,000 ($5,897) an hour. Another example is recent T S Eliot Prize winner Sean O'Brien, who is Professor or Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Now that many writers, especially poets, support themselves through teaching creative writing, the courses are making an essential contribution to the creative economy by helping writers to support themselves so they can go on writing.