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Do creative writing courses work?

10 March 2014

Following on from Hanif Kureishi's attack on creative writing courses this week, this old chestnut of a question has turned up again. Kureishi has dismissed creative writing courses as "a waste of time" and said he would never have gone on one himself, despite the fact that he currently teaches a writing course at Kingston University. I should think his department at Kingston must be thrilled to hear that their star writer/lecturer has this view, but he has always played to his reputation as something of an enfant terrible.

What Kureishi maintains is that story-telling can't be learnt, that it is an innate skill which you either have or don't have. This argument would suggest that only those writers who enrol for creative writing courses who have this skill in the first place are ever going to be able to make it as writers. This seems to be underestimating the human power to learn and the tutors' ability to show you how to develop your plot, flesh out your characters and so on. What you do do on creative writing courses is learn how to improve your writing, but that does not make you into a published writer.

What is probably true is that going on a creative writing course will not in itself make you into a successful writer. Even though your writing will certainly improve, it won't necessarily be good enough, nor will your subject matter, or story, necessarily have a commercial market. What you are writing and what people want to read are different things. In the midst sit publishers as arbiters of taste, with their whole business resting on how much they can find the writers who will appeal to readers.

If you are a self-publisher you don't have to satisfy publishers' criteria of what may sell, which may on the one hand mean you have a chance of getting past their control of the market and getting to your audience directly. Or, on the other hand, it may mean that if you don't really write well enough, or write sufficiently interestingly to find an audience - or just that, lost in the vast number of self-publishers, you can't work out a way of finding your audience - you may not do very well as a self-publisher.

In a wonderfully serene counterblast to Kureishi, Anna Metcalfe, recently shortlisted for the Sunday Times/EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, relates her own experience of attending the University of East Anglia Writing School, and what it has done for her career. But maybe she was an outstanding writer to start with and just needed the extra help to turn her into a successful one?