I once threw Ian McEwan out of a seminar. Okay. So it was a metaphorical ousting and was a collective decision; but as a group we decided that none of us actually liked his books enough to keep them as reading in the classroom. Bye-bye Mr McEwan.
This is why I was slightly amused to hear Mr McEwan on Radio 4 suggesting that ‘maybe [creative writing teaching] should just be done at undergraduate level,’ the same level at which our tutor was so lazy and we were so bored and hung-over that, in the absence of teaching, we chatted about books and decided that Ian McEwan was not a keeper. Bad news Mr McEwan.
But why was McEwan talking on this subject? The programme was a special edition of the Radio 4 arts magazine, Front Row, with Mark Lawson posing the question, ‘is the teaching of creative writing necessary and successful?’ (More on this later.) Anyone with a little knowledge about Creative Writing Masters Degrees knows that McEwan is the go-to-guy on this subject. It was 40 years ago that he took the first course of its type in the UK under Malcolm Bradbury at UEA; the very course this programme was celebrating. Although, according to McEwan, it apparently wasn’t worth the celebration. In his own words, his Masters was built up by the ‘PR machinery of UEA’, and he denies ever taking such a thing. The best he got out of the year was a reading list. Looks like he wasn't such an obvious choice for interview, then.
What I found most saddening about this special was the aggressive stance it took towards creative writing teaching. The main question about how 'necessary' or 'successful' creative writing is as a masters was rather patronising. Would you ask a fine art student this? Or a drama student? No. Because they are allowed to take the time to learn their trade. Creative writing, especially here in the UK, with its vast heritage, is assumed to be something innate, unteachable. As Hemingway said: ‘It's none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.’
And that's what McEwan is trying to deny, that he ever needed or wanted formal guidance or assistance, though maybe a year being ‘funded to do an MA’ was nice. Being funded is a luxury most can only dream of these days. But what we are happy to buy is that time, that space, that year to write some short stories, have them ripped apart, try again, get ripped apart again and again until one day someone says ‘that's a really great sentence’. And then you know that you have one good sentence. It may be a ‘futile dream’ (Mark Lawson) but it’s an inoffensive one, and is certainly not useless. I've not even finished my MA in Creative Writing yet, but already my fellow students have got jobs off the back of the qualification. It got me out of retail, finally. In a recession-hit market creative writing teaching is doing good.
I don't deny there are some failures; some people are never going to quite get there (maybe I'm one of them) but why not let us try? The Faber Academy may be trying to ‘monetise the slush-pile’ but at least it cuts down the wasted paper in the world. (Though what the summer interns will do I don't know.) As Richard Ford said on the show, ‘the world is not lessened by the number of shitty short stories that are floating around. I mean, we just don't have to read them.’
It was Ford who gave me the title ‘the money grab’, as if we are made promises that will never be fulfilled. Richard, don't worry, we're not under any illusions. We're told from day one that it'll be five years before we'll have anything good enough to consider being published. We're not taking ‘lessons in potential bestsellerdom’ as one interviewee put it. We're not ‘herded into English departments’ (McEwan again). I walked out of my English and Creative Writing BA and into my MA of my own free will, (despite my mother's caution: ‘you'll never earn any money in academia’). Why? Because I knew that somewhere out there, it had to be taught better than by my uninspiring and disinterested tutors at undergraduate level. Maybe if McEwan were to take one of these courses he'd understand. Maybe he should go the whole hog and actually take an MA. He might be kept in a few more classrooms.