Big Beasts, Little Beasts, and the Value of Creative Writing

In this week’s Times Higher Education, there is an interview with the writer Hanif Kureishi, who has recently been made professor of creative writing at Kingston University. When it comes to creative writing, universities are fond of appointing Big Beasts of literature to professorial posts, in the belief that the presence of some charismatic megafauna might add colour, sparkle, and glamour to the grey halls of academia. And for the Big Beasts in question, it is an attractive prospect: after all, however big a beast you are, it is hard to make a living from royalties alone – these days, it’s tough out there on the savannah.

I have become accustomed to thinking of the world of writing as an ecosystem, which is why I imagine Hanif Kureishi and Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver and Zadie Smith and co. as charismatic megafauna, as Big Beasts whom we like to admire as they cluster around the watering-holes, or bellow magnificently, or gallop through the long grasses with lithe elegance. But in my years teaching creative writing, I’ve come to realise that there’s more to an ecosystem than charismatic megafauna, and that if you are willing to turn away from the thundering and bellowing and galloping, if you are willing to lie on your belly and look at what is going on in the underbrush, there are all kinds of other fascinating things taking place: astonishing and almost entirely neglected poets scurrying around like timid shrews, or curious communities of mini-beasts working together on strange and wonderful constructions. In other words, the world of writing is far more vast and rich and fascinating than the Friday-night Discovery Channel-style media obsession with charismatic megafauna might suggest.

This is also why I found myself strongly disagreeing with Kureishi’s too-easy dismissal of undergraduate courses in creative writing. Here’s the section of the interview.

What is an undergraduate degree worth?

I only teach MAs and PhDs, but I think an [undergraduate] degree in creative writing is totally worthless. There’s no guarantee that if you have a degree, that you’re an artist, that you can write. It’s [simply] a good opportunity for students to meet teachers. I mean, giving someone a [creative writing] degree, you might as well give them a swimming certificate – it doesn’t guarantee that your [work] is of any value, or that there will be any audience. That depends on the market.

It seems to me that in Kureishi’s complaint against undergraduate creative writing, there is an implicit assumption that the point of a degree in creative writing is to become a Big Beast. At least, I presume that ‘artist’ here equates to ‘Big Beast’ – a writer who has a substantial audience, who has cornered a lion’s share of the market, who can stand proudly beside the media waterhole alongside the likes of Kureishi and McEwan and friends. But this is one of the problems with Big Beasts: they have a somewhat myopic tendency to only recognise others of their kind, to assume that the only interesting game in town is Big Game.

Universities themselves are often guilty of pushing this assumption that what a degree in creative writing is there for is to nurture Big Beasts. This is why they also go out to seek and tame charismatic megafauna to bring back into the academy. When they fall victim to this, universities end up peddling a kind of sympathetic magic: a notion that by rubbing yourself up alongside Big Beasts, you might be able to turn into one yourself. However, this obsession with megafauna is unhelpful, because Big Beasts are necessarily only a tiny part of an ecosystem (they are an important part, of course, but not as important as they might imagine they are), and if universities set themselves up to produce ranks of Big Beasts, they are bound to fail most of their students.

Although Kureishi goes on to say that there is no “real body of information” that makes up creative writing as a subject and that “writing in the end is really a matter of taste”, creative writing is not, and should not be, a contentless subject. We at De Montfort University teach courses on how writing can be used to explore the puzzles of identity and the complexities of the human experience of place; we train students to develop critical and editorial skills; we look in detail at the techniques of writing, from formal verse forms to strange experimental hybrids; we explore research methods; we look at the complexities of the publishing world; we range over a whole series of arcanely useful issues, from desktop and internet publishing, to the dark arts of publishers’ contracts, to questions of money and finance.

In all of this, we are not just aiming to nurture the next generation of Big Beasts. Instead, we are working on the basis that a good creative writing degree can do two things. Firstly, it can help nurture and develop the next generation of those who, in as many ways as possible, will care for and contribute to the richness of this literary ecosystem of books, stories, poems, plays, and ideas. Earlier this year we had our fifth cohort of graduating creative writing students. We don’t have any Big Beasts among our graduates yet. But Big Beasts typically have a long gestation period. We do, however, have former students doing all kinds of things that contribute to the health of the literary ecosystem. Some are publishing poems and pamphlets and stories and blogs and articles, others perform at spoken word events, or stage and direct plays, or set up their own theatres and theatre companies. We have past and present students who risk everything night after night on the stand-up comedy circuit. Some of our graduates are now teaching creative writing in schools and colleges and in the community. Others are setting up small magazines, or working in publishing. Still others are stabled alongside Hanif Kureishi and Ian McEwan and other Big Beasts, in the wonderful collection Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, edited by my colleague, the novelist, poet, and short story writer Jonathan Taylor. When I look at all of this teeming richness, and when I think of all of my former students who are tending to and caring for this richness, I feel some confidence in the future of the literary ecosystem.

But the value of a creative writing degree – if it is a good degree, and perhaps not all of them are – does not only lie in the way it can help contribute to the continued health of the literary ecosystem. A good creative writing degree can be put to use elsewhere. We have former students who are studying to become lawyers or doctors, and who contact us to say to us that the things they have learned on their creative writing degree have been of immeasurable benefit. A creative writing degree can teach you many things: a deeper understanding of human communication; the ability to tell a compelling tale; knowledge of how the various technologies of the written word, from books to social media, can be put to use; skill in turning a phrase; the arts of editing, writing to brief, close reading, and diplomacy; and finally what some might call ‘creativity’, but what I like to think of as a good dose of low cunning.

After only five cohorts of students graduating, it is early days here. We are still hoping that one day we will see a Big Beast emerge from our ranks at DMU. When that happens, as I’m sure it will, then I will be delighted. I look forward to the day when I can attend a book launch with canapés and champagne and fireworks put on at the publishers’ expense, to the day when I can watch a former student transform into charismatic megafauna. But bringing about the coming of that happy day is not our sole aim or purpose, and neither should it be the criterion by which the worth and value of teaching this curious, rich and fascinating subject should be judged.

This blog is dedicated to all my current and former creative writing students.

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