MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


  • Acts of Revision
  • Burning Bright
  • deadkidsong
  • The Observations
  • Oxygen
  • Solar
  • Trezza Azzopardi
  • The Underground Man
  • When We Were Orphans

– Malcolm Bradbury

To start at the start:  just over twenty-five years ago, Angus Wilson and I – we were both professors of literature at the very new University of East Anglia, a then gleaming concrete monument set in a windy green field just outside Norwich – began discussing an idea.  We were each growing ever more depressed by the general state of serious fiction and the short story in Britain.  At the end of the Sixties, the bright excitements of the postwar generation and the anger of the Angry Young Men had already died down, and publishers, editors and critics were all beginning to doubt the future of literary fiction.  In the diminishing band of literary periodicals and little magazines, articles on the Death of the Novel appeared constantly, as they still do today.  One memorable issue of Ian Hamilton's The New Review actually had a symposium in which some sixty-odd good novelists announced that nobody was writing good novels any more.  Meantime the magazines that printed short stories were shutting down (The New Review itself closed shortly thereafter), publishers were beginning to limit their fiction titles, and post mortem thoughts were widespread.

One odd fact struck us.  Though everyone was announcing the Death of the Novel, no-one was announcing the Death of Literary Criticism.  In fact (as was clear from the climate in our own university) criticism, stimulated by the new thoughts of France, was undergoing a vivid resurrection, emerging in the new guise of Literary Theory.  In Paris Roland Barthes had lately published his essay on "The Death of the Author."  Marshall McLuhan had not much earlier pronounced the End of the Gutenberg Galaxy, the closedown of the era of the book.  Since Angus and I were both novelists as well as teachers of literature, and took our profession seriously, it seemed somewhat strange for us to be announcing the Death of the Author in the classroom, then going straight back home to be one.  What seemed even more grievous was that the practice of criticism and the practice of writing were splitting ever further apart.  Where once writers and critics had been much the same people, now the practice of writing and the theory of its study seemed ever more to divide.

What's more, the prevailing cultural gloom largely contradicted the evidence of our own eyes.  The new universities, founded in the great educational dreams of the early 1960s, had attracted a new generation of vigorous and creative undergraduates, who were looking for a new and "contemporary" approach to literature.  Many of them were writing themselves.  At UEA these included Rose Tremain, Clive Sinclair, the playwright Snoo Wilson, and Jonathan Powell, later to ascend the commanding heights of television.  Angus and I began working informally with them and other writers on campus;  we were both also in touch with young and unknown writers elsewhere whose talents and originality we admired.  What's more, we had both been involved, on the other side of the Atlantic, with that distinctive and peculiar American institution, the creative writing course.  These had existed in the United States for generations;  Frank Norris, for instance, took the famous course at Harvard taught by Professor Lewis Gates in the early 1890s.  It seemed reasonable enough to transform what we had been doing informally into a formal programme, and in 1967 (as I see from some old and weary files) we began proposing to the university the starting of a postgraduate, MA course in the writing of fiction:  otherwise known as the MA in Creative Writing.

What neither of us entirely recognized was the degree of suspicion in which creative writing had come to be held in Britain.  It was generally regarded as a dangerous American invention, like the vacuum cleaner and the hoola hoop – and certainly not one that had a place in the literature department of a British university.  A good many of our colleagues doubted the idea.  Some thought writing couldn't be taught.  Some thought, if it could be, it shouldn't be.  Some thought it couldn't be properly examined.  And some thought that even if it could be taught with propriety and examined with rigour it still had no place in a university, which was devoted to the disinterested study of literature, not the practice of it.  Happily, there were a good many others who took the opposite view.  UEA had made a point of appointing writers to its literature faculty, including Vic Sage, Lorna Sage, Jonathan Raban and others with clear creative sympathies.  It had also developed a strong commitment to contemporary writing, and soon there was an invaluable writing fellowship, which has since been held over the years by a wide variety of leading writers.  By the end of the Sixties the course had struggled its way onto our postgraduate programme – as a possible small supplement to an academic MA degree.

I doubt, though, if it would have come seriously into existence had it not been for a remarkable turn of fortune.  In the summer of 1970 I was telephoned by a recent graduate of Sussex, Ian McEwan (he gives his own account of the events that follows in this book), who asked to take the so-far non-existent course.  And, on the strength of a remarkable bundle of short stories he quickly wrote to support his application, we admitted him as the sole and trial student in 1970-71.  Angus and I met him in pubs and teashops, and we discussed his work.  Though he had other heavy academic requirements to fulfill, over the twelve months of the course he wrote over twenty stunning short stories, and they subsequently became the contents of his first two volumes.  By the time the year was done, the whole situation was transformed.  The doubting parties were convinced;  the MA course in Creative Writing was now effectively born.

The twenty five years since have seen the course pass through many guises.  It started off slowly and haltingly, with a few blank years – either because no suitable candidates appeared over the horizon, or because one or other of us was off on a writing sabbatical.  Gradually the numbers admitted enlarged:  from one to three, three to six, six to eight, eight to twelve.  Other writers occasionally appeared to supplement the group – like Clive Sinclair, who had returned to the university to do a PhD in American literature.  When Angus Wilson retired from the university in the Eighties, I went on teaching the programme, now with Angela Carter.  She was followed by Rose Tremain, herself a graduate of the university, and most recently she has been followed by Russell Celyn Jones.  As time passed, the success of the early graduates had considerable impact on the numbers of applicants (it peaked crazily when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989) and brought us new and remarkable students – who soon began making their mark in their turn.  The course expanded in various ways – into screenwriting, playwrighting, and publishing – and added a PhD programme.  In the late 1980s, the students themselves added a self-edited annual anthology of their work, and seven of these volumes have appeared to date.

            Twenty five years on happens to mark the point of my own retirement – and the appointment of Andrew Motion as Professor of Creative Writing at UEA, to carry forward the programme in the future.  As is well-known, there's nothing like retirement for encouraging a few moments of fond looking back.  And what I see back there are something like 200 former students, along with a very large pile of several hundred stories and drafts of novels.  Of those 200, perhaps a third have become published writers (others have gone into publishing, journalism, television production, teaching, arts administration and so on).  Some  of them are internationally famous, some are well-known, others are just beginning their careers, and others have yet to make the breakthrough.  Looking back through all of these, across the 25 years, I have gone to select, not without many agonies of choice, the thirty stories that make up the contents of this book.

The stories that follow come from the full twenty five years of the course, and, as a matter of archival interest, I have entered the dates when these writers actually took the course (save for Rose Tremain and Clive Sinclair, both former UEA undergraduates who returned to take part in the programme).  Of these stories, a good many – like Ian McEwan's "Solid Geometry" and Kazuo Ishiguro's "A Family Supper," Glenn Patterson's "Flag Day" and David Rose's "An Ugly Night" – were actually written for and discussed in the formidable workshops, some of them as famous for bloodshed as the Charge of the Light Brigade.  Several of the stories had quite a complicated genesis.  For instance "Iguana Hunting," an early piece of writing by Hernan Lara Zavala (now a well-known Mexican novelist and story writer) was first written in Spanish, then translated and reworked with another member of the course, Andrew Jefford.  A number of stories here started life in the course but have been much reworked since, generally for publication.  Some is more recent work (it seemed only fair to let the chosen writers indicate their own preferences).  The course has always contained as many novelists as short story writers;  and for that reason two of the pieces chosen, "Killing a Pig" by Dierdre Madden and "Cutting" by Martha Perkins, are self-contained sections from novels.  From the start, the course was very deliberately international – which is why, of the writers that follow, several are American, a number Irish, one is Anglo-Japanese and one Mexican, a reasonably typical grouping.

A few other things are also interesting when seen in the hazy light of retrospect.  It's now apparent that the literary and cultural gloom of the late Sixties was decidedly premature.  For a wide variety of reasons – a profound change in the entire cultural climate, a new burst of energy and expansion in publishing, the growth of a new and young reading public, the birth of good new bookstores, the shift of literary interest away from theatre and back into fiction, the emergence of literary prizes, the habit of writers giving readings, the rising interest in creativity, even producing perhaps an increased tolerance for creative writing – the period soon after the course started was one of a new energy and vitality in serious fiction.  New novelists were welcomed and at times even adulated or turned into glowing celebrities.  New magazines started, and new outlets appeared.  The conventions of fiction, and the culture and the multi-cultures underlying it, changed and expanded;  and the idea of an age of new writing no longer seemed so absurd.  It actually now seems possible to see the last quarter of the twentieth century as a highly creative period, perhaps reaching its peak in the 1980s, but still retaining much of its energy in the 1990s – and no doubt beyond, as the great millennial transition takes us onward into a new and different world.

It's never too wise to generalize about the characteristics of the writing of a period, and certainly the stories that follow are as various as the very various authors who wrote them.  The one generalization probably worth offering is that this is self-conscious fiction – more or less by definition, since most of these stories have been through a much-discussed and much-analyzed process of composition.  But there was never any attempt to fix a method, lay down a rule-book, prescribe a direction, create a school.  Writers were encouraged to develop their own creative methods and preoccupations, to follow out the line of their own writing – but to do it in a shared environment where writing and its problems and possibilities were taken seriously.  Admittedly, reading through the thirty stories, it's possible to glimpse many of the twists and turns of the literary generations that are a visible feature of any creative writing course, as they are for that matter in any longish-lived literary magazine.  Ian McEwan describes how in the early years of the course "everyone was keen on Borges and Julio Cortazar."  A few years later, the influence of Raymond Carver passed like a pandemic through the writing courses of the world, to be followed by such figures as Jeannette Winterson, Will Self and T. Coraghessan Boyle.  Feminism too made its powerful mark, and, amongst other things, it helped dissolve the approved narrative voice and consciousness of previous fictional convention.  And the international mixture of students ensured that influence from many sources fed all activities, and multiplied the sense of formal possibility.

No less potent than these things, though, have been the changes in writing technology.  The age of the ballpoint pen and the notebook, or the clattering portable typewriter in the lonely bedroom, has given way to the age of the Apple Mac, the word-count, desktop publishing.  No less than the great changes in the texture of contemporary culture, all this has broken open the old frame of fiction and allowed the visual appearance of the text to be transformed.  And another potent influence has been the power of the visual media, and the screenplay.  This has changed narrative pace and economy, and had its own powerful impact on the techniques, themes and genres of fiction.  Technology and the age of internationalism and multi-culturalism alike have altered the spirit of contemporary writing, and dissolved or extended the once familiar literary voice of 'good' fiction into something much wider and more various.

Another great change, it seems, has been in the general attitude toward creative writing itself.  It is, generally speaking, no longer held in suspicion, but regarded with, possibly, too much adulation, and the programmes now proliferate.  After 25 years, I am still not totally convinced myself that writing can be taught – if by that is meant that writers of small talent can be transformed, by the touch of a hand or the aid of a handbook, into significant authors and great moral guides.  But what certainly can be created is a significant climate around writing, in which talented and promising authors are taken through the problems, general and specific, universal and personal, of their form and their ambitions, shown the options and the possibilities, challenged, edited, pressured, hastened, treated as members of a serious profession.  It is, after all, fair to assume that the problems of writers are just as interesting, just as complex and just as discussable as those of painters, actors or musicians – and that means treating the writing of fiction, or any other literary genre, as a professional, a demanding, a transmittable, a serious and an ever-changing art.

Teaching in the MA course at UEA has been the third greatest pleasure of my life.  The second is writing itself, and the first you know what.  I've been enormously grateful for an experience that has let me watch writing grow, generation by generation, style by style, temperament by temperament.  Teaching writing, or rather working with the workings of writers, is the most intense and rewarding form of teaching I know, and has left the indelible imprint of many remarkable workshops (those at which the stories of Kazuo Ishiguro appeared, for instance).  If I've tried to teach, I've also tried to learn.  One way of expressing the consequential debt is the making of this book;  I can only be sorry that many excellent stories and many fine writers are absent from it because of scarcity of space.  And another debt is to Carole Welch at Hodder and Stoughton, for commissioning the volume, and to her colleague Miles Hutchinson, its publisher's editor.  Rose Tremain, Ian McEwan, and Clive Sinclair have also been wonderfully helpful.  Another bow of gratitude is due to colleagues like Chris Bigsby, Lorna Sage, Vic Sage,and Jon Cook, head of the Centre for Creative and Performing Arts at UEA, for the longstanding support they have given.  The course also depended heavily on the secretarial and moral input of Muriel Utting, a memorable figure in all its counsels, as well as of Aileen Davies.  In the formidable task of tracing writers who are now scattered worldwide, I am, as ever, deeply grateful to my wife Elizabeth Bradbury – who made not only this volume but so much else come out.  Finally my direct thanks to the writers who agreed to contribute.  Here it is, then, their class-work.  And I hope it gives as much pleasure to the contemporary reader as it has to me over the last quarter century.