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

I was delighted to be asked to give this memorial lecture.  As you all know, it's dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Wilkinson, Professor of Education here at UEA, and is intended to be on an aspect of language, literacy and literature in education.  I decided to talk on this particular topic because it was one in which Andrew had a great interest, even if it came from a different perspective and out of a different department of the university from my own.

Then there's another reason.  Most of you know Andrew's achievements at UEA.  But I knew him first long before that, when we were young colleagues at Birmingham University.  We were both in literary studies, he in the Education department, I in English.  We also had something else in common;  we were both academic writers.  In fact I was a writer before I was a university teacher, and all through my adult I have written novels, stage and television plays, and poetry alongside my literary scholarship and my literary criticism.  Andrew was doing something similar, writing poetry and radio drama, and at a time when radio was regarded as a serious literary medium.  Several of his plays, in verse and prose, were broadcast on the Third Programme around the time we first met.  One of them, The Foundling, won the Italia Prize, a great distinction.

As it happened, Birmingham around that time, the early 60s, was a very lively centre of writing.  There were several reasons for this.  One was that there had been a lively tradition of writing associated with the university in the 1930s, when people like Walter Allen and C. Day Lewis were around.  But much more importantly for us, in the early 1960s the BBC established a fine new (and underused) studio at Pebble Mill, and soon commercial television came along, with ATV.  I'm afraid this era has more or less died now, and just lately the BBC has moved much of its own self-generated drama production out of Birmingham.  What's more, under John Harrison, there was a lively new creative era at the Birmingham Playhouse, as well as at other theatres in the region, like the new Belgrade at Coventry.  A great deal was going on at that time, and it fed a lively writing and drama culture, an excellent thing for any city.  Both of us were involved in that – and when, at different times, we came here to Norwich, something of the relationship was renewed.  And in addition we talked a good deal about the role of the university in contemporary writing, the idea of creativity, the role of storytelling and creative writing in education in general.  All of this explains the direction of this lecture.

In the mid-1960s I moved from Birmingham to UEA, for two reasons.  One was the opportunity to develop a then very new subject, American Studies, and UEA's interdisciplinary spirit made this the ideal place to be.  The other great temptation was the fact that in its wisdom UEA had appointed Angus Wilson a part-time professor of English.  There had been such 'literary' appointments before – 'Q' at Cambridge, F.T. Prince at Southampton, William Empson at Sheffield, while Oxford had long had a distinguished Professor of Poetry.  Even so it was not exactly an obvious notion.  Angus was an excellent scholar, critic, and biographer, but he had before this done very little teaching (he turned out, of course, to be quite brilliant) and no academic publishing (and you know how important that is).  His UEA appointment had enormous effect.  It tempted writer-academics like myself here.  It was also attracting to the university a certain kind of student, people who were reading literature because they wanted to be writers (Rose Tremain, Clive Sinclair, Snoo Wilson).  It also won us the friendship of a good many well-known writers – Doris Lessing, John Fowles and so on – who saw this as a university with a friendly and refreshing attitude toward contemporary writers and writing.

Out of this pleasantly literary climate, Angus Wilson and I started the MA course in Creative Writing in 1970.  There were other associated activities here too:  the Henfield Writing Fellowship, which brought writers like Alan Burns, Anthony Thwaite, and David Lodge to UEA, and became the East Arts Association Fellowship.  Later there came the Centre for Creative and Performing Arts, run by Jon Cook, which has made UEA a research centre in writing and creativity, and the Arthur Miller Centre, run by Chris Bigsby, which has sustained a link both with American writers and writers nationally and internationally.  Between them, they have turned UEA into a major literary 'venue,' to which leading writers from across the world come as a matter of course.  The UEA gig is quite as important as the groups and bands that come to the Student Union – often, unfortunately, on exactly the same night.

The result of all this was that creative writing and contemporary literature came to play an intriguing and a central role in the history – and I trust the future – of this particular university.  25 years on, and we now have a Professor of Creative Writing, my successor Andrew Motion, who has carried the subject splendidly forward.  Leading writers like Angela Carter, Rose Tremain and Russell Celyn Jones have taught here.  Honorary fellowships have made writers like Doris Lessing, John Fowles and Salman Rushdie a significant part of the university.  Maybe 250 writers have graduated by now from the MA.  Of those around a third, seventy, have gone on to be professionals, some of them amongst the leading writers of the day, a score that surprises even me.  Among them they have won almost all the major prizes – the Booker, the Whitbread, etc – and have, I think, changed the climate of writing in Britain.  Probably ten to twenty novels a year now come out from UEA writers.

The programme itself is now widely copied right aross the country (though I need hardly say that ours of course remains the best).  UEA is seen as an international centre of Creative Writing – or, as the Guardian lately put it, 'the forerunner of all the courses.' which 'still attracts la creme de la creme.'  It's a far cry from our trial first year in 1970, when Ian McEwan (who has just won the Booker, our second Booker winner) was the one test student, and wrote the twenty odd short stories that established his career.  It means the subject is long enough to have acquired a real history in this country, and a significant part of it has happened here.  I thought I would take this occasion to try and tell the story.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I first met Andrew Wilkinson, the whole climate in universities was changing.  This was the time of the then famous Robbins Report, now lost in the past, which set out to re-plan the future of British higher education.  As a result six new universities (there was a seventh, never built – except that I built it myself, in The History Man) were founded, and the Denys Lasdun concrete monuments that surround us now are the architectural symbols of that change.  There was also a fresh look at the disciplines, and the layout of the great map of learning.  The new universities were expected to du different (that is the UEA motto), and this underlies the academic programmes UEA planned for itself:  wide-ranging, interdisciplinary, with a new approach to modern studies.  This has changed again, and universities are altering once more, to the joy of some and the dismay of others.  The term 'new universities' means something else:  UEA is a sort of historic institution, with no precise name – 'a plateglass university,' they used to say, or 'a greenfield university' – and quite a number of the innovations have been redesigned, dismantled, or otherwise made user friendly to the age of student fees and cool Britannia.

And in the 1950s and 1960s literature – at any rate writing – was changing too, quite as significantly.  We sometimes think of literature as a kind of God-given and more or less unchanging institution, a set of long-lived practices and traditions that start pleasantly with the Greeks and have gone on developing comfortably from Euripedes to Nick Hornby.  But of course the literary institution constantly goes through fundamental upheavals, some of which we categorize among the great 'isms' – Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, Postmodernism and so on, up to Postpostmodernism, or wherever we're at just now.  Still, books do seem to go on from one to another, traditions and genres go on, reading and writing goes on, dramatists go on getting performed, poets go on getting drunk.  In fact for every generation the circumstances of writing, publishing and reading differ – as does our understanding of science and the universe, and our fundamental structures of thought, opinion and cultural activity.  No literary living is ever guaranteed, no genre is necessarily eternal.  At some times people turn to books, and at other times they don't.  Sometimes we have intelligent publishers, and sometimes we have global media corporations.  Sometimes people think literature is wisdom or a profound cultural expression, sometimes they think it's entertainment.  Sometimes publishers are bullish, and sometimes they think it's time to drop the whole game and head for CD-ROM.


The 50s has gone down in the record as a sober time, almost the last gasp of an old world.  In fact it was one of those unsettled eras when the writing culture was changing fast in Britain, and elsewhere.  Till then, the main scene for serious modern writing could be roughly called bohemia.  Much of the literary, artistic, moral and for that matter sexual experiment we now designate as Modernism owed everything to its culture and customs.  The writer was a free-floating, world-wandering figure.  He or she was at war with the philistinism of general culture, the state of the middlebrow culture, and also with the universities – or what Ford Madox Ford, one of the great promoters of modern literature, called 'the dons asleep over their waste-paper baskets.'  Bohemia was its own state, and had its own currency, customs, passports, kings, queens, and capitals, the chief of which was Paris.  It had its own moral codes and its own institutions:  magazines, movements, manifestos, cafes, galleries, small presses, and above all patrons.  It was a survival economy, and functioned mainly because generous or ambitious bourgeois patrons still existed.  They financed not just publications but the very lives of a lot of the leading writers, from Pound and Joyce to D.H. Lawrence.  Patrons, parents, lovers sent cheques, and mysterious bonds bequeathed by maiden aunts supported literary endeavour and the food and especially drink needed for sustenance.

Bohemia was an eternal creative writing class, and it always had its own tutors.  Wordsworth and Coleridge taught each other, you could say, as did Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.  In Modernist Paris Pound held seminars in How to Read, which really meant How to Write.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald and everyone else went and sat at the feet of the great stoneface, Gertrude Stein, who did master or mistress classes in the rue de Fleurus.  'Begin over again, and concentrate,' she told Hemingway, who took that excellent advice, and did.  Everyone knew that everyone else was a genius – a misunderstood genius, of course.  Recognition would come only with posterity;  meantime avant garde groupies bought all those novels in paper wrappers, volumes of poetry with their blank pages, trusting they were a sound investment in real literature.  So – as long as the cheques kept coming, the franc kept low, they didn't run out of beer at La Coupole, there were still cheap cold-water apartments in Montparnasse, Soho or Greenwich Village, and there was nobody called Hitler, literature could continue.

Bohemia existed across Europe and America.  In Paris it was Montparnasse, in Britain it was 'Bloomsbury,' and was slightly different.  The writers were mostly upper middle class, the cafes were indoors, in expensive Georgian houses, and to get into them it helped to have been at Cambridge and be a friend of Lytton Strachey.  Modernism, we can now recognize, was already fading in the Depression Thirties, and was finished by the Second World War.  When literature and history started up again after 1945, much of the infra-structure had gone.  The great kings and queens were gone:  Joyce dead, Woolf dead, Eliot Anglo-Catholic, Pound in the madhouse.  Paris was now a hotbed of existentialism, and few people had the means to travel there.  The patrons had gone, the maiden aunts were broke, and when you travelled you travelled on studentships or the GI Bill.  The fine literary magazines which had surged in wartime – Horizon, Penguin New Writing – had gone by 1950.  Bloomsbury too was going, or gone, except in the Sunday Times, and being replaced by the new meritocrats of the welfare state.


So, when I started writing in the 1950s, the mood was definitely shifting.  True, as some of the novels of Muriel Spark show us, a bohemia of sorts still survived in London;  you could still just get by getting the odd book commission from a small publisher in Great Russell Street, delivering the odd radio talk, doing a lot of reviewing, and then selling off the review copies at Gaston's.  There were no huge advances, magazines paid almost nothing, writing was mostly hack poverty.  They did things a bit better in the United States, where literary poverty was far more affordable.  The Beat Generation might have been starving, hysterical and naked, but they still managed to get on the cover of Time magazine, have cars, keep the route open between the two great bohemian centres of Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashberry, and find enough coin to take themselves to Mexico, Tangiers and Paris.

Meantime bohemia was finding itself new patrons and sponsors.  One, in America, was the GI Bill, for returning soldiers to enter college programmes.  Soon bohemia, like jazz, was going to college.  Writers back from war were responding to a new pattern for the literary intelligentsia, and becoming university students, teachers, writers in residence.  On the book-jackets, the bios changed.  Where once it explained the author had lived in Paris or fought in the Spanish Civil War, now it said they were writer in residence at Cornell.  Some, like that grand, rich patrician bohemian Gore Vidal, found it shocking:  writing was turning dry and academic.  Others complained that the intelligentsia was becoming uncritical, tame, enfeebled, a literary bureaucrat with a desk job, and the age of all experiment was over.  But at least the university provided a regular pay-cheque;  and it was supposed to be interested in literature.

So in the Fifties an uneasy alliance began to form between writers and universities, even on the sceptical greenswards of Britain.  At times this was something of a comedy.  Dylan Thomas toured American campuses for large fees, delighting in its supplies of homage, Bourbon and complaisant faculty wives.  Bohemia came on campus, but the campus also reshaped bohemia.  There was an increasingly close relationship, and the Fifties was an era not just of Angry Young Men but a growing number of writer-academics, people who both taught and wrote.  Not that this was novel.  As I've said, universities had often had writer-professors, from Arthur Quiller-Couch to F.T. Prince and William Empson.  Many academics wrote, in a left-handed sort of way, and often under pseudonyms.  Half the recorded crime in Oxford came from the labours of the likes of Michael Innes and Dorothy Sayers.  Without these dons the modern crime novel in Britain would hardly have existed – just as modern fantasy owes an enormous amount to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, both English dons.  It so happens I have just written an episode of Inspector Morse, with, of course, a partly collegiate setting.  It's thanks to Colin Dexter that half the tourists who now come to the city of dreaming spires are looking not for traces of Erasmus or Matthew Arnold but the scene of some crime investigated by John Thaw.

But the Fifties connection was different.  For one thing it was becoming far less centered on Oxbridge.  In 1954 two important and influential first novels appeared:  Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Iris Murdoch's Under the NetLucky Jim, written by an English lecturer at Swansea, put a last boot into old Bloomsbury, but its main claim to fame was that it was the story of a young meritocrat in a redbrick university, whose ambition was to write or indeed do anything but teach history.  It was part of a new phenomenon, the campus novel, to which I myself was then contributing.  Under the Net, written by a Philosophy don at Oxford, was about an intellectual drifter and hack writer moving through the last gasps of the old bohemia in London and Paris.  Both books could be read as portraits of the new postwar intellectual.  Both were set the modern university and modern bohemia in a climate that was contemporary and recognizable;  and, for all the comedy, both were novels of serious ideas, by writers who would contribute centrally and substantially to modern fiction.  Amis was a serious poet and critic, Murdoch an important post-existentialist philosopher.

As I say, a new sort of culture was forming, and it had important consequences.  It represented a different kind of link between contemporary writing and the university, and between the nature of writing and the nature of literary criticism.  For the writers were in many cases also the new critics.  In fiction there was plainly a new wave;  in poetry there was a 'New Movement,' by writers who were often called 'the University Wits.'  They included Amis again, John Wain, Donald Davie, John Bayley, Charles Tomlinson, Philip Hobsbaum, Geoffrey Hill, Laurence Lerner, D.J. Enright, and Anthony Burgess, and then you could add some younger writers – Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe, myself.  Philip Larkin was a university librarian, at Hull, and drew in a band of fellow poets around him, including Douglas Dunn and Andrew Motion.  Many of the important new magazines were now university-based, ranging from Critical Quarterly to Universities Poetry.


The same was true – in fact it was even truer – in the USA.  When I went there in the mid-1950s, the scene in literary studies was dominated by the New Critics.  Today we seem to think of it as the Old Criticism, the lost time before the wonderful slippages of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction, and the professionalization of theoretical literary study.  In fact it represented a powerful alliance between the serious profession of writing and the university.  Some of its strongest figures – John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate – were themselves writer critics, whose careers had mostly started at Southern universities in the 1930s.  Their major works – Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction – were based on intrinsic intimacy with the practice and the textual complexity of creative writing.  They preceded the professionalization and indeed the bureaucratization of theory, and positioned the reader close to the writer and the text, in that act of 'practical criticism' which was generally known as 'close reading.'  Their theory was neither abstract nor heavily agenda-ed, and was quite as useful to the writer as it was to the student or academic reader.

Postwar American universities drew in many significant writers:  Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Bernard Malamud, Alison Lurie, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell.  Some taught literature, others creative writing;  many other writers, like Joseph Heller and Philip Roth, had campus attachments.  Others like John Barth, Robert Coover, Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass, Stanley Elkin, Raymond Carver and Paul Auster became very famous teachers of creative writing.  Not surprisingly, the campus novel flourished here too.  In a time when American publishing was even more flagrantly commercial than British (we still then had the benefit of small, courageous publishers), many of the best magazines and presses were on campus, and it was here that most of the important publication occurred (Kenyon Review, Partisan Review and so on).  The shift from the Rotonde to Rutgers, La Coupole to Columbia, the Deux Magots to Duke, had enormous consequences.  Gore Vidal complained that a new kind of writing emerged, where books were written in one seminar room in order to be taught in another (he usually made this complaint on his frequent visits to universities).

Others worried too.  Many academics frowned severely on this influx, and some writer-academics felt it necessary to conceal their more public or commercial activities (Nabokov said he published Lolita in Paris only to avoid upsetting his colleagues at Cornell).  On the other wing, many writers were depressed by this academicization of literature, and some considered the critics in their English departments to be among the worst enemies literature had ever had.  The cultural commentators were unhappy, complaining it was all part of the great incorporation:  intellectuals had been taken over, salaried, and tamed.  The result was a mood of caution, a collapse of experiment, the end of the avant garde.

This was more or less true – for Modernism was dead and had become a topical object for, of course, academic study.  The new climate was certainly different, and that much-adapted term 'postmodernism' was used to describe it.  It was said the mood was unexperimental, cautious, neo-classical, ironic.  It was certainly anti-romantic, as expressed in criticism like Philip Larkin's or Amis's, or works like Donald Davie's neo-classical Purity of Diction in English Verse.  The experimental or anti-novel seemed a spent force, and literary realism came back, renewing interest in Dickens and Arnold Bennett.  What is clear is that the university had largely replaced the patron, and not surprisingly.  The maiden aunts had gone, there were few sources of literary income, and writers needed paid work.  When I published my first novel in 1959, after six years of (admittedly pleasant) work, I received an advance of £500.  It was clear there was no living there, and I was about to marry.  I got my first university post in the same week, earning £750 a year, a true godsend, and nearly enough for a starveling to live on.


Not all was well.  True, the dons asleep over their paperbaskets did seem to be showing greater tolerance toward contemporary writing.  Some were even starting to teach it, extending the tradition beyond Thomas Hardy into the twentieth century.  F.R. Leavis, the great figure of the day, was deeply committed to modern writing, as books like New Bearings in English Poetry and his D.H. Lawrence:  Novelist showed.  This was an important step;  unfortunately Leavis saw the culture as irredeemably corrupted, and put his entire faith in two contemporary authors, the poet Ronald Bottrall and the novelist L.H. Myers, neither of whom played great roles in modern literary history.

But the lion didn't always find it easy to lie down with the lamb – if you even knew which was which.  There were dissents, unhappy fallings out.  After an unhappy spell at Cambridge, Amis departed the groves of academy to inherit the mask of Evelyn Waugh.  Others left too for the risks of the literary life, or stopped writing and started marking.  Moreover, the New Criticism was already becoming the Old.  Before long literary theory was taking over, announcing the Death of the Author, another name for the Birth of the Critic.  There were those of tolerant and liberal sensibility – like my good self – who stayed with the new academy.  I wrote a very anxious essay about it, called 'Writer and Critic,' pointing to the schizoid situation that was beginning to arise, as I wrote in one room and then taught the Death of the Author in the next.  Still, I learned to say Derrida and Foucault with the very best.  But the halcyon moment was disappearing, the roles of writer and critic diverging, writing and the academy changing again.  One solution to this, it occurred to me, was Creative Writing.


Creative writing:  I know.  It's a highly graceless and in some quarters a highly suspect term – borrowed from America for want of a better, and very possibly a contradiction in theoretical terms.  We don't really speak of creative music or creative painting, so why do we talk of creative writing?  I suspect the unholy term arises from a conflation of two ideas:  one meaning imaginative writing or fictional writing, writing done for a fictive as opposed to an expository purpose;  and the other meaning the study of the process of literary composition.  What is clear – it may be one reason why the whole idea was often unpopular – is that it's an American term describing an American notion, an element in an academic syllabus where the literature course is divided into two elements:  historical literary study on the one hand, and composition and 'creative writing,' sometimes defined as 'rhetoric,' on the other.

But then rhetoric is an old practice in the European academy too.  So is the notion of the study and cultivation of the creative imagination.  The classic books of literary criticism, from Aristotle's Poetics to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, are examinations of the structures of high literary practice and the associative and creative processes of the imagination.  Writers have constantly gathered together to form schools or share skills, announce theories and ideas of form and composition.  The famous reading and writing class on the shores of Lake Geneva attended by Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe and Polidori studied Gothic literature and ghost stories, producing two works, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyr, that have served the public imagination ever since.  Ezra Pound, who knew that to be a good writer you had first to be a good reader, taught people How to Read, and served, as Eliot said, as il migglior fabrio, the ur-writer, the Virgil to the Dante, passing on the knowledge of tradition, the history of forms, the radical impulses of transformation, the anxiety of influence.

Yet most of these examples confirm the old and familiar principle that most important writing takes place away from and at odds with the academy – a view still held in many countries, Germany for example, where creative writing has never been thought of as part of the academic syllabus, for all the professorial dispositions of so many of the German writers.  It took America to academicize – some would say instrumentalize and systematize – the process of creative writing, seeing it as a set of skills that could be taught to many if not all comers.  This goes back well into the last century.  It reflects the democratization of American higher education, the multiplication of academies, the desire to stimulate a native literature separate from British, and the aim of encouraging writing in the American regions (one reason why many notable creative writing programs are to be found in middle western states, like Iowa).  But Harvard taught creative writing too.  So in the 1890s Frank Norris went there to write his first novel with Professor Lewis Gates, and began a rather bad novel called Vandover and the Brute, lost for a time in the San Francisco earthquake, and a rather good one called McTeague.

But it was after 1945 that the American programmes really began to flourish, and the impact for good or ill on contemporary writing has been considerable.  I went to the USA in the mid-1950s from a British redbrick where I had been writing a novel in secret to an American campus where everyone was writing, and teaching, fiction, poetry and drama.  I see now in retrospect that most were not very good writers, nor very good teachers either.  But it provided an atmosphere in which writing turned from private vice into public virtue, and for once I was treated as what I wanted to be seen as:  a serious, living, breathing, all singing and dancing writer.  It had sufficient effect to make we want to import the enterprise to Britain, even if not necessarily in its American form.  And that was the opportunity that emerged at UEA in 1970, when, with the support of some of our colleagues and the great suspicion of others, we decided to try out not an undergraduate course but a serious, high quality MA in Creative Writing.


When pressed on the reasons, I can come up with five different answers.  One is that both Angus and I had already been working informally with excellent student writers, in particular Rose Tremain and Clive Sinclair, and saw no reason why this could not be developed into a formal, serious academic programme.  Another is that round 1970 British literature, especially fiction, was, as so often in the doldrums, and serious publishers seriously talked about dropping the serious or literary novel – so it clearly needed a context of reinforcement and support, an intellectual environment.  A third is that the rise of literary theory had led to a mood of abstraction which was, to my taste, thinning out literary study;  there were times when it seemed students came to university to study literature because they loved books and went out hating them for various agenda-ed reasons, and because they weren't written by authors but discourse.  A fourth was that, though some writers flourish best in solitude and have no difficulty in discovering the structure of narrative or the intensities of the imagination, many benefit from the support of others and a constant debate.  And a fifth was that, when people said writing could not be taught, I felt they were wrong:  or, rather, that while you can't teach people how to be writers, since that depends on inner impulse and motivation, you can teach them to be better ones – as every good publishers' editor knows, and as I know myself, because I am still learning from others.

It was not easy to convince the many doubters, either here or in the wider world.  For there is no doubt that in 1970 creative writing was an object of suspicion, inside universities and out of them.  There were those who said writing couldn't be taught.  There were those who said it could, but it couldn't be examined.  There were those who said if it could, it shouldn't be anyway, because it wasn't an academic subject, or because it was an instrumental view of an instinctive activity, a mechanistic intrusion on imagination and genius.  There were those in the wider world, particularly the newspaper critics, who thought the whole thing disturbing, or farcical, or too American.  And there were those who had been to Oxford and Cambridge and who couldn't understand why if this sort of thing was happening at all it was happening in a provincial university in the nation's flattest and probably most benighted county.

It would quite be nice to think that some of these commentators regret their words, but we all know that words are very rarely regretted.  And if it had all failed, as it so easily might have, how very right they would have been.  And if it didn't, and it didn't in the end, we can always quite reasonably assume that the writers involved would all have succeeded anyway, as they perfectly well might have done.  There is absolutely no doubt the programme did succeed because over time – and thanks to the success of Ian McEwan and then, a few years later, Kazuo Ishiguro – we managed to attract many of the best young writers-to-be in the country, which was always our principle of selection in the first place.  For, like a good publisher, we were always looking for evidence of high talent and motivation in the writers we selected on the basis of the work they submitted, and then we deliberately steering them, where it seemed right and sensible, towards publication and a lifetime of writing.

How?  A full-time MA course runs for a calendar year, time enough to write not necessarily all of but quite a lot of a novel or amass the bulk of a volume of short stories.  I know James Joyce would take longer (I often do myself), but it can be done.  It is possible to start a new project, go through the stages of flirtation, foreplay, first conception, amoebic development, full gestation, parturition, and primal crawling in this time, and all in public.  We usually asked our writers to set aside whatever they had been doing and start a new book, so we could go with them through the stages and the fundamental decisions – which aspect of a story to tell, from what starting point, from what point of view, and so on – and follow through the creation of a narrative.  It didn't always work easily, but the public pressures and the sympathetic seminars and discussions generally led to a deepened self-consciousness about writing.  One thing we did not do is have a prescribed approach, see ourselves as belonging to a particular school, or try to produce a distinctively UEA or creative writing class kind of writer.  Because the truth is that there are indeed modern novels, or poems, that feel as if they were written for and in a Creative Writing course, and not in the human world at all.


The rest of the story is familiar.  By the early 1980s there were obvious signs of a new vitality in British fiction, and several ex-UEA writers were an important part of that.  By this time the course – which in some years during the 1970s had not even been run because we lacked applicants of the desired quality – was starting to be well-known and had begun to attract many excellent writers (not all of them young, by the way, and not all unpublished).  By the end of the 1980s, especially after Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize with The Remains of the Day, applications were in enormous numbers, and the course had expanded greatly.

By the early 1990s it was rare for a month to go by without a new publication from an ex-graduate.  By this time screenwriting had come in too, and it produced some excellent writers, mostly, it seems, for The Bill.  When Andrew Motion arrived two years ago, in the 26th year of the programme (I thought 25 years was enough, and wanted to get back to my own writing, having been party to maybe a hundred novels none of them written by me), he introduced a poetry course, and the standards have continued to grow.

Meantime, though, over those 25 years, the whole nature and status of creative writing had changed completely in academic and public perception.  Once an object of suspicion, it has become an ever more central part of higher and further education, and education in schools.  It has also become popular, a kind of widespread therapy, even a New Age holiday pastime.  So, for example, on the holistic island of Skyros you can take a summer programme that covers the following:  Life Choices, Life Changes;  Massage, Yoga, Body Awareness;   Dawn Chorus, Voicework, Music;  Assertiveness;  Windsurfing;  Creative Writing.  Hotels now run creative writing weekends.  The fine one-week courses run by the Arvon Foundation are packed with that now universal figure, the literary wanabee.

It has also altered the universities.  There are now something like twenty MA courses in creative writing in British universities, if you include drama and screenwriting, and a fair number of Ph.D. programmes, including the one here at UEA.  As for creative writing as part of undergraduate degrees, this has grown massively.  Most universities now offer creative writing programmes;  some even offer full degrees in the subject.  In the United States, programmes in media and the creative arts – including screenwriting, journalism and media studies – are virtually displacing old departments of English literature, and this is starting to happen in Britain.  There are a number of enthusiastic lobbyists for this, and some of their arguments seem to me misleading and worrying.  These arguments are, in effect, that it is more important to practice writing than to study its history or analyze it theoretically;  that exploring the creative process from one's own imagination outward itself constitutes a literary education.

I'm not exactly of this view.  Like Andrew I believe in the importance of storytelling as a fundamental aspect of human education.  But I also believe that good, great writing is not simply an act of self-expression, a form of self-fulfillment, nor a subjective account of contemporary experience.  Serious writing is an act of imaginative intelligence, an individual engagement with a great historical tradition of rhetoric, storytelling, genre, narrative.  Writing is a cunning working out of art, a subtle quality of the human mind, and an expression of human learning.  At best it is meditative, philosophical, intricate and morally demanding. It is more than a set of compositional skills or techniques;  it is art that has to be learned, alone or in company, and is certainly not readily mastered.  That is why it is better seen as only a part of a literature department, not as a postmodern replacement for it.  If there are difficulties in literary studies these days, then literary theory, in its linguistic, philosophical and deconstructive aspects, does have something to answer for.  It has done a good deal to displace the reader from writing's most intimate pleasures and intricacies.  In its emphasis on writing as discourse and ideology, its insistence on decanonization and the interpretative rights of the reader, it has often lost sight of the nature and spirit of individual artistic creativity, imposing the theoretical on the actual, whole idioms of interpretation on great acts of literary exploration and expression.

But then creative writing, too, probably has something to answer for.  It has brought back to the centre of literary studies the whole issue of creativity, or what Coleridge would call the 'imagination.'  It has celebrated, sometimes spuriously, the notion of radical originality.  It has frequently helped displace the whole idea of the historical canon and the literary corpus with a more pleasurable form of study:  the study of one's own self-expression and that of one's friends and peers.  Maybe we are coming into the time when the problem may not be too little creative writing, but too much of it.  Creative writing programmes can encourage many illusions – not least the notion that we are each one of us only one seminar's work away from writing The Magic Mountain or winning the Booker Prize.  The truth is that serious writing is studied, painful, difficult – and that the writer's life is neither easy nor natural.  It is infinitely demanding, requires an intense motivation and dedication, a great deal of craft, culture, and human and humanistic insight.

The pretensions of creative writing have now begun to grow.  There are now university courses where it is offered as, in effect, a replacement for the study of literature:  literature from the inside, as it were.  There are theoreticians who are now arguing the case for its dominance over what we used to call literary education, and suggesting that its teaching is pedagogically as important as, more important than, any other form of educational activity.  Since I have always believed that a good writer is first a good reader, and that we all live under the great anxiety of influence, in the shadow of the canon, however much the canon is revised or remade, then this too can be worrying.  While I distrust many of the objections that, in more difficult times, have been brought against the notion of creative writing in universities, I do have a number of objections of my own to make about some of the programmes I see and the claims I hear.

So if you were to ask me now how I feel when – after twenty-five years – I have watched this subject move from fringe to centre, doubt to confidence, I can only say:  yes, I do feel cheered, cheered above all by those truly good writers and truly good books that I have seen come out from some of it.  But I also have to add that, when I see it surrounded by so many pretensions, so many claims, so many false hopes and, sooner or later, so many disappointed careers, well, I do sometimes wonder just what we in creative writing have all been creating...