Artistic Licence Column (SBP 3/02/08)

So Martin Amis earns £3,000 an hour to teach creative writing to students at Manchester University. Well, so what? If Martin Amis has managed to somehow convince the head honchos in academia that – despite a blizzard of negative reviews for his most recent novels – he is worth £80,000 a year to teach writing classes, then it seems to me that we should be applauding him for his financial chutzpah rather than wasting newsprint condemning him for failing to be a broke writer who dwells in a garret with rats for pets and candles for electricity.

There is certainly a problem with creative writing courses in this country and in Britain, but Martin Amis is simply the poster-boy for the problem, not the originator of the dilemma. The issue concerns the daft attitudes university heads frequently appear to have towards creative writing courses. While, with one eye towards the coffers, they have become incredibly keen to put creative writing courses on the college agenda, they simultaneously seem to have no idea how to make them strong and useful programmes to take.

It’s as though they feel that with the emergence of creative writing programmes, Gandalf has suddenly arrived in the classroom, rendering the rules of our normal world utterly redundant and their usual class structures pointless. Creative writing, in their eyes, it appears, is about mysticism and magic, not boring things such as narrative structure, plot development and character construction.

Hence they throw money at big-name writers, never thinking to spend a little more time and money instead questioning how best to develop their programme in a way that will genuinely be of the greatest benefit to their students.

The biggest problem with creative writing courses here and in Britain is that the art of teaching itself often appears to have no place in creative writing courses. In order to be a instructor of other disciplines, you usually need to have a relevant qualification in teaching.

To be a teacher of creative writing classes in Ireland and Britain, however, apparently it is enough that you once managed to get your novel published from a tiny imprint to shockingly bad reviews three decades ago. This is a qualification – and it’s accepted as perfectly adequate. Other details that most university programmes would have, such as course content, structure and evaluation procedures, are also often opaquely defined, if at all, in creative writing classes.

This might be fair enough depending on the course you have taken. If you’re sitting in a local community college, and paying very little for the privilege of doing so, you’re not likely to expect the Booker Prize winner to show up – and with a new teaching qualification for creative writing in his or her hand.

But increasingly the prices of such courses are shooting up – and people are paying more and more to learn about anything in creative writing.

Martin Amis may well be a great catch for Manchester University; it was reported that there had been a fifty per cent rise in applications for their creative writing course, from 100 to 150, when it was announced that Amis was joining. But you would hope the college would take the advice it surely doles out to its own students when it comes to creative writing – and, in the future, get a little bit more creative themselves.

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