Why don’t UEA alumni dominate contemporary British writing in the same way that students from St Martin’s?
It has always been a challenge to get a novel or poem published. Twenty years ago, I went about it in the traditional way. I read a hell of a lot of books. I did a couple of literary degrees. I got an interestingly peculiar but rather gruelling job. I wrote a novel or two in the evenings or on holiday. Then I met a literary agent at a drinks party and he took one on and sold it to Hamish Hamilton — and has possibly regretted it ever since.
The traditional way has, in the last few decades, been supplanted by a more professional sounding one called the Creative Writing degree. It honestly never occurred to me that one ought to learn how to write on one of those programmes But I suspect that most would-be authors nowadays don’t think there is any other route to publication.
They embark on a Creative Writing MA for three reasons. The first is to get some writerly skills together. The second is to spend some agreeable time in the company of other writers (I don’t think I ever met a proper writer until I was in my twenties). The third is to use the certificate and a letter of introduction to get a hearing with a London literary agent, who, of course, may perfectly well think your MA not worth the paper it’s printed on.
But of course the Creative Writing degree, despite its ubiquity these days — there are nearly 100 institutions of higher education offering it in this country alone — is not the only path to publication and acclaim by any means. This anthology of writing about the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing programme sparks off a number of thoughts, principally about its claimed excellence.
The UEA course has been running for 40 years. It is by far the best-known in the country. Probably most people who want to become writers would like to study there. In short, the teachers can have their pick. So why do they struggle to produce 20 famous names from the last 40 years? And why don’t UEA alumni dominate contemporary British writing in the same way that students from St Martin’s and the Glasgow School of Art have influenced art for the last few decades?
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