Creative writing courses spreading 'like a viral contagion'

Creative writing courses spreading 'like a viral contagion'

Creative writing courses have risen across the UK like a “viral contagion” in recent years, shifting dramatically from a few academically focused courses to publishing focused programmes. The change has been led by publisher and agent diversification into the sector.

In 2003 the Higher Education Authority’s Good Practice Guide stated that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) were offering 64 creative writing programmes. A decade later, its Beyond the Benchmark report revealed that 141 HEIs offered 504 degree programmes in which creative writing was a major or significant element.

Commenting on the rapid rise of courses, Professor Andrew Cowan, director of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the UK’s oldest creative writing MA, said: “In the mid-1990s, courses started to take off but recently it has just exploded. It’s like a viral contagion. They are everywhere and because they are so ubiquitous it has become unavoidable that publishers and agents are looking at them as one of the main channels for finding the next generation of literary talent.”

In the past five years, as well as an explosion in universities’ academic-led programmes, there has also been a move by publishers and agents to diversify their businesses by launching their own creative writing courses. Faber entered the market first with Faber Academy, Curtis Brown Creative followed, and Random House’s The Writers’ Academy has just started its first. This week John Murray Learning launched a creative writing community, Just Write, where writers can draw on the expertise of a Teach Yourself Creative Writing Team.

This shift has meant academic degrees have had to become more publishing focused, with more emphasis on securing a deal. Cowan said: “We want to work with young writers who are just finding their voice, but because of the competition it has become increasingly important for us to emphasise the successful history of the programme and, in the second half of the MA, our relationships with the industry.”

Speaking about The Writers’ Academy, Random House’s Polly Osborn said: “Our aim is to diversify the business and [give writers] the kick-start they may need. I think it’s good for publishers to support new talent. The business side is a strength for us—we offer tips on how to get published, but the writing process is at the heart of the course.”

Anna Davis, director of Curtis Brown Creative, agreed. She said: “We will continue to be knocked for the idea that we are cynical and trying to cash in. What we offer is extremely practical and focused on what writers want. Ten students have come out of [CBC] with deals [but] we don’t promise publication or representation. We are not charging people to be read; we are charging for a really strong course.”

Route to rights

Nearly half of Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists collection (nine out of 20) started creative writing programmes; similarly, five of the 12 authors longlisted for this year’s Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award are graduates from Bath Spa University’s Creative Writing degree. After a slew of high-profile rights deals for course graduates—and a recent flurry of successes—agents are increasingly courting students.

Agent Eve White said that her agency “actively seeks” creative writing graduates. She said: “We find as many authors from creative writing courses as we do from the 10,000 submissions we receive every year across fiction and non-fiction. The more work the book has had on it, the better chance the author has of being taken on.”

Francesca Main, editorial director at Picador, home of many creative writing graduates, suggested that the “shift in the past few years to more publishing-driven courses, with more publishing-savvy writers”, is a positve thing, “because it makes the industry more transparent.” She added: “There have been so many good deals [recently] that agents pitch to these students, and that puts some of the power back in the authors’ hands. But I don’t think courses should ever be sold as a surefire way to get published, because it shouldn’t just be about people that can afford to go on them. I do think it is a marker of talent, but it is also important that it doesn’t become the only marker.”

Alex Bowler, Jonathan Cape’s editorial director, also warned against publishers placing too much emphasis on creative writing graduates. “It doesn’t really interest me if someone has been on a course or not. Using it as a shortcut to a publishing deal doesn’t excite me. A lot of what we see [from creative writing students] is very similar, so it still has to be one of a myriad of ways to find new talent.”

Because of the boom in industry-led teaching, Faber Academy’s website will relaunch in the summer, and changes will be made to its courses “to differentiate” them from Curtis Brown and Random House’s offerings. Faber enterprise development director Jason Cooper said: “There is a growing interest and awareness that successful authors are out there to be discovered and not always coming through the slushpile of an agency.

“There are numerous examples that show that system has not been perfect or served authors terribly well in the past, and courses are a way around that old system. Faber’s position is perhaps a little bit unusual because what we are not doing is monetising the slushpile; we’re not running the Academy to find authors for our list in the way that I might work for a much larger publisher, or an agent.”