Will Self has declared literature to be “morphing into a giant quilting exercise”, suggesting that no current creative writing graduates will make a living from literary fiction.
The author criticised courses during an interview with Radio 4’s “Today” programme on Thursday (2nd May), in a show recorded at the University of East Anglia, almost 50 years since its prestigious Creative Writing MA launched.
Self said: “If you want to do it and you’re not too concerned about making a living in the future then it’s probably a good idea. The paradox is, in the modern university, everyone is encouraged to tailor their courses towards employability but it’s certainly not clear what the pathway is into literary fiction – possibly into genre fiction, or possibly people can use the writing courses just to develop themselves as writers to write video games or something else, that’s a possibility.”
In regards to the UEA course’s famous alumni, he said “who’s to say they wouldn’t have been great writers anyway?”
“We had a literary culture before creative writing courses and you don’t necessarily want to go back to the 19th century and say ‘you need to go on a creative writing course to reduce the length of your sentences’… ‘Hey Joseph Conrad, stop employing those tedious maritime metaphors in your novels’.”
The show's host John Humphrys asked if the course was a professionalisation of writing but without the real life experience.
Self replied: “It’s a deprofessionalisation, that’s the problem. The people coming out of these courses are never going to make a living as novelists, certainly not in literary fiction though that’s a somewhat suspect term. Basically writers are chasing too few readers at the moment. I think literature is morphing into something else, it’s morphing into a conservatoire form, into a more privileged form in many ways, morphing into a giant quilting exercise where people read and comment on each other’s writing…. This is predicated on the digital and making things, in a lot of ways, more mutual.”
Apple Tree Yard author Louise Doughty who studied at UEA under Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury acknowledged that the issue was “still controversial”. She told the “Today” programme that her tutors believed the students had “raw talent” but that the course enabled them to be “even more writers”. She said “Even just spending nine or 10 months being taken seriously as a writer, giving up your job maybe, ignoring your family, giving it that dedicated time is a wonderful experience. I was very young when I went on the course and benefited from it enormously, I think it was the crucible through which I was formed as a novelist.”
Fellow alumnus Sharlene Teo described as “a year-long apprenticeship of taking writing and language seriously and developing a community of fellow writers and learning how to approach a text critically”. She added: “It’s a humbling process.”
Many of the publishing industry complained about Self’s comments.
Elizabeth Morris, events manager at Waterstones in Gower Street, tweeted: “WHY give elitist Will Self the space to talk about the death of his narrow view of the novel when INSTEAD you could speak to 1 of many innovative, newly published writers who are making reading more egalitarian & inclusive.”
Curtis Brown agent Jonny Geller echoed this. “‘Write video games’ is what Will Self on #r4today thinks creative writing courses are useful for," Geller tweeted. "Tell that to the 65 students from @cbcreative who have publishers and many have won awards and been bestsellers. Any endeavour that encourages creativity should be supported.”
Author and Birkbeck tutor Julia Bell said: “Professional controversialist Will Self having another go at CW courses because no one is reading his kind of late 20thC postmodernism anymore. On my MA in Creative Writing @birkbeck_arts I see students from diverse backgrounds successfully writing and publishing great novels.”