George on Kureishi and Creative Writing Courses

Another week, another piece of ridiculousness in the media regarding books and book world. At least it’s not YA bashing this week. Instead it is a University lecturer bashing the students who take his Creative Writing course. Uncomfortable? You betcha. Even more so when I attend the Uni and take the course. Thankfully I am not one of his “waste of time…not talented” students. All views are my own. Here we go again.

Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, had a book out in January of this year and it obviously isn’t selling as well as he hoped. Why else would he be making such outrageous comments about Creative Writing courses? That’s right, to remind people that he exists.

Cattiness aside, I was shocked and, frankly, embarrassed when I found out that Kureishi taught Creative Writing at Kingston University. This is a course that I have been on for nearly three years and, while I do have my complaints, none of them are quite as severe as Kureishi who said out of his students there are “99.9 per cent who are not talented” and that Creative Writing courses in general are a “waste of time”.

There are many issues with the things that he has said, but I am going to start with the most obvious. If Creative Writing courses are such a waste of time, why are you a Creative Writing Professor at Kingston University? Enjoying taking money from your apparently talentless students, are you?

It is highly unprofessional for a Professor, whoever they may be, to dub his or her students talentless. It is wrong and I dread to think how his students will feel should they read this. To see that the University has already responded (and seems to have defended him!) is laughable. While he may be “employed for his thought-provoking, inspirational contribution”, why should he get away with basically smack talking his students in a national newspaper? Kingston, he is making you look bad. I know he is Hanif Kureishi (which meant something back in the early ‘90s) but this behaviour in the national press is simply unacceptable.

Worst than that, the article goes on to have Lucy Ellman (former Creative Writing lecturer whose book MIMI I am reading this month) describing Creative Writing as “the biggest con-job in academia” saying how if you want to write “what you should really be doing is reading as much good literature as you can get your hands on, for years and years, rather than wasting half your university life writing stuff you’re not ready to write”.  I completely agree that reading is the key to writing well. It is one of the first things that you are told when you say that you want to be a writer and I address it in this post here. But there is a bulk quote that I will post below that I had a much unkinder reaction to.

“The whole system is set up to silence writers, and dupe students. It doesn’t even provide a safe haven for writers, as Hanif made clear, because most universities go out of their way to ruin writers with admin, overwork, and other nonsense. There’s lousy teaching too: I know of creative writing teachers who don’t even read the students’ work. This is criminal,” said Ellmann. “But of course, the purpose of corporations – which is what universities now are – is to scupper originality and dissent.Universities have gone from being culture-preserving institutions to being culture-destroying institutions. And people queue up to pay these culture-destroying institutions £9000 a year to ensure that any idea of literature is destroyed before it can enter their heads.”

As a Creative Writing student I feel my lecturers haven’t tried to “scupper originality and dissent” but hone it and turn it into something better. Never have I been silenced or told to not write something or not to follow the story I want to. I have been encouraged and steered in what a tutor deems to be the correct direction. Duncan MacMillan (playwright whose adaptation of 1984 is currently playing at the Almeida Theatre, writer of Monster) would sit in a seminar with us in first year for two hours a week and critique our work with an immensely positive attitude, the same one he took to his teaching. He would listen to us read and pick out what he liked and disliked and tell us what would make it better. He is, without doubt, one of the best lecturers I have ever had.

With regard to my dissertation piece, James Miller (author of Lost Boys and Sunshine State, lecturer etc.) told me, to begin with, that YA Fantasy was dead. But when he realised how hard I was willing to work to make my piece different and original, he was more happy to help make that a reality. He has helped me so much to uncover my potential and read books that I didn’t even think to read to help influence my work. (Currently reading Go Tell It On The Mountain, a book I hadn’t heard of until now and am having my mind blown wide open.) However, it is a two way street when it comes to things like that. The student does have to be willing to put the work in as much as the lecturer has to be willing to help the student’s ideas grow.

Take Paul Bailey (author of Uncle Rudolf, Chapman’s Odyssey and countless other novels, lecturer, etc.) who taught me during my first and second years. While he isn’t a fan of fantasy novels, he helped me to create a realistic world with fantastical elements, he introduced me to Kafka and Zamyatin, and he helped me to create a piece that got me a high first. (An 81, if you must know. *hair flick*) Through the course of the year he arranged meetings with publishers and literary agents to help us to improve our writing skills and knowledge of the publishing world and he, like James Miller, introduced me to authors who I would never have read.

To say that ALL universities “scupper originality and dissent” is a sweeping generalisation of the highest order. If a student believes in an idea, the lecturer is likely to help them turn it into something that will work. Or at least they should. The amount of help I’ve had from Adam Baron (author of Shut Eye and three other novels in the Billy Rucker series, lecturer etc.) to turn my Popular Fiction piece into something coherent and decent has been insane. I sat in a seminar and had him, and the other students in my class, pick my piece to bits to make sure that all of it made sense. (One moment where I discovered how little I knew about how generators work was particularly traumatic!) While upsetting at the time, it is the type of brutal editing that one will have to get used to if they want to become a writer.

Ellmann goes on to say “I think it’s a real pity that thousands of people are studying this subject – and being taught by unqualified tutors, some of whom have never published a novel. And I can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.” You may have noticed that all the lecturers that I have mentioned above are published authors. There are, however, many more in the department that I have not mentioned. Vesna Goldsworthy, author of Chernobyl Strawberries, Rachel Cusk, author of Arlington Park, Winsome Pinnock, playwright for One Under and many many others (Jane Yeh, Johnathan Barnes, the list goes on!) who are in the Creative Writing department and who work hard to deliver passionate and engaging teaching to the students. And a degree in Creative Writing is most certainly not a dime a dozen. I can’t help but feel that comes from the mouth of someone who doesn’t have one.

I also feel the need to mention that, though it has nothing to do with Kingston University, Sally Green took a Creative Writing course through the Open University and now has a book out, sold in 36 countries with film rights sold to Fox 2000 with Karen Roosefelt (of Twilight fame) to produce. If that’s not an advert for helping writers hone their skills with Creative Writing courses, I don’t know what is. The book is brilliant and it would be terrible if, because these courses are so demonised, she wouldn’t have found and polished her craft in the way that she did.

I’m not going to sit here and claim that everyone on every Creative Writing course is destined to be as wildly successful as Mr Kureishi, but we are all most certainly leaving much better than we started. As Matt Haig said in the article, “[t]he craft part is the part that can be taught, and that can make a crucial difference to lots of writers.” Having Kureishi make comments like “[a] lot of my students … don’t know how to make a story go … all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can” makes him seem arrogant. I’ve never read one of his novels so I don’t know how good he is at that but, as with all writing, it is subjective. Just because you think a student is talentless or their work is crap doesn’t make it so, but it does make it your responsibility as a Creative Writing Professor to improve it. You have a power here, Mr Kureishi, to be a positive influence on the way Creative Writing courses are run now and in the future. If you think students are being mugged off by the courses, make sure that they aren’t. Spend more time helping them hone their craft. Spend more time giving constructive rather than destructive feedback. Spend more time praising your students success rather than tearing them down and calling their work boring. Have I made my point clear enough?

I sit here months away from my final deadlines for my Dissertation and Popular Fiction classes, living proof that the system works, especially at institutions like Kingston that employ knowledgeable and dedicated staff. I have read books I would never have read, seen my writing in ways I never thought I would and learnt more about myself as a writer than I ever thought possible. I want to be a published author one day and will be very proud to say that Kingston University’s Creative Writing staff has played a part should I be successful. Even if not, I am a better writer for taking a Creative Writing course. Don’t knock it, especially if you’re the Professor.

As always, sound off below! 🙂

G

2 thoughts on “George on Kureishi and Creative Writing Courses

  1. I read this in bed this morning, and have been mulling it over since. First of all, I think it’s awful that Kureishi made those comments whilst still being in a teaching position. If the truth of it is that, having done the role for a couple of years, he’s since decided that it’s not for him, then fine – but he should resign, and perhaps THEN he can start spouting off. If he makes these comments intending to stay in his role, that’s disgraceful.

    Having said that, speaking from the publishing world, I do think he makes some acceptable points. In my time as an intern and a junior in Editorial, I probably read about 10,000 submissions to various publishers’ slush piles. There really was no noticeable difference in the quality of writing between those who had a creative writing qualification and those without – which is why I didn’t value including the qualification in a covering letter, beyond the fact it undoubtedly demonstrated a commitment to authorship. I also know that there are plenty of creative writing teachers who have never been published, because I’ve read their submissions too, and a lot of the time they were crap.

    However, I am also very sure that there is a variety in the quality of courses offered across the country. From the sounds of it, your BA programme is fantastic, with published authors as teachers (for me, this is important less as a mark of distinction, than because they really understand the publishing process). But I do believe there are plenty of courses who take people on without regard for their writing ability, take their money, provide little help and then shove them out the door later. This is true of illustration courses too – and that’s why you’ll find art directors and publishers flocking to some degree art shows, and not to others – because they know that only a few courses consistently produce good illustrators. It’s partly because those courses do a fantastic job honing skills, and it’s partly because they accepted people with actual artistic skill to begin with.

    I totally agree with Matt Haig that there’s two parts to being a good writer, and that the craft side can be learned – but therefore it is crucial that the learning does actually take place. There are Publishing MAs around that also take people’s money without necessarily delivering what they should. I once had an intern who was great – she was brilliant to have in the office, a hard worker with a good attitude. But she couldn’t proofread to save her life. This really frustrated me – her MA tutor knew she wanted to work in editorial, and she was nearing the end of her course. She’d also completed a number of earlier editorial internships. And neither the organisation that had accepted thousands of pounds from her, nor the companies that had accepted her free labour, had bothered to sit down and tell her that she would simply never get a job in editorial unless she worked on her grammar and proofreading skills. And it can so easily be overcome – I had a boss who thankfully WAS told that in her early days, and aged 21 she went to the shops and bought grammar books aimed at 11-year-olds, teaching herself and gradually building up until she was a competent proofreader. It’s really important to be honest with aspiring creators, whether it’s with someone about to spend months doing unpaid labour, or an aspiring author who wants to quit their job to finally write full-time because they think they’ll finally get the book finished and published.

    Wow, this got long. Mostly I want to say that, from my viewpoint, whilst someone with natural talent to begin with can get great things from a brilliant creative writing course, there are plenty of courses out there that aren’t honing skills well, or that are taking money from people they shouldn’t have. And because those courses outweigh the good courses, creative writing qualifications aren’t viewed as particularly valuable by publishers.

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