"If Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." So wrote John Keats 189 years ago. Martin Amis's appointment as professor of creative writing - announced this week by Manchester University - would seem to embody the opposite view: that students can be taught to write.Here's the link.
The creative writing boom in the UK began in 1970 when Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson set up an MA at the University of East Anglia. One of their first students was Ian McEwan. But even the UEA prospectus sounds a note of caution: "Writing successfully needs strong gifts, considerable resilience and a certain amount of luck."
The prospectus goes on to say that "the courses best suit those whose work is self-aware rather than instinctive" - which would seem to contradict Keats's view. In fact, it is tacitly acknowledging two important things: many an "instinctive" scribbler can't actually hack it, and what can be taught is not so much creativity as analysis and self-criticism - or as Amis, below, might put it, how to wage war on cliche.
AS Byatt says: "My instinct is that it can't be taught - but I think that Sylvia Plath would not have been a great poet if she hadn't studied very technically with Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell." What such courses offer is time and space to write, the attention of an expert reader (the tutor) and contacts.
Observers of the north American scene, where the tradition of training writers is much stronger, might disagree, and eight years of longlisting for the Guardian first book award has taught me that there are an awful lot of very competent novels about logging pouring out of Canada. But how many competent novels about logging does the world want or need?
The boom is not so much about making great writers as about universities trying to attract students and make more money by appealing to young people with implausible dreams. Just watch them all queuing up for Manchester in a year's time.
Can Creative Writing Be Taught?
From the "You asked..." section of the Guardian, the question is, Can creative writing be taught?