On completing school, there was speculation among my nearest and dearest as to whether, given my interests, I’d study Arts or Creative Writing. With almost zero hesitation, I opted for Arts, because while the idea of writing stories for three years seemed superficially appealing, I couldn’t see what it would achieve. Creative writing degrees don’t guarantee publication; neither can they vouch for literary smarts, and they certainly don’t help in getting a day-job. By nature, their effect is paradoxical: confident writers will find them unnecesary, while a degree can’t help the trully unskilled. This leaves a very slim margin for potential students – confident writers wanting to brush up their skills, and general non-writers looking for a creative outlet. On both counts, the end qualification is largely redundant, which makes any benefit ancillary to the actual course structure.
I was unsurprised, therefore, to hear Hanif Kureishi’s views on the matter. Tell a lie – I was surprised by his opinion that on-campus shooting incidents in America are typically the work of creative writing students, but that was it.
It’s rare you’ll find an author who endorses creative writing degrees as a means to success (“rare” here meaning “I’ve never heard one say so”). While workshops with established writers are undoubtably helpful, writing requires a base level of talent and enthusiasm that cannot be manufactured. As with art or musical composition, one cannot simply rock up to a job agency and say, “I want a career as an author. Preferably crime fiction, but I’m willing to take biography or science.” Which is why the creative fields – journalism included – are so dog-eat-dog: formal qualifications are no means of gauging talent. You can have three degrees from leading universities, but that doesn’t mean you can tell a story, sculpt a statue, write a sizzling article or play the sax. In areas dominated by self-education, what matters is your ability to fight through the slew of equally determined, comparably talented hopefuls, not whether you got a B on your latest story.
Such struggling, underdoggish, exclusionary battle-tactics exemplify both the best and worst of the arts world. On the one hand, anyone with self-belief and a scrap of talent can have a shot at brilliance. On the other, luck, nepotism and soul-crushing tenacity have more to do with success than a fair comparison of applicants. This is the slushpile effect: without an inbuilt mechanism for sifting the worthwhile from the awful, any Joe Muck can submit a manuscript, clog up an audition or otherwise tread on a talented aspirant’s toes with impunity.
Pardon me. I think I feel an urge to run screaming into the night.