Thursday, April 15, 2004

Universities cash in on writers

Book2book is a useful site which summarises, on a daily basis, much of what passes for news on the UK publishing scene; and, of course, b2b also records much of what is happening elsewhere in the world. Today b2b provides a link to an article in The Independent which is entitled ‘Universities cash in on creative writing courses as aspiring novelists abandon the lone struggle.’

Thing is, see, there are now 85 universities in the UK offering postgraduate degree courses in creative writing.

Let’s just think about that for a minute. Frankly I didn’t know there were 85 universities in the UK. Depends how you count ’em I suppose. And now they are ‘cashing in’. Well you bet they are. The poor buggers are practically bankrupt, so when they find a bunch of suckers who are prepared to pay handsomely for a one-year (or perhaps even two-year) course which can be taught by another bunch of suckers who will settle for being paid peanuts - well then definitely they’re going to cash in.

Personally I have been a published writer for 49 years (I think it is - could be 50), and I worked for 24 years in the university sector, so I think I know a little bit about both those fields. And I would caution anyone against rushing in to take a one-year postgraduate course in anything. All too often potential students take a look at their life in their late twenties or early thirties, and decide that their career has not quite prospered as they hoped. What is the solution? they ask themselves. Why, get a higher degree, of course.

Except that it isn’t. Often they take the master’s degree - or, even worse, stagger through a PhD - and then... Er, well, not much, actually. No dramatic changes. Except that they have had to resign their job to take the course, and it’s hard to find another one. And it’s cost them a lot of money. And the girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever has got fed up with all this nonsense and hitched up with someone else. So then they blame the university. And they get legal aid to pursue a grievance. Oh, please, God, just give me back a few of the hours I’ve spent dealing with those cases.

The Independent article is founded on research undertaken by Debbie Taylor, and published in Mslexia, a Newcastle-based magazine for women who write. By and large Ms Taylor seems to have her head screwed on right, but I question one or two of her conclusions. Literary agents are queuing up to sign on young writers from such courses, she says. Are they really? I rather doubt it. For very sound reasons, agents are chiefly interested in writers who can generate £100,000 a year. And doing a one-year course with a distinctly literary tone to it does not strike me as the best way to produce such a writer.

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