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Choosing MA Degrees in Creative Writing

  • By Harry Bingham
  • Published 08/20/2011
  • Writing

Most people wanting to do an MA / Masters degree in creative writing probably wish to do so as a way to launch their career as a professional author. But if that’s your motivation, you need to think very carefully indeed. Many MA courses on offer don’t even pretend to prepare you properly for the publishing market. Here, for example, is the blurb from UEA (one of the UK’s best known writing colleges): “The MA does not function through exercises but by considering fiction as a form of aesthetic, psychological and cultural enquiry. Neither the poetry nor prose fiction strand is primarily commercial in direction and neither teaches conventional genre forms or, in the conventional sense, marketability.” Eh? What does that mean? Marketability ‘in the conventional sense’? Call me an idiot, but something is marketable if you can sell it. It’s highly marketable, if you can sell it for a lot. And if you want to be a writer – you know, the sort who writes books that are sold in bookshops – then considering marketability in a conventional sense seems like a damn good idea to me. Here, for another example, is the blurb from Goldsmiths, another highly esteemed creative writing university, with a highly regarded MA / PhD program:

“The inter-relationship between theory, scholarship and the creative process is key to the Goldsmiths MPhil/PhD in Creative Writing … Doctoral students for the PhD in Creative Writing are expected to combine their own creative writing with research into the genre or area of literature in which they are working, to gain insight into its history, de

velopment and contemporary practices. … They are also expected to engage with relevant contemporary debates about theory and practice.” Blimey! I’ve no idea what the inter-relationships between theory, scholarship and the creative process is for my work. I don’t even really know what that means. I doubt if my publishers do. Or if they care. They’re probably just happy publishing my books. On the other hand, the best Masters courses do indeed do a stunning job for a proportion of their students. UEA can boast of the following alumni: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tracy Chevalier, and plenty of others. Bath Spa says, ‘Two [of our recent students] were long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, three for the Orange Prize, one for the Costa Prize and one for the Guardian First Book Award.’ Those are strikingly good achievements. Genuinely impressive. So before you sign up for an MA course, you need to think hard. What do YOU want from your degree? Does the ethos and emphasis of your chosen MA creative writing course satisfy that goal or not? Overall, I’m sceptical. I think a minority of talented writers may bloom to a wonderful degree on one of these courses. A large majority will, I think, end up being rejected by the publishing industry … having never been properly equipped with the skills that would have allowed them to thrive.

So the conclusion remains the same. Don’t assume these courses will launch you as a writer. Research them carefully. Know what you want to write and what they want to teach. Check out your tutors. Check out the teaching method. Talk to past students (and not only those who ended with a book deal.) And if you go for it – then have a wonderful time.

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