Two Sundays ago, the novelist Julie Myerson wrote a review of Sharlene Teo’s Ponti in which (after reminding us that Teo was a graduate of UEA’s illustrious writing MA) she took the first-time author to task for her ‘knotty verbiage’, her ‘MA creative writing-speak’, and her ‘lengthy and oh so tediously writing workshop descriptions’. The ensuing Twitter storm gave rise to Facebook fury which led in turn to a big article in the Bookseller and a splendid defence in the Guardian of writing MAs and MFAs from the author Nell Stevens, who did her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing here at Warwick.
I am impressed by all the noise! Three decades ago, when I first started reviewing for the broadsheets, as we then called them, such chastisements were standard. Because there were so few writing programmes in the UK in those days, authors deemed guilty of creative writing-speak were generally North American. We weren’t going to have that sort of nonsense here, most critics of the day agreed. British writers had no need of training. They just were. At the same time, British authors lived in fear of being upstaged by their North American cousins. What was it about American fiction, they asked, that made it so powerful, so confident? As they cast about for answers, no one ever asked if writing programmes might have played a part, even though the American authors most admired on this side of the Atlantic were not just products of writing programmes. They also taught on them.
The last time I checked, there were 71 writing programmes in this country. Not all aspiring authors want or need them. But for those who not white middle-class Oxbridge graduates, a writing course does make the journey a great deal easier. I should add that most writing students will not and indeed do not expect to see their work in print. But together they are creating exciting new spaces for ambitious writing and engaged reading that will shape the future of literature, and not just in this country.
Not everyone will be happy to see the old rules stretched or broken. There will be those, like Julie Myerson, who hold that fiction is only fiction when it feels ‘seamlessly necessary – as if someone has grabbed your wrist and begun to whisper a story so urgently that you have no choice but to listen’. To tell the truth, that’s the kind of novel I prefer, too. But during the twenty-five years I have spent working with aspiring writers from all over the world, I have learned how important it is to follow those rules in reverse. First I must listen, and listen carefully, because the urgent whispers on the page are so hard for me to hear. Sometimes that’s because my student has yet to master the art of story telling. But just as often, it’s because I’ve never heard a story like it. My job then will be to educate myself, so that my student and I can work together to make that story feel seamlessly necessary.
Professor Maureen Freely has worked with the Warwick Writing Programme since 1996. Currently the Head of the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, she is, as President of English PEN, active in various national and international campaigns to champion free expression. As the former chair of the Translators Association, she also works with campaigns aiming to promote world literature in English translation.
She is the author of seven novels (Mother’s Helper, The Life of the Party, The Stork Club, Under the Vulcania, The Other Rebecca, Enlightenment, and – most recently – Sailing through Byzantium) as well as three works of non-fiction (Pandora’s Clock, What About Us? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot, and The Parent Trap).
The translator of five books by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (Snow, The Black Book, Istanbul: Memories of a City, Other Colours and The Museum of Innocence), she has also translated or co-translated a number of memoirs, biographies, rising stars and 20th century classics. Her translation with Alexander Dawe of The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, was awarded the Modern Languages Association Lois Roth Award for a Translation of a Literary Work.
She has been a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Sunday Times for three decades, writing on feminism, family and social policy, Turkish culture and politics, and contemporary writing.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/