Novel Pursuits: creative writing and the democratisation of literature?

Sunday 1 November, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Student Union

‘Everyone has one novel in them’ so the saying goes. Only today the saying seems to have become a reality. Creative writing has taken off with a boom. The first creative writing course arrived in the UK in 1970 at the UEA, becoming a legendary breeding ground for novelists such as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. Today there are over 200 postgraduate creative writing courses in the UK. But the creative writing explosion is not confined to the ivory towers of academia. From prisons to shopping malls, creative writing projects are anywhere and everywhere: from the Library of Unwritten Books, which encourages people ‘to spontaneously record their unrealised ideas, fictional tales, and personal histories’, to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that challenges wannabee writers to knock out a 175 pages in a month, declaring that ‘the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly’. The message seems to be just pick up a pen and express yourself.  Anyone can and should write creatively.

But should everybody try and write? Do more people writing mean more people are engaged with literature? Or are we diluting and dumbing-down the value of great literature by pretending that anyone can be an author? Novelist Jenny Diski had her foreword to an anthology of student writing rejected this year because rather than simply praising the work, she advised young authors to work harder at editing and redrafting. Is it better to take the NaNoWriMo approach and stop being so precious about the great art of writing, taking more risks and allowing more people to write by banishing the ghost of Dostoevsky? What can creative writing courses teach us about the art of writing? Isn’t literary genius something which is innate and can’t be taught? Who decides what great literature is and who can and can’t write anyway?

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Jenny Diski
novelist, Apology for the Woman Writing; essayist; memoirist; author, The Sixties

Adam Foulds
novelist, The Quickening Maze; poet, The Broken Word

Chris Hamilton-Emery
director, Salt Publishing; poet, Radio Nostalgia; author, 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake

Produced by
Dr Shirley Dent communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake
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