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Amis out, Tóibín in: why literary tutors are big money

Colm Tóibín's appointment as Martin Amis's teaching successor at Manchester's Centre for New Writing puts the spotlight on creative-writing courses.

In the world of sport, January means the football transfer window - will Fernando Torres leave Chelsea for Liverpool, can Emmanuel Adebayor make a difference for Real Madrid? All exciting stuff. But this year, there's been an equally notable literary signing. The Irish novelist Colm Tóibín was announced last week as the successor to the controversial writer Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester. And just as we love to speculate on the lucrative remuneration of illustrious sportsmen, there's been discussion of Tóibín's wages. Apparently he will be earning less than Amis - who famously earned £80,000 (Dh466,000) for a 28-hour-a-year contract, despite never having taught before.

Tóibín will be a good appointment at the Centre for New Writing in Manchester. When I spoke to him in 2009, just after his bestselling, award-winning novel Brooklyn was published, he admitted to being exhausted - simply because he'd just finished putting all his energies into another term of teaching creative writing at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"I love the interaction with the students, it's rejuvenating," he said at the time. "I teach on Mondays and Tuesdays and it literally changes how I feel about those days. I worry a lot about it before I go in. When I'm there I put a lot of work into it, and when it's over I feel relieved that maybe it was OK. It's like acting, in a way."

So it's likely Manchester will get its money's worth. Not that it didn't with Amis - his lectures were oversubscribed and his sheer weight in the literary world meant he also attracted literary names such as DBC Pierre, John Banville and, next week, Ian McEwan. The university has pointed towards a 100 per cent increase in students applying for courses at the Centre for New Writing since Amis's arrival.

And make no mistake, university-attached creative writing schools in the UK and US - complete with their star tutors - are big business. The Centre for New Writing is very good. But if you're an international student who fancies a Tóibín-led MA in Creative Writing starting later this year, £11,700 buys just four hours of seminars and workshops a week, three individual half-hour tutorials per term and the opportunity to attend one of Tóibín's six-week masterclasses (admittedly, the fee is a comparatively cheap £4,470 if you're an EU resident).

In the US, meanwhile, the leading creative writing courses boast the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides (Princeton's Lewis Centre) or EL Doctorow and Zadie Smith (NYU). The big names come with a big price tag - some institutions charge US$50,000 (Dh184,000) a year or more - and so run the risk of attracting a very narrow social strata of people.

But big names also mean the expectations of students are raised. It would be easy to conclude from the prospectus of the world-famous creative writing school at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (the first course of its kind in the UK) that a simple sprinkling of their magic dust will be enough to make published authors of all of us.

After all, since 1970 its tutors have included Andrew Motion, WG Sebald and this term, Giles Foden and Amit Chaudhuri, and its alumni include a veritable roll-call of contemporary literature's best talents: McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tracy Chevalier, Adam Foulds and Tash Aw have all toiled away at early work in Norwich's cafes and halls of residence.

But John McAuliffe, the co-director of the Manchester centre, is adamant that you can't just judge the success of a creative writing course on how many books its alumni are selling. It's not a finishing school for writers with one eye on the Booker Prize - and applicants shouldn't treat it as such.

"That was perhaps the case before Martin came on board - we definitely were attracting older students who were after that final polish to their work," he says. "But since 2007 we've had a much younger kind of applicant. They've maybe written a couple of very good short stories, but the crucial thing for them is the idea of starting on something completely new. They see the course as a chance to experiment rather than fine-tune.

"Of course, the university is very pleased that we are doing well, but we are very pure about our motives," he continues. "Without exception, this course is about personal satisfaction rather than book deals. It's an enjoyable year, where you learn about reading as well as your own writing. Yes, the students will meet agents and editors, but we're very clear that we're not a conduit for commercial fiction. It's about getting their style right first."

Not all the creative writing schools have such laudable ideals - although most, if not all, require a good honours degree and an existing portfolio of interesting writing. Last year I spoke to the novelist Toby Litt in his teaching rooms at Birkbeck, part of the University of London. He's a lecturer with its Master's programme in creative writing (£13,002 a year for overseas students) and while he believes such courses have merit, he was distinctly uncomfortable with what he called the "industry of creative writing" in the United States.

"The problem is, they address what's teachable," he said. "Courses like these will definitely improve the writing of those who don't write well, or who write quite well. What I don't believe they do is encourage the extravagance that great writing has."

Litt was primarily concerned that teaching to a set formula just meant a particular kind of work was churned out over and over again. New writing in the US, he argued, was dominated by the belief that the minimalism of, say, Raymond Carver, was the "absolute value for what's good in writing".

Carver studied at the University of Iowa, which had the first creative writing course in America and boasts the likes of Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham and Kurt Vonnegut among its 17 Pulitzer Prize-winning alumni. It will celebrate its 75th anniversary this year, but much has changed since the poet Robert Frost first taught there. It can still promise teaching from the Housekeeping author Marilynne Robinson, but now it seems that every American university has an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programme in creative writing, and most of the fashionable young writers come through the system.

All of which is really quite bizarre when the likes of Hanif Kureishi (on the payroll at Kingston University) say that "writing courses are the new mental hospitals", and debate continues to rage over whether creative writing can even be taught. On the University of Manchester website they are quite clear that "some of our students will go on to become published writers but most will not".

Still, Litt insisted that his role was to build confidence in his students and to cut out mistakes. Next month, Simon Armitage becomes professor of poetry at Sheffield University, and he told The Independent newspaper that he wanted to promote the idea that "creative writing is not some sort of frivolous endeavour but a robust subject with high values, producing high-calibre work".

McAuliffe has perhaps the best reason to believe in the creative writing school system, despite its flaws. "Martin - and in the future, Colm - are here for another reason," he says. "They act as defenders of literature, of the fact that this art form has things to say that need to be heard in today's society. You don't have to agree with them - and many didn't with Martin - but these are public intellectuals who encourage debate about important issues. I think that's really important."

More important, in the long run, than that first book deal.

Updated: January 31, 2011 04:00 AM



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