Writers write - and get into trouble. Many still have an image of Humphrey Bogart, fists balled for a contre-temps, playing the solitary, heavy-drinking, angry writer in Los Angeles, or perhaps a youthful, beautiful Capote - literary figures who seem to rise, like cream, to the top, with little effort (and then have different, personal, trouble, staying there, on the light surface of things where the glamour of evil - and leisure - resides). It is because writing is - to the onlooker - so mysterious, and troubling - that it seems occult. And, like magic, somehow above pedagogy - though surely Rowling's version of magical education has altered that. At any rate, some people used to think creative writing could not be taught - or ought not to be taught - at university. That idea, at least for Americans, now seems as quaint as thinking we need more horses on our streets, pulling carts. The British were less sure, though the impressive successes of UEA's graduate creative writing program, and its illustrious alumni, made a difference - and then again, there is the recent appointment of no less a writer than Martin Amis, as a creative writing professor.
The recent Fiction 2007 issue of the highly-respected American magazine The Atlantic - known, among other things, for publishing terrific short stories (this issue has new work from John Updike, Tobias Wolff and Constance Squires) - features an article by Edward J. Delaney, "Where Great Writers Are Made", which lists the top ten American graduate writing programs. According to him, these are, in alphabetic order, to be found at: Boston University, University of California at Irvine, Cornell University, Florida State University, University of Iowa, Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan, New York University, University of Texas (Michener Center) and the University of Virginia.
It's a pleasingly mater-of-fact formula which Delaney uses to work out his list: he ranks the programs according to quality of The Alumni (famous writers who came from the program), The Faculty (who teaches there now), Selectivity (how much of a canny squint does their eye of the needle have) and Funding.
It was the Funding aspect that drew my attention. At several of the most competitive of these listed programs, all MFA students are paid around $20,000 USD to attend the program, per year, out of endowments made by (arguably enlightened, perhaps eccentric) deceased philanthropists (one program is waiting for their supposed benefactor to die before they can start their own system of paying students to attend).
Tens of thousands of students enter, and leave, such programs each year, in America. It is becoming, whatever else it may be, an important part of the business of running a university, to have a good, even great, creative writing department, with a graduate, even PhD program. The trend seems set in the same direction, in the UK.
Over the next little while, I'll be trawling for news of the UK's own cw programs, and will, at a future date, hope to provide Eyewear's own list of the ten best British ones, according to the Atlantic scale.