Malcolm Bradbury taught Ian McEwan and his UEA writing classes became legendary. But this former pupil isn't so sure that Malcolm was worth the moneyby Philip MacCann / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Someone once told me that Malcolm Bradbury was famous: he had taught Ian McEwan “how to write.” It had all happened amid the eerie, wind-swept Lasdun concrete of the University of East Anglia on its pilot MA in creative writing during 1970-71. McEwan was the only student. In the decade following his literary apprenticeship McEwan knocked off his first novella, The Cement Garden, which I believe to be one of the most achieved ever written, a rare masterpiece of literary art. A pure, simple, quiet sculpture of words, profoundly poetic; it blew my socks off.
I applied for the course in 1989 without a second thought. I was flattered to be accepted. Tuition fees were not slight and the whole adventure would cost me about ?4,000 (which 12 years later still feels steep). But, like many alumni before me, I was captured by the legend. I remember my first seminar, settling into a luxurious leather swivelling chair in the Arthur Miller Centre (a classroom). Malcolm looked older than his dust jacket photo, now an elderly schoolboy giggling into a pipe. Before we buckled down to “learn how to write,” photocopies were distributed of a Guardian feature about the famous course and its new arrivals-us!-written by one of the previous year’s graduates.
What was I expecting? Not more English literature, please!-themes, imagery, character analysis. Certainly more than the advice you read in Teach Yourself Creative Writing handbooks-or pick up from correspondence courses or evening classes. In fact, I expected substantial coaching, something on a par with the regimes of Rada or a great art school in Paris. A gruelling programme covering essential craft, the kind of experience John Gardner imparted to the young Raymond Carver. That “certain aspects of writing can be taught shouldn’t come as a surprise to any person seriously interested in education or the creative act,” Carver wrote in defence of such creative writing courses. He went on to describe how Gardner corrected students’ fiction, deleting sentences he disapproved of and suggesting words and phrases he preferred. His book The Art of Fiction is like a DIY manual. Carver was on the famous Iowa University writing course which counts other big names such as John Irving and John Cheever among its graduates.
The first such course in America had been taught by Professor Lewis Gates at Harvard in the early 1890s. Today there are thousands all over…