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 the US, some packaged as professional qualifications leading to careers in authorship, with optional modules in Negotiating a Film Deal and Appointing Your Biographer. The UEA course was a replica of the Iowa one. And it has, slowly, caught on. There are now 30 universities in Britain that offer creative writing courses to undergraduates. But there remains much more ambivalence this side of the Atlantic. Some people concede that writing can be taught but most feel that, somehow, it shouldn’t be. The British tradition is of isolated amateurism. The view that writing is unteachable-infinitely variable, irreducible to rules, mysterious-is often expressed by writers who themselves deny this in practice when analysing literary craft in book reviews.
So, did it work? For the Thatcherite students in my time at UEA things had moved on since Malcolm’s glory days in the 1970s and many of them were disappointed. The cultural edge had sharpened, leaving little space for fuddy-duddy humanism and the spent topics of the 1970s campus novel. Some graffiti was scored into a bench in a lecture theatre: what is the difference between Malcolm and God? God is everywhere, Malcolm everywhere but here. His hands-off approach to teaching was notorious. We would each produce two pieces of writing per term. This would be distributed among the class and “workshopped” in weekly seminars (ten per term). The bulk of the course consisted of the opinions of one’s rivals who fine-combed one’s work for weaknesses, each vying for Malcolm’s attention. No mutual admiration society. There were ten of us including an Icelander, a Canadian, a writer from New Zealand and a half-Italian chap who resembled Mayakovsky.
“Er, I really liked the bit where your character slits her throat,” the New Zealander once commented diplomatically on a 40-page work.
“Isn’t she having a period?” inquired the Icelander.
“I thought she was pregnant,” said a third.
“Any advance on pregnant?” asked Rose Tremain, the teacher.
In order to fit us all in, two students shared a three-hour seminar; one’s turn came around twice per term. Rose taught in terms two and three. That meant we each were granted three hours of personal feedback from Malcolm. In fact, since he only chipped in at the end of a seminar you could reduce his advice in the whole 12 months to a personal 30 minutes, if that.
The ideal was to eliminate narrative confusion, inconsistency of character, sentimentality, implausibility, or instances of “overwriting”- tumidity, periphrasis, ineffective overstatement. Some think this a narrow gospel of minimalism according to Carver and Richard Ford. I trace the influence back to Flaubert and his idea of “objective writing.” Flaubert knew the value of sharing experience and spent years coaching the young Maupassant in the art of writing, beginning first with how to see afresh. Maupassant’s stories show the potential of writing tuition. But any aesthetic values which we discovered in our haphazard way had already been fully developed in the ancient world in treatises by Longinus, Aristotle and others. As students of aesthetics, we were at kindergarten, learning to become our own editors in a meaner time.
When we arrived, nearly 20 years after Malcolm had taught McEwan, he seemed tired of the diplomacy required for less promising students. Though his remarks on our woeful juvenilia were often undeservedly profound, he really came alive when he spoke of his television career. I found him a dazzling academic and after our last seminar, to the strangled hissing of peers, I expressed my admiration. But our tutelage was a far cry from the legend of McEwan and personal weekly sessions in the Maid’s Head with Malcolm and Angus Wilson. Malcolm admitted that for our generation times were tougher. I was gambling everything on writing and I needed brutal honesty. Do my stories work? If not, how can I make them work? Or should I chuck it in? We were training hard for a literary market that was shrinking. Morale was low. Malcolm’s motivation was, above all, to avoid unpleasantness and he had developed the creative craft of obscuring his meaning. “Your first line could have been written by Henry James,” he once told a would-be mystery writer. “You need some more lines like that to follow it.”
I had expected to be trailing behind the highest flyers of my generation, who would one day gain the status of Angela Carter or Kazuo Ishiguro (and perhaps be my friends?). Instead, it was admitted to me that ours was a duff year. But if some students were regarded as write-offs, why had they been accepted on this prestigious course? It seemed to me that UEA was interested mainly in swelling the course to collect fees.
During my year at UEA Ishiguro won the Booker prize and applications peaked to almost 200. The number of students admitted has increased to the point where Russell Celyn Jones, who replaced Rose Tremain, admitted to the Royal Society of Literature that more ought to fail. For Carver, the danger of these courses lies in excessive encouragement of young writers which, he said, “must always be honest encouragement and never hype.” Of all the students to have attended the UEA course since it began, only about one third have been published.
After the MA we returned to isolation, jealously pursuing our individual careers before our word processors: ten markedly different writers connected to each other only by competition. In dark moments now, when all appears vacuous, I remember what Maupassant wrote in 1888: that everything had already been said; that writers, who were conscientious and tireless workers, could only struggle against discouragement by unrelenting effort. He described it all: the discarding of literary quality, a glut of pulp fiction, the adulation of trash and the utter illusion of originality. It was the eve of high modernism.