Clare Morgan tells John Garth why Oxford’s creative writing MSt stands out from the crowd.
No one could argue that Oxford has failed to bring forth its share of great poets, novelists and dramatists: from Sir Philip Sidney to Monica Ali, its alumni have helped shape the literary world. Yet until recently, graduates who wanted to pursue the craft of creative writing within a university framework have had to look elsewhere, to the University of East Anglia – where Professors Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson launched Britain’s first such course in 1970 – or to the many other institutions that have joined the fray.
Now, however, Oxford boasts a postgraduate course which takes inspiration from the older atelier model of teaching, and which fuses the University’s traditional rigour with a spirit of avid creative exploration. “What we have is something entirely distinct and distinctive, and it is a model I have noticed other institutions are following at graduate level,” says Dr Clare Morgan, the founder and director of the creative writing Master of Studies course.
Morgan – who was teaching at Christ Church and helped design the undergraduate creative writing diploma – was asked to set up the MSt by the Department for Continuing Education. Increasingly, applicants for English courses had been querying why Oxford had no such programme. Some might respond that creative writing is not a proper academic subject, or that it cannot be taught because it is a matter of personal inspiration. Yet, as Morgan points out, no one asks whether painting, sculpture or music can be taught. “Developing craft can often feed into whatever inspiration is. If you have a greater, wider understanding of how things can be expressed, then the modes of expression that come into your head expand. That feeds inspiration. Instead of feeling around in a dark room, the lights come on.”
Colleagues almost universally backed the launch of the MSt and it was cleared for launch in Michaelmas 2005. The part-time course is now welcoming its seventh intake – graduate-level writers who show significant potential. Mostly based at Kellogg College, they will shape, hone and test their skills over two years. Students engage with a wide range of literary modes – prose fiction, poetry and drama – before specialising in one form in the second year. The goal is to encourage the student to find his or her own voice, not to impose a stifling “writing school stamp”, says Morgan.
An emphasis on critical analysis and wide reading sets the MSt apart from courses elsewhere. “We work with the individual and across genres, and in this critical-analytical realm, to enable our writers to think: ‘Where am I in this great stream of literary production coming from the past and going to the future? Where do I want to be in that? What does that imply for what I’m doing?’ We have a very talented second-year student who’s writing something quite new – not a verse novel but an extended piece that can be read as a novel or a narrative poem.” The diversity of the students, from as far afield as Nepal, adds further cultural perspectives.
Dutch–Belgian novelist and 2007 graduate Annette Pas testified to the strengths of the approach. Her novel, Het land waar ik u liefheb (The Country Where I Love You) has been adapted for a forthcoming English-language movie to be filmed in Brussels. “Lots of strange political stuff is going on in Belgium and the Netherlands right now – the rise of the extreme Right, nationalist-separatist movement: so many taboo areas, and no one in Dutch or Belgian literature has the courage to write about them or even touch upon them. I got that courage from Oxford, from being exposed to different ideas, literary theories and ways of looking at the world, writing about it – and trying to change it.”
All tutors are published novelists, poets or dramatists, in keeping with the atelier model of teaching. As Morgan, whose novel A Book for All and None was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in June, says: “Someone who’s a brilliant scholar of contemporary literature but who’s never written a word of it herself is not going to do the biz.”
The course recreates the rhythms of a writing life – periods of intense stimulation followed by solitary application at the grindstone. With workshops, seminars and talks from luminaries such as Jon Stallworthy and Philip Pullman, the residences are education at its most immersive. They also amount to controlled explosions that demolish the barriers between students.
The course also provides some direct networking advantages that are invaluable in an era when some 200,000 titles are published in Britain annually. “How a good, interesting writer gets noticed in that is tricky,” comments Morgan. “Sitting on a mountain in Wales and occasionally firing off a letter to somebody’s slush pile is not going to get you anywhere.” Literary agents attend the end-of-year showcases, with one agency, AM Heath, providing a £500 fiction prize to a graduating student each year. Each student takes up a research placement with an agency, a publisher, a journal and a production company – bringing what Morgan calls “a big dose of professional development realism”.
Each of the 15 newcomers had to fight off nine others for a place, and one in three applicants heard of the course by recommendation. Current students include two Clarendon Fund scholars and one Rhodes scholar. Last year, more than 40 per cent of graduating students achieved Firsts. Since 2007 the alumni have an enviable record of publications and literary prizes. Three of the current second-year students are going on to take doctorates in creative writing, including one at UEA.
The deeper success of the Oxford creative writing MSt goes beyond these numbers. The MSt helps build a sense of a writerly community that was more familiar in the intellectual beau monde of 50 years ago. Considering it is all about communication, writing can be a punishingly solitary craft, but the alliances built between the graduates have proved a source of mutual support enduring long after the course is over.