Tuesday’s Guardian quotes Hanif Kureishi as saying that creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’, that ‘99.9 per cent’ of his students are ‘not talented’ and ‘just can’t tell a story’, and that he doesn’t think the fundamentals of creative writing can be taught.

I try not to respond to manifestly stupid statements from authors, in the same way that I don’t respond to toothless medicine-swigging men’s bellowed warnings to pigeons that MI5 are poisoning our Irn Bru with flourine. There are just too many of them and engagement sometimes convinces these people that they are rational interlocutors in a debate, when really they are deserving of our pity and baffled compassion.

But I can’t let this one go.

A caveat: Mr Kureishi may well have been misquoted, or the Guardian may have selectively quoted from a much more nuanced provocation in which he cleverly undercut the feigned pompous belligerence of his opening lines and went on to say something deeply worthwhile. Perhaps he was just pretending to sound like a jaded bellend, blithely opining in an artful pastiche of the sort of lazy, cockish discourse that would shame the comments section of a Yahoo News article about a snorkeling goat.

If so – shame on the Guardian for co-opting his wry and challenging speech for clickbaity outrage filter! He was pillorying hidebound vainglorious knobheads who feel threatened by the next generation, who hear irrelevancy’s fingernails scratching at their windowpane at night and decide the surest talisman against further incursions is to launch a swingeing, barely articulate broadside at anyone within gobbing distance.

If, however, the substance of his position is captured within these quotes, then the following applies. In either case, it is clear from the rest of the article – and from various authors, agents, editors and critics I’ve read or heard – that he is far from alone in advancing this position, and it is this incipient strain of thinking, with all its smug, pseudo-countercultural swagger, which finally prompted me to down Pokémon Y and respond.

Here’s my experience.

I’m 9. Mr Millard has just read us two parts of a story from big cards. The cards are covered in plastic and rounded at the corners. The story is about a spacecraft which runs into trouble with its retro-rockets and crashlands on an unfamiliar planet. The planet is thick with giant green foliage and black-armoured monsters. I’m desperate to know the ending.

Then Mr Millard announces we are going to finish the story ourselves.

My tiny mind is blown. You mean… I get to choose what happens? I get to steer the monsters, and the struggling crew, and bring things to a heart-stopping, pant-wetting conclusion?

I open my navy blue jotter and start writing.

I’ve never really stopped.

I’m 11, and I’m lost.

It’s my first day at big school, and the negative aptitude for spatial awareness that will result in years of apologetic texts, wheezing sweaty jogs down sidestreets and missed appointments (including a funeral) is already working its magic. I am walking back and forth through an echoey concrete corridor called the Rat Run, hoping someone will see my look of adorable befuddlement and spirit me to my English lesson.

But nobody does.

I am now very late. In case anyone’s watching, I try to appear stoical – even annoyed – but my heart is walloping in my chest and I am a thin membrane away from crying.

I walk past a succession of identical doors, trying to peer through the black mesh of the safety glass without being spotted. Eventually, at the end of the corridor, I think I recognise one of my new classmates. I can’t be sure. I step forward, and place my shaking palm on the door handle, knowing I’m about to interrupt a lesson, knowing I might be about to step into the wrong classroom, and get laughed at by a gang of older kids…

As I enter the room, the teacher wheels round. He has wild hair and a glint in his eye.

‘Here he is!’ he exclaims in mild but rollicking Welsh accent. ‘He’s fought off lions and tigers! He’s fought through jungles!’ He begins to mime my hacking through tropical flora with a bowie knife. ‘He’s fought off marauding pirates! He’s braved the oceans and scaled the mountains and swum through lakes of fire! And here he is!’ He thrusts his hand towards me. ‘He’s made it.’

15 seconds into my first English lesson and I am the star of my own story. The teacher’s name is Mr Walton. He makes my first year of big school English everything I hoped it would be. He challenges and inspires. For the first time in my life, I have whole lessons devoted to reading and stories.

I’m 16. I’ve just finished my first novel.

It is called Psychic Rubber Nipples and it is a searing indictment of modern consumerist Britain. It is 95,000 words long, and printed out it fills two cardboard folders to bursting.

It is fucking dreadful.

I ask my English Literature teacher, Mr Budge, if he will read it. He takes the entire thing home, and returns it with marginal notes, typos marked out, and handwritten feedback at the end of each chapter.

Let me remind you: it is fucking dreadful.

His notes point out many of the novel’s abundant flaws, without being cruel. He tells me what’s wrong with the weary diligence of an undertaker making a threshing accident fatality look presentable – he must know what he does is futile, yet he also knows it may bring some measure of comfort.

He probably didn’t even read the whole thing (the fact he got through the term without hanging himself suggests as much) but the point is, he made me feel as if he had. I buy him a gallon of local cider which I leave on his desk to say thank you.

I decide writing is what I want to do with my life.

I’m 20. Or 21. Or 22.

I spend four years at the University of East Anglia, reading English Literature and learning Creative Writing, first as a Minor, then as my MA.

Andrew Cowan – who taught me on an Arvon retreat when I was 18 – diligently goes through both my prose and poetry. Instead of long tangential disquisitions on art and theme, he asks robust, practical questions: why have you started a new line here? What does this sentence actually mean? He points out places where I’ve tried to cram four thoughts into a single run-on sentence, which might be better expressed as four discrete lines.

In just a few one-to-one sessions, I learn a respect for the nuts and bolts of composition. I learn to return to my work with a skeptic’s eye, to interrogate woolly or needlessly baroque language, to have some basic respect for my readers’ intelligence.

My tutor Patricia Duncker asks why I want to write Fantasy. ‘I just… think it’s interesting,’ is not accepted as an answer. I spend weeks questioning my motivations, asking why SF stirs my heart and my imagination more than straight up social realism, wondering if – as she suggests – Fantasy might be a rather derivative, clapped-out genre mired in conservatism. In a rare moment of self-awareness, I realise that I don’t actually read that much SF – I like a lot of movies and video games, sure, but novels? Christ… maybe I don’t like Fantasy!

At our next session, I try to explain about the wonder, and the weird brightness of writing about the impossible. The stories that come to me are odd, I say, a little sheepishly. Strange is the only form my ideas come in.

‘Yes,’ she says, leaning forward with a sudden fire. ‘That is because Fantasy is primary genre. It is the place from which all genres sprung. Never forget that.’ And we get into an intense and immensely practical conversation about how to convey key physical characteristics in Fantasy species quickly (more than two non-standard features at once overwhelms the mind – pick your battles) and psychomachia in Tolkien and I realise that real writing takes commitment and thought and love.

Every week, I spend four hours in sessions with the Creative Writing Society. We read stories and poems to each other and offer feedback and do workshops together. I learn to write for an audience. I learn that some feedback is just fucking dumb, and you can ignore it. I learn how to offer feedback, how to articulate my concerns, how to zero in on a problem. I learn how to listen.

After each session, we hang out in the bar and talk about books and writing and stupid, unreachable dreams of one day doing it all professionally, and we get drunk together and sleep together and we grow up together.

I’m still friends with some of them now. They’re still teaching me.

I’m 24. I’m sitting with Terry Pratchett at the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival.

Back in Mr Walton’s class, I once drew a cartoon version of me, glaring out at the reader and declaring – via speech bubble – that I was a better writer than Terry Pratchett. The picture showed me clutching a hatchet, which I think was an attempt at a pun.

Now he is listening intently while I try to explain the premise of my Fantasy novel to him. Dai, the cameraman, moves behind me to get a shot over my shoulder. This interview is going to be on TV and everything, and I expect Terry Pratchett will want me to finish waffling about my inane novel about a meditating dog-boy who gets dragged into a civil war, so he can talk in a charming, raconteurish way about his own books.

In fact, I am quite keen for him to cut me off. When I talk about my story out loud, it sounds rather stupid. But he does not cut me off. Indeed, he gives every indication that he is deeply interested, and instead of delivering the kind of soundbites that will make good tape, he proceeds to ask me a series of incredibly sharp technical questions about the mechanics of my invented world and the people who inhabit it. He asks: if the people in this world are descended from dogs rather than monkeys, how has that influenced them culturally? How would descending from quadripedal beings rather than bipedal beings affect their relationship to, say, height? Thinking of climbing a tree – of going up – might be the equivalent of discovering fire.

And what about their enhanced sense of smell? That changes one’s whole relationship to the world. Having a strong sense of smell, he tells me, is like being able to see through time. Just think of how someone with a peanut allergy can tell if a bag of peanuts has been opened in a room the previous day. They feel it in the air. How would that affect a society – everyone able to sense traces of where others had been, to smell who had been in a room the previous day?

He is generous and engaged and incredibly smart. He treats me with kindness and enthusiasm and not a shred of condescension.

As he speaks, and Dai Moonwalks away from us for a wide shot, I realise two things. The first is the incredible scope an SF novel has for interrogating and overturning and reimagining the world. The possibilities for thought experiments and for defamiliarising the mundane, for snapping us out of our jaded, routinised mindsets and showing us the world refreshed.

My second thought is that my novel offers none of these things, and I am fucked.

These are two of the most important writing lessons I ever learn.

I’m 31. I’m at a weekend writing class organised by Writers Centre Norwich.

Led by Henry Sutton, we discuss short stories and principles of composition, then we share excerpts from our novels in progress. When the class comes to mine I confidently anticipate tears and bouquets thudding at my feet.

My extract provokes polite skepticism. Most of it, the group decides, is a bit discursive and boring. But they like my protagonist. Love her, in fact. Why haven’t I included more of her? Why am I pushing my most interesting character out of the story?

A light goes on.

I’m 33. I’m hunched over my laptop in the wee hours, writing a lengthy and digressive blog entry in which I hope to elucidate the precise ways in which Hanif Kureishi is a fuckwit.

Naturally, I’m hopelessly biased. I’ve drunk the Kool Aid, I’ve paid for my Auditing – I even teach a bit of creative writing, for Christ’s sake. I have a vested interest in keeping the pea-and-shells game going – half cognitive dissonance, half pocketbook ideology. I mean, really – what am I going to say? That I got conned? That I wasted my life? That I earn a portion of my living conning others?

So it may come as a surprise to learn that I agree with Mr Kureishi, insofar as a creative writing course probably is a waste of time, if your tutors have been picked on the basis of literary prestige and not on their ability – or willingness – to teach a fucking class.

Apparently, the ‘talentless 99.9%’ inflicted upon him by his course at London’s Kingston University ‘worry about the writing and the prose’ when they should be worrying about story.


Mr Kureishi offers a glimmer of salvation when he concedes that his students ‘start to perk up after about three years’.

That is not an indictment of ‘creative writing courses’ – that is an indictment of his total inability to inspire students. If they’re perking up after three years I’d suggest the only reason is that they’re about to finally be shot of him.

No one has ever suggested you can plonk a surly illiterate with a constitutional revulsion for books in a six-hour weekend class and transform him or her into a Booker-winning novel-shitter. To imply as much is to tacitly admit defeat, by aiming one’s attacks against a ludicrous strawman.

Listen. Authors have a massive vested interest in pretending that writing a novel is some nebulous, mystical process only available to the annointed few. That it is mysterious and unteachable.

Bollocks. Story is teachable. Style is teachable. Tone is teachable. Theme is teachable.

I have been taught these things. I have taught them.

If you can’t figure out ways to transmit this knowledge, then before you pronounce creative writing tuition useless and the system from which you draw your salary a pyramid scheme, allow me to introduce you to my friend Mr Occam and his miraculous razor.

Could it be that the problem is you?

I would love to lead a class of students who ‘worry about the writing and the prose’. How can you write a novel if you think learning to knock out a decent sentence is beneath you? The sentence is the in-breath, the moment, in which the novel lives. The novel can’t exist anywhere but in each sentence.

Yes, story is incredibly important. Fundamental. So is nailing your work on the line. If you can’t teach both, you shouldn’t be in your job.

Stand down, Mr Kureishi. I dare say you are a nice chap underneath it all, but your patronising grandstanding is shortchanging your students. If the students are crap, that’s an admissions issue. If you have frustrations that you can’t translate into lesson plans, that’s a skills and competence issue. To blame creative writing tuition as a whole is an act of absurd bombast.

Creative writing can be taught. Is taught. Has always been taught.

The question is not ‘can it?’ but ‘how well?’ I have been blessed with good schools, and good teachers. Mr Kureishi should try seeking some out, and asking their advice on how he can improve his own practice.

Maybe he’ll learn something.

Want more ranting about writing from me? Try my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.

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53 thoughts on “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick”

  1. This is brilliant, Tim. I actually studied creative writing at Kingston University, although I was lucky enough to only have Hanif Kureishi for one lecture – a lecture that, I might add, was a complete fucking waste of time. The man dripped condescension, and he didn’t even bother with the second hour of the lecture, where we were supposed to do some actual writing for him to talk about, he just talked for an hour (the only thing that stuck with me is him saying that his children don’t read, which is about as damning an indictment of a writer as I can imagine) and then sent us on our way. I found out later from another tutor that Kureishi said that he had no interest in what we were writing. He clearly doesn’t give much of a shit about students, or teaching, generally. Yet he’s still more than happy to accept the pay cheque, while bad-mouthing the whole process elsewhere, which to me is rank hypocrisy. We were supposed to read one of his books for another module, and I’d got through a chapter before that lecture – after the lecture, I put it away, never to open it again.

    But putting that monumental ball-ache aside, you hit all the nails on all the heads in this piece. Inspiring stuff. Thank you.

  2. Well put. Bad teachers create poor results, and those who succeed do so despite their efforts.

    I didn’t take a creative course so can’t give an opinion on them, but I can say from experience that finding someone knowledgeable enough to give constructive feedback on your writing is invaluable. I also think from participation in writers groups that there are lots of creative course writers in attendance who have no idea about story and care more about construct, pretty sentences, and big words. I do agree with Hanif that story is most important, but I don’t think he says anything particularly new there. Of course you’re right. If this is key then fucking teach it!

    I learnt about sentences, structure and story telling after reading Graham Greene. Why Greene? Because he wrote and told a story the way I was wanted to. Do I need to go on a creative course? For the money involved probably not. But I recommend reading. Seems to be a good idea.

  3. Thanks for this article. Myself and several other current KU creative writing students were extremely pissed off by the Guardian’s Kureishi article. It would be unreasonable to think that the vast majority of CW students are amazingly talented and will go on to become successful writers, but the proportion that ARE capable need encouragement and development from their tutors.
    Time and time again, students that study CW at uni get criticised for having taken vanity courses, for trying to gain industry knowledge, for trying to learn skills that should apparently be inherent in any real writer from birth. In my experience, lecturers regularly give CW students big old doses of reality: what they can expect if they are good enough, lucky enough, determined enough to succeed a little bit (and if they don’t), with maximum honesty and minimum bitterness.
    KU creative writing graduate, Sarah Woolner, recently won a BAFTA. I suppose she was the 0.1% of talent in her year, and everyone else in her class now works at Costa and hates themselves.

  4. Way to go Tim Clare – I ranted about this publicly on my Facebook page while realizing I was still ‘friends’ with him. Let’s challenge him to a teach-off . . . I think I know who’d win . . . If I was a student at Kingston right now I’d be complaining very loudly to the VC about this . . . Birkbeck is happy to take any students who’d rather apply here . . .

  5. Always look forward to reading your blog,I’ve been luck enough to have some wonderful teachers support me over the years, hopefully he’s the exception rather than the rule. Feel sorry for his students.

  6. Thank you. Yes, I have been taught, and inspired by writers who also believe in teaching. Having taught another creative discipline for many years, the principles parallel. Had I believed that the job was a non-job I wouldn’t have accepted my salary. I will share.

  7. Exactly. Over-generalisations about how Creative Writing courses are a waste of time are themselves a waste of time if you haven’t been on every CW course. Sure, there are certain aspects of writing that may come more easily to one person than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s all impossible to teach.

    The tutor is the biggest impact on whether my modules at University go well or not. It seems Kingston need to revaluate their employees.

  8. Brilliant. Really brilliant. This: ‘a creative writing course probably is a waste of time, if your tutors have been picked on the basis of literary prestige and not on their ability – or willingness – to teach a fucking class.’ so true.

  9. Absolutely brilliant! I couldn’t agree more.

    “I have been taught these things. I have taught them.” – Yes.

    Having agreed with that (and everything else in your post, Tim,) I DO think that there isn’t as much emphasis on story as there could and should be, in many writing courses – perhaps because it’s hard to teach at novel-scale in particular.

    And if you have generations of writers who haven’t been taught it, but only learnt/know it by instinct, they may not be very good at teaching it in their turn. It’s easy to teach things you had to learn consciously. It’s much harder to teach the things you do instinctively, because you’re not aware of the techniques and ways of thinking involved.

  10. I don’t think I’ve ever left a reply on a blog that I’ve simply come across via Twitter. But I wanted to say a massive THANKYOU for expressing this so well. I’ve attended creative writing evening classes and a week at Arvon. I am not – nor ever will be – a TS Eliot awarding winning poet, but they have made me think about how and why I write, and my meagre stanzas have improved immeasurably. What’s more – I’ve LOVED doing them. The support, enthusiasm and interest of the tutors has been fantastic. I like talking to poets and writers; I’m interested in what they say, how they create what they do etc.

    Only hope they offer you Kureishi’s job if his students resign in protest….

  11. Tim,

    As a professional creative I appreciated your article. I learned a great deal through a series of memorable, challenging English teachers. My creative writing professor in college (Deb Shea) took the time to read my first manuscript (Baloney Express). Her classes and editorial on my manuscript were immensely helpful. I am editing my second book (that I wrote) currently. This second book is also journal-style nonfiction, but there is a vast difference between creatively written entries and flat ones. The same goes for daily communications. Writing (any genre) is a craft that must be mentored, nurtured, and worked on over time. On a closing note, I am a self-taught painter and sculptor, a full time professional artist since college. My art teacher in high school was an inspiration to all, but I only found an art history professor (the late and lovely Liz Kahn) at University to take me in as the studio art department was very weak with a bad attitude. I learned to appreciate history (which always bored me in high school) and art through the words, stories and creative writing that made art and the time in which any given art was created come alive.

    Respectful Regards,
    Sandy Garnett

  12. My utmost thanks… You said everything I would have said, and more. These spirit crushers, many erudite profesdors made good but bitter, also live and speak their poison in the U.S….they are obviously burnt out, and need to retire or shut up… Writing saved my life… Your stories of how you started brought tears of recognition…bless those teachers who inspire, we look to them, not those who tell us we are worthless, unworthy of their time… I am sharing your blog on my FB wall, you made my day, week, year, decade!!!:-)

    (Inspired by Hanif Kureishi,
    as I suppose myself his student,
    and he mine)

    You make me feel better about
    Walking through walls, and moaning
    In my invisible chains, I can drink
    All day my imaginary booze, and
    Write poetry as if I was alive.

    It almost feels normal now
    Writing for an audience not
    Really there, they displeased
    Me somehow, and now
    I displease them, its haunting
    How quickly one becomes
    A ghost, amusing being
    Surrounded by imitations
    Of friends, knowing you
    Are not here or there, anymore,
    Or well read.

    Freeing, the things one can 
    Share, when no one is listening
    It is like glazed eyes gazing
    Through you on stage, at readings
    Those just waiting for their turn
    Your voice a droning void
    In wastelands of literary

    I can write as apparition
    It suits my present disposition
    Because it requires no reciprocation
    Of goodwill, nor effort of explanation
    Of provocation to be baser self 
    Swaddled in self pity and ennui.

    I am the deceased poetry elf, 
    Who leaves cunning words
    Under pillows and on doorsteps
    An unwanted craft, best left
    For the strong willed and well 
    Connected, those who know
    How to convincingly sell

    I am tired of the game
    Tired of those who do same
    Tired of my name, desire
    For fame, a posthumous rose
    On my grave, go into the light
    Good riddance, one less
    Poet is no loss, let us raise
    A glass to that, at least.
    Rest myself, in peace.
    I am finished trying 
    To communicate.

    March 5, 2014

  14. I’ve just taken taught two creative writing workshops to first time writers. The structure and inputs not only were revelatory for the participants but added greatly to my own insights about writing, insights that I can put to great use in writing my third novel. Your essay is so well written!

  15. flipping spot on…and beautifully written to boot. you were indeed lucky to have a string of such brilliant nad inspiring teachers…but it was obviously already in you to write, it just needed eking out. I was often told at school to stop daydreaming (I was planning) and I wouldn’t make much of myself etc etc. I had a few good teachers though who just managed to keep my fire lit. I don’t write…I enjoy trying though. all those years of trying to find a “sensible job” and finally I realise that all these years of faffing about making stuff IS my job! good teaching is about just that…giving people the courage and skills to hone their craft.

    I really enjoyed reading this…I was SO disappointed to see Kureishi on TV acting like a total knob, and then this article. your counter to it is superb!

    it’s book day today…there are lots of little kids walking past my house on their way to school dressed up as their favourite characters…seems an apt day to be reading your rant. and what a rant!

  16. I think I love you.

    I’ve been lucky enough to have teachers like yours too. I’ve tried to be a teacher like that myself. I have only rarely succeeded, but in those moments, when a student’s eyes light up, where you can see the inspiration and enchantment, or where you can see them realising that they’ve got it wrong but they might just be able to fix it because their whole world has just opened up…those are the best moments in the world. I’m very sorry that Hanif Kureishi will never experience those moments.

    This is a great blog post.

  17. Got a call from a ( slightly) well-known poet saying she was fed up with her class as all four of them were ‘thick housewives’. Found them huddled in a freezing room, having mutually decided to give it one more week, as she was ‘crap’ and they were getting nowhere. One had her story on local radio within a fortnight,and published in a local newspaper. Her first book comes out this year, and has had ‘wow’ notices in draft. Other three are still writing great stuff- local, vivid, alive. After twenty years of teaching Creative Writing, I would say you are totally on the button. Authors sometimes make dreadful CW tutors, though I am an author too, and I hope I’m not.

  18. The other thing to remember is writing, like any other art form is subjective. I read his piece too and just thought, I’m glad I’m not in his class. Teachers hold such a huge amount of responsibility. I was lucky that my formative ones were excellent, but I also remember one who was scared by my output and wanted to talk to my parents about my home-life! I published my first novel recently, I spent years working on it. I think the one thing you DO need to write is an imagination. A really good one. You need to see your story as a movie in your head with you a start, middle, end that you cannot tear your eyes away from. If you can do this, I believe you can learn the rest.

  19. This was great fun to read, and spot on. It’s obvious that teachers who complain that their students are dim/untalented/etc. should be looking at what they’re doing in the classroom. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of evidence that Kureishi does self-criticism in any form.

  20. Hi Tim,

    Did you go to Gordano School by any chance? The rat run could have been a coincidence but Mr. Budge and Mr. Walton (and Mr. Walton being excellent) seems too stark. I vividly remember Mr. Walton insisting I be the voice of Mercutio, among other fond memories.
    Thanks for this marvelous article! Not only have you reminded me that swearing with eloquence is big AND clever, but also that it’s never too late to work on your writing. I wasn’t much of a writer at school but subsequently discovered during my philosophy degree that I could be if I really cared about what I was writing. I’ve been writing something SF for a few years now. But by ‘writing’ I mean planning the story line, the characters, the events. I even have a friend painting character art. But I have resisted putting it into prose, writing only a few short chapters to inform the character art. But it’s all very much in my head. And what I am rambling my way to is that your article reminds me that it’s not too late once you leave education and the best lessons can be sought out, quite straight forwardly. I’m going to write more chapters and actually ask people what they think of them, and maybe join a group.

    Thanks again,
    Ben Marshall (Morgan house)

  21. Good one Tim. I did poetry string of the UEA MA creat wr. And numerous Arvons over the decades (am sort of old). All of the ‘courses’ work in both directions, everyone gains, sometimes in unexpected ways. unless you are a total narcisstic twat.
    And the bottom line is that such workshop work legitimises, sometimes for the first time, that what you do is valid and counts. The search for the perfect line, word, sound, story, is legitimate and necessary and a course forum should be a good safe place for this to take place without tearing out your eyeballs and throwing the laptop into nearest river.

  22. Came across this article by chance. Its the most interesting thing i’ve read all week. It’s great in that it transmits your enthusiasm for your subject and offers glimmers of tantalising understanding of the mechanics of story writing for the uninitiated. While Kureshi may be able to write, teaching is a skill and an art that he has yet to master.

  23. Terrific. I wrote a blog post about it too, and yours is a hell of a lot better than mine. It actually seems like you and I have had a similar life up to this point–enough so that if I didn’t want to wish you luck just for the sake of kindness, I’d do so for purposes of cosmic realignment.

    Seriously though, good luck. Judging by this post, you deserve it.

    P.S. I’ve met Hanif Kureshi. I studied on the Kingston MFA. Without saying anything that can be quoted elsewhere on the internet, let’s just say I agree with many of your adjectives. I will openly say that he didn’t teach anything useful. In fact, a lot of it was downright destructive. He could take a “talented” student and ruin them by pointing them in the wrong direction as easily as he could crush a “talentless” student’s dreams. More importantly, no teacher worth their salt lets conceptions of talent influence their attitude. Talent is something for readers to label after the book is published. The teacher’s job is to encourage and elucidate.

  24. excellent, thank you, Tim. I’ve spent most of this week thinking what a twat Kureshi is, not because of his guardian article but because I just got the new book ‘Writing a First Novel’ where the editor has made the mistake of taking a Kureshi article from 2002 to launch the collection, probably thinking his big name gravitas will pull people in to buy the book. But his words are a complete waste of time. He’s always been an arrogant writer, one of the most arrogant in this country. It demeans the rest of that book collection, and he wastes his students’ time and generosity. You, however, have reminded us what good teachers and writers should be all about, like Miss Hansford buying me a poster of Shakespeare with the earring a few days before our A-Level exams in creative writing, to wish me luck. Good teachers and mentors are invaluable. He clearly is not one of them.

  25. Holy haywagon, Tim. This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time – maybe ever – about teaching creative writing – which I do for a living. After one of my workshops, a woman from the workshop caught me in the hallway and said, “I can see you love teaching. There’s such joy in you when you do it.” Well, she was right. And the joy is about watching would-be poets and novelists and short story writers “get it” and then go on to do their own blossoming. Your teachers seem to have been most excellent and I have no doubt you have followed that path as a teacher. It is indeed a joy…Thank you for this wonderful post.
    Molly across the pond…

  26. Having just finished a Creative Writing MA,I agree far more with this post than the Hanif Kureishi report. I also agree with the points about certain authors (possibly the more high-profile ones) not necessarily having the aptitude, attitude or patience to become good teachers. There does seem to be something of an arms race between university creative writing departments to grab well known writers, some of whom may be more engaged with their teaching duties than others.

    However, on the specific point about story and plot, I endorse Emma Darwin’s thoughtful point. Yes, the principles of plot and story can be taught but it’s extremely difficult for any course other than MAs or PhDs to give feedback on a novel-length work. And Emma is also very right to point out that an aptitude for constructing a narrative is often instinctive.

  27. Excellent! When creative writing courses works the enthusiasm is infectious
    It’s also really nice not to be alone in a room talking to yourself along with the other asylum patients!!

  28. I would like to defend Hanif Kureshi’s comments. I attended an M.A. in Creative Writing fairly recently and I was appalled at the standard of writing exhibited by some people on the course. Some people couldn’t put a sentence together properly. And this was for an M.A.! Universities sell courses for several thousand pounds that bring in money, and the customers of these courses are people who think these courses will make them better writers. But the truth is, you have to put in many, many hours of your own, away from the classroom, to be a decent writer. Many great writers have been great writers through their own efforts (i.e. lots of reading and writing) rather than going on creative writing courses. Did Graham Greene attend a Creative Writing course? Or William Shakespeare? Or Philip Larkin? Attending a creative writing course does not guarantee you success or flair as a writer. I recently taught a creative writing module at a Northern University and it was abundantly obvious to me that my students needed far more practice to become decent writers. As a result, I completely agree with Kureshi about the length of time it takes to become a good writer – years and years and years. We can have great role models, we can have great teachers, but to pretend that everybody on a creative writing course is going to be terrific with a short story, poem or novel is a fallacy.

  29. P.S. I also think using the phrase ‘Not if your teacher’s a prick’ does absolutely no favours to your argument. Tackle Kureshi with logic and wit – fine! But resorting to name calling significantly weakens your argument.

  30. ‘to pretend that everybody on a creative writing course is going to be terrific with a short story, poem or novel is a fallacy’

    Who has ever said this, Bill? Yes, it’s untrue, as is the statement ‘all penguins are green’ but it’s not the point under discussion. Mr Kureishi said the creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’ and that his students were ‘talentless’, and those are the assertions under contention.

    ‘Did Graham Greene attend a Creative Writing course? Or William Shakespeare? Or Philip Larkin?’

    No. They didn’t use laptops, either – does that mean authors shouldn’t write on laptops? Or does it just reflect the fact that creative writing courses are a modern invention and weren’t around when the authors you name started?

    Nobody has argued that attending a creative writing course is the only way to develop one’s writing craft. Nobody has argued that attending a creative writing course is sufficient, on its own, to make somebody a superb author. Nobody has argued that the effect is instant. That’s not a standard we hold any other higher education course to – nobody says ‘you can’t turn up to a Physics degree having zero numeracy skills and no background in science – therefore, Physics cannot be taught and Physics degrees are useless’, because that is self-evidently fallacious and idiotic.

    Graduates of Medical degrees go on placements after they complete their courses, engineers accept apprenticeships. French babies learn to their native language by copying their parents – because some people learn French informally, does that mean French ‘cannot be taught’ in a classroom? Of course not. Because students enter a Maths classroom at different ability levels, does that mean Maths is a matter of innate talent and ‘cannot be taught’? Obviously not! Only a very, very foolish person or a disingenuous snob with an axe to grind would make such a demonstrably untenable argument.

    ‘I was appalled at the standard of writing exhibited by some people on the course. Some people couldn’t put a sentence together properly.’

    Assuming your diagnosis is correct, this is an admissions issue, not proof that creative writing cannot be taught. It’s lovely that you feel so secure in your own talent that you’re happy to pettishly denounce the work of others as ‘appalling’ – personally, I’ve found it prudent to check my own eye for beams before tutting at the mote in my neighbours’.

    ‘But resorting to name calling significantly weakens your argument.’

    Why? Besides, I didn’t call him a prick. I called him a ‘fuckwit’.

  31. This article needed to be written. Hilary Mantel by her own admission has rolled on the floor laughing with a friend over a glass of wine while reading work submitted by her students. That strikes me as arrogant, to mock an honest attempt, to be so dismissive.

    If you’re prepared to take money from a student, the least you can do is try to teach them well. There are different levels of talent but I believe you are right, creative writing can indeed be taught. I also believe some students are more teachable and open to accepting constructive criticism.

  32. Hanif Kureshi’s comments wouldn’t be so offensive if he were not making a steady income out of the courses he condemns. I’m pretty sure The Guardian article is accurate as he pops up fairly regularly with this argument. In the past he has described creative writing courses as the new mental hospitals and said that as marking creativity is impossible he gives all his Kingston students 70%. If that’s true, he is cheating his employers and – worse, much worse – his students while giving his second marker a nightmare of a job.
    No one is surprised when an emerging artist enrolls in art school or a musician decides that a few lessons wouldn’t be a bad idea. It would be nice to think that one day the can-writing-be-taught debate will fizzle out

  33. I’m once again inspired by Tim. I shouldn’t have wussed out of using my own adjectives in my last post. Hanif was a pretentious douchebag when I met him. I sat in on a seminar of his in which he taught some students how to worship him, and others, like myself, how to use the success of one novel to justify acting like a pretentious douchebag for the rest of your life.

    I give Hanif this credit: The Buddha of Suburbia is a flipping great title. Any writer would be proud of that title. Still, his writing is pretentious, and so is his attitude towards teaching. I can say with personal authority that he acts like a prick and teaches like a fuckwit.

    Writing is a thing you’ll ultimately teach yourself. Art has no simplistic answers. But a good teacher offers signposts along the road, and while walking it alone, the conscientious aspirant (i.e. the one who deserves to succeed) will make use of their teachers’ guidance.

    I’ve been ripped on elsewhere for saying talent is a poor word for passion, but its true. Find me a person who has slaved over an achievement, day in, day out, for years, who has put in countless hours of practise, sought out and listened to peers and mentors (and almost every writer has had peers and/or mentors at some point in their development) and who in the end fails. You can’t! Such people do not exist! If you put in that effort, you will succeed, and readers and academics will call you talented after the fact. Studying creative writing at university is a guaranteed means to meeting peers and mentors. We’re fortunate to live in a time when those means exist.

    The reason it’s perceived that most students of Creative Writing programs fail is that we set the marker of success so high. We do not expect everyone who studies physics to become a physicist. I’d wager around 1/1000 will, and yet the degree serves its purpose, as those who study it will use the knowledge, or at least their experience of having been to university, in later life. Of the people on my MFA, I’m a writer, two are editors, one is a web designer for publishing companies, one works in advertising, and the rest I didn’t care to keep in touch with. That seems like a good hit rate to me.

  34. You got it right! As I read through, I can see that you’ve proven Hanif Kureishi wrong.

    With your experience, I can feel that you really had fun and it’s a real proof that everyone can learn creative writing.

  35. That’s a fabulous exposé of kureishi’s fundamentally flawed position. Can’t help thinking the the Pro-Vice Chancellor that undersigns his pay cheque would have been less than happy to read that pile of defeatist, assumptive wank. Had to comment Tim, you made me make a loud noise representative of laughter and given that I’m such a miserable git I’m obliged.

  36. “Story is teachable. Style is teachable. Tone is teachable. Theme is teachable. . .
    I have been taught these things. I have taught them.”

    And I still do.

    “Creative writing can be taught. Is taught. Has always been taught.”


    Thank you for this, Tim–a very lovely “portrait of a writer as a young dog.” 🙂

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