Who gets published in the UK, and who chooses who gets published? Has the institution of the Creative Writing programme made a difference? Or do the older institutions of Oxbridge and the private school continue to exert a disproportionate influence?
This extract from Against Creative Writing by novelist and UEA professor Andrew Cowan looks at the numbers.
Published by Routledge in September 2022, Against Creative Writing is available here.
‘CULTURAL MATCHING: SOME NUMBERS’
If the question that most often gets asked of Creative Writing is whether it can be taught, then the obvious answer has to be yes, since Creative Writing is everywhere being taught.
Paul Munden’s report, Beyond the Benchmark, provides some numbers for the UK. In 2013 there were 141 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) offering 504 degree programmes in which Creative Writing was ‘a significant element’, while figures supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that enrolment for courses in which ‘Imaginative Writing’ was the major component climbed from 2,745 in 2003 to 6,945 in 2012 – a figure that had risen to 8,910 by 2019.
Confirmation of this growth can be found by comparing the figures displayed on the website of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) with those given in Siobhan Holland’s 2003 report for the English Subject Centre. Holland’s report declares that ‘Creative Writing is a flourishing discipline within the academy. Twenty-four HE institutions are offering named undergraduate programmes in Creative Writing in the academic year 2002-3… Graduates can choose between 21 taught and 19 research-based postgraduate degrees’. Fifteen years later, NAWE’s online directory would state that there are ‘over 83 HE Institutions offering undergraduate courses, sometimes in combination with other subjects such as Film, Literature or Language Studies. A similar number offer MA courses, with almost 200 to choose from. More than 50 universities offer Creative Writing PhDs’.
In short, in fifteen years in the UK, the number of HEIs offering BA courses (in a variety of combinations) rose from twenty-four to eighty-three, while the number of MA courses rose from twenty-one to two hundred, and the number of PhD programmes from nineteen to more than fifty.
As measured in courses, then, the recent growth of Creative Writing in the UK has been rapid, and appears to be accelerating, yet it remains the case that the majority of literary writers published in the UK do not have a connection – whether as teachers or graduates – with a Creative Writing programme. On the contrary, the concentration of cultural capital that facilitates literary access – who gets published, and who chooses who gets published – continues to inhere in those older forms of institutionality described in D.J. Taylor’s evocation of the ‘socio-intellectual forcing house’ of the private school and the Oxbridge college (The Prose Factory).
In recent years, the issue of representation in UK publishing has been addressed by a number of localised schemes, driven largely by an acknowledged lack of racial diversity and given fresh impetus by the Black Lives Matter movement. These include ‘unconscious bias training’ for senior management at Pan Macmillan, the development of a ‘Diversity & Inclusion strategy’ at HarperCollins, and the ‘All Together Network’ for staff at Hachette. Since 2016, Hachette has also pursued a business strategy that ‘puts diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do’ – in part, it admits, ‘to reach more consumers, now and in the future’ – and includes the annual publication of statistics on the complexion of its workforce in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, nationality and socio-economic background. In 2020 Penguin Random House introduced an ‘accelerated Inclusion Action Plan’ and published the results of an ‘ethnicity pay report’ which revealed that BAME staff received on average 16% less than their white colleagues. In 2022 HarperCollins released a similar report which showed that ‘10.1% of employees are from an ethnic minority background and there is a mean ethnicity pay gap of 8.2%’. But if one assumption of such initiatives is that improved employment practices will translate into improved rates of publication for under-represented authors, the 2020 study Rethinking ‘Diversity’ In Publishing (Saha & van Lente) suggests that ‘institutionalised middle-class whiteness’ may continue to determine conceptions of literary quality, marketability and audience:
Our first main finding is that publishers have a very narrow sense of their audience. The idea of the core reader as a white, middle-class older woman (sardonically referred to as ‘Susan’ by several of our respondents) remains dominant. There also remain suspicions over whether racial and ethnic minorities read, or at least to the same extent. As such we find that the core publishing industry is set up essentially to cater for this one white reader. While this does not rule out opportunities for writers from minority backgrounds, until the publishing industry diversifies its audience, writers of colour will always be ‘othered’.
At several points in this report the experience of minorities (whether as readers, writers, or employees) is taken to include individuals from both BAME and working-class backgrounds – and of course these demographics will significantly overlap. The structuring distinction, however, is between ‘writers of colour’ and the ‘white middle-class audience’, making it difficult to determine whether middle-class writers from BAME backgrounds are more favourably represented than other BAME writers, whether they fare better than white working-class writers, or whether white working-class writers are better represented than non-white working-class writers. And while my assumption is that any data on the experience of working-class readers, writers and employees will inevitably include a significant number of individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds, and that the white readers, writers and employees will tend to be advantaged within that disadvantaged grouping, neither assumption can be confirmed (or contradicted) by the surveys.
Specifically in relation to class, and given this caveat, a 2019 Bookseller survey of 1,167 publishing industry employees reports that 78% of working-class respondents felt that ‘their background had adversely affected their career’ (Wood). The impediments they encountered were financial and material, but equally grounded in what Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘habitus’, the structure of dispositions that constrains or enables our ease of adaptation to different social contexts:
many respondents described feeling alien in the publishing trade, with their education and financial background meaning that they have struggled to secure internships, live in London, embrace the networking culture and progress through the industry. Some… cited derisive comments, lack of pay transparency and a feeling of “otherness”. Frequent phrases included a feeling of being “outside looking in”, “a duck out of water” and “lack[ing] cultural shorthand”.’
Other surveys tend to confirm these findings, as noted by Dave O’Brien, a researcher in the cultural and creative industries at the University of Edinburgh, who cites an Office for National Statistics survey which reveals that 43% of people employed in the publishing sector had parents ‘working in higher professional or managerial occupations’, while only 12% had parents ‘doing routine and manual, or “working class” occupations’. This contrasts with the wider population, where the proportions are reversed: ‘around 14% of the population are from higher professional and managerial origins, and around 35% of the population are from working class origins’. As elaborated by O’Brien, the results reveal the continuing prevalence of ‘hidden barriers’ to career progression, including the influence of unconscious bias in hiring practices predicated on ‘a process of “cultural matching” and having the “right” class background, rather than talent or ability’.
But if a working-class upbringing acts as an impediment to pursuing a career in publishing, it appears to present a still greater obstacle to gaining publication as an author. O’Brien reports that ‘47% of all authors, writers and translators in the British workforce had parents working in higher professional or managerial occupations’ while ‘only 10% had parents doing routine and manual’ occupations. A similar disproportion is noted by the authors of Rethinking ‘Diversity’ In Publishing, and though they regret the paucity of data on ‘the racial and ethnic diversity of authors in trade fiction’, they are able to point to a 2019 Book Trust survey that shows that ‘just 5% of children’s book creators were people of colour behind 4% of unique titles (2% of children’s book creators were British people of colour, creating 1.6% of unique titles)’ – numbers that reflect neither the make-up of the UK population as a whole nor the current percentage of black, Asian and minority ethnic employees in the publishing sector.
Setting aside the question of the extent to which the enthusiasms of literary agents and publishers are contingent on a shared socio-economic and educational background – leading to a misrecognition of ‘universality’ in the depiction of certain fictional lives and a degree of blindness to the appeal of lives lived elsewhere – the gatekeepers to the publishing realm cannot be held entirely responsible for such under-representation, given that the determinants of literacy and literary ambition will have their origin, as Bourdieu suggests, in ‘the domestic transmission of cultural capital’, which begins ‘for the offspring of families endowed with strong cultural capital’ at ‘the earliest stage of socialisation’; it begins ‘at the outset, without delay, without wasted time’, and may ultimately go unrecognised as accumulated capital and instead be misrecognised as ‘legitimate competence’ – in other words, innate ability. Put simply, the institution of middle-class whiteness will tend to reproduce a readership receptive to certain kinds of writing, a publishing industry attuned to that readership, and a constant supply of would-be authors schooled in the values of ‘Susan’.
How then to determine whether the advantages conferred by the conjoined institutions of the independent school and the Oxbridge college produce demonstrable outcomes in terms of publishing success, and, relatedly, whether the institution of the Creative Writing programme has emerged as a rival or compensatory pole of literary influence? One method might be to examine the educational background of a sample of authors selected for what Malcolm Bradbury would call their ‘seriousness’, or Mark McGurl their ‘excellence’ – for instance, the twenty writers under the age of forty included in each of Granta magazine’s four ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ promotions, a scheme roughly coterminous with the rise of Creative Writing in the UK academy.
Flawed though this may be as legitimate sociology, and constrained as it is by the insufficiencies of the internet search engine as a reliable research tool, my own survey reveals that fully 60% of the authors selected for both the 1983 and 1993 Granta promotions were educated at an independent school. In 2003 the percentage dipped to 44%, but rose again to 62% in 2013. This is despite the fact that only around 6.5% of the total number of schoolchildren in the UK are educated in the independent sector up to the age of sixteen, a figure that rises to 15% of the much smaller number who progress to study for pre-university qualifications.
Some indication of changing social trends may be gleaned from the fact that three of the original Granta cohort did not attend any university (albeit that all three attended independent schools) and just one of the second cohort (albeit that she was Esther Freud, who might be assumed to have benefitted from other forms of cultural capital), while every one of the authors in the 2003 and 2013 cohorts was university-educated. As to which universities they attended, however, exactly half the selection in 1983 and 1993 went to Oxbridge, a figure that rose to 60% in 2003 and to 65% 2013. This is despite the fact that only around 2% of the total number of students in the UK are educated at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
For clarity, then: around 60% of the Granta authors were independently educated, compared with 6.5% of the total school population (pre-sixteen), and around 60% attended an Oxbridge college, compared with 2% of the total student population.
The over-representation of literary novelists who have benefitted from an elite education is therefore significant, even flagrant, though it’s somewhat less obvious that the advent of the Creative Writing programme has served to provide an alternative or countervailing ‘context of reinforcement and support’ for their development, much as I would wish this to be case. The early indications were certainly promising. In a letter to his Head of School in 1982 concerning the future of the still youthful MA course at UEA, Malcolm Bradbury wrote:
You will know that of the twenty writers picked as ‘The Best of Young British Writers’ this summer by the Book Marketing Council, three were from that course (Ian McEwan, Clive Sinclair, Kazuo Ishiguro). A fourth was Rose Tremaine [sic], an undergraduate here who worked with Angus Wilson… I think it has proved its point.
But while McEwan, Ishiguro and Sinclair had all attended state schools, and all four authors had attended modern ‘plate-glass’ universities, in truth only McEwan and Ishiguro were graduates of the MA. Sinclair was an occasional participant in workshops while completing his PhD in American Studies, and Tremain, as Bradbury acknowledges, was taught informally as an English Literature undergraduate before the MA was established. By 1993, the number of Granta authors having any association with a Creative Writing programme had shrunk to just one – Kazuo Ishiguro, included for a second time – since when there has been a marked increase: six authors (30%) in 2003, and eight (40%) in 2013, a trend confirmed by Leo Benedictus’s equally informal survey for the magazine Prospect in 2010:
I totted up all the novels that have been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award or Booker, or won a Somerset Maugham award, Costa First Novel award or John Llewellyn Rhys prize. Between 1991 and 2000, 10 per cent of these people had studied on creative writing courses. Between 2001 and 2010, 35 per cent had.
This pattern of expansion suggests that at least half the Granta cohort in 2023 will have graduated from a Creative Writing programme. Unfortunately for any advocacy of Creative Writing on the grounds of ‘widening participation’, however, this only partly confirms the value of such programmes in mitigating or countering the privileges conferred by an elite education, for while the 2003 Granta cohort included six graduates of Creative Writing courses, half of these had previously attended an independent school, and half had attended an Oxbridge university. The numbers for 2013 are slightly worse: of the eight Creative Writing graduates in this cohort, five had previously attended an independent school, and again half had attended an Oxbridge or Ivy League university. And while the 2013 cohort was much the most ethnically diverse, with eight writers of colour compared to four in each of the previous selections, half of this sub-group had attended an independent school, and six an Oxbridge or Ivy League university.
In other words, the ‘institutionalisation’ represented by the Creative Writing programme may – for some – simply provide an extension or consolidation of those prior forms of institutionality represented by the axis of the private school and the Oxbridge college. Though only for some. The obverse is that almost half the Creative Writing alumni to be included in the two most recent Granta selections were not the bearers of such cultural capital, which may provide some grounds for optimism if one wants to make an argument – as I do – that the advent of Creative Writing may yet facilitate a democratisation of literary access.
Benedictus, Leo (2010) ‘The write stuff’. Prospect 178 (15 December).
Bourdieu, Pierre (1986) ‘The forms of capital’ (trans R. Nice) in J. Richardson (ed) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Bradbury, Malcolm (1982) Letter to Prof. Roger Ashton, Head of School (11 October). British Archive for Contemporary Writing, University of East Anglia, LIT/CW/9.
Hachette UK (2021) Changing the story: our people and publishing transparency report: www.hachette.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/People-and-Publishing-Transparency-Report.pdf
Holland, Siobhan (2003) Creative writing: a good practice guide. Egham: English Subject Centre
McGurl, Mark (2009) The program era: postwar fiction and the rise of creative writing. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press
Munden, Paul (2013) Beyond the benchmark: creative writing in higher education. The Higher Education Academy.
O’Brien, Dave (2019) ‘Why class is a far bigger problem in publishing than you think’. The Bookseller (27 March).
Saha, Anamik & Sandra van Lente (2020) Rethinking ‘diversity’ in publishing. London: Goldsmiths Press.
Taylor, D.J. (2016) The prose factory: literary life in England since 1918. London: Chatto & Windus
Wood, Heloise (2019) ‘Survey reveals extent to which working class feel excluded from book trade’. The Bookseller (22 February).