Amit Chaudhuri’s foreword to UEA’s 2022 Prose Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box and available HERE
My first experience of a Creative Writing department was the term I spent at Columbia University in 2002 (teaching not writing but literature and modernism at the department during a one-off stint). The students were intellectually open and unafraid, but weren’t (at least that’s the impression I got from what I heard) encouraged to raise literary questions in the writing class. Creative Writing, in America, felt, implicitly, different from literature. Thinking about literature and working on writing were meant to be two different things – in some ways, they may have also been seen to be opposed to each other. I may be wrong. And maybe this isn’t the case any longer. But there was a sense I got at the time – others did too – that Creative Writing programmes in the USA involved a process of homogenisation as students ‘worked on their writing’, and that part of the homogenising was to do not so much with adhering to a handbook of rules but a model of style. As we know, the model at the time was Raymond Carver, or Gordon Lish’s version of Carver.
I don’t wish to compare, but comparisons are inevitable when you only know two forms of something. I came into contact with the second form that a Creative Writing course might take when I started teaching (if that’s the right word) the MA in Prose Fiction at UEA in 2008, two years after I’d made a first tentative foray in the department, offering, as I had at Columbia, an MA on modernism. It took a while for me to understand that, though UEA’s adoption of the original Iowa-type ‘feedback’ model wasn’t very different from comparable courses in America, something unlike America was happening here as far as the writing emerging from the MA was concerned. For one thing, there was no equivalent of Carver directing the production of proto-Carvers. I encountered a diversity of styles: realist, poetic, satirical. I even read stories that were written about, of all places, Norwich. This was not some kind of incipient English regionalism being practised by local students. To gesture towards a regional tradition, one needs the idea of the local to have some sort of glamour. Norwich didn’t have that. And yet, the Norwich stories (I invoke them as one example of the unexpected discoveries I made reading or examining students’ work) made me, through their intelligence and humanity, look at both Norwich and ‘creative writing’ in a new way. So did the other kinds of stories: about the historical, or the everyday, or the contemporary, or the future. In fact, there seemed to be greater variety and nimbleness in the Creative Writing MA than there was in the domain of published novels. This was a revelation, because the suspicion and expectation (as in American anxieties about the creative writing industry) is that the opposite will be true. Anyway: I did not, in the twelve years I was associated with that course, come across instances, or note the presence, of one recognisable, dominant creative writing style. What I did find were varieties of excellence, as I do in this anthology, and it took me a few years to understand this. I don’t know how this variety both survives and flourishes: both students and teachers must be responsible for it, as must an unspoken, maybe unconscious, pact between student and teacher.
The world ‘out there’, of publication and ‘finished copies’, is far less heterogenous and possibly less interesting. That’s why these yearly anthologies seem important to me now, in retrospect, because the project seems to grow in significance and probably has the potential to point a way, devoid of mainstream mediation, to what a truly burgeoning and many-sided contemporary literary practice might look like. I hope there will be more anthologies: maybe a quarterly could be introduced, as well as anthologies of the excellent critical prose students write.
You will be struck by the various momentous events, human habits, and insights recorded in these pages – from speaking to diced carrots to the fact that the depredations of human history are most powerfully present in a dentist’s waiting room (and other such revelations).
I have always admired the UEA MA writers, and I wish this latest talented group well, and I wish them courage.