RIP the Creative Writing A Level?
I’m always reticent about blathering on about my day job in this space. There are better places to do so, after all. Victorian pubs. Urban coffee bars. Into a glass, darkly. But for this I am prepared to make an exception, because, to my mind, it matters to you too.
I refer to the culling of the Creative Writing A Level, after what appeared to be a reprieve last spring. Of course, if you already know this, I’m preaching to the converted. If you teach it, or study it, you understand. As for the rest of us (and I’m very much one of the rest of us) I suspect there is a great deal less passion. Given the news from Mars last week, you might not care a jot, seeing the loss of a single A Level (given that there are already two other English A levels) as just the way things progress in education.
And my knee-jerk reaction would be to agree with you. And then, last week, I read something in the Society of Author’s journal which caused me, unexpectedly, to think again. And it’s this. That the total global book market is worth 151 billion dollars – three times the size of the global music industry. Publishing, as an industry, is HUGE.
Moreover, fiction matters to almost all of us. You might not read books for pleasure (some four million Brits don’t) but it’s almost a no-brainer that you will encounter fiction regularly, because stories are the raw material of films, plays, television dramas and computer games too.
And here’s this, by the ever-wise Mariella Frostrup, counselling a troubled girl seeking solace in psychology text books, and exhorting her to instead find truth in fiction. ‘The best fiction strikes at our heart,’ she points out, ‘reminding us that we are flawed and fabulous, unique and much the same as everyone else.’ Which I reckon pretty much nails it.
I’d also venture that fiction is a safe space for the marginalized, to explore and share political and polarizing opinions in such a way that they wield real moral power. To live in a society where freedom of expression is a legal right is a freedom in itself.
So, to my mind, creative writing is of interest to almost all of us, including the teaching of it, or otherwise, in schools.
So where do I stand on the validity of this threatened A Level? Well, in truth, if you’d asked me before they opted to axe it, I’d have said ‘on the fence, gazing elsewhere’. It’s no secret that I feel a degree of caution should be exercised before embarking on an expensive MA in Creative Writing, simply because I once heard of a very experienced editor saying they could always spot submissions from MACW students because they read as if ‘written by committee.’ From personal experience, I believe she had a point.
I also wonder if something as subjective as a piece of fiction’s success or otherwise can be objectively assessed out in the real world – not in a world of literature that is able to confer success on everyone from Tolstoy to E.L. James.
And I’m really not sure the A Level will be able to prove its worth, where worth is measured in ticks on charts in career surveys, as it could, say, with Chemistry or Maths.
I couldn’t even say, had it existed in my day, that if I’d taken it alongside or instead of English Lit (which, boy, I would), it would have changed my career path a jot.
But do I agree that we should dump it? No, I don’t.
We educate our youth to the age of eighteen now, so we must provide courses that inspire and enrich them.
We need to stop trying to fit arts into a science-applicable framework. A Physics A Level will never test the same things as one in Art or Drama and we should stop trying to ‘academic-ise’ the course content of arts A Levels in a vain attempt to pretend that they can.
We should allow young people to enjoy study and self-improvement for its own sake. It might not lead directly to a ‘job’ as a ‘creative writer’ (oxymoron?) but it will be an education in truth and beauty, and what the hell is wrong with that?
And, no, I don’t know how to make all this happen.
But that’s surely the job of the bodies charged with doing it. It’s NOT rocket science. They just need to get more creative.
First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 3/10/15