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Peter Mortimer On... Creative Writing


If you work at home you’ll be used to those regular doorstep callers who flip open a suitcase full of gardening gloves, dishcloths, feather dusters and chamois leathers while showing you a document explaining how they’ve been a bad lad but are now trying to make a new life.

I always buy something even if a couple of dischcloths can run out a fiver.  From the last caller I bought a special dog brush for seven quid. All I need now is a dog.

What follows has nothing to do with those guys except a new breed of caller has started ringing the doorbell – or at least my doorbell. These unfortunates are seeking sanctuary from a cruel and pitliless system that has thrown them on the scrapheap of life. They are not asylum seekers, redundant bank clerks from HSBC, or train guards laid off by Southern Rail.

No, these are individuals who often have invested their entire life savings in what they thought would be an education and a qualification which would open for them many doors.  Now they find all doors firmly shut and getting shutter by the month.

Imagine if this happened to doctors, engineers, or brain surgeons or other qualified folk whose education almost guarantees a life of full employment.

I give you, ladies and gentleman, one of the great tragedies of the early 21st century;

The creative writing graduate. Their numbers are increasing as are their fees. They will usually pay many thousands of pounds to be led into the world of the literati, to sit at the feet of great poets novelists and playwrights who will reveal to them the secrets of creative success. Or such is the theory.

Look carefully and you can spot them throughout the country. They can be seen, pathetically waving in the air their certificate to prove they have successfully completed the course. They make tracks to first one editor then another, they knock at the door of this publisher, then that publisher. They offer up their great works, their novels, their full-length plays, their epic poems. And to what response? None.

For as the number of these writing students has grown (no self-respecting university or college is now without its own creative writing course), so the world of publishing has shrunk – and alarmingly. Fewer books, fewer magazines, fewer newspapers, more online tosh. The last thing the few remaining publishers dream of is a whole new army of literary aspirants beating a path to their door. Many publishers don’t even answer.

A quick check of publisher details reveals many now advertise no postal address nor even a email submissions  address. Many will accept submissions from agents only (and ask any aspirant author about the chances of landing an agent). Some small publishers just bring out work from their chums.

As ever, a lot of the writers struggling for publication aren’t much good. But authors bearing creative writing degrees tend to think they are.

Good or bad, once outside the shelter of academia, these aspirants shiver from the cold reality of the writing world. As an editor, my heart obviously bleeds for them, though in this very act of bleeding I glance anxiously up the road to check if any more are heading my way.

Graduates of the creative writing degree have become the new deserving poor, people who dreamed of freeing themselves from the shackles of wage slavery only to discover they brave new world they fought so hard to enter has no interest in them.

What are they to do? Drag themselves back to wage slavery? Throw themselves off a very high stack of books?

 If these unfortunates seek any consolation it must be that they have at least helped secure paid employment for a small army of people who previously found themselves in a similar position to the current wretches  –  I speak of course of that growing band of author academics running the mushrooming creative writing courses. They seem to be doing alright.


Peter Mortimer is the founder / editor of IRON Press.