A couple of weeks ago, I found myself reading the most recent offering from a UEA Creative Writing graduate – Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard – and was once again dumbfounded by the impeccable style, the crisp command of language and the continually fantastic plots which come gushing from the proverbial pen of UEA. In the last two years alone we have seen number of graduates hitting the dizzy heights of the bestseller lists and bagging prestigious literary prizes (Andrew Miller’s 2011 Costa-winning ‘Pure’ and Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away won the Cost First Novel Prize that same year) earning their place on the glittering list of alumni alongside the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Anne Enright (for a full list, visit the UEA website here and prepare to ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’). I have no doubt that Sarah will be the next – she has written a dark and twisted tale of a small village in rural Suffolk which will capture and hold the interest and imagination of even the most hardened city dweller (published by Hutchinson in August – view the book here).
On finishing the novel, as on finishing any novel by a UEA graduate, it made sit back and think – what is it about UEA? How is it that a (relatively small) Norfolk-based campus University manages to turn out so many great authors, year after year, tutor after tutor? What exactly is the UEA effect? This is something which academics, critics and writers alike have marvelled at, pondered, vehemently disregarded or, in some cases, blatantly refused to acknowledge (UEA reject Philip Hensher’s particularly vitriolic Spectator review of ‘Body of Work’ springs to mind – see it here). Any discussion on creative writing courses is bound to lead to some lively debate, the usual benign question is tossed back and forth like a battered shuttlecock – ‘can creative writing be taught?’ - but throw UEA into the court and it becomes a great deal more animated. Everyone seems to have their own opinion on what makes UEA a melting pot of liquid-gold literary brilliance (or a cookie-cutting course which has struggled to produce ’20 good novelists in the last forty years’ for those in the Hensher camp). It is a topic close to my heart, being a UEA Literature graduate and one working in Publishing – barely a day goes by when I don’t hear about the success of a UEA Creative Writing Master and feel a small swell of pride. And I truly believe that the golden sheen of reputation rubs off on other UEA graduates – particularly those from neighbouring literature or humanities courses. When I was having endless publishing interviews last summer, the appearance of ‘UEA’ on my CV always raised a knowing smile and/or questioning eyebrow from Publishers. It’s almost as if they assume that you’ve been swopping writing tips with McEwan as you collect your post at the oak pigeonholes, discussing the everlasting appeal of The Great Gatsby over Martini’s with the glossy-maned Sarah Churchwell, or lapping up the wisdom of simplicity from Ishiguro over canteen coffee in the Square. I’m afraid to shatter the illusion but although we had an impressive rota of visiting/resident writers and book-writing professors, it was not Bloomsbury circa 1922. Have you seen the concrete towers of UEA? It’s no Tintern Abbey that’s for sure. Those majestic Ziggurats (the lego-bricks of dirty grey stone which pass for campus accommodation) are unlikely to inspire devotional odes, nor are the cold stone cells or ‘carrels’ of the library with their loosely-fitted windows (if you could survive a winter’s morning in one of those you are built of very strong stuff indeed - best avoided by those palely loitering Keatsian types, a whisper away from pneumonia). Nor are the facilities themselves particularly impressive. What it comes down to is the combination of the clearly constructed aims of the course, the brilliantly inspiring and diverse range of tutors and the nature of the City of Norwich itself. And the latter, I would argue, deserves the most acclaim.
Norwich – a fine city indeed, and one which is receptive and supportive of creativity. Norwich – a newly appointed UNESCO City of Literature (one of only 6 in the world), an accolade which sees it internationally recognised for its prowess for promoting both domestic and foreign literature through publishing, events, education and established organisations. It is a comforting fold for both artists and writers and offers a generous helping hand to those starting out. Organisations such as The Norwich Writers Centre (a ‘literary development agency’ created in 2009 and ‘interested in both the artistic and social impact of creative writing’ working with ‘writers, readers and diverse communities on a wide range of ongoing and one off projects and events’ – it offered financial assistance and mentoring to Sarah Ridgard) and The Norwich Arts Centre (a small, independently run venue which aims to offer ‘a broad range of performing and media arts of the highest quality to the community, together with a programme of participatory workshops and activities that offer good access to the arts’) offer invaluable resources and opportunities to those looking to develop, discuss and share ideas in a literary sphere. Unthank Books, a small and charming Norwich-based publisher has recently launched The Unthank School of Writing and offers very reasonably priced courses and workshops on prose fiction, poetry and screenwriting – a refreshing antidote to the eye-wateringly expensive ‘masterclasses’ offered by The Faber Academy and The Guardian. Other organizations which deserve a mention include The Forum and The Forum Trust, an institution and charity which seeks to ‘promote educational opportunities, life-long learning and personal development’ and ‘provide opportunities to showcase and celebrate the talent and achievements of people in the Eastern region,’ be it artistic, literary, scientific or educational, and last but by no means least, the fabulous Norfolk and Norwich Festival an event which attracts the biggest names in art, music and literature and helps to propagate and utilize the rich cultural talent of the local area. Community is at the heart of all of these organizations; they are proud of the City’s literary heritage and take every opportunity to celebrate it. They are not driven by money (most are charitable organizations or supported by government grants) but instead seek only to proclaim the sheer brilliance of Norwich and the demonstrable literary talent contained within its crumbling city walls. Literary pursuits and pursuers are held in high esteem within Norwich – aspiring writers are not met with the oft sneering contempt, snobbery or cynicism (‘writing a novel are you? Hmm aren’t we all?’) instead they are encouraged, nurtured and made to feel welcome in a city which truly values the arts.
Ian McEwan, a student in the early days of the UEA creative writing course said, when questioned, that
‘part of its (UEAs) success is creating this extraordinary and lively atmosphere.’
Giles Foden, a Creative Writing Tutor at UEA maintains that
‘It works because we admit very good students; because of the long culture of helping writers to find the right form for their ideas; and because of the emphasis placed on reading other writers’ work.’
I would argue that both these statements are true of Norwich in general and not restricted to the UEA itself. This is a view supported by recent graduate Christie Watson (author of Costa 2011 First Novel winner Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away) who says of her time at UEA:
‘I was certainly immersed in a culture of writing and I was surrounded by hard-working people like me who had some degree of natural talent, whatever that is.’
This ‘culture of writing’ permeates throughout the city and threatens to infect anyone who enters its gates. New writers are not afraid to dive in and immerse themselves in the warm cultural pool it provides, to accept the encouragement, to take on board the constructive criticism and advice on offer and to share their ideas with others. This atmosphere is contagious; the Norwich air is thick with inspiration. So to wrap up – it’s less ‘The UEA effect’ but instead ‘The Norwich effect.’ Therefore, potential authors heed this advice: head into Norfolk armed with your pen, a notebook and a generous dollop of talent and spend some time frolicking in its richly fertilized literary meadows. There may just be a Costa Prize in it.