The Victoria University MA in Creative Writing is an object of desire (for those thinking of applying), hope (for those who have applied), envy, and controversy. It plays such a large part in the New Zealand literary scene, especially in Wellington, that it would be most surprising if this were not the case.
My own feelings about the MA (now joined by a PhD in Creative Writing) are mixed. For the record, I have neither taken, nor applied for, the MA. I have taken two undergraduate creative writing courses at Victoria: a Writing Short Fiction course taught by Robert Onopa in 2000, during which I wrote the first draft of “The Wadestown Shore”, one of the stories in Transported; and the Writing the Landscape course taught by Dinah Hawken, in 2003.
Both courses were valuable, but I have particularly fond memories of Writing the Landscape and of Dinah’s tutelage. About 1/3 of the poems in All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens were written for, or during, that course, and it sparked my most productive period as a poet. (I’m down to about three poems a year now!) So, on the basis of my own experience, I have no reason to think that the MA, being longer, wouldn’t be even better.
The two complaints most commonly made about the Victoria MA (and creative writing MA/MFA programmes in general) is that they lead to work that is written for an audience of one — the assessor — or several — the classmates; and that the products of the course are too homogeneous. The second, if true, may well be an outcome of the first.
I’m aware that many fine books (such as Mary McCallum’s The Blue and Johanna Aitchison’s A Long Girl Ago) have come out of the Victoria MA. In my experience, the books produced are surprisingly diverse. So I’m not too bothered about those issues.
My concern is more about the market power of the Victoria MA and other such courses. Quite apart from the benefits to the participants’ writing, there appears to be a clear commercial benefit to graduating from the Victoria MA. Graduates’ work is more likely to be published in such literary journals as Sport, more likely to be published in book form, more likely to attract Creative New Zealand funding, and more likely to gain literary awards.
Viewed one way, that’s a fair reward from the amount of effort and stress people have to go through to to be accepted for the course, let alone complete it; but from my viewpoint, in such a small literary market as New Zealand, the Victoria MA exerts an undue dominance. The published books of MA graduates are, in my experience, never poor, and often excellent; but what other voices might be heard, what other books might be published and promoted, if the MA did not loom so large?
These musings were sparked off by this post by Joanna Preston on the vexed subject of creative writing courses (and here’s a contrasting viewpoint about the role of the workshop instructor). What do you think? Is the Victoria MA in Creative Writing good, bad, or indifferent for New Zealand writers and New Zealand literature?