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Writers: graduating by the bushel, but can they find readers? Add to ...

Here come the writers: hundreds of them, liberated from their garrets and suddenly overrunning the country, going from invisible to omnipresent, like a hatch of mayflies, as they cluster in the bright lights of Canada’s fall literary festivals.

But where do they come from? More than 100 local and international authors are crowding the schedule of this week’s Vancouver Writers Fest, and many of them will be joining almost as many more in Toronto for the start-up of the International Festival of Authors, which has become so big it now stages more than a dozen satellite events in towns across Southern Ontario. The book trade may be shrinking, but the supply of authors continues to swell.

The answer is that they come from creative-writing programs, which have emerged in the new century as the indispensable nurseries of literary fiction in North America. Half of all published authors in Canada have studied creative writing, according to a 2010 survey, and enrolment in postsecondary creative-writing courses is booming even as interest in traditional literary studies declines. Graduates dominate the festival lecterns and lists of award nominees every fall, often competing with former teachers for honours once reserved – at least in the public imagination – for self-taught outsiders in the embrace not of approving institutions but a thankless Muse.

Victoria author and teacher Bill Gaston exemplified the current trend this week when he launched his new novel, The World, in a joint event with former student Marjorie Celona, who began writing her first novel, titled Y, in a creative-writing workshop at the University of Victoria and finished it at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop, birthplace of the concept. Himself a creative-writing graduate, a creative-writing teacher since 1989 and current chair of the U Vic writing program, Gaston is convinced that the spread of professional training has elevated the stature of Canadian literature.

“I really do believe that,” Gaston said in an interview. “And I know that some people will wince and yell at me.” But few critics today are still asking what he calls the “age-old question”: Can writing that is truly creative actually be taught, as if it were an engineering problem solvable by ironclad equations? One look at the reigning elite of literary fiction, from Ian MacEwan to Annabel Lyon or Nathan Englander, moots the question: If teaching creative writing were impossible, 21st-century literature as we know it would not exist.

“Virtually everybody who has been through a program would say it helped them,” Gaston says. “It’s the people who have never been near one who say it doesn’t help.” Studying creative writing is not yet a prerequisite for success. “But it sure streamlines your progress,” Gaston adds. “You learn a lot about what not to do.”

The big question today – “a question we’re all asking ourselves and not doing a good job answering,” according to Gaston – is what the trained-up new writers will do with their skills. “We’re pumping out all these graduates while the readership for literary fiction is shrinking. I think everybody knows that.”

That disconnect is a growing concern, agrees fellow writer and teacher Greg Hollingshead, director of the Writing Studio program at the Banff Centre. “There’s always this anxiety about people being educated in something there’s no market for,” he says.

The “huge proliferation” of creative-writing programs, first in the United States and more recently in Canada, has created a subsequent “huge proliferation of graduates looking for jobs,” according to Rishma Dunlop, a poet and professor of creative writing at York University in Toronto. American universities have responded by training creative-writing graduates to teach creative writing themselves, “because that of course makes them more marketable,” Dunlop says. York has followed the trend with a new graduate course in creative-writing pedagogy.

Critics of the discipline will perceive what Hollingshead calls “the danger of the closed system” in such an arrangement. Incest, even. On the other hand, it ensures a reliable supply of competent instructors for programs that continue to proliferate despite what “everybody knows” about the fate of literary fiction.

If that’s a contradiction, it doesn’t register where author Linda Svendsen teaches at the University of British Columbia, now in its 50th year of creative-writing instruction. “The program has just grown and grown,” she says. Eighty-two undergraduates are currently enrolled in creative writing at UBC, while 222 graduate students are studying for a creative-writing master of fine arts.

“I hear the book industry is suffering and all of that,” says Svendsen, whose new novel, Sussex Drive, grew out of her desire to join her students while she taught them. “Yet because of the digital revolution, people are writing more than ever.”

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