Review: ‘Initiate: An Oxford Anthology of New Writing’


I’ve always had a secret desire to take a course in creative writing, so when I saw a copy of Initiate – the first anthology of work by graduates of Oxford’s Master of Studies in Creative Writing – behind the counter at Blackwell’s, I couldn’t resist picking it up. I vaguely recalled the media hype when the course was launched in 2005: the debates over how it would stand up to traditional ‘academic’ subjects, whether creative writing courses tended to produce a particular, homogenous style of writing, and if writing was something that could actually be taught. The showcase anthology seemed to have received few reviews, so I decided to judge it for myself to see how good these ‘initiates’ really were, and what I was missing out on.n

The quality varies as you might expect from a book that comprises work from a wide range of contributors, testing out a multitude of different forms and voices. I found some of the poems uninspiring: Alice Willington’s Dusk verges far too close to cliché, while David Shook’s images of ‘silverfish [mating] beneath the seminary pillows like sequins fucking’ seems a bit too self-consciously intended to shock. Some of the prose didn’t quite work for me either, such as A Malady of the Heart by Savyn Javeri-Jillani which contains lovely moments but has too much going on for it to flow together as a story.

Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Stephanie Chong’s The Essence of Sandalwood, a moving portrayal of the perspective breast cancer puts on the normality of ballet lessons and a career in law. Chong writes like she knows this world well – sure enough, her biography reveals that she gave up being a solicitor to take the Master of Studies. Sarah Darby similarly writes about what she knows, using her experience working in the NHS to create a tender tale of two boys joking about their crushes while waiting for heart surgery. And it’s not just the variety of contributors’ CVs that stands out, the cultural diversity of the cohort is also reflected in their writing. Manish Chauhan’s The Bloomers is a sensitive, unconventional take on arranged marriage, with some wonderful details: ‘They say that if your rotli are round, it means you’ll find a good husband’.

As for the poems, Roy Wooley’s 3am Garden is deliciously surreal, describing an ex-girlfriend who keeps a dragon ‘in an apple-crate with a brick on top’. There are some great titles, such as Questions to Identify a Pale Tongue, and arresting imagery: ‘I like music that wants to press / my cheek against its shoulder’. But the anthology isn’t limited to poetry and prose: I enjoyed Paula Bardowell Stanic’s drama, and a bizarre screenplay by Colm O’Shea. There’s work by more established writers in there as well, including One of those Days, a satirical screenplay by Mark Burton that I immediately had to look up on YouTube. Guessing who is and isn’t a creative writing graduate is part of the fun, and not always an easy task.

One thing is clear: graduates of Oxford’s Master of Studies don’t write like hackneyed clones, as criticisms of creative writing courses might imply. Whether I liked their work or not, they all demonstrated unmistakably individual voices and a willingness to experiment. Judging from the success of recent graduates, this seems to be paying off, although it is, of course, too early to tell whether Oxford will acquire a reputation for creative writing to rival that of East Anglia. 

So maybe I should start compiling a portfolio for my own application – I’m definitely tempted. But then again, a brief glance at the biographies at the back of Initiate or a consideration of the diverse career paths of famous authors such as Dick King Smith, makes me wonder whether a bit of life experience first would be more useful.


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