The best advice I can give a young writer is to read a lot and steal even more
Has anybody famous come out of the "Fame School of Performing Arts" that Paul McCartney helped set up in Liverpool four years ago? And what about that football academy that the FA set up with great publicity in the mid-eighties? What percentage of its graduates have become Premier League footballers? Or even professional footballers in any division?
Some cultural academies might be dubious, while others - such as the Royal Academy of Music - are obviously necessary. Nobody can become a classical musician without long and rigorous training. Lots of people who weren't writers have suddenly produced - in middle, or old age - a good book. No people have suddenly, from scratch, become professional classical performers in middle age.
There are plenty of grey areas in the subject of teaching the arts. Simon Callow has argued that certain forms of training - especially in the voice - are essential for stage performance. In his biography of Orson Welles, he argued that - with all Welles's genius - there were still limits as to what he could do on stage because he hadn't gone to drama school. But Welles became a great screen actor and there are many examples of models, writers, sportsmen and producers becoming fine movie actors. In fact, stage training can be a disadvantage for the movies.
But about one thing I have no doubt. The establishment of a "National Academy of Writing", reported in the Observer this week, is a really terrible idea. I don't just mean that it shouldn't be a priority, but that it is a bad idea in itself, a waste of money and of the time of everybody involved.
You hardly need to marshal contrary arguments, just observe the cloudiness of what people said in favour of it. Melvyn Bragg said lots of people write to him asking for advice: "Hopefully, the academy will be able to take on that role." Carmen Callil said the academy could assume the role once played by "great editors" in publishing houses who would help writers improve their work. Alan Plater, the TV scriptwriter, hoped the academy would raise the level of writing for television: "Whatever it was that gave us the great screenwriters like Potter, Bleasdale and Rosenthal isn't there any more."
These are matters to do with the structure of publishing, the new hierarchies in television management, the difficulties of getting an agent or a commission, but what have they to do with writing? The academy itself will have courses in lots of things that are not worth taking courses in: "poetry, research, biography, editing, reportage, criticism, lyric writing and translation", as well as writing scripts for different performing media.
The only sensible advice given by a teacher of these courses would be: don't do this course, do something more useful. For example, you don't study "translation". You learn a language, go and live in the country, read an awful lot of literature in that language and your own and for God's sake get another job as well, because translating is atrociously paid. Likewise, you don't sit in Birmingham or East Anglia studying "reportage". Travel, find somewhere strange, write a bit, read a lot.
But aren't there technical things you need to learn? A few maybe, but nothing that can't be picked up quickly. When William Goldman, one of the most successful of screenwriters, was first commissioned, he had no idea how a script should be laid out. It didn't matter. He bought a published script in a bookshop. Alex Garland has admitted that when he wrote his fabulously successful debut novel The Beach, he had no idea how to pace or structure it, so he based it on Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Clever him. Smart young writers have always learnt by stealing or copying from work they admire.
If forced to give any advice to a young writer, I would just suggest reading a lot and trying to learn what works and what doesn't work, but writing isn't even as fair as that. Reviewing Laurence Olivier's memoirs, John Carey observed how remarkable it was that a man could have learnt so much great literature and still write so badly.
Perhaps the best advice to a young writer is: study anything but writing. Travel, learn something useful, do a weird job, so that if in the end it turns out that you are one of those people who can write, then you'll have something to write about. And if it turns out in the end that you can't write, well, at least you've got the weird job.