Creative Writing & Going Postal

June 11, 2008

I have mixed feelings about creative writing courses, but Hanif Kureishi doesn’t:

“One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student.”

I recently gave a talk to some Creative Writing students. They seemed nice, if mad – but in roughly the same proportions as professional writers, so probably for the good. I may stand before them again. Kureishis’s hypothesis, therefore, struck me as worth testing.

Wikipedia’s index of School Shootings lists a total of 68 incidents between 1966 and 2008, 47 from the USA, 7 from Canada and 14 from the rest of the world. Of these, the majority are Middle or High School students studying no major subject, and a high proportion are security personnel, police, or outsiders (be particularly afraid of Custodians). Of the remaining 12 incidents in which the Major subject of the perpetrator is known, we find a strong bias towards the hard sciences and business:

Of these, only one was committed by a student with any connection to literature: Seung-Hui Cho, perpetrator of the worst of all such attacks, the massacre at Virginia Tech. Cho had recently changed his major to English, after several years studying Business Information, a combination of Management and Computer Science.

We found no writing students at all, nor even the suggestion that some of the perpetrators were struggling authors on the side. As much as we admire Mr Kureishi, we must must find his hypothesis demonstrably false, much to the relief of Creative Writing teachers – himself included – everywhere.


If you’d like to know more about this issue than the rather flip approach I’ve taken, I recommend Mark Ames’ excellent Going Postal, which I had the privilege to publish last year. Ames’ conclusions are fascinating and highly readable, both on the real causes of school and workplace violence, and on the corrosive societal and educational system that breeds such causes. (Also: that’s me on the cover.)

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