I knew that Jamie, who is a professor of creative writing at the University of Stirling, was unlikely to say they are useless, though that has long been my suspicion – perhaps prejudice might be a better word. Her reply, however, was more interesting than a mere refutal of the idea that they are a waste of time and money.
Gently she told me and other sceptics to calm down: "They're not designing missile systems." Yet she did express one strong reservation, that "it would be a cultural disaster if the only place a writer could come out of was a university creative writing course."
Shortly after talking to Jamie I picked up American novelist Francine Prose's latest work, Reading Like A Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them (Union Books, £12.99). Although Prose has been an enthusiastic teacher of creative writing for two decades, she has taken a calculated risk publishing a book that could put her out of a job.
It's Prose's belief that "a close-reading class should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop". She writes, "Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors."
Thereafter she illuminates the various aspects of novel and story writing as exemplified by the finest authors – dialogue as written by Henry Green, narration as practised by Mavis Gallant, character as evoked by Jane Austen. In theory, if fledgling writers digested this fascinating discussion of where and how to find the answer to every literary problem, creative writing classes would be empty from that day on.
Fortunately for the incomes of teachers who take these classes, and for the institutions that host them, that's not likely to happen. Rather, the appetite for creative writing courses appears to be bottomless. Universities can scarcely keep up with the demand.
What that says about society is interesting. It suggests a reverence for literature that defies fashion and flies in the face of rumours that the book is dying. It's inordinately cheering to realise that there is an up-coming generation eager to be poets and novelists, who want to spend a year or more learning about books and authors. Thanks to creative writing classes, some will go on to become writers, and some will discover it's not for them, or they are not for it.
Naturally, some would have reached print without the camaraderie and guidance they have to pay so steeply for. It would be daft to suggest otherwise. And it is also dewy-eyed to think that the glut of such courses is producing better writers than in earlier times. You could, quite easily, argue the opposite. But instead of doing either, I find myself growing benign. At the very least, these courses are promoting the life-changing, world-altering virtues of writing, whether of putting pen to paper oneself or – perhaps more importantly – of learning how to read well.
It's often joked there are more poets than there are people who want to read poetry, but it's also true that there are infinitely more serious readers than there are people who want to write. The importance of reading well has never been more crucial than now, when books are having to fight their corner as fiercely as if they were about to be shoved off a lifeboat into the waves. The unstoppable rise of the creative writing class could be seen as evidence that as literature's status is threatened, people are recognising what it offers, and what we'd lose without it.
If these courses do nothing more than show a handful of people how to read attentively, that will be a significant achievement in itself. As Kathleen Jamie said, they're not designing missile systems. In fact, it's more dangerous than that. They are discovering how powerful the written word can be.