clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, March 02, 2004
Over at Fluxblog, Matthew has posted a link to an online gallery of some of his photos. In the comments, we started talking about the necessity of doing frankly emotionally / artistically immature work on your way to making good stuff, and how criticizing people's early stuff for being lame is kind of weird. I mentioned that I'd thought a lot about the process of peer critique, and he asked what I meant. I figured my response would probably overwhelm HaloScan, so I'm posting it here.

I was a creative writing major in college, and as far as I can tell, the thing about writing literary fiction is that the farm system for "getting to the big time" (which would here be defined as, I don't know, getting a great review from the NYT Book Review or a National Book Award or something like that) is very weird and counterintuitive and indirect. With music, for instance, you're getting feedback pretty much from the very beginning. Oh sure, you sit in your bedroom for a while, playing songs to yourself, and this process is shaped by your personal taste and skill level. But as soon as you decide to start playing live, you're getting feedback from bookers, feedback from audiences, feedback from radio, feedback from record buyers, etc., etc. Especially important is the live audience: you get instant feedback on what works and what doesn't. Sure, you might not get the specificity you like, and you won't get a whole lot of suggestions for how to make it better, but it's really easy to tell what works and what doesn't.

No so with writing--not so at all. The lit fic equivalent of new-act club gigs is the literary journal, and while a single club booker needs to schedule about 25 acts a week, an editor for one of these small magazines is lucky to have 25 spots for short stories every three months. You could make the argument that since it's a lot easier, technically speaking, to write and print out a story than to record a three-song demo, there's going to be a lot more applicants for lit mags than small clubs, but I'll bet you have just as many folks trying to get into, say, Pianos (a small but mildly prestigious club in New York) as Ploughshares, and you don't have to hang around a coffeeshop wearing black too long to know that the former is a lot more likely than the latter. (I, for instance, have done the former four times and the latter zero, with the same number of attempts for each.)

But even if you do manage to get a story in a little magazine, you might get some feedback from the editor, but nothing from the audience. OK, the whole thing works for one guy--maybe two--but what about everyone else? And do some sections work better than other sections? And do they make you laugh or make you nod your head or make you uncomfortable? There's no way of telling, especially since there aren't even reviews of individual issues of lit mags, unlike when you get a track on a compilation. Once you hit the big time, there'll be lots of talk about your work, and you can pay attention to that or not, but at least there's a choice. Before, you're mostly just fumbling around in the dark, hoping that nods of approval from editors reflect the attitude of the general literary audience, but not really having any idea. (You can, of course, do readings and get some audience feedback that way, but a) most authors are horrible at doing readings, and b) what works at a reading has almost no reflection upon what works when someone is sitting at home, reading at their own pace and comfortable and not in the midst of a crowd.)

So while theoretically this means that the brave romantic author has to rely on his inner strength and conviction and talent and faith that his work is good and right and true, no matter what his family and those naysayers down at the college literary magazine ("Analepsis" or "Rampion" or "Oscitance" or "Primipara") say--while this, I guess, is what the system is supposed to imply, what it really ends up meaning (aside from "Writing is meaningless and yours is shit, buddy, so go back to licking envelopes") is that your work is largely shaped by the process of "workshopping." This word kind of fills me with fear and annoyance, and I suspect that's the way for many others.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like workshopping. I like workshopping a lot. It's a hell of a lot of fun, and I had some great bloggish (in retrospect) duals in my time over one story or other, and these discussions helped me figure out some ideas that I wouldn't have fully considered otherwise.

But come on. For one thing, it hardly needs pointing out that a room full of young writers, all struggling for success and at least semi-bitter (as all proper Writers are) dissecting the work of what is, essentially, a competitor is just a horrendous idea. This is a group of human beings that, demographically speaking, tend to be one of two types: fragile emotional wrecks (i.e. "poets") or bitter, elitist, grumpy assholes ("novelists"). Sure, in practice it works out remarkably well, in part because the assholes want to sleep with the emotional wrecks, and in part because writers are fucking cowards, but on paper it just doesn't seem like a good idea.

But beyond that, the fact is that writers have different standards for evaluating writing than readers do. And writers are also readers, but it seems like in workshop mode, since they're primarily acting as writers, they read as writers, too. Which means that you read less for the effect a work has on you and more for whether it conforms to your own standards and expectations. I'll try and be fair here by giving an example using myself first: I can certainly be convinced by word-of-mouth to read a first-person essay about, say, anorexia, but unless the piece makes a really offensive joke about anorexia pretty early on, I'm going to have a hard time getting past the simple fact that I'm reading a personal essay about anorexia. (Also in this category: the death of a relative, your ethnic heritage, your sexual awakening [unless it's real dirty], your recovery from addiction--although I am, for some odd reason, still a sucker for personal narratives about batting disease.)

But that's me, and I think I'm usually slightly out-of-step with these things. However, what does happen in workshops is that a certain au currant critical consensus emerges, and it's very hard to deviate from those expectations. The most egregious recent example of this, of course, is the whole Carveresque-minimalism thing, which encouraged a certain style that, as far as I can tell, no one likes except people who got a MFA in creative writing after 1984. (Which is, admittedly, kind of a big audience, but still.) Everyone's a bit more self-conscious about that one these days, it seems, but the behavior itself persists. What writers like is, often, what they feel they should like, not what they actually enjoy reading, by and large. Or maybe it's just that it's a lot easier, at that stage of your artistic maturation, to write stuff in a style that will appeal to people's expectations rather than just write stuff that appeals to people, period. But regardless, the problem the people in workshops and in the young-writer community in general are sort of like the indie-rock hipsters, with their very specific and judgmental and, frankly, self-denying tastes, except with writing it's a LOT harder to go over their heads to an audience that will like what you're doing. Maybe this is why most good writers don't start doing their best stuff until they get into their 30's, unlike the strong-in-their-20s musicians.

Christ, I hate creative writing majors, and I only have a marginally greater tolerance for writers. ("But you're a writer!" I know, tell me about it.) One major reason for my loathing is that, unlike the image a lot of bohemians not in the lit'rary community have of writers, they mostly detest theorists and literary theory in general. (See the above penchant for Carveresque minimalism in the midst of the pomo explosion.) I don't entirely know why. I think maybe it's a sort of petulant reaction to the post-New Theory rule that you try and ignore the author's influence on the work as much as possible and instead try and use it as a springboard to talk about societal phenomenons and like that; the de-individualizing, in other words, of writing, and as I joke above, writers still largely have a classically Romantic image of themselves. Of course, this hatred is in part a Good Thing, since creative writing that's overly influenced by theory is just insufferably horrible as a rule--which I can say because I've written some--but it also means that writers have a weird allergy to ideas. They seem so eager to deny critics any ground that they either write fiercely pointless stuff (family dramas, crumbling marriages, you know the stuff) or stuff where the point they're driving at is real hard to ignore without looking like an idiot (which critics don't really have a problem with, so this tactic usually fails, but it's still shitty writing). Young writers usually seem obsessed with "authenticity" and "truth" in the same bullshit way that indie types do, and it annoys the piss out of me. The workshop process tends to reinforce these ideas, and so experimentalism--problematic since some experiments, by definition, must fail--tends to get severely clamped down on, to say nothing of stuff that's working outside of the traditional lit fic tropes. Maybe I'm just bitching, though.

In an essay I wrote a while back (which I'm not linking because it's pretty embarrassing as a whole--see the stuff before about emotionally immature early work), I made the point that workshops focus not on whether or not a story works, but on whether it works on its own terms. Now, you'd think this would sort of contradict what I said earlier about workshops tending to wedge everything into the same style or set of expectations, but it doesn't. Writers, as I said before, are cowards, and you want to keep a workshop on an even keel so the subject doesn't use the occasion of workshopping your next story as an opportunity to rip out your heart and throw it against the wall and watch it slide slowly into the wastebasket--writers are good with words and bitter, bitter nerds, so they tend to be very good at insults. And so they inject their personal prejudices into a critique more subtly, which can work very well; you only need to spend a few minutes watching Sorority Life to see how you can break someone's heart in the most polite way possible. Plus, being told something "works on its own terms" is a bit like saying "that's pretty good, for a steaming pile of shit." Know what I mean?

At any rate, the problem with this not-unreasonable tendency (who knows if your tastes are really right for the writer in question, after all) is evidenced by the fact that this almost never happens in music. If somebody doesn't really like folk music, and a band is a bit folky, they suck. A metal fan won't call Belle and Sebastian "good for indie rock"; they'll call it "pussy shit," a phrase that doesn't get used enough in literature, for my money. (Also an underused critical term: "boring.") People rarely want to have a serious discussion about whether you should be doing what you're doing at all, and while that's polite, the fact is that an audience member won't hesitate to tell you that. Now, you can certainly dismiss them as not who you're aiming for anyway, and I know that the weird power relations in a workshop setting make this hard to do, the fact remains that there needs to be some way for a writer to get this sort of feedback. I don't want to know if you can "see how this would work," I want to know if you like it and want more. It's that very audience interaction, and audience honesty, that seems lacking in the current lit fic farm system.

ANYWAY, as for visual art, it would seem to exist somewhere between the model for music and writing, critique-wise, although it has the advantage/curse of not ultimately being aimed at a wide audience, so in many ways the critiquers are the audience, so that's nice. But of course, these folks also seem to suffer from the some of the same problems I've pointed out with the lit fic establishment. But I don't know much about art, of course.

ADDENDUM: Assist goes to the wallace-l community for the lit mag names.