Monday, July 28, 2003

2003: A Wolfe Odyssey

My mother's been saying for years that I'm a drama queen. But after reading all the hullaballoo (scroll down to Saturday, July 26, second entry) about a workshop gone bad, I must say I'd be lucky to rank a serf in the Writing Drama Court. And Sheila posts that this kind of thing happens on a regular basis and is one of several reasons why she's said a permanent ixnay to attending conferences and the like. Me? I'm watching this like a deer in the headlights. It's one of those things that I hope to experience first hand - whether to figure out it it's really as insane as it seems or just to obtain an "I've worked with/am a professional writer now" war wound.

It seems one or more students got miffed by Gene Wolfe's critting style. And decided to Tell Him So in a bile-ridden letter. This prompted Wolfe to leave as he mistakenly was led to believe that the whole class agreed with the sentiments in said letter. And then the writing community got wind of this and All Hell Broke Loose. Now everyone's got an opinion on the matter (including me, how 'bout that?). The students need to grow thicker skin if they're going to make it. Wolfe should've explained his crits. Workshops were better in the good ol' days. Workshops are victims to PC Mania. Brutal honesty is vital in critting and should not be compromised. Honesty can still happen with inoffensive words and attitudes. And so on. And so forth.

My take? I have a problem with a critter when he crits me instead of my writing. For example, in my real life crit group, there's a wonderful old man. He's funny and honest. But he's also a bit of a pessimistic realist - sometimes bordering on conspiracy theory levels. And, in case you haven't been paying attention, I'm an idealist and tend to believe sometimes too much in the good of others. There's been a couple times that this great guy will come down harsh on an aspect of my theme or plot or characters because it doesn't fit in with his world view. And in doing so he often ridicules my world view. That's the kind of stuff that I can't take. I try to glean his point from it (OK, so Denise is being far too naive here, etc) and move him on to something else. But sometimes he just gets my goat and I go off (you should hear the fun convos we've had about science and government; and then there's the infamous discussion about how OJ Simpson was framed by the mob). To be fair, I've ripped into him for writing stupid, vapid women who serve only as tune and lube jobs for the heros. No, that's not entirely fair either. One of his female characters could have been a world class ballerina - were it not for her ample bosom. And if those are the kind of women he's run into in his life, then fine. If that's how he wants to portray the fairer sex, so be it. I'm trying to work on how I crit him in a way that tones down the feminist independence knee-jerk reaction and helps him make his story better for the way he wants to tell it. I can only tell him the typical woman's reaction so many times. And maybe he'll find a publishing group that caters to the manly men of yore. I'm sure it's happened in the past and still happening now and will continue.

As for harsh but honest, I can go either way. If you're forewarned that someone likes to be brutal in their honesty, then you can brace yourself for weeding out the truth in a pile of shit. If you're not forewarned, it's far too easy to let defensive instinct take over and you lose the truth for the shit. It doesn't matter if the critter makes it clear that it's the writing not the person he thinks sucks. You still hear "this (something that you created) sucks" when you weren't expecting it.

When I crit, I try to be completely constructive in my honesty. There are times that I'll pull off the gloves (getting hit with a hurled fist in a glove still hurts, by the way), but they are rare, and I try to reserve them for the vapid characters. :) If the goal of crits is to help that person improve their writing, then the lesson is better learned if you say "You did this right, but this was way off." You give the subject a much better chance of hearing you, rather than saying "What an ass" and writing off everything you say. When I've found myself being harsher than necessary in a crit, I'll often examine why. Does the writing really suck that bad? Or is there something that I just don't like to read in here? Turns out it's often the latter, and I tell that person I'm critting. Now they're forewarned that I might be harsher than usual because I just don't like westerns. It still doesn't remove my responsibility in trying to reign in the harsh tone, but at least the subject doesn't have to go home wondering why I picked his story to shreds over teeny, tiny things like one word or the placement of a comma when I left other stories well enough alone.

Some of the big names who have cashed in on this debate (see Harlan Ellison) have bemoaned the fact that the PC police have infiltrated the writing world and are now destroying workshops by trying to make sure everyone goes home happy at the sacrifice of learning something that might actually make them better writers. That's just even more horseshit. It's like the tenured profs mistreating all their students because, dammit, they had to go through hell to get where they are and so should everyone else. Or the ever classic "I walked uphill both ways in three feet of snow year round to get to school so quit whining" hogwash. Just because you suffered a vast deal to succeed doesn't mean you have to make everyone else's path just as treacherous. In fact, I would hope you feel compelled to try and make the path easier for those who follow behind. Similarly, what harm is there in toning down your attitude in a crit? So what if the publishing world is a war zone. So what if editors aren't going to be so kind. If someone can calmly and without undue invective say "I liked this (even if it's only the teeniest element of the story), but here's what you're doing wrong and here's one way to do it right" then the chances of someone taking that advice and doing something with it improve a great deal. As a critter, you've done your job. And no one had to leave that session with the advice needed to improve buried in a laundry list of "this sucks", "this really sucks" and "you're not ready for the publishing world." It's even possible to say "I really didn't like this and here's why" without reverting to some of the harsher crit tactics out there. The same information is still given. But the two methods of revealing said info will greatly impact whether or not you are heard. And if no one's going to hear you, what's the point?

But, of course, the non-harsh constructive criticism only works if you have a receptive audience. It's very possible that the subject will hear "I liked this part" and not the "but this was way off." If that's the case, though, that person doesn't really want to succeed in anything (unless someone comes along and "beams" them to the end of the path; and that looks a lot like success but isn't really because they still know nothing). You can't force people to learn (which is, IMO, what harsh critting tactics do). Well, not all the time, at least. And most times that people are forced to learn, they also learn very well to hate. And I think we've got plenty of that in this world, don't you?

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