Workshop Fracas

This is interesting to me: Gene Wolfe, the noted fantasy writer, was the author-in-residence at the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop earlier this month. As Wolfe began his critiques, some of the members of the workshop were apparently taken aback at his style and his bluntness; after a few days of this, one of the workshop members submitted a letter to Wolfe complaining about his style. Wolfe’s response to the letter was to pack up and leave. Wolfe tells his side of the story here; workshop member Sarah Totten provides her point of view here, and here’s another perspective, from workshop member Natalia Lincoln.

I should note that coloring this commentary is my personal aversion to the workshop concept, which has more to do with my own personality than it does the relative value of sitting around talking about your writing with other writers. For some people it works. On my end — and this is my raging egotism here — I’d rather spend my time putting my work in front of people who are going to pay me for my work, than pay to have people read it. We can talk about the value of workshops in becoming a better writer, whatever that means, but being that I write for a living, I’m more interested in becoming a commercial writer, and unfortunately commentary on my writing from a bunch of other unpublished writers is of little utility in that regard. Being a better writer is something of a moot point, since if you’re not a commercial writer to some extent, very few people will know whether your writing is any good or not.

(This snotty attitude toward writing is not new by any stretch of the imagination; I believe I’ve mentioned before that while I was in college, I refused to participate in “roundtable” paper criticisms with other students on the grounds that they, as students, weren’t qualified to critique my papers, and I, for my part, wasn’t going to do the TA’s job for him unless I got paid, too. My TA got back at me by giving every paper I wrote a C+, but the joke was on him in that I didn’t care about my grades, and I grew up to become a professional writer. Ha! Ha, I say!)

But of course it works the other way, too — were I an unpublished writer, any comments I could give other writers would be of questionable utility, since my experience with being published would be minimal. I could offer my thoughts as a reader, but then, so could any literate person. So, to get back to the workshop thing, I don’t see what the value is in paying a couple grand to have a bunch of readers read my work. I could get that done for free (look what you’re doing right now).

Now, at this point in my life, I’d be willing to participate in a workshop environment because I’m on the other end of the stick — I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years, I’ve published (or will have published) a number of books, and I’ve also been a commercial editor, charged with buying and then editing submissions from writers. In other words, I now have a level of experience that means that when I make a comment or suggestion regarding the writer’s work, it would have some practical, real world value. I wouldn’t feel like a total ass telling an aspiring writer what I thought were the pluses and minuses of the work. This is professional pride in action: I’ve been around the block a few times now. I know whereof I speak. Mostly.

So, in short: Workshops — eh. I’d go for the pros and their comments. Everything else is group-huggy self-affirmation.

Alas for the people at the Odyssey Workshop, many of them seem to have gone for the group-huggy self-affirmation rather than the useful aspect of having their work read and commented upon by a professional — and to have the exposure to how a professional writer approaches the work, and how the professional world approaches writing as well. One of the most interesting and telling comments came from Ms. Totter, who wrote in her journal about Odyssey, after first being exposed to Wolfe and his critical style: “Since when did writing become a competitive sport? We’re supposed to be fostering camaraderie here, not cutthroat one-upmanship.”

Anyone who believes professional writing is not a competitive sport needs to take a field trip to any of the major publishing houses and take a long loving look at the slush pile. Professional writing is intensely competitive. I’ll trot out my favorite personal example here: When I was editing that humor area on America Online lo those many years ago, I had 20 open spaces a month to fill with submissions. I got, on average, 1000 submissions a month. This means that for every piece I accepted, I rejected 49, which is (if my spotty math holds up) a 98% rejection rate. And when you consider that after the first couple of months, more than half of my available slots went to people I worked with before and knew could provide me quality material, the real world rejection rate for someone sending me something blind was 99+%. It was substantially easier to get into Harvard than to place work with me.

In fact, the sports analogy is an interestingly sound one when it comes to publishing (especially book publishing). Each major publisher is like a major league baseball team, which has a certain number of slots to fill on its playing card every year and a certain amount of money to spend to fill those slots. The all-stars are few and get the most money, and the rest of the holes are filled with utility players just happy to be in the game instead of having to lift appliances for a living (which one am I? Are you kidding? I know what I got for an advance. Right now, I’m a utility infielder all the way. I just hope I can help the team, and God willing, everything will work out).

Every year, some potentially exciting new players get picked up, some underperforming old players get dropped. Some have Hall of Fame careers. Some go back to their day jobs and are glad they at least got into The Show. Writing is a business as well as everything else it is, and if you’re going to go pro, you have to perform. Someone is ready to take your place in the publisher’s lineup if you don’t. Competition is built in. Maybe it’s not fair, but the real world isn’t like t-ball, where everybody gets to bat.

As for camaraderie, I think it’s a great idea: I know other writers, I like other writers. I like seeing other writers I know succeed. But ultimately it’s not what professional writing’s about, any more than great dugout camaraderie is the point of a professional baseball team. The Detroit Tigers could very well have the most self-affirming dugout in the major leagues, but the fans would probably rather the players hated each other’s guts and won 100 games. A writer’s audience cares about what’s on the page; the professional writer’s job is to give the readers a reason to care (and hopefully to care with their wallets and charge cards). No amount of group hugging will matter if your writing doesn’t sell itself.

Ms. Lincoln, in describing her reaction to Mr. Wolfe’s critique wrote: “Wolfe’s critique didn’t give me anything the rest of the class couldn’t deliver, only more tactfully.” Ms. Lincoln, with no disrespect to her follow workshoppers, is probably wrong on this: Mr. Wolfe has published a couple dozen novels across four decades, as well as innumerable short stories over a longer span of time, many of which have been nominated for (and on several occasion have won) the various top SF/F awards. This means he has an excellent combination of overall writing skill and commercial savvy; no one gets continuously published over four decades if he doesn’t know what he’s doing in both departments.

Writing skill doesn’t necessarily imply teaching skill, however. But in this case Mr. Wolfe has taken part in workshops at Clarions East and West and at Florida Atlantic University, and taught creative writing at Columbia University. So all the way around, Wolfe has the personal and professional experience to provide useful criticism, in a way that the others in the workshop almost certainly could not (otherwise they wouldn’t be there).

Wolfe’s crime, as far as I can see, was to provide criticism in a manner not to the liking of the workshop members. And this is where I, both as a professional writer and as a professional critic, have to ask: So? Is it the instructor’s job to be liked, or is it his job to provide useful information? When I was in high school, I remember telling one of my teachers one day that I thought his classes would go more successfully if he tried connecting with the students in a way that was more on their level.

He tried it the next day, and whether he was intentionally mocking me or merely making a sincere attempt, I couldn’t say. But I can say it was probably the most deeply embarrassing experience I had as a student, in that I suggested something that was so obviously ill-suited to the man. It was also the first time I realized that teachers who don’t teach us the way we think we want to be taught aren’t always bad teachers. Maybe the way they teach in itself is a lesson. I can’t say that I became a better student in that particular class, but I do know I paid more attention to how my teacher tried to teach me.

And maybe that’s what Wolfe was doing, too. Wolfe’s critical style was by all accounts confrontational, comparative and deeply subjective, to which I say: Welcome to criticism. Constructive criticism doesn’t have to be “nice”; it can be abrupt and offensive. Criticism can shock you out of your complacency and remind you that the world is not in fact a cozy circle of workshop buddies. I’m not Wolfe, so I can’t say what he was thinking, but I do know that the real world of writing is confrontational (unless you think rejection is a passive act), comparative (in that editors always have something else in the pile to go with instead of your piece) and deeply subjective (editors like some things more than others).

This may have been these workshop writers’ first exposure to this point of view, but if they intend to be professional writers it won’t be their last, guaranteed. It could be that Wolfe wanted them to get an idea of what they’d be getting into for the next few decades of their lives. Those who couldn’t hack Wolfe getting into their faces about their writing might want to rethink their plans. In which case they might want to thank Wolfe for helping them bail out early.

Had I been in Wolfe’s shoes, I would not have quit. I would have gone into that classroom and told them (those who would listen) that if they thought he was being rough, that they should just wait until their first batch of book reviews rolled in. The professional writing life is not for people who need to be affirmed. It’s 98% rejection on a good day.

Writers also need to learn to stand their ground in the face of withering criticism. If your response to being slagged is to run away and write whiny letters about how your critic was unfair, man, are you ever in the wrong line of work. If you believe in your work, you fire back and you give as good as you get. You take your fight to your critic and make him or her back up the criticism. When your critics have a point, you learn and you move on. But when you think you’re right, you argue it, tooth and nail, and you win or die trying.

Maybe Wolfe was trying to see if anyone in his group of writers would fight back. In her reportage, Ms. Lincoln prides herself on not losing her cool in the face of a barrage of criticism. I think she got it all wrong — I think she should have blasted back and made Wolfe explain his points. For all his experience, in the end he’s just a man, not a burning bush. His word is not law. For all his experience, he could be full of crap. I can’t speak for Wolfe, quite obviously, but if I unleashed a barrage of criticism and the response was a prissy, passive-aggressive letter of complaint, I could see how leaving might appear to be a viable option as well. I wouldn’t leave — but I could see thinking about it.

Wolfe wrote: “Whatever rumor may say, the fault was entirely mine. It was my job to communicate with the students. I tried to, but I failed.” He is bearing too much of the burden on his shoulders. Like my high school teacher, he taught his material in a way he knew worked, not in a way that was comfortable for his students. Students are not passive vessels; they have to meet their teachers halfway. It doesn’t sound like these students made much of an effort. If this is their Odyssey, they’re stuck eating lotuses, preferring a pleasant fiction to the harder road of writing — and defending their writing — in the real world.

Update: Ms. Lincoln posts a followup here.

Update 2: Harlan Ellison, among others, offers commentary in Locus Online’s Letters Page.

Update 3: Ellison again, on his own site, getting the full story from the Odyssey coordinator. You’ll need to scroll down to the entry dated “Saturday, July 26 2003 15:43:5.” The fracas seems to be primarily the work of one person, presuming to speak for the entire class, when in fact he spoke only for himself. The class has also likewise since written a letter of apology to Wolfe, which was nice of them. Ellison also has some comments about the Workshop format as it exists today, which I think are consonant to what I’ve written above (although Ellison, of course, allows himself to be more pungent).

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