In 2015 Buzzfeed published "If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop" by Shannon Reed. "Tim," a caricature of a young man with a goatee and fedora (not quite a neckbeard, I don't know if that stereotype had emerged yet), pompously lays out what Pride and Prejudice needs to make it a better book. It was meant as a denunciation of mansplaining but really that's hardly relevant: this is a brilliant satire of the problems with writing groups in general, regardless of the sex of either the writer or critique partner.
I've been in three writers' groups in the past decade, so I don't feel qualified to make general statements about what they're like from my own experience. But I will point out that two of these have been organized under the auspices of statewide writing organizations, the kind that host conferences and publish anthologies. I have heard from other writers I know about their experiences in groups. This Buzzfeed piece reinforces my hunch: my experiences - my frustrations - in writers' groups are typical of the whole institution.
My writers' groups have helped me: mostly they've helped me get over the fear of sharing my work that had me paralyzed for far too long. Fresh perceptions and perspectives of words I had come to take for granted from long brooding helped me see my tendency toward laziness and guard against it.
Maybe the most valuable lesson I have learned from writers' groups is how subjective judgments of quality can be. Sifting through critique, I've learned to tell between diagnoses of faults in grammar and clarity, and confessions of wide divergences in taste between the reader and me. This all has been indispensable exercise in critical thinking.
I thought of all this as I read Anne of Green Gables last year. It was my first time. After a lifetime of loving the Canadian TV adaptation from the 1980s with Megan Follows et al, and being moved by the purity of the story and the characters under the surface glamour of the cinematic medium, I decided to go to the source.
I loved it. And I wondered: could it get published now? The style has become dated, almost archaic, and I expect that those who have their fingers on the pulse of the book market hold today's writers to standards far removed from any of Montgomery's concern. But it wasn't any extraordinary refinement of the craft of her writing that held me, though as a writer of that era her craft was of course solid. What held me was my identification with Anne and other characters. Montgomery drew me into the setting effectively, agreeably; I was able to make myself quite at home in there through my own skill as a reader and my own life experience. I would not ask more of her.
What about a typical writers' group today: how would critique or beta readers respond to the first pages of Anne of Green Gables? I can imagine: "This is a really slow start. I don't know what's going on. Look: if you want to grab the reader's attention you have to let them know who the characters are, what they want, what the stakes are. This just takes too long to get there. Who has time to stick with your story through all this meandering?" "Why is this important?" And so on.
My last writing group felt firmly oriented toward writing stories that would have the widest calculable market appeal. Tastes have changed greatly in the past century.
Taking part in the group was an exercise not only in my critical thinking but my morals as well: what are my motivations for writing? Whom do I serve? Market? Self? Muse or Divine gift? What is my purpose? What hardship am I willing to bear with in pursuit of it: rejection, misunderstanding, going without the validation that I crave? What to make of this advice I'm getting: do I follow it out of a conscious decision to improve my craft or from people-pleasing? I have long known that to be one of the reigning weaknesses of my character.
In one group meeting, another member mentioned Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner: a Pulitzer winner, "but I hated it."
As for me, of Stegner I've only read Mormon Country so far but I loved it, and if I could put out something like that I would call myself a writer. I knew when I heard that dismissal that that writers' group was not the best place for me.
People have called me a good writer. One of Ursula K. Le Guin's many rejection letters told her "You write well." Two reviewers of my fiction have compared it to Le Guin, and I have to work hard not to cling to that, since it's about the sweetest praise I've ever received. One of these readers also called my story "bucolic," and that put me on Cloud Nine.
I wonder what that writing group would have done with Le Guin. If I join another writing group I think I'll bring a piece by Le Guin or Samuel R. Delany for my first session and try to pass it off as mine, see what they do with it. See if anybody even catches the deception.
For that matter, I wonder what the average Utah writers' group would do with the first five chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring if it weren't already a classic. I think they'd rip it to shreds.
Maybe that's unfair. But one thing I have noticed over the past 25 years in my involvement with the formidable LDS SF/F subculture is an impatience to the point of dismissiveness with writing that is too difficult.
"Literary Fiction" is that pretentious stuff that nobody reads. They look down on our genres as substandard but we thumb our noses back, because our stuff is better, because it's actually fun to read. So if you want to write good fantasy, you'd better make it exciting!
Well I don't want to write exciting stories. I want to write bucolic stories. I would rather not call my fiction fantasy, but I don't know where else it could come close to fitting.
I fear that the advice an aspiring writer most often finds is nothing more than a weathervane of current trends, in taste, in genre convention, in social norms. I hope I'm wrong, but...
Back to that Buzzfeed article: it didn't just imagine Austen in some local homebrew writers' group, it imagined her in a graduate program. You know, the kind you pay tuition for (that you probably have to spend years paying back).
I went to graduate school - in something even more arcane than Creative Writing, but much more practical. I'm annoyed enough as it with the debt I had to take on; I'm glad I didn't go tens of thousands of dollars in debt for the risk of a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. I can imagine my younger self doing it though, if I had been in a place where I "believed in my dreams" more strongly. Maybe I would have been fortunate enough to get in a program that aimed (let alone knew how) to draw forth my vision and gift, gave me the space and support to develop them to their best expression with training of technique (maybe through a classical Trivium model?), and struck the right balance of rigor and inspiration, neither flattering me for work below my ability nor stifling my creativity by forcing me into a mold. Maybe the more expensive the program I enrolled in, the greater chance I would have had of receiving such quality. Those who get paid by such teaching have every reason to try to convince us of that.
Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe I should take on a regimen of, say, a year of reading the best fiction to come out of MFA Writing programs. Surely there's a list somewhere of good books produced by these programs that merit such ruinous expense: surely their graduates, trained with such consummate skill, must boast a high rate of success in drawing respectable, comfortable incomes through their writing. They must produce most of the bestsellers and the Pullitzer Prize winners, right?