When Writing Groups Go Bad: The Cat Man

I should have known better, but I was somewhere between desperate and lonely, that place writers who want to be read often find themselves and which leaves them susceptible to the power of assertive critics. Sure, giving the story you slavishly worked over for days to someone who is never going to read it often comes to a disappointing nothing, but its just a sin of eagerness. Giving your mailable self over to a self appointed arbiter of taste is another mater.

I met the Cat Man at a local writers group after the night’s speaker had spent 45 minutes explaining the best way to do goal setting. My least favorite thing to hear about in writing groups. The Cat Man was an older fellow with white hair and glasses, and wore a button down collar and white sweater. He came right over to me—I was the only stranger—and introduced himself. He told me within 30 seconds that he hosted a writing group at his home. He had done it for years and had had helped the writing of a local author whose books I had vaguely heard of. What he didn’t do, was write. I should have thought that was a bad sign, but I’m not particularly tied to the notion that everyone in a group needs to participate. Anyway, it had been a couple years since the last group so I was more than eager.

The next week I arrived at his home around 7. It was an old craftsman and was well taken care of. I knocked and he let me in, recognizing me from the week before. As I walked into the house, though, I was overcome by the smell of cat, or to be more precise, litter box. I don’t hate cats, just that smell. I’ve never understood how people can live with that, but I ignored the smell as best I could and entered the dining room where two other writers were waiting. When I took a seat his wife asked if I wanted coffee.  It seemed like a good sign, especially since she looked like a kindly grandmother, and picturing them both together they were quite charming.

After the coffee came, we all traded stories and I read the two pieces of fiction from the other two, while he read all three of ours. Normally, I like to know something about the people I’m trading writing with, so I can know if it is really going to be interesting. With this group I didn’t have any option but to read. It was one of the most painful 20 minutes of reading I’d ever done in my life. Not only was their writing uninteresting, it was so badly written that I think a tenth grader must have written both of the pieces. I’ve read uninteresting things that at least held together, but this stuff was in such desperate need of work.

My mind quickly wandered. I hoped I could make it down to the Trader Joe’s before they closed to buy a case of wine since I’d just gotten a raise and I wanted to celebrate. I couldn’t leave, though. That would have been rude. So I waited until the Cat Man finished marking up our work.

When we finally got to the criticisms and talked about the other writing, he mostly said good improvement. I don’t even want to think about what those writers had written before. It was obvious that he was shepherding along his foundlings and they were slowly becoming what he envisioned. When he came to mine, I knew we would be in conflict. He had begun punctuating my first paragraph and chopping it up into small pieces. Sure the sentences were long. I knew that, but that was part of the deal. He looked at me and said, “these sentences are too German. They don’t work in English.”

Too German? What does that mean? And, really, what’s wrong with a little German flavor now and then? His criticism is the kind that ticks me off, because it doesn’t ask the question, does this work? Rather, it asks, is this in Stunk and White, because that is the limit of my thinking. I wasn’t going to pay much more attention to him, because he obviously wasn’t going to be helpful. What I want in a critic is to know what they see. I know what I want to happen, but is it there? It is the hardest thing for a writer to do. Instead, I found a fellow who subscribes to those tired dictums, such as, always use Anglo Saxon words instead of Latin and French imports, but I like to eat beef instead of cow, and I’d rather live in a mansion than a house.

My mind had already shifted back to the case of wine at Trader Joe’s, when he said, “you shouldn’t be so serious.” Serious? Now he had lost me. Why should I be funny? I’m not a comedian, so I seldom write comedy. It wasn’t as if I was writing about a Dickensian work house, either. On your first encounter with an author, especially his first four pages, you should refrain from suggestions on the weight of material. If you are going to be helping the writer through to the next level, you need to know what the writer is about. There will be plenty of time for readers to say someone is too serious.

Needless to say I left as quickly as I could. It was too late to get my cheep case of wine, but at least I didn’t have to smell that cat box, which I never got used to. When he emailed me the next week to ask I was coming, I politely declined. I wish I had said, “I’m sorry but I’m moving to Germany where they will understand me.”

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The Death of Fiction? Or Just a Change in the Landscape

Ted Genoways’ Mother Jones article on the death of fiction isn’t particularly new in its publication (from January), nor its subject manner, but it is does have some valid points and is worth looking at. Yet before I mention the good points, let me get to the tired element: too many schools graduate too many writers, be they poets or prose writers. I think this is true (it happens in other fields, so it can certainly happen in creative writing) and after a certain level of schooling I’m not sure how you can be taught to write fiction. While one of the problems he identifies is an over supply of writers who have turned inward, writing things that only other writers want to read (poetry gets this criticism all the time), he doesn’t ask if there are other reasons. What happened to the readers? Did they all turn into James Paterson swilling boobs or do they have other issues or has other media pulled them away? In many ways Genoways is making the B R Myers argument about not reaching out to readers with readable and interesting fiction.  I’m sympathetic to the criticism. There are certainly modern books I can’t stand, such as White Noise, yet I love Thomas Bernhard who is much father from White Noise in accessibility. What ever you interests, saying there is an over abundance of creative writing programs which has led to an insular, dull, and engaged literary culture is not enough. At least Genoways is savvy enough to know that it is up to the writer to get out there and connect. I wonder, though, if the last 50 years was more of an aberration and writers will be returning to working in fields that have nothing to do with literature just to make a living, like Stevens or Kafka or any number of writers before general interest magazines and latter the university made it possible to live on writing fiction. I don’t want to see it, and hopefully an iTunes model might work and save the us from the Death of Fiction.

Little wonder then that the last decade has seen ever-dwindling commercial venues for literary writers. Just 17 years ago, you could find fiction in the pages of national magazines like The Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, GQ, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Ms., Playboy, Redbook, and Seventeen, and in city magazines and Sunday editions like the Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Not one of these venues (those that still exist) still publishes fiction on a regular basis. Oh, sure, The Atlantic still has an annual fiction issue (sold on newsstands but not sent to subscribers), and Esquire runs fiction online if it’s less than 4,000 words. But only Harper’s and The New Yorker have remained committed to the short story.

One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don’t sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.

Final Thoughts on Hugo House Writer’s Conference: Finding Your Readers in the 21st Centruy

The Richard Hugo House’s writers conference was tiring, like most conferences, yet a great conference for the those seeking to understand not only how to get published, a timeless question, but how to use the new tools of media. All of it was quite useful and seeing what you have to do to support a book is rather daunting. There was a talk from one PR agent and the details she went in to on just setting up bookstore readings, something that has only minimal success these days, could be a real time suck. What was interesting, too, was not only to get a chance to talk to other writers, but to talk to writers in genres I don’t even think about, and to be honest, sometimes value disparagingly. It gives you a chance to see where you are, but also what it is that drives other people who are committed to an idea that you would never otherwise think about. On the other hand, I got tired of trying to describe my novel since it is too amorphous at this point.

Being with writers searching for readers and also being a reader/reviewer who’s been watching the publishing world struggle it was fascinating to see how those two worlds try to sink up. The new writers are shocked, the more experienced are navigating it the best they can, and we have publishers like Mathew Stadler trying to be innovative, and still there is panic. Yet on the small press front there is the DIY attitude, which is quite refreshing and gives you hope. The turmoil is just so unsettling and now there is no one way to go, and whatever you do it will take some of your precious writing time.

As a web developer who participates in social media projects, the questions that came up about social media are both eager and uncertain. Many writers have such a long way to go to get a handle on social media. I think many writers have a hard time moving beyond the work. I can sympathize, I don’t want to either, but for better or worse, you have to. I saw the same thing in the technical writing community, where you can find writers with a similar mentality. When that group was hammered by the .com bubble there was a cry for the writer to lift the head from the work and it was hard for many.

I’m certainly glad I went and it was definitely worth sacrificing the prime writing time.

Hugo House Writer’s Conference Finding Your Readers in the 21st Centruy Day 2

Today’s session was filled with talk about how the relationship between the author and the publisher and the reader has changed radically. Mathew Stadler opened the day with a talk about changing the role of the publisher, towards a small publishers who refuse to participate in the shell game that is book sales: no more returns. Instead, he looked towards a model where the publisher sells just a copy or two to a book store and the publisher gets paid upfront. He wasn’t sure if he was going to make that work, but it was his hope to try and break the old paradigm. He also quoted Epstine in saying that “a publisher’s job is to supply the necessary readings for democracy.” As such, Stadler looks to the small publisher to remove the hierarchy and control and create a more flexible and democratic publishing. In a more practical vein, he suggested that if you take an advance you should know how that will help your publisher’s plans. Avoid the shell game and, instead, make books for readers. Taking the advance just perpetuates the ambiguities between the wasteful system, and actual valid engagement with readers. While some of Stadler’s ideas are politically motivated his ideas are interesting and do suggest a different business model for the publisher – bookstore relationship, which, ultimately, will affect the writer and reader. Only time will show if Stadler’s experiments will work.

The rest of the sessions I attended were focused on how to do the marketing work yourself even if you have some sort of book contract. It is a real mix of things you have to do, everything from having and online presence (check) to determining who you want to send galleys to, what bookstores to target, and just about everything that a publicist for a publisher would have done. It is a little annoying since you should be writing, although it wasn’t something I didn’t already know.

At one moment when a freelance editor was talking and I misunderstood him when he said you need lots of dialogue in your fiction, I had a moment of complete disappointment. What is the point if you have to fit in a formula. Turns out he was not talking about literary fiction, but, still, it was one of those moments when I don’t like thinking about writing and all the silly conventions and rules people come up with when describing what will sell.

Tomorrow more of the marketing then I can return to what actually matters.

Rumpus Book Club Another Way to Interact With the Author

Conversational Reading notes that Rumpus has a new monthly book club that will send you an unpublished book by one of their authors. While I don’t agree that with Conversational Reading that all author readings are boring, although those who spend too much time reading from their books should probably put the book down, it does get around the problem where the reading is more like a sales pitch and not having read the book you have nothing interesting to say about the new book. I like the human interaction, but this book club may ultimately lead to more sales and more engaged readers, which, in theory, should lead to follow up sales.