Judging Writing

December 8th, 2005 · 7 Comments
by Booksquare

In an article in the New York Press, Sam Sacks takes exception with writing workshops. Where one once found creativity and free-flowing ideas, the experience now lends itself to to an inevitable sense of sameness. He cites Best New American Voices 2006 as Exhibit A of workshopping gone wrong.

The question Sacks dances around is that of objectivity versus subjectivity. Writing is absolutely a creative endeavor. If you need to prove this, engage in the age-old exercise of listing three objects and having each member of a small group write a paragraph including those objects. Or just one object. Or ten. Each writer will take a different tack. Some may even forego the paragraph as we know it for something else. You never know.

For those enrolled in MFA programs, there is a split goal. First, of course, is the creativity. Second, is the need to apply objective rules to judge success. Sacks summarizes this aspect of the workshop process quite well:

A Story, as it progresses, is counterbalanced by a Backstory, which informs the reader what of importance happened beforehand. Both Story and Backstory must have a pronounceable Why Now, a meaningful reason that they are being told—something must be At Stake. Regarding meaning and significance, the writer should Show Not Tell through recurring Central Metaphor rather than through dry explanation of what is being felt. Furthermore, a good story has an apt and memorable Voice and conveys a strong Sense of Place.

The rules of the classroom game — and of writing contests, writers do love their contests — agree that the full breadth of Craft, as outlined above, should be present almost before the reader finishes the first paragraph. This inevitably leads some writers to mistake classroom requirements for art. It is natural that Rules will evolve:

The class I taught was assigned a course packet and there, on the first page, were more rules: Never begin a story with a character waking up in bed. Never write a scene where a character looks at himself in a mirror. Never use the word “stuff.”

In reading the New American anthology, Sacks came away uninspired. The stories, he senses, were workshopped to death.

Without ignoring the occasional flashes of verve, the stories included are so monotonous that they seem to have been written by a single person of middling talent. All but one of them are written in the first person; a similar percentage hinge upon the narrator’s difficulties with dysfunctional or deceased members of his or her family, or with ex-lovers. The tone is always confessional and saturated with self-pity. The plot and action are always negligible: one story takes place on a road trip to a presidential birthplace, another while moving apartments, another at a wedding, another while opening presents in front of the Christmas tree. None of this much matters anyway, because the things the characters do are always mundane and largely incidental to their psychological conflicts. From time to time a structural innovation appears to offer an interesting novelty, but under the packaging the same old formula is always to be found.

File Under: Tools and Craft

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