Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Writers' Groups: Suburban Dystopias

A dystopia is a universe into which a terrible wrong has been or is about to be done ; a culture in which someone we are made (induced) to care about stands in danger of being creamed by the juggernaut of a particular culture.

The eponymous protagonist of Jane Eyre is not only about to be dumped out of the orphanage and onto the streets, where her prospects of finding a job are not bright, she is told in sympathetic candor by the head mistress of the orphanage that she has yet another hitch to overcome, her lack of beauty. She is, ugh! plain. In many ways the world into which Jane sets forth is the dystopia of class in the England of her day, particularly for women.

Guy Montag, protagonist of the iconic dystopia Fahrenheit 451, has what James Joyce referred to as agenbite of inwit, the remorse of conscience which is snowballing in effect as he pursues his assigned task of burning books. (I can't wait to see Ray Bradbury at the forthcoming Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, to discuss with him the similarity between the book burners and the "fired" U.S. Attorneys.)

Harry Bosch, Michael Connolly's loner from the LAPD, is also a protagonist who sets out in the dystopic world of Los Angeles, protected and served (to quote from their motto) by its police department.

These are a mere sprinkling of characters who must function in a dystopia. Winston Smith had his work cut out for him by his creator, George Orwell, and Eva, much more than a three-letter crossword puzzle clue when she appears in Ms. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, quickly learns she is in a dystopia. And so, as the late, lamented creator of many a dystopia would have said, it goes.

In many ways, all novels are dystopic because it is the inherent nature of story to have something wrong or about to be wrong with a given culture, and so I am not having to force too hard the shoe tree of dystopia into the tight shoe of story.

Dystopias give us pause to wonder what if, what if a social or political or scientific theory advances too far. What if They, whoever They are, come Here, wherever Here is, and gradually outnumber Us?

What about the writers of dystopia, writers whose characters must enter some highly charged atmosphere in order to pursue some dream, solve some puzzle, attempt to work at some craft in which they wish to excel? What about writers, still in the process of learning their craft, finding themselves in the dystopia of the writing group?

The single thing most in danger of being swatted in a writers' group or class is the voice of the individual writer, thanks to the committee-type approach to dealing with material and the sense many group members feel about offering critique taken from Aristotle's Poetics. To be sure, there are enormous possibilities for like-minded writers to catch some detail that might have been missed, but there is also the danger of a kind of standardization being inflicted on the individual by the group.

What to do? How to cope with the workshop situation?

First and foremost, the workshop leader must treat the members in the group the same way an editor treats or deals with authors, as one professional to another as opposed to teacher to student. Suggestions are offered, posed as possibilities, not as absolutes.

My own approach is to regard the complication or dystopia of the particular novel or story, try to put it into the most apparent context, then look for a way to suggest to the author that the complication or conflict can be enhanced. My goal is to push the author to see an even worse-case scenario that the one now present before us, a scenario dire to the point of causing the author some amount of sweat. By pushing the author to the point where the unthinkable emerges out of the story, the author has nothing to fall back on, no tricks or devices, only the artistry of understanding the multifarious range of possibilities within the human schemata.

One of the most prestigious writing programs in the U.S. tends, in my idiosyncratic opinion, to produce graduates who largely sound like one another, which, in my idiosyncratic opinion,is not an effective end result. On the other side of this coin, a writer who, in my idiosyncratic opinion, has one of the most remarkable voices, is a graduate of that school, which leads me to believe that Daniel Woodrell had such a vision of the worlds he writes about that even editorial suggestions given by his literary agent and book editors become quickly translated to the voice in which he speaks with such authority and grace.

How do we encourage writers to sound like themselves? When we deal with them, we do our best to find ways to point out to them how to make their own dystopias more dystopic--how to make the unthinkable become even more unthinkable, and to bring it to pass in a way that is so plausible as to send a shiver through Franz Kafka's ghost; then we sit around and cheer as they try to work their way out.