Thursday, April 26, 2012

Risky Business

In the past several days, you’ve had reason to tell two writers things no writer ever wants to hear.  The first case involved an individual who’d published four books.  The second was a student’s master of fine arts thesis.

Each work was unrelenting in its dreadfulness, leaving you to remember a discovery at least fifteen years ago, in which you realized how difficult you found writing a negative review.  You can think of three or four—no more than four—graduate theses you rejected, accompanied with suggestions for revisions.

As an editor for several publishing platforms, you were with some frequency put in positions where you had to outright decline or recommend declining the opportunity to publish a particular work, which, arguably, no writer wants to hear, either, but which is an integral part of the publication process.  Even with the submission/rejection activity being a part of the publication convention, any number of writers have called you names, notably a moral coward, judgmentally impaired, lacking in literary taste, and fearful of taking chances with experimental work.

Being called those names has led you to a number of responses of your own, including the gambit of putting the situation out of your mind as quickly as possible, replying with funny ripostes, and reminding the caller of a more civil paradigm for individuals engaged in publishing professions.

The thing you believe no writer wants to hear is that the work in question is significant in having achieved such a weighty degree of awfulness.  You have no wish to hear such sentiments expressed about your own work and in fact write with the hope of hearing quite the opposite sentiments.  With this in mind, you look for ways to suggest a more measured approach.

Trouble is, writers do not wish to hear measured approaches, making you all the more respect authors who have engaged the editorial dialogue, listened, and recognized the process is not at the same level as county fair prizes for pies and cakes, which may be enjoyed by six or eight persons; rather they are for stories and novels, intended for a larger, broader readership with no tangible use-by date in mind.

Trouble is, any writers who do not hear tangible admiration of high order being directed at their work will reflexively assume their work is being considered as significant in its burden of awfulness.

In writing classes and workshops, the writer who hears, as though it were a mischievous puppy escaping its yard how well-written is the material the writer has only now finished reading will want almost reflexively to know what the hearer really thought of the material because the writer is trained to believe that if the first comment has to do with how well written the material is, then the speaker is about to deliver the bad news, drop the other shoe, apply the coup d’grace, that the story is awful, the characters do not seem real, the dialogue is too chatty, the scenes go on too long or are repetitious, and other such symptoms.

You’re not fond of telling a writer how awful the work is, even though you may sincerely believe it to be so; this is not from any wish to be sparing of feelings or from fear of reactions as much as it is your belief that such commentary, given in such a direct manner, is not helpful except to reinforce the writer’s resistance to listen to editorial suggestion in the future.  There is yet enough of the editor and teacher within the writer who is you for you to hope the target gets the message.

In the two recent misadventures you write of here, the novelist is incapable of listening to editorial suggestion to the point where he wondered openly why you would want him to subject his work to an editor when he, himself, had already edited the work.

The thesis candidate was at this stage of transaction not even faintly defensive, which is a good sign for the candidate, her work, and her future as a writer.

Matters are a bit more complicated with the novelist, who pressed you to write a review of his, who was overjoyed with it until the penultimate and final paragraphs, then wondered in so many words how you could do such a thing to him as you did with those paragraphs, considering all the things he had done for you and the writing community.

Here, the complications grow hazy with point-of-view implication.  So far as you can recall, he has over the years you’ve known him, bought you five or six slices of pepperoni pizza.  In more recent years, he has purchased the writers’ conference wherein you have been a workshop leader since 1980, a fact that may well justify his claim to have done things for the writing community.  You cannot tell; you do not have access to his point of view, a fact that underlies all fiction.

What, after all, is story but a clash of characters, each with an overwhelming belief he or she is right?

The MFA candidate can do well to consider your notes, revise the thesis, and grow confident in the awareness that her talent is not at issue here, rather the setting of it on the page is a risky venture that is meant to be risky for all who approach writing.

He and she and you, who set words down on the notepad, the computer screen, or the printed page, run vulnerable.
Two hundred-fifty words of text to the page.

Two hundred-fifty opportunities for risk to come forth.


Unknown said...

I never laughed so much in the face of rejection-probably because it wasn't my piece.
Too bad the novelist didn't listen. He/she probably won't be in your next workshop and I'm sure you can do without another greasy piece of pepperoni.

Storm Dweller said...

I would happily receive a critically written rejection from you. At least then I would know a very competent person has poked every hole possible in a story struggling to stay afloat. All ships are unsinkable until they sink, and all mountain unclimable until someone climbs them. Sink my ship, so that I may learn to build a better vessel. I dare you.

Anonymous said...

For all of your intellectual candor and jocular commentary, there is a pathetic veneer of self-congratulatory satisfaction in being neither the established novelist nor the inchoate student. As all might mentor to true believers or redactor for unnamed authors, it appears you have found your true niche: entrepreneur in which your message has indeed hit the target, $$$$.