Monday, March 31, 2008

the critique

For the sake of definition, let us call the happy, regular people normies. Normies expect all stories to maintain enough degrees of separation between themselves and any unpleasant event in the story so that they can maintain the pretense of being voyeurs. They also usually, whether they know it or not, expect a story to resolve in a fashion that makes them feel edified.

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification. However, I tend to be surrounded by normies when I go up for critique. When a normie reads one of my stories, they get angry and they say things like, 'why should I have to read this,' or they stare at me like I've grown another head and refuse to speak at all.

The critique of my story ended up being a discussion of killers among us who have served their time. I learned very little about what my story needed, and spent a hell of a lot of time learning about what people in the class dislike and have run into over the years. I also, for the billionth time, had to explain that the thing about fiction is that it is fiction, and not to be confused with real life. While the story had a huge autobiographical content, as well as a scene at the end which involved a near murder, because it was turned into a fiction class, I should not have had to defend my character because of a story. And I had to announce to the class that I have some truancy court, but no murders in my police record.

This happens a lot. I'm not sure whether to be happy I disturb people (reactions are good; it means you've reached people) or pissed that no one has anything to offer other than to be sullen or to look at me as if I've grown another head.

Also, I am one of the people who regularly gets the angry readers who have little, if anything, nice to say about the story. I often leave a critique with one, maybe two things I might have done right, and a whole lot of unloading of the 'I didn't want to read this.' So I often have no idea what I might have done well on, and conflicting ideas (from the people who bother to speak) of what might need change, frequently at great odds with my purpose for the story. This is very frustrating.)

For the record, I dislike existential stories about young rich kids who don't know what to do with their lives, women who the story damns for having an opinion or sexual desire, men who think of and use women like dolls, stories about kids written by people who have never even babysat and stories about the poor written by people who honestly believe that there's something romantic about it, and yet I have read nearly three years worth of them and tried, no matter how annoyed I was with the content, to give the best suggestions I know how. Often with a break so I can put the story down and curse because of the shallowness and presumption of the assumptions. But I don't do this in front of the writer. I bend over backwards to try and help.

I suppose writers and avid readers often take literature seriously and personally. I know I do, or the process of writing critiques would be easier for me. But it would be nice if people spent more effort getting over it. The point of a workshop is to get better, and I cannot do such if I cannot get sufficient feedback.

On a lighter note, I am heartened to find that the dissertation director who volunteered to take me seems to be an ideal reader for me, or nearly so. Even if he doesn't like the icky sex work stuff. I was thrilled to hear his reading of the non-fiction version of that story. I realize I am not expressing myself as well as I should, but it is a relief beyond relief that I have a reader who can go through the redemptive process with me, because I have to write out the ugly before the beautiful.

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