9 December 2008

Navel Gazers’ Club

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:02 pm

I’m glad I didn’t have to drive off into the snowstorm last night to attend my writers’ group meeting, since earlier in the day we sent rejection letters to each other.

Remember the short story I presented at the public reading sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group? Remember my subsequent email exchange with Dave, the MC for the public reading event? Well the RMFW sponsors a number of writers’ groups, and it turns out there’s one centered in Boulder where I live. Last Monday was the first meeting I attended, and I must admit I had an inkling it might also be the last. Though my wife has subjected herself to this sort of discipline before and generally found it more discouraging and irritating than helpful, I wanted to see for myself. I arrived late, having spent a quarter hour trying to zero in on the hotel where the group convenes its weekly critique sessions. Two of the regular members arrived after I did though, bringing the total attendance to six.

We went around the table introducing ourselves and describing the type of fiction we write. When it came to my turn I handled the first question well enough but found myself stumped on the second. The leader asked if I could at least give a two-sentence description of my novels. The first I characterized as the tale of a reluctant messianic figure, a leader of pilgrimages whose mentor has been asked to track him down and find out why he had dropped out of sight. It’s an adventure novel then, one member hazarded. No, I said: while the characters do eventually arrive at a destination they do tend to meander quite a bit. The second novel then: it’s about a guy trying to be a portalist, guiding people to alternate realities, but he keeps getting sidetracked by inconsequential mishaps. Does he find an alternate reality, asked one of the fantasy writers. Well, yes, but it’s not much different from this reality, and it’s never quite clear whether it’s real or in his head. Ah, magical realism, perhaps you would like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I nodded noncommittally, muttered a few half-conceived thoughts about Philip Dick and Borges, and started looking around the table for someone to rescue me. General fiction then, was the consensus. Yes, literary fiction, I asserted. Mutterings of disapproval all around: evidently that was the wrong answer too.

So now we get down to the main event: critique. One of the guys in the group, a fortyish high school English teacher, has brought with him a synopsis of his novel, which he plans to enter into some sort of competition. He hands around copies of the synopsis to all the attendees. As the leader reads it aloud everyone else is busy jotting notes in the margins of their copies. The oral reading concludes, and everyone flips back to the first page of the document, reading again silently, making more annotations. After awhile one of the members volunteers to go first. She commends a few turns of phrase and structural decisions made by the writer before leveling her main criticism: we don’t learn enough about the motivations driving the story. Cut out some of the back story and embed the plot details inside a more thematic context. I generally agreed: the synopsis was very heavy on plot details, and I found myself rereading again and again trying to keep the story straight. A more general overview would help frame the details. On to the next member: she wanted to know more about the main characters, mostly so that the reader would care about what happens to them in the story. I agreed with that too. She asked if there was a romantic interest in the story: was it the noble warrior-diplomat and the kidnapped princess, or the shadow warrior and the princess’ sister? Discussion revolved around how these romances were handled in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, the intent clearly being to make this new book follow those successful precedents as closely as possible. Jungian archetypes entered the conversation. I said I thought the romance might be between the noble and the shadow warrior. No one found this remark either amusing or helpful. When it got to be my turn I said that I thought the whole synopsis ought to be longer: keep the detailed plot info, but add theme and character stuff as well. This proved to be the consensus recommendation to the writer. I felt a bit more comfortable, though I’m quite certain I wouldn’t want to read the book we’ve been discussing.

The next writer up for critique handed out 8 pages from near the end of a romance novel she’s writing. It turns out I know this woman: her daughter and mine used to attend the same primary school. At the time I’d regarded this woman as kind of a pain in the ass know-it-all. No matter: now we’re in a different context, I can overlook these things. The guy who wrote the synopsis is chosen to read this bit aloud, and he does a crackerjack job of it, even using a passable Irish accent for the dialogue. The story takes place in Dublin in the early 1800s, and it deals with the foibles and romances of a young country girl who was raped by her father and is trying to make a life for herself in the big dirty city. In the excerpt we’re considering, the girl and one of the big affable young Irishmen who are protecting her from some previously-described threat are being lured into a trap. Critique centers on a few details in the narrative: a motivational incongruity, an odd POV shift, improbable positioning of the entrapped characters. That all sounded fine to me, though again I had a sense that I would find it a chore to read through this book in such detail for week after week. As the discussion continued I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into my chair, bored and anxious. My own motivation was waning; my POV was starting to recede; I longed to fast-forward to the scene where I’m driving home.

* * *

The next day I received a brief and cordial email from the leader of the group welcoming me to come back the next week. I read about the audition process, whereby prospective new members who would like the group to read and critique their fiction must submit two short samples of their work for consideration. The email concluded: “we are for people wanting to write and sell commercial fiction.” Based on my experience in the group I interpreted this as meaning “not literary fiction,” and probably also “not the kind of fiction you write.” So I let it rest, figuring I would either return or not the following week as the mood struck, but not feeling particularly hopeful about the possible value I might derive from participating long-term in this process.

A week passed and, as Monday rolled around again, I began to feel like I ought to do something proactive about the writers’ group. So I finally responded to the group leader’s email, thanking her for the note, saying I found the group interesting, etc. I mentioned that I was thinking about writing a set of interconnected short stories and would regard the group as an external stimulus to getting the stories written. I speculated about whether I might stand on the other side of the commercial/literary divide:

“I would like people to read what I write, and I would be happy if they paid me for doing me that honor. However, I don’t try to craft what I write in order that an audience will like it. My hope is that I can write what I see and hope that people will find themselves liking it. Also, if I came to realize that my writing conformed to some convention of a genre I would probably go out of my way to change what I’d written. I’m concerned that my orientation might put me at odds with the rest of the group, in terms both of what I offer in critique and in what I might receive. I understand that the group isn’t a debating forum and that each writer finally decides what recommendations s/he will adopt. But you get my point I’m sure.”

To this email I attached a copy of the story I’d written for the RMFW-organized public reading event, mentioning that Dave the MC had announced after my reading, perhaps jokingly, that my story was “too deep” for him. I understood that I wasn’t presenting a formal audition, but I wondered if, by giving it a quick once-over, she could picture herself and the rest of the group offering useful critique for my kind of writing. She responded within an hour or so:

“We are a commercial fiction group and we are crafting specifically to be marketable. That is the goal for our group but there are other groups around that don’t have that as criteria. You may fit better elsewhere. And, by the way, successful writers know they have to go “out of their way” to “Change” what they’ve written, thus the critique group. It sounds like our purpose is not yours. I do get your point. I suspect you wouldn’t be there for the same reasons we are there – to make our work fit commercial needs…

“I’m pretty sure you are needing a different type of group. Especially in light of the idea that the work was “too deep” for the MC. If that means what I suspect, you are writing literary. Our group might even find it belly-button studying… all I was able to do was take a peek at the first couple of pages. This would not be the type of material we are looking at. It doesn’t get right to the action (which doesn’t have to mean physical action), it is what we call “belly button studying” …nothing wrong with that…it just doesn’t work for us.

“If at some point you find yourself writing commercial fiction (and having read many books on how to do that, gone to conferences, etc.) feel free to approach us again.”

So at least now I know what I’m looking for: a navel-gazers’ group. And I don’t have to subject myself to any more of that pulpy trash those people call “writing” — not that there’s anything wrong with pulpy trash…



  1. Well, I was right. You needed to find out what they were made of, on the other hand that should have been clearer before they spread out the tawdry programme.

    There’s plenty wrong with pulpy trash, and now that you know they are this extreme kind of truckload of assholes, I don’t know what kind of neighborhood peacenik you would care to be by not writing individualized Holiday Greetings to each one whom you know by name (look up the address or send it to the Kollektive) and tell them that they are indeed like the Glorious Mr. Kinkaid the Dear Leader of Shit Painting, and that you thought that in their rejection of you you owed them at least to make your rejection and total abhorrence of them official. That they are bottom feeders and cannot write. That they want to write for ‘Life on Mars’ and a myriad of loathsome garbage projects. That you hadn’t even picked that up in the first few exchanges, and just what the fuck WERE they trying to sell, if they couldn’t even be specific about their product? Ask them if you are totally wrong to think of them as White Trash. God, this is the most depressing kind of thing, but I just didn’t get that impression from what you previously wrote. They are godawful, godawful, and I have been known to lose jobs and write letters of disapproval or phone-terrorist calls of hate when people have offered me this sort of vilenesss.

    You might want to ask them why they are so inefficient as to be unwilling to go the distance and write cellphone novels like Japanese teen bitches. There are any number of literary epistolary configurations you can write these contemporary NIGHTMARES. Because they are pure Sales Seminar Type, with the constant smile and the desire to find perfection in expressing nothing at all.

    Oh my Fucking God, this is as bad as Zizek…tell them to see if the Bodhi Tree in LA wants to put some of their feces in with their incense-drenched positive-attitude New Age filth. I would never have dreamed from what you wrote before that it could be this bad. But I know what that kind of bad can be–you just didn’t quite get that across. The one interesting thing might be to figure out why you weren’t sure they were this particular kind of nobody, because that’s what they all are.

    And they deserve to be punished!


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 9 December 2008 @ 6:39 pm

  2. We here in the Ktismatics home office were well impressed by your writing sample, Ms. Camembert, and found it highly excellent. We are therefore pleased to extend to you this formal Letter of Rejection from the RMFW.

    I did respond promptly to the group leader’s communique, telling her that she had confirmed my instinct about the group. I assured her that, while I do find critique helpful, I wouldn’t value the commercial criteria fueling her group’s interventions.

    I’m sort of satisfied to have played this game out to the logical end, but also appalled that so many people would put this much work into generating this sort of product. It’s one thing to enjoy straight genre fiction and to try adding incrementally to the pile, but consciously adapting one’s writing to perceived commercial demands for product uniformity and predictability without even getting paid in advance for the effort? I don’t get it. That so many people apparently want to read this sort of thing astounds me. I just find most of it too boring to make my way through, even when it practically reads itself. I’m stunned by the self-satisfied scorn being heaped on the higher aspirations, as if nothing could be more ridiculous than to write what one wants to write with as much mastery as one can summon. Well, now I know what this sort of thing is like, having never encountered it before among people who actually regard themselves as writers.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 December 2008 @ 9:44 pm

  3. Well, what I still don’t understand is why it wasn’t clear that they were this crass to begin with. I know you intuited some of it, but it didn’t seem fully putrescent until the final emails. I’ve been aware of this kind of writing ‘workshop’ shit for a good while, but that hadn’t sounded quite like what this going to be. The emphases, as per you wont, was that you didn’t want to talk about promotions and ‘getting work out there’ at all; so that concealed the true dead nature of the project. It is far worse than boring, it is extremely depressing to be around this kind of person. But they do it without pay only because there is a skill involved in doing it, but the only goal IS pay. They do know that this kind of thing is so common (in every sense of the work) that they have huge amounts of competition. So, for awhile, they work on it in a kind of ‘classroom’. Then, after that, if they are making some bucks quick, they’ll give all writing up in no time, and get a job at Rite-Aid or the nursing home, I don’t know..


    Comment by Ms. de camembert — 10 December 2008 @ 9:41 am

  4. ‘if they aren’t making bucks in no time, they’ll give all writing up’ is what I meant. This kind of person is so common it is one reason why class consciousness must always be retained until further notice. Otherwise, THIS is what the Arpegians should see as the true populism–people of consummate mediocrity to the very shallowness of their souls.


    Comment by Ms. de camembert — 10 December 2008 @ 9:44 am

  5. I emailed the head of the RMFW telling him of my experience with one of the organization’s critique groups, including the “belly button studying” jibe. I said that I’d mentioned this remark to several writers, all of whom found it offensive. In his reply he said that “RMFW’s roots are unapologetically in commercial (meaning genre) fiction–mystery, romance, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc. However, there are some people (and I count myself as one) who write things that are more mainstream/literary.” He then invited me to his critique group, an invitation for which I thanked him but which I declined.

    Two things, which I’m not going to bother reiterating to this guy. First, “unapologetic” is one thing, but for the leaders of his organization to demean literary fiction is quite another. Second, he insists on equating “commercial” with “genre,” which I think just perpetuates the confusion. I emailed the URL for this blog to Dave the MC and he has decided that I’m truculent, especially after reading about my encounter at the grocery store. I told Dave that if he wants to see truculent he should read the comment box to this post. I think Dave is basically a good sport about it though.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 December 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  6. “I think Dave is basically a good sport about it though.”

    I am so glad to hear it, given that he has no choice. He must continue to flash bleached teeth (or if doesn’t have them, he needs to get them), and continue to be unapologetic about his namby-pamby “However, there are some people (and I count myself as one) who write things that are more mainstream/literary.” That is a true howler! Oh, sweet Jesus, I bet he even knows exactly what percentage of time he gives to each genre of genre (because, as we see, mainstream/literary is now just one of many categories, even less than equal, of course, but never mind that; it’s a little like the quaint and alarming use of the term ‘human rights’ separated off from everything else that I first observed becoming a part of MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour and Bill Clinton lexicons in the 90s.

    How dare you be truculent, of course. That might mean your telemarketing call was overheard by the supervisor, you failed to sell, indulged in too much interpersonal back-and-forth (for which there is simply NO company time) and will be released early today–just business, of course, and ‘it’s not your FAULT’ (necessarily), it might be just ‘the selection.’

    It is wonderful to find Telemarketing Minds who want to write Television Sitcoms.


    Comment by South'n — 10 December 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  7. I bet his literary fiction contains NO navel-gazing, whatcha bet? Doggone it, I bet Ms. Palin would even leave it on her library shelf, plus no homosexuality, which could only empleasure the good woman even more.


    Comment by South'n — 10 December 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  8. And to think I struggled so hard to cut my story down to 2,000 words, the most I could read aloud in 10 minutes’ time. Even the goddamn word count was part of the self-referential artistry of that story, which meant cutting way back on the navel-gazing. I don’t think it would have crossed my mind to categorize the story as “literary fiction,” or as any other kind of fiction for that matter other than “short fiction.”

    My biggest disappointment with No Country for Old Men the novel, which I think is McCarthy’s worst, is that it eliminates nearly all of his navel-gazing, which is always superb and florid and particularly jarring when embedded in and wrapped around a cowboy story. That’s why the book made a good Hollywood movie: it gets straight to the point. “Hi, my name is Cormac McCarthy, and I write Western genre fiction.” “Nice to meet you Cormac. Say, is that a pen name?”


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 December 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  9. Lovely blog. I’m quite enjoying everyone’s two cents. Yes, I’m the MC of the Open Mic. The next one will be at Flatirons Mall in the Borders on Thursday January 15th at 7PM. I would love to carry on the banter with everyone in person after the show, over some coffee.

    Generally, RMFW does shamelessly push writers to get their manuscripts published for money. Seemed like a good idea — writing for a living. What was that guy’s name again…he’s a professor…oh it escapes me…wrote the DaVinci Code…oh yeah, he wrote to formula and made a couple of dollars as I understand it. Somebody else…JK something…follows all those cliche archetypes.

    …the crowd roars with laughter

    However, speaking for myself, I have several pieces that I absolutely savored when writing that will more than likely never see light of day. And I certainly hope all writers give themselves that freedom.

    To Dr. Doyle, you’re clearly a tough guy, but I sincerely hope that RMFW didn’t discourage you from writing for amusement or publication. That’s not our goal. I beleive I can honestly say that the members of RMFW really don’t know how to go about fostering literary endeavors. That’s probably best left to the universities.

    But either way, I like to have fun. Hope to see you on the 15th. And check out my comedy website for a laugh until then. Bad Hair Day. http://www.bhdcomedy.blogspot.com


    Comment by Dave — 10 December 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  10. Thanks for the compliment Dave. I don’t think more than 1 or 2 of the readers live within a hundred miles of Denver, though, so this announcement probably won’t discernibly boost attendance at the next Open Mic. And no, I wasn’t discouraged about writing by attending the group — I was discouraged about the group itself.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 December 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  11. “What was that guy’s name again…he’s a professor…oh it escapes me…wrote the DaVinci Code…oh yeah, he wrote to formula and made a couple of dollars as I understand it. Somebody else…JK something…follows all those cliche archetypes.”

    I’m so glad you brought this up, because I had been vaguely envious of them until you did. I’ll be as polite as possible and say that robot-writing deserves at least as little respect as navel-gazing writing.

    But I’m only being polite REALLY because the lovely Richard homosexual has returned to Dejan’s, and that means civilization is intact, even when telemarketing writing as a compromise between Don Delillo and Japanese cellphone novels does have a kind of rude symmetry.


    Comment by South'n — 10 December 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  12. Admirable restraint, South’n. This is the second time you’ve referenced cellphone novels, which is a genre I’ve never heard of. From google I get this NYTimes exposé.

    Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature. Whatever their literary talents, cellphone novelists are racking up the kind of sales that most more experienced, traditional novelists can only dream of.

    Dave, maybe you could inject new life into some of your stuff by rewriting it as a fake cellphone novel. You could emulate cellphone diction and sentence structure, come up with a new nom de plume, something like Yakiza or Su, get some young girl to pose for publicity photos… I think this premise would make a good short story. The climax comes when Su has to go on the book tour and do public readings.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 December 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  13. Or there could be a story of a cellphone novelist’s life, much of which would be placed in MySpace and Facebook.

    I had been thinking that the term ‘artist’ is now very freely used and debauched in a way it wasn’t before about 2000. I noticed all sorts of people who had no knowledge of art begin to start referring to themselves as artists or saying things like ‘at some point I want to be an artist.’ A couple of these were fairly well-read, but the term ‘artist’ had definitely been turned into a smaller-than-life sort of thing.

    Now, I’ve told you about me roommate who has the same last name as your novel, almost. He gets print modelling jobs and had a substantial small part recently in ‘Life on Mars.’ He saw Jack’s enormous framed painting of Garbo on my wall, and asked who she was. He had heard of Audrey Hepburn, I believe. I don’t expect him to know anything about ‘other arts’ necessarily. Nor does he watch any television that does have to do with shaping himself for auditions for commercial work. He started out in one of the big communications firm and made a good bit of money, and sometimes uses the phrase ‘when I became an artist’. Once, when I offered him some rich Thanksgiving fare, he said he usually didn’t like rich food, but ‘since I’ve become an artist, I do find I like it more.’ Point being, he went straight from a Nasdaq firm into something that now ‘resembles’ art, nevermind on its most rudimentary levels. But it is not even the sensibility of the actor who would have gone on the Sopranos or most television. Although he is good at some of these things, he is totally involved in making of himself a commodity, which he learned with the Extreme Teamwork he learned at the big firm, which included Monday Morning Pep Talks for Sales. There was no possibility that you did not do the sales, because if you failed to do them perfectly, you were fucked. But since you never know if you were going to do the sales, you give your whole being over to the sales. After having left it, it is still there and that is your culture. He brought this culture into television and print modelling and recently an Improv group in a live theater, and calls that ‘being an artist.’ The term has the same kind of degraded meaning that Benjamin found in the word ‘aura’ in ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ People use it all the time. Roger thinks Britney Spears is an artist. Of course, plenty of people mistakenly do, but he ought to quit using Britney for attention-getting, that’s just klutzy.


    Comment by South'n — 10 December 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  14. ny television that does have to do with shaping himself for auditions for commercial work.

    should of course be that he doesn’t watch any television unless it’s something he’s planning to try to break into the market of. He vocalizes and has no resonance at all, flatness that isn’t ugly exactly, just non-existent. He has no experience of actual sensation of any kind as far as I can tell. He is very pleasant and moderately intelligent. An excellent roommate, almost totally involved in ‘getting along with people’, which makes it easy for me, since I can get along with that kind of person especially when they’re pure work-slaves. This is the kind of thing that exists at the big Google headquarters up the street, where they ‘cook the employees’ so that they stay in the building and ‘live Google culture’. This is all about the homogenization process. Of course, when Google fires them even when they are proficient, as in the NYT article I linked, they ‘look only at the positives in the situation’. This kind of brainwashing is the real thing, there never needed to be that sinister-sounding thing or even as dramatic as it was done in the USSR, quite theatrical by comparison with this mice-oriented kind of thing.


    Comment by South'n — 10 December 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  15. I forgot about the very first bit of critique offered at the writers’ group: the line spacing on the first guy’s synopsis. It must be double-spaced; they take points away if it’s not. But it is double-spaced, the writer insisted. No it’s not. Back and forth about the spacing. I said, you would have won the contest sir, if it hadn’t been for the spacing. When no one found this remark the slightest but amusing I knew I was probably in for a long night.

    Amid the pearls in Jonquille’s/South’n’s truculent observations I’m struck in particular by this one: “the desire to find perfection in expressing nothing at all.” This is the end of history for writing, isn’t it? I’d also like to point out the generally excellent quality of prose evidenced in this thread: clear motivations, pithy observations sharply rendered, plenty of high-quality navel-gazing…


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 December 2008 @ 8:29 am

  16. Blog commenting, after all, is a genre all its little ownsome.


    Comment by samlcarr — 11 December 2008 @ 11:20 am

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