Odyssey: Encouraging Dishonesty in Education
July 25, 2003 6:52 PM   Subscribe

Gene Wolfe declared "unfair" by snotty brats. Wolfe, a man who has given us some of the finest fantasy novels of the past three decades, was slated to teach writing at the Odyssey workshop. He graded the manuscripts with tough comments. But the students took this personally and complained to director Jeanne Cavelos. Wolfe, being the gentleman that he is, left the workshop. Here's a sample of one student's arrogance. Now if I had the opportunity of learning from a master and he told me that my shit stank, then I'd listen. Why have workshops and educational opportunities prioritized feeding this "I'm okay, you're okay" narcissism over developing talent?
posted by ed (36 comments total)
I don't think it's fair to single out the student that you did. Is there any reason to believe that this student complained about his roasting? Honestly I've been getting some unpleasant feedback for weeks now on my dissertation. While you need to be able to accept criticism, there's nothing wrong with being a little defensive in your "live journal", whether because you're right or you just want to feel a little bit better after being savaged.
posted by Wood at 7:10 PM on July 25, 2003

Gee, welcome to workshop. If you're looking for people to tell you how wonderful your writing is, share it with your friends and family.

The thing is, once you go and try and get things published, nobody cares about your work. Writing workshops are wonderful for that reason: people care enough to read your stuff closely and give you their considered opinion. If you can't handle a writing workshop, there's no way you're going to be able to handle publication.

And damn, I've never seen a professor leave a workshop because the students felt ruffled. That's just bizarre.
posted by amery at 7:12 PM on July 25, 2003

Yeah, those students are soft. I saw a guy called out by Sir Stephen Spender in a poetry workshop in the '80s. "I'd like to see some of your prose ", he said. "I want to know - do you have problems putting simple words together? " All executed with quiet Oxonion sadism.

Spender's suit cost more than my car. I shrank into the desk, as did my colleagues, hoping to evade the gaze of the elderly bard.

He pulled that shit out over halfway into the 14 week semester. Unlike this guy, he was a complete sweetheart in the first class.
posted by crunchburger at 7:15 PM on July 25, 2003

Whatever rumor may say, the fault was entirely mine. It was my job to communicate with the students. I tried to, but I failed.

wolfe might be blamed for being arrogant and crass, but never for being openly honest.

i remember a similar incident early on in my art school years - while taking a 'human studies' class - when a professor announced to the entire class that my drawing looked like a brown turd. at the time i was embarrassed humiliated, etc... years later, i see that he was right.
posted by poopy at 7:22 PM on July 25, 2003

Funny that he didn't post his story along with the original article.
posted by MrLint at 7:22 PM on July 25, 2003

btw, i'm slightly biased because wolfe is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors
posted by poopy at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2003

I'm acquainted with the workshop/critique style used by Odyssey and the Clarion workshops, though I haven't (yet) attended any of them. I've participated in workshopping and critiquing in graduate seminars. In my opinion, anyone who cannot handle critiques shouldn't participate in a workshop that uses them. Critiques are tricky to get right, especially in a creative-writing context where egos are much larger, much more involved in the work, and much more fragile. No matter how much they try to sweeten their words, critiquers are bound to ruffle feathers. They have to; some of their students desperately need their feathers ruffled in order to get their writing on track.

The comments weren't likely any harsher than university-level grading; I can remember being quite caustic as a T.A.

I do think that calling out the LiveJournal entry was a bit unfair; I don't think there's anything arrogant or ungrateful in reacting to or writing about the experience, and the post was written soon enough after the fact that you can't expect dispassionate objectivity. I've read a lot of Clarion journals, most of whose writers are caught in an emotional maelstrom during their time at these workshops; most of these students are getting the first real, honest feedback about their writing in their lives. Cut slack.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2003

I agree with Wood, and mcwetboy: singling out the one student is unfair unless she was instrumental in booting him out of the workshop. When people get hit with harsh reviews - again, especially in creative writing, which of all art forms lies closest to the ego, good point there - when that happens they react and it sounds like she's working through it. As long as she gets to the part where she sits back and figures out where her critics may have good points, and what to do about it, she'll be in good shape. It's hard to tell without seeing the fiction, of course.
posted by furiousthought at 7:33 PM on July 25, 2003

a professor announced to the entire class that my drawing looked like a brown turd...i see that he was right.

Ah, the nick deconstructed... ;)
posted by rushmc at 7:38 PM on July 25, 2003

What Wood, mcwetboy and furiousthought said about singling out that particular student:

I'd also like to express my sincere thanks to four students: John Bowker, Kim Gillett, Natalia Lincoln, and Diana Price. They offered sympathy and support at a time when both were badly needed, and I'm deeply indebted to them.

Natalia Lincoln is the author of that LiveJournal entry. Doesn't that make you think maybe she wasn't one of the complainers, but instead one of the level-headed ones that was taking the criticism constructively?
posted by sa3z at 7:48 PM on July 25, 2003

Oh. Nice! Good sleuthing.

I always sucked at Encyclopedia Brown.
posted by furiousthought at 7:54 PM on July 25, 2003

Wolfe's approach reminds me a lot of old-school (and some current) classical music professors and conductors - the types who would pitch fits on the podium, make personnel and students cry, and have absolutely no qualms about doing either in public.

I can't say I agree with that approach, but that was the way things were done. A lot of neurotics and ego-maniacs were produced... as well as a lot of genuinely humble people who deferred their ego in the interests of self-improvement. Luckily my own musical pedigree includes professors mostly of the latter temperament. Though unwillingness to learn & practice were always grounds for public embarrassment for my generation - and that's the only time I'm a hard-ass with my students, too.

The student in question seems to have missed a golden opportunity to weasel specifics out of Wolfe. The best counter to "adverse" criticism (wtf does she mean by that? "Embarrassing" or "not specific"?) is requesting specifics - this typically proves your mettle & desire to learn to these old-school types and exposes those who are just assholes for what they really are. It's a shame the student's vows to improve seem to be based on ego rather than the need to improve her technique.

That being said, Wolfe's comment to the younger student about her "perfect" work would have probably pissed me off, too -- in my mind, he's telling this person he doesn't know where to begin and that she should just be happy to write for herself and never an audience outside her circle. But that's me as an entertainer - if I can't reach the audience, then I'm useless.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:17 PM on July 25, 2003

>>Why have workshops and educational opportunities prioritized feeding this "I'm okay, you're okay" narcissism over developing talent?<<

Because there are more people with money than people with talent. Talent mostly develops itself, while money likes to be nurtured.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Harlan Ellison, who is famous for shredding people at workshops.
posted by kewms at 8:23 PM on July 25, 2003

If these guys think Gene Wolfe was hard on them, wait until they get their first raft of reviews from book critics.

Having both given and received criticism for creative work, I think that what these workshop people are missing is the fact that part of the "job" of being a writer is being able to take criticism. Their work is going to be criticized before it gets published (by the editor who choose to buy their work or not), during the publishing process (by the editors who are assigned to make the book as "publishable" as possible) and after it's published, by the critics and the readers. If you can't handle criticism, you can continue to be a writer, you just shouldn't try to be professionally published.

The affirmative part of being a professional writer isn't being told you're a good writer in order to help you have a healthy self-image. The affirmative part of being a professional writer is selling your work.
posted by jscalzi at 8:24 PM on July 25, 2003

Hear, hear jscalzi. Being a writer means being able to take your lumps. While it certainly isn't pleasant to have someone come down on your work like a freight train from heaven, it can be one of the most useful things that happens to you as a writer.

Critics savage. The press savages. Good writing professors care, but they still savage. I don't think anyone who wants to be a writer should expect to have people eggshell around their feelings.

I'd also like to second kewms -- the biggest problem with a lot of MFA workshops (not to mention those that are more overtly pay-for-play) is that people don't feel comfortable calling a turd a turd. I was astounded at the amount of garbage -- my garbage -- that was given a pass.
posted by amery at 8:41 PM on July 25, 2003

There are an unusual number of "anonymous" criticisms of this linked student's post. Please, everyone, hands off!

Also, I agree with a number of posters in this thread: the livejournal post is not as self-indulgent as this Metafilter-post implies. In fact, I think it's quite well written, and it's nice to be able to get some free Gene Wolfe advice about writing off of it.

(Even if Gene Wolfe should be remembered more by History as one of the inventors of the Pringle than he should for being a Jack Vance ripoff.)
posted by interrobang at 9:13 PM on July 25, 2003

I'm disturbed by the vicious undertone of some of the comments posted in the linked journal. I'm bothered partly because it's her journal, where she should be allowed to vent in peace, and partly because of the apparent pleasure people are taking in bashing her (starting with you, ed). You're not a better person for having been savaged and built back up to someone else's approval. Really.

But for what it's worth, I don't particularly care what teachers, Published Authors, and/or other Self-Important People think of my writing, and I can't imagine being interested in joining a workshop. I don't suffer for my art. I don't even think of it as art. I just write.

This probably says something unflattering about me, but there you have it.
posted by swerve at 10:33 PM on July 25, 2003

I'm bothered partly because it's her journal, where she should be allowed to vent in peace

She's the one who left the comments function on. If you don't want negative comments, don't put yourself in a position of being able to accept them (which is, interestingly, very much what this whole thread is about).

Although I do agree about the anonymous comments. Part of that is a function of LiveJournal not letting you post a screenname if you're not a LiveJournal member. However, even then you can sign your name at the bottom of your comment, which is what I did. I wouldn't want her not to be able to fire back.
posted by jscalzi at 11:57 PM on July 25, 2003

However, even then you can sign your name at the bottom of your comment, which is what I did. I wouldn't want her not to be able to fire back.

I still do not understand why this person's livejournal post is being attacked, since this thread has already determined that the poster is one of the people publicly credited as being a good student by Gene Wolfe himself in the Locus link.

The post you're lambasting is not really critical of Wolfe all that much, and I don't find it to be arrogant.
posted by interrobang at 12:05 AM on July 26, 2003

I don't find it arrogant either, although I think she's probably wrong about the utility of Wolfe's criticism relative to the other workshoppers. I do wonder why she thought criticism was going to be a pleasant experience.
posted by jscalzi at 12:11 AM on July 26, 2003

I wonder why, too. I went to art school and had five hour critiques every single day. I just don't think it's unusual for people to vent on internet journals.

I did see that you included your email address and real name on your comment - to your credit - but tons of comments on her livejournal are only going to (eventually) lead her to find that she's being called "arrogant" on metafilter, and I think that's rude.
posted by interrobang at 12:22 AM on July 26, 2003

jscalzi: She's the one who left the comments function on. If you don't want negative comments, don't put yourself in a position of being able to accept them (which is, interestingly, very much what this whole thread is about).

Her choice to leave the comments function on does not make it appropriate for people to leave blistering hit-and-run replies. (I'm not referring to you; your polite response and identifying signature are duly noted.) I can't imagine what would make people so angry and downright mean as to post comments such as "Get over your damn self" and "Grow up, Natalia. [...] Shame on you."

Had Natalia posted her (interesting and relatively restrained) response to Wolfe's criticism on a message board for writers, perhaps these replies would be acceptable, however rude. But she didn't. She posted it in her journal. And anyone with a grain of common decency should know and respect the difference.

On a less serious note: "I'll never come back here to see if you learn from this. It matters not to I." (Emphasis mine.) Comedy gold!
posted by swerve at 1:13 AM on July 26, 2003

Negative criticism is hard to take. I've been to many a workshop, and the least comfortable ones are when somebody you respect tells you your work is shit. If Gene Wolf had done this to me, I'd have felt like lambasting him on my weblog too. This isn't to say that this criticism isn't useful. Most of the time it is, and I'd rather have the negative stuff than the positive stuff any day. But I'll admit, that it makes me feel bad, and for a small time after it's been given I feel angry.
posted by seanyboy at 7:30 AM on July 26, 2003

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Harlan Ellison, who is famous for shredding people at workshops.

I met him once, you know, at the San Diego ComicCon. An aspiring young comic artist had just given him a poster depicting some of his characters, and Ellison took it politely, even though he hated it and made this clear once the guy had left, handing it to me (who promptly disposed of it) while condemning its artistic virtues loudly. So that displayed some tact, sort of.

If Gene Wolf had done this to me, I'd have felt like lambasting him on my weblog too.

I guess I just don't understand this using a blog as launchpad for petty revenge notion. But people respond in all kinds of ways when confronted in workshops, and most are pretty quick to reject any and all criticism. Whether there is a correlation between that fact and the fact that most never make it as professional writers, I leave it to others to determine.
posted by rushmc at 8:02 AM on July 26, 2003

I was a bit harsh in equating Ms. Lincoln's entry with complete arrogance. To her credit, she had a sense of humor about Wolfe coming down "extra hard" with her submission.

Primarily, I was considering this statement:

"Wolfe's critique didn't give me anything the rest of the class couldn't deliver, only more tactfully. I'm going to take the advice that helps me and forget about what doesn't. And when my book gets published, last Monday's incident will only sweeten the occasion."

To my eye, this selective Death Wish approach, this inability to build from what Wolfe said, seems the attitude of someone unwilling to completely remove her ego from her own writing, a requirement towards self-improvement within a field that's fiercely competitive. That she glanced up from her laptop and said, "Well, this all confirms what I've suspected all along: that this needs serious restructuring. Thank you, this has all been helpful," is a prime sign that Wolfe wasn't the only person who failed to communicate. How can you communicate effectively to anyone who believes that they are always right, or that is inflexible to change? This could have been the beginning of a dialogue with Wolfe on how to improve her writing. Instead, Lincoln knew "all along." It had "all been helpful." It was dismissed with an ego that didn't know how to take rejection, that didn't greet the critique with a smile, a swift segue, and a constructive dialogue.

As to swerve's comment that people should lay off because it's Ms. Lincoln's journal, it is quite obvious that she is not writing for an audience of one, the way that most sensible journal-keepers do if they want to dwell on salacious thoughts and fend off criticism. Ms. Lincoln posted her thoughts publicly. She allowed comments to be posted. Some were supportive. Some were savage. That's the way life is in the blogosphere.
posted by ed at 8:12 AM on July 26, 2003

If Ms. Lincoln's account of what Wolfe said is accurate, he may have gone a little overboard (though one has to filter her account of the event through her own hurt feelings). On the other hand, the most useful critics of my writing have usually been the most deliberately tactless, and once I started teaching writing myself I learned that excessively tactful criticism is, more often than not, misinterpreted as approval. I suspect that Wolfe was, in his own way, doing Lincoln a big, big favor. Though Lincoln's post is clearly emotionally conflicted, it seems that she may suspect that as well.

My two favorite comments I've ever gotten from critics of my writing:

"Well, this part looks good, but right about here it looks like you went to sleep, and then the zombie version of you came in and finished it up. See what I mean?"

"I usually save your paper to grade last. Because I know it's one of the few that won't make me miserable."
posted by Prospero at 11:11 AM on July 26, 2003

I gave up on the workshop classes here at the UW. No one ever said anything useful, just "I like this" and perhaps "I also liked this". I begged, begged for people to rip apart the (completely awful shit) I'd written*, and at best get a few tentative jabs.

That said, if you're going to start posting links to livejournals, perhaps you should take a page from the PoE and set up guidelines to try to prevent people figuring out they'd been posted on MeFi.
posted by kavasa at 2:52 PM on July 26, 2003

rushmc: I don't see my blog as a launchpad for petty revenge in the same way as I don't see moaning about someone in the pub afterwards as the same. It's more of an instinctive conversational reaction to criticism. I don't think that it's either big or clever, but I understand it.

re: most telling statements. That's almost my most telling statement too. Writer gives a workshop, student states that the workshop has given her more of a drive to succeed. If you ask me, then Wolfe has done a good job. Unconventional maybe, but at least one of the students is going to try harder.
posted by seanyboy at 4:01 PM on July 26, 2003

Ms. Lincoln, whose LiveJournal entry was referenced by the originator of this thread, has some comments for Me-Fiers who came to visit her. Here's the link.
posted by jscalzi at 6:41 PM on July 26, 2003

I just don't GET why people are being so nasty about this. I've read Ms. Lincoln's post carefully and I cannot see how she could have derived any good from his comments no matter what her attitude.

There is a difference between constructive criticism "this part is terrible, you need to rewrite it" and just trashing someone's work "this is the worst work in the class." Gene Wolfe was being paid to provide his students with the former. He may have done so and not been fairly reported, but going on the evidence we have, it doesn't sound like it. And that announcement that he was going to "steal" Lincoln's genetically engineered pet was just totally out of line.

And the whole "that's what reviewers do" or "that's what happened to me in art school, that's the way it is" lines of argument aren't very effective. Reviewers aren't being paid to help anyone improve their work. And sure, you may have come across some asshole professor in your experience but that doesn't mean that's the way things have to be or should be.
posted by orange swan at 6:59 PM on July 26, 2003

From Lincoln's account, it sounds like Wolfe was a bad teacher. Not all good writers are good teachers. I thought that Wolfe's letter to Locus was quite gentlemanly, though.

It doesn't sound like Lincoln was the best student, either, from her post. She seems not to grok how writing workshops are supposed to work; of course, Wolfe didn't do much to teach her in this encounter.

And "genetically engineered pet," though a cute idea, is hardly so original that Wolfe would need to steal it from Lincoln. My guess is that he was making a joke that fell flat.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:21 PM on July 26, 2003

More than once, I've encountered professors and teachers who are hardest on the talented ones and easy on the no-hopers. Not where grades are concerned, but just with criticism. The reason is that the talented ones have something to gain from it. If you can show them where they're screwing up, and make it stick, you end up with a good writer, or painter, or whatever.

Whereas with the congenitally tenth-rate, it's not worth investing a lot in analyzing what's wrong because you'll be there all day and it still won't do them any good. So you just mention a few things that you thought were nice about it and move on to the next one who actually has something to gain from criticism.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:28 PM on July 26, 2003

Seeing that Ellison was involved, I did a bit of footwork. It would appear that we were all wrong about the exact nature of what went down at Odyssey. Harlan explains here (scroll down a bit) with direct info about the details from Cavelos. My post, founded upon sketchy information, was uncalled for in tone. And while I disagree with the choices that Ms. Lincoln made, my cry of "arrogance arrogance" was wrongheaded. Please lay off the hateful emails and anonymous posts to her site. I apologize to Ms. Lincoln for my styling here. I will take better care to get the facts right in any future posts I make.
posted by ed at 10:16 PM on July 26, 2003

Nick Mamatas, a spec-fic writer, has another take on this brouhaha. He blames the Freemasons.

Read it. I don't know how serious Mamatas is, but his take on this teapot tempest du jour is funny and interesting.
In Odyssey, the rituals are not intact yet, so the tribe must kill its mythic father in order to achieve social unity.
I suspect that like many people (including *cough* most of MeFi) Mamatas is leaping to conclusions based on inadequate and incomplete information, but it's still an interesting read, and interesting thoughts on the writing workshop experience in general.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 12:10 AM on July 27, 2003

What's good for cleaning fresh writerly off of my sneakers?
posted by Opus Dark at 1:47 AM on July 27, 2003

There's listing what's right. There's listing what's wrong. And then there's workshopping, which is listing what can be improved.

You'd think with all the drunks making a living in fiction, there'd be a few of them practicing the Serenity Prayer in their curricula.

F--king ponderous.
posted by basilwhite at 11:35 AM on July 28, 2003

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