There are two kinds of groups for writers. There are collaboration groups, where people get together to write and occasionally seek advice (see my previous post). Then there are critique groups/workshops, which … well, I’ve heard that good ones exist, but I’ve yet to find one. Here’s a little story about why I no longer attend any.
“Louise” (not her real name) was one of the members of a Wednesday night group I attended. She was a very large black woman who wanted a critique on some erotica she had written. Now, I know it’s popular to sneer at erotica, and we all know that Fifty Shades of Gray is a cruel joke created by a demented prankster god. But there is always something worse out there, always. And Louise was there to prove it to us. There is always something worse. But Louise is not the bad guy in this story. She’s the victim.
Louise’s erotica was astonishingly bad, and it was written in a very heavy urban dialect. But that’s not yet the uncomfortable part of this story. The uncomfortable part is that the group leader, a 60-something white guy named Jim (his real name), insisted on being the one to read the story aloud. Suddenly we were all listening to Jim, in his ever so careful white guy voice, trying to do urban dialect as he read Louise’s dirty story to us. That was when I knew I wasn’t going to speak that night. It was all just too weird for me to be a part of it.
I want to say that I think there is such a thing as good erotica. I’m an enthusiastic fan of sex. But there is also bad sex, and boy, did we get drenched in it that evening. It wasn’t erotic; it was just exhaustively anatomical. And we had to hear it all in the voice of Jim.
Things got even worse when the group began its critique. These people had no idea what to do with what they had just heard—but the last thing they wanted was to meet a work of erotica on its own terms. So they shunted themselves off onto sidetracks of plot and characterization, going so far as to invoke Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum that every sentence has to either develop character, or advance plot.
This was when I broke my vow of silence. I said, “Then Vonnegut could never have written erotica.” That’s right: my one and only utterance all night was in defense of this awful, unsexy sex. But I needed to. I was angry. Because this group was teaching me that there is such a thing as critical malpractice. They took cowardly refuge in irrelevancies, in a frantic effort to avoid the one question poor Louise surely wanted answered: “Is it hot?” (Correct answer: No.)
(I should add that this was not “surprise erotica.” Nobody was ambushed by it. Louise had asked permission in advance to submit it, and did so with the group’s encouragement.)
I never went back to that group, and I’ve recently disengaged from the other critique group that I was involved in. I wasn’t getting helpful critiques, and it felt dishonest to put my energy into critiquing work that is often irredeemable. But I still go to collaboration nights. Here’s a trick I figured out to make it better: As soon as I get there, I jam a pair of ear buds into my head, but I don’t actually turn on any music. This way I can hear what’s going on, and I can get into a conversation if I like the way it sounds. But I’m also free to ignore anyone who wants to tell me, for instance, how easy it is to write science fiction. Everyone wins! As long as I stay away from critiques.