People who know me and my rants know that while I love writer's groups, I loathe "workshops," specifically those squads of usually unpublished fiction writers or poets who get together to comment on each other's art. A writers' group can be a wonderfully productive, supportive, collaborative enterprise. But Workshop in the way it has come to be defined in MFA programs and the creative writing side of English majors can be unnecessarily brutal, and more often than not just plain wrong. It can help to have a successful, published author guide you in your writing. It does not help to have a wannabe who has never published a word eviscerate you in front of your peers.
Louis Menand of The New Yorker said this better than I could when he wrote the opening paragraph of his article about such matters this week: Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.
Amen, and I breathed a sigh of appreciation at his understanding when I read it: "He gets it." Menand has published some wonderful books, including with publishers I love such as Oxford and FSG, yet I can hear in his words a yelp of pain that surely he received from a remembered blow in one of these courses somewhere, sometime. Either that or I'm imagining things (that never happens).
Meanwhile, the summer book groups proceed apace. We meet, we challenge one another, we offer support and goals and accountability. But we never, ever tear into each other, not even in the name of "constructive criticism." There is a place for such things, but in private, and only from someone who has published and who is offering genuine, caring guidance.
Photo of Louis Menand from the Harvard website. He even looks like someone who would understand. A-men.