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2003-07-28 11:11 AM
Bark Worse Than Bite
You know, the world of the artist is a tough place. You are judged on your work, which is close to your heart, and it's very easy to confuse criticism of your product with criticism of your self. You will always deal with this, no matter how long you're in the business or how calloused you purport you've become. There will always, ALWAYS, be people who don't like your work and who will criticize it needlessly.
You shouldn't, on the other hand, confuse constructive criticism with malice.
Last week, Gene Wolfe--if you don't know who he is run, don't walk to your nearest bookstore and pick up anything with his name on the cover--was run out of town by a group of fledgling science fiction and fantasy writers workshopping at the Odyssey Writer's Workshop. Jeanne Cavelos, a World Fantasy Award winner for her editing in the field, created this once-a-year workshop for writers about ready to enter the professional market. It's a six-week, intensive, live-in workshop that follows the Clarion format for critiques, but is notable in that Jeanne actually works with the students and teaches them. She assigned projects and assignments to help writers with their shortcomings and tries to amplify their strengths. Every week a guest lecturer comes in and speaks to the class, giving what guidance they can. For a week during the workshop, one writer comes in as a writer-in-residence and takes over the class. He/She teaches, critiques, guides, yells, screams, preaches and does whatever is necessary to improve the quality of the students work.
This year, the students at Odyssey were fortunate enough to have Gene Wolfe as their writer-in-residence.
How did the students respond to having a master in their midsts, ready to spew forth fonts of wisdom that only decades in the business of writing can provide?
They broke out thier torches and pitchforks and drove the monster from the castle.
When Victor Frankenstien ran from his creation, it was because the monster was a mirror. We humans do that sort of thing when we're frightened.
Which is unfortunate. Jeanne Cavelos has created a fine workshop, where writers can go and learn and be hurt and cry and grow and in the end, come out of it better. There's a bit of a stain on Odyssey now.
What it comes down to is this: The students felt that Mr. Wolfe's comments and critiques of their stories were unfair. They thought that he randomly heaped praise on some while tormenting others with ridicule. They thought that he had nothing valuable to give them. So they got together and wrote a letter. It said that they would not return to class until Mr. Wolfe was gone. The next day, less than six of the students in the workshop were present for the start of class. Mr. Wolfe was a gentleman and left, realizing that he had become a liability to the workshop process.
And what crimes had Mr. Wolfe commited?
He had the audacity to write, "Oh, come on!" in the margins of a couple of manuscripts. He told one student that although he liked the story, the writer wrote, "one bad sentence after another," and recommended that the author write a poem every day to help improve their prose. He told one student--a student who's novel had been accepted for publication before arriving at Odyssey--to, "Remind me to be particulary tough on you during my critique of your story, tommorow." He eased up on those with less skill and talent and drove home hard points to those with genuine ability.
In other words, he was a fabulous instructor. He didn't feel the need to get in the face of those who couldn't take it and whom it wouldn't help. He did get in the face of those who were fabulous writers who happened to be carrying some bad habits. He went after them with an unflinching honesty that artists should crave. He took the emotional risk of being the bad guy in order to help someone else and paid the price.
So, because noone else is going to say it, let me:
"Thank you, Gene."
And to you students at Odyssey?
Get down on your knees and thank whatever God you pray to that it wasn't Harlan Ellison.
He'd have slugged you. I, for one, would have applauded.
Joseph Haines, signing off from The Edge of The Abyss.
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