Let’s agree to be mean

I like to keep lists. On my phone, tucked somewhere between story ideas and grocery lists is a short note simply entitled, POTENTIALLY UNHEALTHY ATTITUDES ABOUT WRITING. It has several entries, some more ridiculous than others, but there is one core tenet: “If you don’t hate yourself by the end of a workshop, you’re not doing it right.”

While self-loathing is never something to advocate, my mantra is spurred by years of useless comments in regards to my writing. Throughout my time at Emerson, I have found myself frustrated by the routine lack of effective criticism in writing workshops. I, or one of my peers, will submit a story with flaws ranging from structural inconsistencies to problematic treatment of a suicide, and will only receive the fruitless comment that it is “interesting.”

While I understand the instinct to avoid confrontation in the classroom, this light-handed approach to editing ultimately hurts students in the long term. It’s high time we make more critical comments in workshop classes so they benefit students beyond their time in college.

Writing and publishing is a business, and our workshop classes tend to neglect that. Consider this: a 2014 survey showed the majority of active writers and aspiring writers make less than $1000 a year from their writing. In that same year, English language and literature was reported as the 9th most popular college major in the US. Speaking from personal experience at a literary magazine, work will often get sent to the slush pile for things as simple as lack of a cover letter. In short, the industry is tough, especially on those who stumble along with blind faith that someone will recognize the genius of their work.

Ultimately, critiques in class come down to the idea of professionalism in school. WLP, as a major, calls up images of the real world with its focus in publishing. The idea behind such a broad major is for students to simultaneously hone their craft and learn the business side of their art. In theory, we should have a leg up on the competition. But, when students can coast through workshops with shoddy writing, or get through four years without taking a single class on the practicalities of publishing, the whole major suffers.

Too often, I’ve seen practically unreadable stories pass by without major criticism. It is incredibly uncomfortable to talk about someone’s art in front of them, especially since there is the false assumption that criticism of a story is also criticism of the author, but that is the nature of being an artist. You have to develop a thick skin because the world will not be as kind to you as your fellow students are.

There is a difference between cruelty and honesty, and that line is often blurry. At what point do comments about a peer’s abhorrent grammar stop being helpful and become nagging insults? By being honest in workshop classes, we can learn where that line is, while simultaneously helping each other become better writers and editors.

I empathize with professors who are asked to assign a letter-value to student writing. So little about writing is quantifiable, and subjectivity reigns, but simply giving an A for effort is no longer good enough. Even if you don’t love a story, there are objective markers that make grading easier. If a work is riddled with typos, features a scene that is universally problematic, or was clearly written the night before, it should not be treated the same as one that has been weeks in the making. I don’t envy instructors or intend to tell them how to do their job, but giving students unrealistic expectations about the quality of their work is simply careless.

There is no better evidence for why we should be more honest in workshops than the reactions of writers to their critiques. I’ve seen screaming matches erupt. A friend of mine in another class witnessed a girl run out of the room shouting, “You’re all haters!” I’ve had writers personally attack me after making a comment, calling me things like hypercritical, unsatisfied, angry, and a bitch. If students can’t take criticism in the classroom, we can’t be expected to survive the constant string of rejections inherent to being a writer.

Though there are exceptions, like the aforementioned examples, Emerson students are ready for this change. Standing outside our classroom a few weeks ago, a classmate asked everyone: “Can we all agree to be mean?” We all laughed, but also nodded. We understand our issues with a piece of writing are not issues with the author of that work, and the sooner students learn that, the better equipped they will be for careers in writing. By lying about the quality of student work, kindness becomes cruelty. It’s time to look beyond the scope of the classroom and envision ourselves as professionals.