You Have Been Judged and Found Wanting
I love calling it the Smackdown—even if the action has more in common with psychological warfare than it does with “professional” wrestling. Don’t get me wrong: there are as many boors and bulldozers in creative writing workshops as in your garden-variety fraternity house or state legislature (redundant, I know), and that ilk is always more than happy to tell you your work sucks and that blowing up that spaceship full of babies was a dick move. But those of us better trained in the ever-so-elegant ceremonial détente of the creative writing workshop understand the importance of guiding our peers with a more delicate touch. There are more sophisticated ways of pulling the plug on content that doesn’t meet our approval. The repertoire of the acculturated includes:
- The friendly amendment: “What if instead of a dismembered cadaver, you had the character find….”
- The displaced (usually prudish) objection: “Personally, I don’t have a problem with foot fetishes, however…”
- The back-handed dismissal, coordinated with the charitable lumping in: “I usually don’t like stories like this, but it does kind of remind me of Lydia Davis and my advisor made me read her, so…”
- You mother joins the workshop: “[sigh] This part… [sigh] I’m just not sure… [sigh] Maybe I’m not your audience. [demure shrug]”
- Silence. “ ”
So, look, it’s important to add to this discussion the fact that people object to lots of different type of content—other than cultural trespass, that is. Cultural trespass might not even be in the top ten. Based on my (however limited) experience, you get in a lot more trouble with:
- Depictions of graphic violence
- Depictions of graphic sex—in particular sexual violence
- Big emotions that in any way approach the border of “sentimentality.”
- Broad comedy of any kind
- Any use of a wide range of epithets for women, regardless of context
- (In a fiction workshop), ANYTHING non-narrative or “experimental”
- The use of other languages in the general course of the narrative
I’m intentionally steering clear of the quirkiness of individual teachers or workshop members: the 80s throwback who never got over minimalism, a distinguished poet who insisted that the domestic lives of women were not a suitable subject for “real” poetry.
“Cultural trespass” doesn’t make the list in large part because most writer are so afraid to go there that cases of it are as rare as stories about spaceships full of babies. As I’ve said, most worksheets I see read like treatments for a Woody Allen film: You know, everybody is white, middle class, hetero and neurotic.
As Robin Black pointed out in the comments on Marta’s post about the smackdown, there’s something about the traditional workshop itself, it seems, that feeds a kind of groupthink mentality, and that mentality tends to produce a range of unfortunate consequences, however unintended, including a homogeneity of content and responses.
That said: partially because I partially believe it to be true and largely in the interest of continuing to stir these always stimulating waters, I’d like to posit the following theory:
The objections to the “trespasses” above are about subject matter; the objection to “cultural trespass is about: behavior.