Mannered, Conservative, and Obvious: The Problem with Critique Groups

In Salon, J. Robert Lennon argues against encouraging young writers to read contemporary literary fiction. The crux of his argument:

[M]ost contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.

I think he’s half right about contemporary literary fiction. The big names — Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel — have written great novels, and most of them are still producing good work. But all of those writers appeal to (gasp!) people outside the literary establishment. The mannered, conservative, obvious fiction to which he refers is the kind of fiction that teachers at MFA programs and other members of the literary elite trade amongst themselves — what you could call in-group fiction.

Lennon’s explanation for the mediocrity of in-group fiction is, I think, completely wrong. The problem with MFA programs isn’t that they render lousy writers borderline-competent; it’s that they 1) ensure that all literary writers with more than an infinitesimal chance of success come from the same background; 2) forge powerful cliques that support their own members at the expense of outsiders, regardless of talent; and 3) subject writers to group critiques.

I addressed 1 and 2 in the previous post.

What I want to discuss (or to be more precise, rant about) now is the critique group, which remains bafflingly popular in the literary world. Where on earth did writers get the idea that subjecting tender, young manuscripts to Lord of the Flies-style social dynamics was not only good, but mandatory? Have they ever been to middle school? Peer pressure isn’t unique to adolescence; it’s an inherent part of any social situation. Groups are designed to punish anything that threatens social harmony, which leads them to crush unconventionality and reward characteristics that feed back into whatever power structures support their existence. For instance, in the academic critique groups with which I’m more familiar, members reward the liberal use of theoretical jargon because it’s a marker of status. The more difficult literary theory becomes, the more difficult it becomes for outsiders to threaten the integrity of our profession*; we’re thus driven to encourage complexity in our peers’ work and punish simple ideas, even if they’re unique and compelling.

Furthermore, during group critiques, strident voices drown out hesitant ones, even though anything truly new is more likely to inspire hesitant rather than strident appreciation.** Originality makes us uncomfortable; it threatens what we think we know — and, potentially, the structures on which our social status depends. Our first instinct is to reject ideas that challenge us. Only later, when our defenses are down, can we come to see their value.

It shouldn’t be surprising that people with MFAs usually write mannered, conservative, obvious fiction. It should be more surprising that they sometimes don’t.

Groups can be fun, of course, and I see no problem with informal writing groups that meet to drink wine, eat cake, and untangle plotting problems. But when you subject each member of a group to routine hazing, don’t be shocked if you end up with a society that more closely resembles a fraternity than a coterie.

*Difficulty isn’t always bad; some ideas really are complex enough to merit convoluted language. In addition, difficulty provides a clear, widely accepted method by which disenfranchised members of the in-group can accrue more power. There’s a reason early feminist and critical race theorists were among the first to adopt the language of deconstruction.

**There’s a more detailed description of this dynamic in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I know everyone’s read that book already; I think everyone should read it twice.