I’ve alluded before to the horror that is the amateur writing workshop. The kind where you pay $500 to hang out on a college campus while the kids are all on spring break, and you sit around listening to variations of the “I overcame impossible hardships” or “I swear I’m not gay, but maybe I’m just afraid” themes along with every impossibly bad Young Adult Paranormal Teen Romance manuscript that the writer swears is the next you-know-what. Essentially, you can figure out the content of the manuscripts you’ll read at a conference by checking the bestseller lists from six months before.
You’ll also have to deal with pretension masquerading as self-deprecation at levels that rival your local coffee shop’s open mic night. For whatever reason, everyone will be convinced that they are TNBT and you are some Neil Gaiman fan-boy who doesn’t comprehend your own insignificance. Only they’ll pretend that you should become best friends.
This problem, so far as I can tell, stems directly from the well-fertilized soil of the Internet. As some of us have learned, if you give everyone a voice, you have to be prepared to shift through a lot of dubstep before you find something worth listening to.
If that whole rant seems pretentious to you, I’ll bow and beg pardon. I do enjoy generalizations. On a microcosmic level, I do read every essay, poem, and manuscript with an open mind. I just read really fast and am difficult to impress.
Very few writers are worth the time it takes to read what they have written. Fewer still are good enough to consistently produce work that continues to excel. For example, I enjoy Nicholson Baker, and much of what he has written is astounding. House of Holes, though, is sneaky-bad. When you read it, you are convinced—because it is Nicholson Baker—that you are reading something brilliant. I would never have even realized that it is secretly terrible except that it happened to be a book I got stuck re-reading while driving a long stretch of I-35 and the broken experience of balancing my eyes on the road and on the text created a juxtaposition that ended with me tossing the flaccid volume in the rear of my car.
On the other hand, I’ve never read or even heard of a bad Malcolm Gladwell essay. Suffice it to say, you will probably never meet Malcolm Gladwell at a writer’s workshop. If you are lucky enough to be accepted into a prestigious literary gathering—think the IWW, for example—then you can dodge most of the crap being flung by author-monkeys in the Internet zoo. My point remains that most of the time? You can expect to get hit in the face.