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Thursday, May 6, 2010

The "Oeuvre Crit"

There's something that Mary Anne Mohanraj and I did a few Wiscons ago that I'd like to propose, and popularize, as a general practice. I call it the "Ouevre Crit."

Here's what we did: we sent each other pretty much our entire work to date, or at least a representative slice. In my case it was pretty much every short story I'd written (much of which became part of "The Ant King and other stories" later). In her case it was, if I'm remembering correctly, "Bodies in Motion" and at least summaries of her novels-in-progress (which, though it excluded a lot of her poetry and erotica, was, I think, most of a certain variety of her writing).

We had several months -- and possibly a whole Wiscon-to-Wiscon year -- to read these. Then we met and had a conversation that went, in my memory, from dinner until about 5am. We took turns; first Mary Anne told me about my work, then I told her about hers.

In the literary precincts where I roam, the most common kind of critiquing is on the level of the work -- commonly the short story, less commonly the novel -- and, specifically, the pre-publication work. This is Milford critiquing, Clarion critiquing. Its purpose is, generally, to inform the choices the author will make in final revisions of that story -- to make it the best story, of the kind it wants to be, that it can be, in the time remaining before (externally or internally imposed) deadline.

It's reasonably clear, in this kind of critiquing, that you don't want to spend too much time at the finest granularity of issues: "I found some typoes, I've marked them on the manuscript" is acceptable, but a long discussion of the uses of "effect" vs "affect" is probably out of place.

It's also the case -- though perhaps less often remarked upon -- that one doesn't spend a lot of time at the highest granularity either. The story has already been decided on; it has a direction. It's poor critiquing form, if common, to try to make the story what you, the critiquer, would want it to be. Sometimes -- and this is good critiquing -- you may nudge the author to move away from what they want it to be -- their conscious preconception of the story's intent -- and towards what you think the story wants to be. But in any event your critiquing needs to be constrained to the story already begun, and what will serve it.

Occasionally you might say "this is a departure from what you usually do, in a good way" or "you're often so witty, you could deploy that productively here." But those kinds of remarks -- remarks drawing on the broader context of the author's work in general -- are going to be a small percentage of time spent. In this most common kind of critiquing, comments will cluster heavily around the middle level of granularity.

In the oeuvre critique, in contrast, the mandate is different. The stories, the books, are either published, or on their way thereto, but the emphasis is not on whipping them into final form. The focus is not on the revision of an individual work. The focus is, instead, on the entirety of the author's work. What's there? What's missing?

In the oeuvre critique you might say, of an unpublished story, "by the way, I think you could cut that some at the beginning." But that's analogous to pointing out a typo, in the story critique: helpful, but ultimately beside the point.

In the oeuvre critique, instead, the point is to tell the author about themselves, their work. What are they good at, that they may not realize? What do they keep butting up against and need to tackle and learn? What errors do they seem to keep falling into, and why do you suspect this is? What are their greatest successes, that they should build on -- or move on from? What are their themes, their obessions? What is manifestly missing, its absence glaring? What do you read them for? What do you wish they'd write?

Obviously you want to be choosy who you swap oeuvre critiques with. It's a time investment, and also an invitation to presumption bordering on hubris. You want someone, ideally, who is deeply in sympathy with your work, and can think very well and intelligently about it, but who is also different than you are, as a writer -- standing somewhere different, so that they can see what is in your blind spots.

You need another person for an oeuvre critique for much the same reason as you need one for a story critique: you are too close to your own work, and to your own nature as a writer. To be critiqued is, ideally, not so much a matter of fixing errors -- it's not just bug-hunting. It is being offered a reflection of yourself -- distilled, simplified, and articulated -- which you can actually, because it is distanced and reimagined, see.

Mary Anne's oeuvre critique of me was hugely helpful: one of the things I remember her saying was, "you write a lot about parents; and they're all good parents. You should write about bad parents." This was the genesis of "The House Beyond Your Sky". A good oeuvre critiquer sees where you are afraid to go, and pushes you there.

The oeuvre critique is not something I see done very often, certainly not in any organized way -- not in the paraliteratures that I work in. Maybe in academia it gets done, in a one-way fashion, like by your MFA thesis committee? But there's something very useful, I think, about doing it two-way -- about the parity of swapping oeuvre critiques.

Have you seen, done, something like this? Do people do it in other art forms?

Well: consider it as a possibility, the next con or other writer-fest you go to. Pick a partner, someone different enough but in sympathy enough. You need to be mutual fans of each other's work. Bring everything you've got published (or at least an extremely representative sample -- yes, obviously this works better if you are still vaguely neopro, and not crazily prolific; unpublished beginners, and ancient veterans who harbor ego rooms instead of ego shelves, should each work out their own versions... and tell me about them, in the comments).

Swap manuscripts and books. Give yourselves a year to read. Think deeply about each other. Schedule a bunch of hours with each other afterwards -- perhaps at that same writer-fest, in 2011.

Let me know how it goes.

Posted by benrosen at May 6, 2010 05:06 PM | Up to blog

I found it really helpful too. It was also super-fun.

The one caution I might throw in is that you might not want to have this conversation with someone you're romantically involved with. Because a certain critical distance is helpful, I think. And it also may sting quite a bit more when someone you share a bed with is pointing out some of your writing issues.

I'm not saying I'd never do an oeuvre crit with Jed, but I'm definitely a little wary of the idea.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at May 6, 2010 07:43 PM

Some of my best moments in grad school have looked like this: "And then I think I'm going to look at XYZ in this novel--" "Yes, of course you are, that's what you always do." "It IS?" One of the nice things about a small program where you're in everyone else's classes all the time.

I once wrote six short stories, which seemed very different to me, about six different kinds of dead people. I can't remember whether I noticed it or someone else pointed it out to me, but it was both awful and great.

Posted by: Jessie at May 6, 2010 08:17 PM

I should also note that the bit Ben said about finding 'mutual fans of each others' work' is really important. Because some bits of the discussion *will* sting a little, if you're doing it right. And so it helps a lot if most of the rest of it is loaded with praise and enthusiasm.

Ben and I were quite the little mutual admiration society that night. :-)

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at May 6, 2010 08:51 PM

I love this idea so much.

Posted by: Haddayr at May 7, 2010 11:01 PM

Yes, I think the mutual-fan aspect is important. In fact I think the higher level of granularity at which the critiquing is engaged, the more interesting positive, rather than negative, comments become.

At the proofreading level, you're almost exclusively interested in errors -- typos, grammatical mistakes, etc.

At the traditional "story-critiquing" level you want a balance of positive and negative, and I think people often neglect the positive (what you should revise the story towards) out of a mistaken impression that the negative (what's not working) is more important. (Critique-ees often encourage this out of a kind of machochistic "I can take it!" sense that they must already know what's right about the story, and need to be brutally shown its flaws. This is often an error; many times authors have a much better sense of what isn't working than they do of what is and why.)

(Yes, that was "machochistic". :-P )

At the oeuvre level, it is still important to say those things that sting -- largely to point out what the author hasn't attempted, what cul-de-sacs they get stuck in, etc. But here the level of "what to work towards" is considerably more important. Approaching a brand new work in the spirit of "not making those mistakes again" can be useful, but ultimately it's limiting. A conscious articulation from outside of your own vision, strengths, and unexplored territories is probably the most useful bit.

The core of the oeuvre critique is not "why do you always do that?" but rather "I really want to see you tackle this..."

Do you agree, Mary Anne?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 8, 2010 05:52 AM

Neat ideas. The following notes are just random musing (from someone who hasn't done this and is thus talking through his hat), not trying to make any particular point:

I think that given the right combination of people, this can be really valuable--as it clearly was for both of you. But I think it might be hard to find the right combination of people.

For example, in addition to the various criteria y'all have already mentioned, I think both people also need to be willing and able to think at the system level; I think people who tend naturally toward detail-focused might be less good at this.

And I think the mutual-fan thing is essential. I tend to think of that as pretty rare, but now that I think about it, I have no reason to think that; maybe it isn't.

But I feel like there's also another piece, one that I'm having a hard time putting a finger on. Maybe I mean self-confidence, or belief in one's own writing? Belief that the two of you are somewhere in the same ballpark in terms of writing ability? I'm not sure quite what I mean here.

...I also think that one way in which this kind of approach can potentially cause problems, if the participants aren't careful, is kind of an exaggerated version of a common workshopping problem: if you like a particular critiquer and consider them insightful, you may be inclined to shift your work toward focusing on what they want, without considering whether they're really the target audience you want to focus on. In a multi-person workshop, you can balance different people's comments against each other; but if you're getting an overwhelming level of input from one person, it might be hard to decide which parts of what they're saying you don't think are valid/accurate.

But maybe the solution to that is, as you suggested, to just make sure you're doing this with someone who's sympathetic to your goals and to what you're trying to do.

...I agree with M about the dangers of this kind of thing with someone you're involved with. Though I would have expected that some of the same kinds of issues could come up with a close friend whose opinion you care about.

(Funny aside: M, you've actually suggested to me a couple of times that I should write such-and-such kinds of things, as a stretch away from the stuff I usually write. I've always found that advice valuable, and have usually taken it to heart--but I was amused when at one point you suggested that should I write less of something you had once, years earlier, told me I didn't write enough of. I don't think you were wrong in either case; was just amused.)

...The other thing I wanted to mention is that sometimes focusing on one kind of thing isn't bad. Writers often have themes they keep revisiting. There's Sturgeon's famous bit about how all his work was about love, for example; whether or not you agree with him, I don't think he saw it as a bad thing, and I don't think he sat down and said, "Wow, hey, I just realized all my stuff is about love, I ought to stretch and write about hate for a while."

Perhaps relatedly: I once asked Delany about repetition of themes and images in an author's work. He said that sometimes it's a way to be in dialog with your past self and your own earlier work. (And/or with other authors' work.)

...And then I asked him "what about those guys who bite their nails in your work?" and he said something like "sometimes repetition is a sign of desire."

...Okay, I'm drifting kind of far afield here. I feel like I'm sounding negative/critical about the approach you're talking about, which wasn't my intent; so I should say again that I do think it's neat, and I thought it was cool back when y'all did it, and you clearly both got a lot out of it.

Posted by: Jed at May 8, 2010 09:17 AM

I didn't mean to suggest that the oeuvre critiquer should always push for newness. A writer's obsessions and repetitions are, as you say, often very profitable, and doing something totally different just for the hell of it is not always productive. I meant merely suggest the level on which the analysis occurs; whether the content is "keep digging here" or "move on" is totally in the hands of the critiquer (otherwise one wouldn't need a critiquer, just a guidebook).

Note that the specific example given is a hybrid, actually. Mary Anne didn't say "you keep writing about parenthood, write about something else now." Rather, she saw that the obsession with parenthood was important and core -- and also what the next step there was.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 10, 2010 11:29 AM

As a potentially relevant note, the very night of the day you posted this I was a reader for five one-act plays. The playwright wanted to hear the things out loud, the way you do, and gathered a group of perhaps eight people to read the various parts. And invited all our comments—which we gave as a group, all disagreeing with each other about everything.

I made a few comments about things that I found interesting about them on the ouvre level; it wasn't really an appropriate venue for the kind of discussion you are talking about, but I didn't want to let the opportunity pass. I think—I think—what I said was helpful to her, or at least interesting to her. So thank you for putting that in my head.

Actually, I found myself surprised by the reluctance of the other readers to address the set of plays together, looking at how she exploited her particular strengths and interests. But then, I had read this note, and they had not.


Posted by: Vardibidian at May 10, 2010 03:42 PM
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