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Critical Conditions 

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Writers, has someone's reaction to your work ever made you want to sink into the ground? If so, you're in good company.

Grace Paley used to submit stories to magazines "again and again, and they always came back." New England novelist Ernest Hebert remembers John Gardner returning his manuscript at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference with one comment: "No real writer would write a sentence like that." Khaled Hosseini, author of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner - and a sold-out speaker at Champlain College last year - was rejected by a literary agent who told him, "The book is good, but the public doesn't want to hear any more about Afghanistan."

These stories and more come from a small book called Toxic Feedback by Hartford resident Joni B. Cole. Cole defines toxic feedback as any response that makes writers "doubt their abilities, distrust their own voices, sabotage their stories, or just feel really, really lousy." The classic example is a comment a respected writer and teacher scrawled on one of Cole's short stories years ago: "It's all wrong." What was wrong? How could it be improved? She never found out.

The incident made Cole, now 48, want to give up writing, but she didn't. For the past 12 years, she's run writing workshops out of a spare room in the home she shares with her husband and two daughters. Two books Cole created and edited, This Day: Diaries From American Women and This Day in the Life: Diaries From Women Across America, have received raves from Publisher's Weekly and People Magazine.

In a phone interview, Cole says the idea for Toxic Feedback emerged from her workshops. Newcomers to the group are often "very accomplished people - some are brain surgeons!" she says. "The first time they share a submission, their hands are shaking, and they're terrified. A lot of us are refugees from other workshops where we had our work trashed. It struck me that this was crazy. Feedback can be a gift, rather than this thing that puts terror into us."

Toxic Feedback is a guide to making feedback work for the writer, with sections on getting and processing criticism, responding to others' work, and setting up a writing workshop that doesn't degenerate into a playground for the participants' egos. Each chapter contains a wealth of anecdotes, and many feature interviews with successful authors. (Several are Vermonters - besides Paley, Cole talked to Julia Alvarez and mystery writers Archer Mayor and Sarah Stewart Taylor.)

Judging by her title, one might expect Cole to adhere to the "affirmation only" school of criticism, in which writing workshops become all too similar to support groups. ("Your story is great. It really expresses your truth." "Yours too!")

But Toxic Feedback is actually funny and tough-minded, with insights about getting and giving feedback that can be applied to all walks of life. Cole doesn't hesitate to poke fun at writers, whom she describes as "chasms of hypersensitivity." At the same time, she doesn't believe that "simply telling writers to toughen up" is a solution. Nor is avoiding feedback, since it alone "can answer the ultimate question: Are you connecting with your readers?"

For writers, the key is to process feedback, Cole explains. "You need to be selective, so you as a writer get what you need when you need it," she says. "We don't have to submit or succumb to feedback, like Saint Sebastian succumbing to the Romans. If they say something devastating, like 'This was really boring,' we can crawl home and put on 'Oprah,' or we can ask, 'What specifically was boring?' Specificity is an antidote to the toxicity."

What about the reader's side? Are negative comments verboten, even when the writer lacks a grasp of basic storytelling or has no clue how to use a comma? "My point isn't just to promote 'All right, everybody, let's make writers feel good,'" says Cole. Still, she firmly believes that "Positive feedback is the best way to teach writing. So many of us lack the faith that if we reinforce the positive, the negative will disappear. But that's exactly what happens. It feels like magic, but it works." Positive feedback doesn't mean blanket approval, Cole adds - only specifically targeted comments can "help writers write more and write better."

Even positive feedback can be "toxic" when it comes from someone who wants to supplant the author's vision with his or her own. In the book, Cole interviews Samina Ali, a young novelist who found herself in the enviable position of being courted by a big-time Los Angeles agent before she'd even finished her manuscript. The agent wanted to turn Ali's novel about her arranged marriage into a memoir, because "nobody writes fiction anymore." Ali pointed out that "a lot of" her novel was pure fiction. No problem, the agent replied airily, since most memoirs are "not true; they're just marketed as true." Luckily, Ali found a different agent, or she might have gone the way of disgraced "memoirist" James Frey.

So, how does the writer find that special group that offers useful feedback, keeping both toxins and bull to a minimum? Cole says her group has some participants who've been coming, on and off, for the past 10 years. Each session she adds a few newcomers, because "We want to always have the experience of strangers reading our work cold," and she tries to maintain a mix of seasoned writers and novices.

For those who can't find a ready-made group, Cole suggests starting your own. "That's what I did!" she says. "I promise you will find some kindred souls."

*******

Speaking of toxic feedback . . . Bolton resident Alison Bechdel's acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home has been getting some from the residents of Marshall, Missouri. After a complaint from a local woman, the Marshall Public Library held hearings to decide whether to ban Fun Home and another work, Craig Thompson's Blankets, from its shelves. Why? Both contain sexual images and both look like "comic books" - a genre that, in some people's minds, is still synonymous with kid stuff.

Witness Bob G. Stewart, a columnist for the Marshall Democrat-News, who went so far as to link Bechdel's frank memoir about homosexuality with the recent school shooting incidents as examples of society's "moral decay." "We are reeling in the waves of outrage and disgust and shock that pour over us as we digest the news reports or investigate what passes for children's literature these days," Stewart laments before exhorting his readers to pray.

A poster on Bechdel's blog makes the point that kids' books aren't generally rife with "references to Proust and Joyce," as Fun Home is. (Nor do they receive long screeds of praise in The New York Times and Village Voice alongside works for adults.) Another blog poster wonders whether the citizens of Marshall are equally bothered by the presence of Sin City and other violent graphic novels in their library.

On October 11, the library's board of trustees voted to keep the two challenged works unavailable while it works on creating an official book selection policy. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the National Coalition Against Censorship have both issued statements in support of the books. Meanwhile, Bechdel's blog has become an active forum for Fun Home's defenders, with Marshall librarian Amy Crump and other local opponents of censorship weighing in. For updates, check out http://www.dykestowatchoutfor.com

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Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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