Tact attacked

One of the more challenging problems faced by workshops is how to deal with writers who repeatedly present bad work. The usual guideline is to be tactful. This creates a more socially relaxed atmosphere, giving writers the chance to learn in a supportive, non-elitist environment. Tactfulness and honesty need not be at odds and after all, individuals can ask for further comments either privately or to the whole group. Moreover, newcomers to the group won't be scared away by fears of being adversely criticised. The guideline also makes it easier to stamp out gratuitous insults.

However the desire not to risk hurting the writer's feelings risks devaluing the currency of criticism. Even if it doesn't, it leads to bad work receiving fewer adverse comments than good work gets. The consequent development of false self-images and self-delusion can't be healthy.

Many kinds of people join workshops and for a variety of reasons. A workshop needs to decide how many of these reasons are within its scope to satisfy. If a writer doesn't want to improve, and doesn't try, it's questionable whether they should be at a workshop. Too often quality is less important to the writer than catharsis or politics. They may just want to be noticed. This variety is reflected in the response to deprecation. The group may react against the critic, rushing to the defence of the victim, especially if the work is thought to have sensitive personal content.

Workshop critics are more likely to encounter this danger than are their academic counterparts because of the increased risk of writers identifying with their work. Nevertheless, in such cases the most direct way to improve the writing may be to improve the writer. Perhaps they should be advised to take a break for a while, or read more, or think about why they write. It's even possible that the person might be more fulfilled in another field of creativity. It's worth taking the prospective writer aside to see how they feel about the comments their work is receiving, because they might easily miss hints when they are presented through the smoke-screen of tactfulness.

Some say that one should never discourage: a writer might always improve, and artistic judgements can be wrong - look at Hopkins, people say, look at Van Gogh! But both of these men survived discouragement, and if Van Gogh hadn't been discouraged from being a pastor, he might not have progressed as an artist. Workshop tutors (professional ones in particular) should bear in mind their responsibility to the person and not just the poetry in the same way as a good sports trainer should evaluate whether athletes are in the discipline that will give them the most fulfilment, though care should be taken when heeding advice if the trainer's income is at stake. Tutors can be disturbingly close to quack doctors, taking money even when the case is inoperable. But as long as people are enjoying themselves, does it matter? I think to many dedicated writers it does, and workshops should concentrate on attracting them.

In summary, tact is not the risk-free option that it's often assumed to be. It has consequences for the group but more seriously the lesser writers get less than a fair deal. They have as much right to honesty as anyone - it's wrong to equate naivity of writing with emotional naivity. In the end, the decision whether or not to insist on tact depends on which bad (and good) writers the group wants to keep. The personality of the writers rather than their ability is likely to determine who will feel uncomfortable enough to leave. Tact will hurt the listeners with delicate artistic sensibilities (because they'll have to endure more bad work) and those with critical integrity. It will slow the progress of some beginners. It won't impress mature newcomers who come expecting an honest evaluation of their work. It will protect the mentally fragile and those who think they're better than they are.

Updated on June, 1998
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