Review: Against the Workshop

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(Originally posted on Blogger site.)

Title: Against the Workshop

Author/Editor: Anis Shivani

This book, and my subsequent reaction to it, came as a bit of a surprise. I decided to read it, thinking that the author’s approach/opinion would resonate with me. Surprisingly, it didn’t. At all. I found myself disagreeing strongly with a lot of his attitudes.

In part as a caveat and in part as a disclosure, I will state here that writing workshops have never been my thing. I understand that they work for some, and work well. Overall, I’m not against them philosophically any more than I am, say…watching sports. Lots of people really enjoy it and spend time engaging in the pastime; but it doesn’t hold a strong appeal to me. Likewise, I never really felt that my writing was aided greatly by workshops. I don’t wish to sound egotistic or full of myself — it’s not that I feel my work doesn’t need adjusting or improvement. It does. It’s simply that the kind of feedback often generated in a workshop isn’t what I consider useful for the particular way that my writing “operates.”

The one point that the author raises — and that I think is worth considering — is how the typical university writing workshop is at risk of being a…self-replicating machine. Because of how it functions, it’s very possible that it will encourage, promote, and produce writing that falls into a particular niche or model. Similarly, there is also the risk that work not of this type will be discouraged or (at worst) excluded. I think this is a very real possibility, and one to which people should pay close attention. Now, it is also good to realize this tendency can be found in many different disciplines/fields; not just in writing workshops. And I think that same responsibility of self-examination rests with those in other, respective fields, too.

Where I think the author veers off-track is when he goes beyond this simple, yet valid, critique and begins to argue for what amounts to a canonical standard of writing — characteristics that, when assembled properly, will produce Great Literature. As he rants on through several essays, Shivani just sounds incredibly pompous and arrogant, pointing to one quality or another that is tragically lacking in most writers anymore. There are some books that he cites as deserving of praising, and they’re scarce enough to keep the dream of exclusivity and hierarchy alive. I feel it’s one thing to be choosy about what artwork/creative work you consider truly exceptional; but it’s another to promote your views as a kind of gold standard that works to create an upper echelon of taste. ¬†Ultimately, that’s no less exclusionary a practice than the workshop environment that he’s criticizing.

Final Rating: 2 out of 10


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