The Subject Is Subjectivity

First a disclaimer:

I’m not a big fan of writing advice – of a certain type.  In fact, when I’m in that kind of pissy irritated mood that leads one to go out of one’s way to seek reasons to become more irritated, I’ll often skip around the internet from one blog to another that purports to tell writers what they MUST do and then rail – usually to myself – against the idea that there are people out there who are saying there’s ANYTHING that every writer must do.  They must write every day; I don’t.  They must use outlines; I don’t.  They must show their work to trusted readers for critiquing; I only sometimes do.  They must try to write while in a semi-conscious dreamlike state.  What?  Huh?


Of course, this puts me in an awkward position when I actually want to give writing advice.  So, the disclaimer I’m attaching here and always intend whether it’s stated or not, is that anything I say about what’s helped me along the way or for that matter torpedoed me, is said in the spirit of sharing experience and not at all as some kind of declaration of what I think all writers MUST do.

Except of course on the subject of subjectivity.

(Just kidding. . .)

(Sort of. . .)

I had been writing off and on for decades, been through endless (some feeling literally endless) workshopping experiences and had an MFA from Warren Wilson before I realized that taste in literature is subjective.  I mean, I knew it in some way – but not in any particularly helpful way.  The realization came (Short Story Writer Has Epiphany!)  at the second meeting of the first writing course I ever taught.  I was in the middle of a discussion of the Grace Paley story “Conversations With My Father,” a story I love, a story it never occurred to me anyone else wouldn’t love (a story that in my heart of hearts I believe everyone should love) and it became clear to me that not everyone in that room loved it.

“How many of you like this story?” I asked, and about two-thirds of the hands went up.

“Huh.  So, how many of you like Faulkner?”  About one third.

“How about Virginia Woolf?”  Just about half.

“Well,” I said, “I just hope you all remember this when your work is being workshopped.  If half the folks in here think you’re on the right track, you’re right with Virginia Woolf and you’re ahead of William Faulkner.”

Seem obvious?  It wasn’t to me.

A few months after that, an editor with whom I had previously worked rejected a story of mine in no uncertain terms.  She was kind about it, but there was none of that “oh, this was close” stuff.  It was an unambiguous no, and I felt pretty devastated.  I went through one of those I shouldn’t try to be a writer patches. Then, a week later, another editor called me up whispering in shaky, anxious tones that he had just read the same story and was hoping, hoping that it was still available for publication.

“Why yes, I believe it is.”

I felt a certain sense of vindication, mingled with relief, but what I eventually realized, what I think it’s so important to understand, is that neither of them was right.  Because there is no such thing as right.  The illusion of objectivity in responses to art is just that.  For better and worse, when you decide to write, you hurl yourself and your cherished work product into a world that is ruled by individual taste.  The only way in which either editor was right, is that both were right.  The story was wrong for the first journal and a good fit for the second – but not for any reason beyond their subjective responses to the piece.

Writing is not a fixed currency.

Am I saying there’s no such thing as bad writing or good writing?  I guess what I’m saying is that long, long before the question of inherent quality can be addressed, the dominance of subjective response has so trampled it that it’s barely worth asking.  And  it’s a question I particularly dislike because in the asking lies the implication that some of us are more entitled to write than others of us, because some of us are “good” and others of us are “bad.”  I would far rather err in the direction of inclusion than risk endorsing that conceit.

One more story.  In 2007 an essay of mine appeared in the book  The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume I. The anthology is published by Norton, the selection made by the editors of Creative Nonfiction Magazine. I was thrilled to have the piece included, chosen from thousands I was told – and I was also amused, because a couple of years before Creative Nonfiction Magazine had rejected the same piece.  A sad little D-list xeroxed rejection slip.  And again, that isn’t a matter of self-correction on their part.  It’s almost certainly a question of whose desk it crossed the first time, and whose desk it crossed the second time.  No one right; and no one wrong.

So why is it so difficult for so many of us to remember as we get rejections that each one is just the subjective response of an individual reader and not a judgment from on high either about the worth of that piece or about our right to write?  I suppose that a certain desire for universal approval is natural to us all.  And I don’t think it’s surprising that writers, many of whom suspect they have no business writing, hear rejection as a confirmation of their worst fears and so take it to heart.

I also think that writing workshops carry in them the danger of training us all to seek consensus.  Not every workshop falls into this trap, but many end up defining themselves in terms of “liking” or “not liking” the piece.  We all say that we’re there to get advice, but in my experience, when I ask a writer how a workshop went, she’ll almost always answer either “Great! They loved it”  or “Awful,they didn’t like it at all” and only very occasionally something along the lines of “It went well, I got some really good advice.”

Problematic too is that there just seems to be something in the dynamics of a group that pulls in the direction of agreement – and agreement argues against subjectivity.  Workshops very often seem to want to give clear advice, which in a room of a dozen people is pretty much guaranteed to promote the notion that there is some objectivity to all of this.   In truth, there are almost certainly people among the group who don’t connect to the work on the table and may well not have anything useful to say.  If I had asked the editor who rejected my story how to make it better, I can’t imagine what she could have told me.  She so disliked the premise of the thing.  Really, she could only have said what she did which was “I’d like to see something different.”  While the editors at the journal that accepted it could and did help me make improvements, because they were already on board with the essential conceit and most of the execution.  Workshops rarely make those distinctions, rarely acknowledge the role of subjective response, rarely suggest that people who thoroughly dislike a piece might want to leave some extra room for those who feel connected to it and may know best how to help.

I write this, of course, just about two weeks out from the release of my first book.

I’ve spent the last eighteen months in a bubble in which reside my editors (who love my book), my agent (who loves my book), my publicist (who loves my book), my husband (who loves my book) and so on. . . and so, as the bubble bursts, have had to remember this stuff all over again, while reviewers (who may not love my book) and readers who don’t know me from a hole in the wall (and may not love my book) have their chance to speak.  I very much doubt that I’ll manage to remember at all times that the goal here isn’t unanimous acclaim.   Criticism stings even when it doesn’t make you feel wholly invalidated.  But some years ago, in some important way, I understood and accepted that not everyone would admire my work, and realized too that I couldn’t and shouldn’t write toward that end; and, even with momentary lapses, that acceptance has helped me along.

So my advice to you. . . well, you know.

Fifty percent gets you to Virginia Woolf.

Posted in updates.


  1. Pingback: (Non-) Objectivity – an anecdote | A Morning for Dreams

  2. “If I loved you, I would tell you.” Please change to “If I loved you, I would tell you this.”

    In the rush, I left out many commas. Also I tend to write too long for what may be intended to be but a guest comment so feel free to trim it or not use it at all.

Comments are closed.