Since this blog is called The Literary Lab, and we claim in the sidebar that we do experiments, let's have at it today! Pull on your lab coat and glasses and show me how you critique! There are no right or wrong answers.
(1) Read the paragraph below.
(2) Tell me in the comments if - you like it or not, why it works or doesn't, and if you think it needs some revision, what would you suggest (or even more interesting, how would you rewrite it?) Some questions to ask yourself if you're stuck as to what to look for: is it too passive? too telling? is it active? do the descriptions work? what do you know of the character so far, the story, the action?
Feel free to discuss and/or argue in the comments section. If you've seen this paragraph before please don't say so in the comments. Thanks. (No, I didn't write this paragraph so feel free to shred or praise as much as you like)
(3) Come back here after 7:00 EST. I will have posted below my thoughts on our experiment - or results, so to say.
It was a large, beautiful room, rich and picturesque in the soft, dim light which the maid had turned low. She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of the garden below. All the mystery and witchery of the night seemed to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage. She was seeking herself and finding herself in just such sweet, half-darkness which met her moods. But the voices were not soothing that came to her from the darkness and the sky above and the stars. They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope. She turned back into the room and began to walk to and fro down its whole length, without stopping, without resting. She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.
Well, aside from talk of cookies and alcohol, you all stayed close on topic for the experiment. Thanks to everybody for your participation. It wouldn't have worked without you.
First of all, the paragraph came from one of my favorite novels (novella, really), The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This lovely lady here:
Taken from a wonderful site, here is a little bit about Kate:
American author Kate Chopin (1850–1904) wrote two novels and about a hundred short stories in the 1890s. Most of her fiction is set in Louisiana and most of her best-known work focuses on the lives of sensitive, intelligent women.I graduated college thinking everyone knew who Kate Chopin is. I was wrong. Not many people that I have met - even literary snobs like me, have read her. Which is a shame, but she's not up to everybody's liking. Still, I think she has left a great mark on American classical literature.
After 1969 [65 years after her death], when a biography sympathetic to The Awakening was published, along with an edition of her complete works, Kate Chopin became known throughout the world. She has attracted great attention from scholars and students, and her work has been translated into other languages, including French, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish, Korean, and Czech. She is today understood as a classic writer who speaks eloquently to contemporary concerns. The Awakening, "The Storm," "The Story of an Hour," "Désirée's Baby," and other stories appear in countless editions and are embraced by people for their sensitive, graceful, poetic depictions of women's lives.
Anyway, onward to what I thought of all your comments!
First of all, the results were pretty much what I expected. In fact, they were exactly what I expected - heated! Many of you didn't like the style shown in the paragraph (which is take from the first third of the novel, I think), and thought it was passive and too descriptive. Many of you actually loved the paragraph and the voice. Several of you saw the paragraph for what it is - a piece of writing that hints at something written quite awhile ago. 1890 to be exact.
Critics hated the novel when it was first published (it gained popularity later). Willa Cather called it "trite and sordid." I don't think, however, that any of the criticism was for the writing, but the content. Read the novel to find out what makes it so controversial!
Today's experiment has taught me several things I think we can all take home today:
(1) If a piece of writing can excite this much discussion and emotion, there's obviously something there. My friend has always told me it doesn't matter that she hates Kafka. She knows he's a great writer because she loathes him. He's ignited that much passion in her that there's something going on there.
This isn't to say that emotions are always a great way to gauge good writing, but it's a start. I think if 60+ comments had all been unanimous that the writing was awful and boring, then we might start to believe the writing really needs help.
(2) The same old same old: Writing Is Subjective. Critiquing Is Subjective. Reading Is Subjective. Oh, Everything Is Subjective. That's why, when we ask someone to look at our work, we must keep this in mind. Read Davin's excellent post yesterday about knowing your reviewer's language.
(3) Many of you thought this paragraph was a first paragraph. All I have to say about this is please please please understand that your first paragraph is no more important than any other paragraph in a book. Seriously, I've never been one to open a book in a store and read the first paragraph. I usually open up to the middle and judge from there if it sounds like something I'd like to read.
(4) Most importantly, and the one thing I've noticed lately, is that many of us seem to get sucked into RULES. Rules drive me crazy. A lot of the "fixes" that writers made here today reminded me of rules we've all learned about writing. Purple prose is bad. Adverbs are bad. Passive voice is bad. A huge long paragraph is bad. Too many adjectives, subject confusion, vague details, and on and on and on.
If it works, it works. Don't be afraid to bend rules, break them, see if they work. I really liked some of the rewrites in the comments section. Some great writing going on! Several of you changed the voice to your own, and quite well. I think that's great! I think it's wonderful that you can take a piece of writing and know your own voice well enough to rewrite something like that - and make it work.
(Not that we should be rewriting classic pieces of literature! But this was an experiment, after all.)
I guess what I want to say is when you read, critique, and write, keep an open mind. I read a great post on Scott's blog (A Writer's Blog) awhile ago about a famous violinist who went totally overlooked in a metro station in Washington D.C. "Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people." It's a great post. Go read it.
In conclusion, thank you once again for participating! I hope you learned something here today. I know I did!