Nestled snugly in a discreet little corner of a popular bookstore in central Delhi, I recently attended what I'd been promised would be four hours of aspiring writers coming together to read out extracts from their work while offering critical objective feedback to each other in an engaging session. Lured in with grand ideas of "objective constructive feedback" and a writer's community, I decided to give it a shot. Worst case scenario, I argued, I'd be short about Rs 700 (the entry fee).
Upon reaching the venue, I was greeted by a small circle about seven-strong. At first I thought it was one of those Anonymous groups; you know, one of those some-"aholic" Anonymous sessions, replete with a small ring of chairs arranged around a small tea table intimately close to each other, people talking in faint murmurs, leaning in, afraid of letting a single syllable escape that cocoon, presumably sharing private woes and whatnot.
The organiser, a pleasant lady in a red kurta, introduced herself and asked me to take a seat, which I did so after shelling out Rs 700 to an attendant of hers. A short round of "hellos" followed; I suppose I'd missed out on the lengthy introductions (thank god!) and that was followed by the readings.
Turns out, I was the first name on the list, so I had to go first. Scrolling through my scribbles, I read out a random passage for about five minutes. Perhaps I'd get some helpful reviews, I thought, and perhaps some know-how on how the publishing industry worked. Not quite. What followed was a wave of fervent, almost dramatic, applauding reaction that would have been flattering if it didn't all seem to verge on excess. A similar reaction followed for most other readers; the most banal writing was often followed by a terse silence while everyone tried desperately to churn up some possible way to compliment a piece of writing that clearly had nothing going for it other than its sheer redundancy. This was not a forum for stark, objective constructive criticism.Image 2nd
But to be fair, I can understand; people in general are afraid of confrontations, afraid of giving offence, of discomfort, and so it is easy to just be pleasant and flattering, even with strangers. I myself am not entirely innocent, for I, too, when coaxed, ladled out sweet-sounding nothings. There was one person though, who did gain the reputation for being "the biggest critic" amidst the lot, and he'd commented on the lack of psychological exploration in my work, but very soon it became painfully evident that all his comments seemed to veer on various versions of that same piece of "criticism."
There was an inspiring figure amidst the lot, a middle-aged man who'd recently beaten cancer and was now amidst us totally charged as if nothing had ever happened, ready to move on and not let his past illness define him, to not play the victim. That was a refreshingly inspiring attitude. Even when he read out his piece of writing, it was on a matter that had nothing to do with his illness. It wasn't an exceptional piece of writing, but I respected his decision to not be bogged down by the past. He was just another aspiring writer. But what was not so brilliant was the rest of the group coaxing and cajoling the poor guy to write about cancer alone and write from his "heart", despite him repeatedly telling them that he just wants to move on and not play the victim. "Then write about that," they went, "write about what's real." About all I could do while this transpired was to sit there, hoping that my eyes didn't just automatically pop out from rolling all over the place.
What followed was a wave of fervent, almost dramatic, applauding reaction that would have been flattering if it didn’t all seem to verge on excess. A similar reaction followed for most other readers; the most banal writing was often followed by a terse silence while everyone tried desperately to churn up some possible way to compliment a piece of writing which clearly had nothing going for it other than its sheer redundancy.
To add to that, I think the brief discussion held about the publishing process and the way a story is written was grossly dated — despite the organiser having a background in publishing — with middle-school commentary about how a story must have "a beginning, middle and end", and how one must refrain from using ellipses and exclamations even if the writing is a piece of narrative, suggestions that have no place in modern writing.
Look, I know I'm coming down pretty hard on this circle of writers. For what it's worth, the organiser really did have the best of intentions, and I do believe some of the other members of the group benefited from the exercise and were excited about having such a forum in place.
So here's a list I've compiled, of people who I feel really would benefit from such forums (the listicle is perhaps my one takeaway from the event):
If you have no friends or family willing to read any of your works, this forum is for you.
If you have an excess of time and money and don't know what to do with it (and you're averse to charities) then this forum is for you.
If you're, like, a hundred years old and don't know how to access the net and a diverse online community of writers, then this forum is for you.
If you don't fit into any one of the aforementioned categories its likely you'd have a thousand better things to do with your time.