Hissy fit now

Francis Ford Coppola's online writers workshop is part literary utopia, part hair-raising free-for-all.

Published February 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"Many suffer from the incurable disease of writing, and it becomes chronic in their sick minds." So wrote the satirist Juvenal of first century Rome. But he could well have been addressing the ambitious, manic and abundant population of aspiring writers who inhabit a new but equally contentious community: the online writers workshop. I guardedly entered into one of these forums just over a year ago. Rarely, in the esteemed field of literature or the sticky tangles of the Web, will you find a more frustrating, stimulating, contrary, vociferous and hilariously volatile citizenry, as I would spend the next half a year finding out.

I had been tinkering for several months with a story about an amnesia victim. It was supposed to be the basis for a short film that I would never have the resources to make. I turned the piece into short fiction after learning of a noble-sounding Web venture operating under the auspices of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola's company, Zoetrope.

The site is meant to provide a workshop for aspiring fiction writers and to double as an online submissions venue for Zoetrope's literary review, All-Story (and its online counterpart, All-Story Extra), with the attendant possibility of a $1,000 option on film rights. Though I worried at first that participating would expose my work to the entire global population of plagiarists, it was all too appealing to pass up. I could skip the tedious technical formatting entailed in script writing, submit my short story electronically to All-Story and I'd be well on my way to becoming the next Mario Puzo. A few days in the workshop and I soon said "ciao" to all that.

Coppola's mission statement is posted in a letter on the All-Story Web site. He observes that aspiring "auteurs" are increasingly turning to screenwriting and laments that the script format is a poor relation to pure prose, as well as simply less enjoyable to read. Coppola's aim with the magazine is to celebrate and nurture literature as an aspiration in its own right. The workshop, like many small and independent presses, endeavors to create opportunities for new writers outside metropolitan areas and the mainstream publishing world.

As good as it sounds, one can't help asking if this high-minded experiment isn't the result of the impractical optimism, cavalier sense of enterprise and fervent ambition for which Coppola is famous. Those same traits are also features of Web ventures on the whole. Couple the high-profile, movie business associations of Zoetrope with the unbridled creative energies of several thousand aspiring authors vying for recognition, and you're left with an online battleground that can leave even those writers with the most formidable arsenal of adjectives limping away to express themselves through the quiet art of sculpture instead.

I joined the Zoetrope site in November 1998. To participate, writers must first critique five stories by other members. After painstakingly completing this requirement, I hit the submit button and watched my 5,000 words of nonlinear, unreliably narrated prose pop up on the screen to be absorbed by a handful of discerning fellow authors from around the world. A few days later, I logged on and peered at the little box of HTML text to read the first illuminating dissections of my work. Dec. 6, 1998, 8:54 p.m.: "I didn't get where this piece was going." Well, thank you, Lionel Trilling. Perhaps if you'd bothered to finish it ...

Horrified at the thought of my story dying in unclicked-upon obscurity, I scoured the site for kindred spirits with whom to trade reads. Books and magazines grew dusty by my bed as I logged on first thing in the morning and late at night to construct elaborate reviews in the hope that someone would throw me a reciprocal bone. It worked. Soon I was receiving insightful critiques peppered with double question marks, exclamation points and superlatives. I could finally get to sleep before 3 a.m.

It was starting -- the fiercely competitive spirit and phenomenal creative urgency of the world of the Zoetrope workshop. And it would all but consume me, if not for the saving presence of the off button and a little healthy perspective.

However much the workshop touted its democratic premise, many of the participants were clamoring for the precious attention of the All-Story editors, and the prevailing wisdom among participants was that the short stories with the highest ratings and the most reads would be more likely to get it. In addition to written reviews, readers are asked to rate elements of a story on a scale of 1 to 10 -- a flawed enough system when it comes to scoring Olympic ice skating, let alone the nuances of literature. (Sometimes I thought about posting a rare Raymond Carver or Italo Calvino story just to see whether it got more than a 2.2 for plot.)

Numerical scores and written comments were often at odds. The written reaction always seemed more positive -- but, as you gazed breathlessly at the numbers, the verbal bouquets would wilt in an instant: 6.3? 6.3!? Damn those Canadian judges!

In a forum with over 10,000 members and up to 600 stories posted at any given time, degenerative bickering and accusations of ratings fraud were the least of the Zoetrope workshop's inescapable teething troubles. More disconcerting, from a creative point of view, was that the percentage of decent writing and intelligent criticism was so tiny and so deeply buried beneath random dreck -- a drawback of the facility of electronic submission (cost-free, less effort required) and the absence of admission prerequisites and editorial filters. Think (if you can stomach it) of Epinions.com with a literary bent.

Participating in this free-for-all sometimes made me wonder whether there can be such a thing as "too democratic" when it comes to conducting a useful literary forum. One man, who had written a story set in Britain, was informed by a reviewer that she had lived in the U.K. for a few months and on this authority she could tell that he'd got the British vernacular all wrong. The author was, in fact, British himself and writing from Hertfordshire, England.

David Toussaint, a writer from New York City, was instructed that his story "Queer Window," a darkly humorous tale of a gay man struggling with sex addiction, lacked the essential insight that "all gay people are sex addicts." Similarly, Adrian Slatcher, a talented and published writer from Manchester, England, removed his graphically poetic piece on male fisting because certain readers pegged it as nothing more than a dirty and inappropriate confessional.

"They personalized it, assuming that the first-person narrator was me, and directed their comments accordingly," says Slatcher. "One person's shock had been that a 'girl' could write such a thing. I'm male! The other interesting thing was that the detail in the story, it was assumed, could only have come from firsthand knowledge, when in fact I had gleaned it from the Internet." Slatcher quickly yanked the story. "I didn't really want to be remembered as the boy who wrote the fisting story!" he says. "But hey, it got me remembered."

Indeed. At least these folks managed to pull in some readers. Most stories stay posted for a month or so and receive about five to 15 reviews, often contingent on the popularity and name recognition of established members, regardless of merit. This is one of the few attributes that the workshop shares with the real world of publishing. Another is the very real imperative to make "sales" that had many writers literally begging for reads on the site's message boards. Others would do the less blatantly self-promotional discussion board junket, slyly referring to their work in threads about technique. One can hardly blame them. The only other guarantee of a substantial response is to post a short-short with a snappy title. (New members have to make those first five critiques to join, after all.) My second story -- title: "Topless"; length: 2,300 words -- received 21 reviews in two weeks. All but two readers were men.

Aside from pleas for feedback, the discussion boards were, in their infancy, often taken over by sexual repartee and vicious flame wars that came about a comma's breadth away from sparking a lawsuit. Example: The thread titled "Pot, Whiskey, Beer or Fucking?" was an inquiry into how you unwind -- "as a writer," of course. Discussions are now censored, much to the dismay of some of the more ebullient and inflammatory participants.

"When I dared to criticize the vaunted New Yorker for an issue of young writers on the verge of a nervous breakdown," says Ray Norsworthy, a gifted megamouth whose work was selected for All-Story Extra, "the sysop accused me of ranting obscenely (I used the word 'shit' in referring to stories by David Foster Wallace and Sherman Alexie)," a slur that resulted, he says, in a remake of the discussion boards "in the image of the Reeg and Kathy Lee Show."

It's a shame because, oddly enough, the old discussions were much more skillfully written, impassioned and enlightening than most of the stories. At times, the eloquence and high rhetoric of even the most futile debates were worthy of Britain's House of Lords. But then, as E.M. Forster once wrote, "Creative writers are always greater than the causes that they represent."

Sometimes, even during the workshop's most rambunctious growing period, someone would actually post a thread about writing. I once started a discussion on pseudonyms. There was one writer who would log on under the pen name Harum Scarum. Why? I demanded. Real name Helter Skelter? Charles Manson? Squeaky Fromme?

A day or so later I logged back on to find about 131 messages. Apparently there were more pseudonym users than I'd realized. Most said it was a question of privacy or persona. But there was also speculation that some authors used multiple pen names to favorably critique their own stories and make it into the Zoetrope site's monthly Top 3 -- the site equivalent of the Pulitzer. (And I thought weirdos hung out at the library!?) Here was yet another manifestation of the frenzy caused by the sudden, fulfilling sense of a potential audience, and the perceived notoriety and validation afforded by the Web. The Top 3 titles appeared in bold at the top of the home page, which on Planet Zoetrope was like being on TV.

There was also nothing to prevent writers from gainfully misrepresenting themselves on their bio pages, either. One writer said that she lived in a trailer in the rural South and liked to write because, when she spoke, people made fun of her accent. How refreshingly honest, we all thought. This was later revealed to be a fabrication. The woman was a lawyer who resided in a proper house -- though she'd seemed a far more interesting writer in the fraudulent incarnation.

Strangely, the question of plagiarism rarely presented itself. I can only assume that people were far too enamored with their own ideas to steal anyone else's.

With one toe planted in this fertile ground from which serious emerging writers could seriously emerge, I got my hands on a print issue of All-Story, expecting to pore over an assortment of the best new fiction by the more talented of my online cohorts. In fact, only two of thousands upon thousands of the online workshop's submissions have been published by All-Story, and I have yet to learn of any workshopped stories that have been developed into film projects.

Much of All-Story is taken up by established writers such as Gabrmel Garcia Marquez and David Mamet, who clearly didn't arrive there via the same slush pile that I was in. With cover artwork by the likes of David Bowie and Anna Sui, All-Story took a disappointingly show-biz approach. The promise of an egalitarian and open online submissions policy only seemed to generate false hopes. Garcma Marquez and Mamet! Well heck, we already know they're brilliant. I felt somehow betrayed and decided not to subscribe after that.

All-Story publication aside, there are levels on which online writing workshops do live up to their promise. It's simply a case of accepting their nature and learning to navigate them. If you hang around the sites for long enough, it's evident that there's a whole wealth of unpublished, unheard-of writers with extraordinary talent (a reality that's cheering or depressing, depending on your perspective), and there's much to be gleaned from exchanges with them. Many writers, spurred by encouraging feedback, began to get published by small presses. Without the inspiration, camaraderie and sense of purpose provided by the workshop, some of these stories might never have been written.

The real problem with online writing forums is that precisely because they are the ultimate in literary democracy, with their multitude of cybermuses and no required skill levels, they are necessarily delinquent and dilute. On one hand, Zoetrope has attempted to tame its own monster by curbing the content of discussions. This measure was taken for propriety's sake by a webmaster burdened with arguments and embarrassed by complaints. But its effectiveness and appropriateness remain a significant point of contention.

This place is no private school. On the contrary, it's a very public place. There's no charge to enter and anyone can join and (until he or she misbehaves) post a story or discussion. This is at once its greatest innovation and the root of many of its ills. Some feel that in attempting to counter its problems by muting the voices of some of its offenders, Zoetrope has also consequently lost some of its more engaging, provocative and talented writers.

Mare Freed, a published writer who works for the MIT press, was barred from participation even after serving for 10 months as All-Story Extra's editorial coordinator. John Kenney, a Tokyo-based English teacher and ASE guest editor, was also shut out. "My worst fears about what would happen to Zoetrope have come true," says Kenney. "It is a sick, mean-spirited, cliquish, creepy site run by smug do-gooders and snotty, uptight mediocrities."

After a mutiny of sorts, a more egalitarian offspring workshop named Author, Author was formed. Created by Kenney, the site is succeeding, against the inexplicable wishes of a number of saboteurs, at establishing itself as a civil yet lively place to swap resources and ideas. "I wanted no inner circle, no governing body, no famous sponsors, no moderators," Kenney stipulates. "I'm hoping there will be more spontaneous projects coming from the members -- things like anthologies or collaborative works. The Internet is a new medium that hasn't been exploited by writers to its full potential. I'd like Author, Author to start pushing some of the boundaries."

Zoetrope remains as densely populated as ever, its submissions having almost doubled in the past year. I revisited the site recently after several months away. The general discussion forum is now closed, with the following sorry eulogy from webmaster Tom Edgar: "All we ever asked was that you try to remember that you are our guests, to try to keep the boards from reflecting badly on your hosts just as you might avoid urinating in the living room at a cocktail party ... I am genuinely sorry that so many of you felt it necessary to bite the proverbial hand, to take something nice that we offered you as a gift, and to piss on it." In the remaining "stories" section I found participants no longer discussing their sexual fetishes and drug habits but dutifully debating narrative structure and believable dialogue as though the teacher had just come back into the room. It was a whole lot more legitimate, but not half as much fun.

By Laura Denham

Laura Denham's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Jump Cut, Phoebe (NY), Rain Crow magazine, Foliage Short Story Quarterly and online in Savoy, ZendZine and Amarillo Bay. She lives in San Francisco.

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