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Effective Critique: Avoiding dogma and snobbery

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Professor Doug Rice, author of Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist and A Good Cuntboy is Hard to Find, (and more) was the second reader for my graduate thesis and a remarkable teacher of the craft of writing.

One assignment from my first master’s-level creative writing course with him required us to share our favorite short story by a published author. Each day, one of us would bring in one of these stories and we would critique it; we’d workshop it like we were concurrently doing with each others’ stories, but of course we had the knowledge that these stories were published stories that were loved by at least one of our colleagues in the class and likely a multitude of other readers in the world.

When it came time to share the story I had chosen, by a little known writer published only posthumously- Mary Ladd Gavell’s “The Rotifer”– a short story that had been influential in my deciding to enter graduate school for creative writing, I became acutely aware of all of the adverbs throughout, and I got scared for my writer and scared for myself. Rice rails against adverbs, can rant about their overuse for hours, replete with flying saliva. But instead of sharp criticism, I remember him asking me: “How do these adverbs work for this author, this voice, this piece?” And he said it kindly and invited us all to explore what was working so well. I left that class not with any shame about my taste or my lack of intellect or lack of sophistication but with a better understanding of critique and audience and purpose.

This exercise created new ways of reading and responding to literature. It enabled us to see “the rules” and how and when a writer successfully strays from them; to resist dogma and snobbery when evaluating a manuscript. This, of course, has been a foundation for me in my work with Narrative Magazine and Under the Gum Tree, and with my clients.

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