Explaining Why The Author Is Dead for Face-to-Face Sessions

My sister loved this show. It
was the first thing I thought of
as an illustration for this topic.
In my previous post, I mentioned that we adopt the stance that 'the author is dead' when doing critiques in our face-to-face litcritter sessions. This practice probably runs counter to the approach some of us were taught in school -- the one where we take into consideration the author's personal history, and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the text itself.

The reasons for the approach stems from the "writers who read / readers who write" philosophy. As writers, we cannot stand over the shoulders of the authors we submit to, defending or expanding their understanding of our text as they read what we've submitted. Unless you're a well-known author (and sometimes, even if you are), your text stands alone, bereft of any help other than the editor's personal intelligence, knowledge, experiences, preferences, and agenda. Therefore, as readers we apply the same sort of rigor to the nominated texts.

Furthermore, we can't exactly tell writers: "The reason this story worked is because the author has this type of personal history and because it was written in this environment -- so go out and have a similar personal history and cultural environment."

We're after writing techniques that can deliver (more or less, based on the audience, which is a whole other blog topic) the effect that the author intended, sans author or lengthy background or even Cliff's Notes or Wikipedia research.

Are there instances where this doesn't work? Yes. One type of story where this doesn't work is one where the cultural mores of the story are so alien / different from our own experience. For example, when we try to apply our own modern sensibilities to stories set in the Victorian era, we have to enter that story keeping in mind not only that it was a different time, but also that there were different expectations and ways of doing things back then. This is actually why we tend to read more modern stories than older classics.

Are we saying that this is the only way -- the proper way -- to read texts? No. Of course not.

Are we saying that a writer should therefore assume that readers may not be privy to every little bit of knowledge we do should therefore explain everything to death? Are we espousing the reduction of in-jokes in stories, asking that writers write for the lowest common denominator, or criticizing authors who write for narrow audiences? Again, of course not.

But we are also saying that the approach is illuminating in a different way -- in a group of readers with different ages, different experiences, and different preferences -- to see how each one responds to a given text. We learn how some people who love Science Fiction react to Science Fiction stories differently from the Fantasy or Historical Romance crowd. We're exposed to the tolerances for action, love, violence, fear and justice that different readers have and file it away in our minds.

And when we write the next time, hopefully, it is with an insight into how our ideal readership (and the rest of the readership) may react to our writing techniques.

All the things you need to remember for the LitCrit Face-to-Face Sessions

LitCrit Session: Primer

LitCritter Manifesto (Draft)

We believe in several key principles that are the foundation of our approach towards writing, reading and critiquing. They are:
  1. To be a writer, you must read; critical reading of texts helps improve awareness and implementation of writing techniques.
  2. To be a writer, you must write, and write for submission to any number of markets open to your texts.
  3. Speculative Fiction is a valid and vibrant form of literature that deserves equal emphasis in the reading and writing of texts.
  4. Everyone is entitled to their own well-informed and well-expressed opinions.
  5. When a text is critiqued, it is an evaluation of the text and not an evaluation of the character or behavior of the author.
Guidelines for Critique
  1. Read each story at least twice – once for pleasure (if possible), once with a critical eye
  2. When reading the texts for critique, keep the following philosophies in mind
    1. The Author is Dead
    2. Ask yourself
      1. What is the story about?
      2. What literary techniques were used to tell the story, and did they succeed?
  3. If there are any things that you liked but don’t know why, try to articulate as best you can.
  4. If there are any things that you didn’t like but don’t know why, try to articulate as best you can.
  5. Jot down notes for the face-to-face critiques; it’s easy to get carried away with the flow of the discussion, and you might forget something important to you.
Some Guiding LitCrit Philosophies

The following list of phrases is not necessarily in order of priority, but they are important to keep in mind when reading with a critical eye, LitCrit-style:

The Author is Dead. While the author may or may not be dead in reality, when we use this phrase, it refers to the critique philosophy that the text has to stand on its own. The author’s intent, personal history, and other works do not enter into the critique (as much as possible).

Learn to Articulate. We don’t expect everyone to know official or unofficial literary terminology when performing critiques. We do expect everyone to try to articulate how they felt certain storytelling techniques were used in stories. We believe that the terminology will come easily enough once the ability to identify and evaluate techniques has been honed. And the best way to bring out that ability is by practice.

Best Practices Not Rules. There is a belief in business that argues there are no rules or guarantees for success, just best practices. These are techniques that have emerged over the years as being superior to other techniques, but are by no means the only ways to success. Almost any ‘rule’ in writing can be broken, if done spectacularly – and this has been done by many authors in the past, often establishing new literary technique in the process. If something ‘counter-intuitive’ works for some reason, say so.

Read, Write, Rinse, Repeat. We believe that by reading critically our ability to write improves. We also believe that by writing, our ability to read critically improves. As writers who read, and readers who write, we therefore hope to improve our skills in both areas. While critiquing a text, keep an eye out for techniques that you may wish to use on your own writing.

Incomplete List of LitCrit Terms and Slang

Some of the items below are actual literary terms, others are literary terms that aren’t used the traditional way, and others are just terms that we appropriated from other areas of knowledge or just plain made up:
  • Text
  • Story
  • Discourse
  • Character
  • Plot
  • Structure
  • Setting
  • Subject
  • Theme
  • Telling Detail
  • Fast Time
  • Slow Time
  • Dialogue
  • Conflict
  • Stakes
  • Tone
  • Exposition
  • Word Choice
  • Lyricism
  • Emotion
  • Genre
  • Trope
  • Mindscape
  • Authorial Intent
  • Badong
  • Surrealism
  • Minimalism
  • Does He/She Deserve It
  • Play Fair
  • Seeding
  • Flashback
  • Flashforward
  • 1st Person POV
  • 2nd Person POV
  • 3rd Person POV – Limited
  • 3rd Person POV – Omniscient
  • Decentralized Intelligence
  • Pacing
  • Resonant Thud ending
  • Ambiguous vs. Vague
  • Lacuna
Ye Olde LitCrit FAQ

What do the LitCritters do?

We are basically a bunch of Filipino writers who are trying to improve our craft by doing literary critique. This isn't anything close to the intensity of Russian Formalism or American New Criticism, though we do borrow tools from them – close reading, treating the text as separate from the author, etc.

The upshot: we read about 4 short stories a week (each ranging from as short as 1500 words to some of the rare 10,000 word monsters) and get together and critique them - saying what worked, what didn't work, finding out the literary terms for some of these techniques, making up academically blasphemous terms for some of the others, and generally mining the stories for techniques that we can use in our own writing.

How did the LitCritters get started?

We started off as a group of six people who did this in person (and we still do), helmed by Dean Alfar. The other original members were Nikki Alfar, Kate Aton-Osias, Andrew Drilon, Alex Osias, and Vincent Michael Simbulan. Then LitCritters Dumagete started in Dumagete through Ian Casocot (another Palanca-winning writer) and began stirring up things "literarily" in their corner of the Philippines.

After that, we did a series of face-to-face sessions in different locations: A Different Bookstore in Libis, A Different Bookstore in High Street, and in Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Ortigas and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Robinson’s Galleria. We went on hiatus for a while, but now we’re back.

Where did the term "LitCritter" come from?

LitCritters evolved out of a need to refer to the members of the early LitCrit group. Nikki was the one who formalized the term "LitCritters", Ian was the one who explained it, and Dean was the one who used it a lot on his blog, popularizing the original use.

Retroactively, it makes sense for it to be derived from "literary criticism" and therefore "literary critics". But, also, it could simply be less ivory-tower and simply be the truncated form of "literary creatures" or such. As a label, it strives to be more inclusive rather than exclusive, so that anyone who reads lots of short stories, discusses them, learns from them and writes them is a LitCritter.

Announcement: LitCrit Manila Sessions

Hi All,

LitCrit Session Dates (Last Saturday of each month at 2:00 PM):

Jun 25, 2011
Jul 30, 2011
Aug 27, 2011
Sep 24, 2011
Oct 29, 2011
Nov 26, 2011

Venue: Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (mostly at Robinson's Galleria)

Readings will be posted soon.