Double Standards in Writing Circles

Remember the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?  Sometimes I think that’s what’s going on in academic, literary and writing circles. I’ve seen it at readings. The poet intones and everyone nods. Afterwards, at the reception, people talk about how brilliant so-and-so’s volume is. But if you pull one of them out of the room and down the hall and say, “Yes, but I have no idea what most of it means. Tell me,” they will sometimes admit that they, too, have no idea. Occasionally, if you are standing too close to the punch bowl where others can overhear, your companion will answer you incomprehensibly, using academic code words to say something quite ordinary, like, “utilizing first person plural invokes the contemporary zeitgeist,” an idea, which, if you used regular words, would be  “no, duh” moment.

            I am not suggesting that poetry should be more accessible. The difficulty demands a reader’s engagement. And we are more willing to work hard for a poet that has been anointed. It is often the case that you can’t really understand the poem or a story until you read the whole collection. Then you begin to understand the way a writer is defining certain words, or what they are using certain images to signify. Take Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”


Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


            At first blush, it’s pretty incomprehensible. But if you read a lot of his poetry,  you come to see that white represents the void – the incomprehensible abyss  that forms the backdrop of our existence. Ice-cream is white. So he conjures all these fleshy, bawdy, physical images, and then says – but, remember, all comes to nothing. When he says, “let be be finale of seem, “ he’s saying, try to see what is actually here.  See life as it actually is. Perhaps, if we understand that we will become nothing, we will love life more.  In the second stanza, he tells a tiny story of a woman who is dead, but she lived an ordinary life, much like ours, with missing dresser knobs and hobbies. She created beauty, but now she is dead. See how her feet are just objects of death. The whole poem is a kind of joyous/despairing tap dance on the head of a tombstone. 

            I’m building to two points here. One: if we pretend to understand when we don’t, we are missing an opportunity to collectively share in one of the chief joys of art: figuring it out together. Two: we writers/artists are sometimes are victims and perpetrators of double standards. When a writer has been given the nod by a press or a magazine we admire, baptized into publication, become one of the anointed, we all stand back in admiration. We take the time to study their work until we get it or we find their incomprehensibility acceptable. But in a workshop, when a colleague submits a story we don’t understand, we tear it apart. We tell the writer they have an obligation to explain themselves more.  The anointed are allowed to be incomprehensible, but the un-anointed are not. The anointed deserve our attention to decipher them, but the un-anointed do not.  Perhaps it’s a failure of courage or respect.  We don’t want to put time into someone who isn’t worth it and we can’t tell whether they are worth it or not, because no one has given them the nod.

            I wish in workshops, instead of asking themselves “Did I like this? What does the writer have to do to help me get it?” more people would ask themselves, “What kind of a story or poem is this? What is it trying to achieve?  How is it operating? What are the internal rules of this piece?

            Enough said.




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