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Just One Question for Alexis Massie
May 06, 2002 :: Michael Sippey

If you're of a certain age, and happened to have traveled in certain circles, occasionally you'll let your mind wander back to the halcyon days -- when we were young, beautiful, and full of so much promise. Our days were filled with cappucinos, our nights with vodka tonics, and our browsers with something other than all these damned weblogs.

afterDinner once filled our browser on a regular basis. Its creator, Alexis Massie, was a pioneer of online personal narrative publishing, and in the late '90s the site lived alongside The Fray as its nexus. As the decade timed out, the inevitable happened. Energies waned, attention was paid elsewhere, and afterDinner languished on the vine.

All great sites deserve at least nine lives, which means at least eight re-launches. Massie recently re-launched afterDinner, but this time with a twist. "afterDinner For Readers" will look familiar to former denizens of the halcyon days; it's where "authors ... distribute their work directly to interested readers online." But "afterDinner for Writers" is something else altogether, something Massie has described as her "ultimate experiment," an online writing workshop "designed to bridge the gap between authors and readers by allowing for immediate exchange of feedback and critique."

As she has been in the past, Massie was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer just one question...

StO: Part of what makes small, face to face writing workshops so effective -- and sometimes so painful -- is the intimacy factor. Your critics are across the table from you week after week, and you get to learn their strengths and weaknesses, their mannerisms, their body language, their verbal tics...and they learn yours. All of which can lead to an interesting game of ego-driven blood sport. How do you expect the web-based workshop of afterDinner to compare to the offline version?

Massie: No one will ever participate in an offline workshop again. People will sneer at the local gatherings as ineffective, masturbatory exercises that no writer who's really serious about writing would ever be caught dead doing. Editors of major publishing houses will require their authors to use the afterDinner system -- or one like it -- in order to better assess the market reaction to the book in question, as well as to improve the work itself. Readers will brag to their friends about the profound impact they had in Updike's latest novel and pretend that they knew all along it was his. We will foster a talent equivalent to Shakespeare who will be appreciated, distributed, and consumed. And I will giggle at night, knowing that none of it was intended.

I am a lover of a dying art form. Literature is one of the few -- one could argue only -- arts that retains communication and connection with the average man. The visual arts we lost to navel-gazing, and performance art is either a limited statement, generally socio-political, or has been commercialized to a parody of itself. Even within the realm of the written word, David Eggers sits next to Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul, and the best sellers got their start in show biz. People don't aspire to write literature so much as they do to "become writers" and the qualifications for that title require only a vague dissatisfaction with life and a clever manner (thank you David Foster Wallace). How I miss reflections of the human condition, profound insights and a better understanding of the world! I refuse to believe we gave away the ability to create literature when we demanded our MTV.

I thought, maybe the problem is that it's so difficult to write. I took a look at what tools and resources are available to writers. Given that there's so little online, I drew on my past experiences in workshops. And, considering what I found, I'm surprised anyone's writing at all.

Exhibit A:
I was in a workshop in college, during which one woman accused another of having an affair with the professor. She'd write and then read these very pointed (and poorly-written) vignettes exposing what she believed were actual rendezvous between the forbidden lovers, both of whom were sitting on the other side of the circle. Sometimes the professor would go ballistic on her and sometimes everyone just got tired of it, but invariably the ongoing saga of her accusations became the focus of the gathering. No one really cared anymore whether or not the writing was good; they just wanted to see how close to the professor I was sitting.

Exhibit B:
Before I developed afterDinner, I was (and still am) in a online workshop with a few people; we're helping a fellow with his novel. This workshop allows us to see one another's comments and, most of the time, the comments are well-crafted and thought out. Sometimes, the comments are "Yeah, what she said." Occasionally, the comments are "You know I had a dream last night where [one of the characters in the novel] was chasing me around..." Sometimes I go back even after I'm done, just to see what Wendy posted. She's so funny.

Exhibit C:
When I buy a book in the bookstore, my habit are such: I'm drawn to the book with the best cover art. Then I read the flap -- what kind of book is it? Is it just another "living in silent desperation" book? If so, I put it back. If not, then I read the first half of the first page. What I'm looking for is lyricism of language and a hint of conflict. I don't look at the picture of the author, nor do I read the bio. I don't care whether the author, or her friends, were happy with the novel in my hands, whether they became friends or foes, or who in the group was "right." In fact, it would never occur to me to consider any context other than the flap and the page.

Authors are the third wheel, the unwelcome guest at a romantic dinner. Their identification with and influence on the book ends the moment it arrives in a reader's hand. Their strengths and weaknesses, their mannerisms, their body language, and their verbal tics (you forgot cultural influences and their family's income level) are unknown by most readers; even their name, if remembered at all, isn't mentally recorded until after the book has been read. Given that the goal is to develop a harmony between readers and the story -- otherwise, why write at all? -- knowing more about the author than the average reader is a detriment to the end result.

Yet the very nature of traditional workshops provides this additional data by allowing public interaction. Offline, the author stares at you; politeness requires that you return the gaze. The online equivalent provides it in the forum -- you can derive almost as much information in the conversational habits conveyed in posts as you can from a discussion over coffee. And so the game of ego-driven blood sport is as much a factor in one environment as in the other. It's impossible to fully ignore what we perceive.

What kind of art can be produced in such an environment? Art that is self-fulfilling, self-referential. Art that flatters. Art that caters to artists. Art that aligns with one's stereotype, conforms to a specific group's tastes.

Regardless whether you get online or get in your car, a workshop that provides group interaction results in group interaction. Community has a place -- it's easy and fun and certainly successful in the context of sites such as Metafilter, Plastic, Slashdot, and in offline activities such as your local Readers Club. Each of these developed around a common interest, but it is the riffing of ideas and reactions amongst the participants that is the end game, not the interest that brought them together in the first place. In such places, one may make a name for, or a fool of, oneself. That's what it's all about.

On the other hand, a workshop benefits from anonymity by forcing a direct confrontation of the work itself without distraction. By removing the temptations of the mob mentality, we can be sure that the process is focused entirely on making the work more enjoyable and profound. The final product, I hope, benefits from a diverse set of reactions from a diverse set of participants who are neither influenced nor awed by the author or each other. The final product is the beneficiary of the work put into it, not the participants, not even the author.

afterDinner is, intentionally and by design, not an online equivalent to face-to-face workshops. It was developed to address the fundamental flaws of the traditional workshop. So I'm not sure how it compares, as the fact that it's online provides only the mechanism to remove a problem. What I hope is that it enlightens, perhaps entertains, and razes the traditional equivalent altogether from the world. What I dream is that it makes a few people realize that a piece of writing does not need an "About Me" page -- or a merchandising franchise -- to inspire, provoke, and delight. And that's where the difference lies.

P.S. Of course, I suspect that I'm the only person who actually cares one way or the other, but you did ask.



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