Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Best Ever Writing Critique Groups in History


The Eagle and Child, the pub in Oxford where The Inklings met every Tuesday while Oxford University was in session for more than 16 years. Both C. S Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were members of this famous writing critique group, which focused exclusively on works of fantasy.

My fellow Blood-Red Pencil blogger, Patricia Stoltey, wrote a wonderful post this month about her own Best Ever Critique group. Be sure to read Patricia's wonderful post here.

While I had already started a post on the same topic, after reading Patricia's entertaining and inspiring story, I switched gears a bit and decided to explore the history of a couple of notably successful writers' critique groups.

Throughout recorded history, some of our most beloved authors have belonged to a writing and critique group or had a personal critique partner whose opinion they valued and trusted. While not every writing group produces a literary genius and not every critique duo helps each other achieve publication, there is no doubt that such groups and partnerships have played a huge role in the development of many of our most notable authors, people whose works have far outlived their creators and will continue to live on.

When C. S. Lewis joined the English faculty at Oxford in 1926, he had no idea he was about to meet J. R. R. Tolkien or that the two would become the best of friends. They even called each other literary soul mates. While the exact date is disputed, sometime between December of 1929 and the fall of 1933, they launched an informal literary discussion group called The Inklings specifically intended for authors who wrote works of fantasy. Every Tuesday morning for the next 16 years, up to 15 members, most of them either literary scholars or writers, met at a pub called The Eagle and Child to hear a reading of a work in progress by an author, followed by a lively discussion of its merits and a barrage of suggestions for improvement. It was in this creative soup that Lewis simmered his Screwtape Letters and the beginnings of The Chronicles of Narnia while his friend Tolkien was busy creating the Elvish language and writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Both men frequently acknowledged the contributions The Inklings made to the successful completion of their respective masterpieces.

Outside the regular meetings of The Inklings, the two men became critique partners, a development that arguably led to the creation of some of the finest works of fantasy ever written, works that still resonate not only in the book world but also across our stages and movie and television screens and even in the world of digital gaming.

When Ernest Hemingway moved to Paris in 1922 as a correspondent for The Toronto Star, he frequented a book shop called Shakespeare and Company that had just been opened by an American, Sylvia Beach, at number 12 rue de l'Odeón. Beach had elevated literary tastes and a shrewd eye for talent, opting to publish Ulysses by James Joyce when no other publisher would touch the controversial work. She created an intellectually stimulating climate for authors in her shop, who came there to argue and to recharge. In addition to Joyce, she ended up attracting such literary luminaries as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. Joyce jokingly named the group Stratford-on-Odeón, a play on both the birthplace of Shakespeare and the physical location of the bookstore. Unlike The Inklings, the members of Stratford-on-Odeón did not meet on any fixed schedule but just hung out with whoever happened to be in the store when they stopped by. In fact, Stein and Joyce never actually met each other.

Also unlike The Inklings, the members of Stratford-on-Odeón were quite contentious, and frequently jealous of each other's successes. Despite the significant encouragement several members of the group freely gave Hemingway, helping him find influential publishers for his first short stories and loudly singing praises of his work in print and amongst people whose opinion mattered, many were deeply hurt when Hemingway wrote cruel and thinly disguised depictions of them in his work.

Prior to this denouement, Stein, Pound, and Joyce each took the much younger Hemingway under their separate care and guided his development as a writer in their own ways. They all encouraged him to write short stories as he became increasingly bored with filing stories for the newspaper. All of them, Hemingway included, were apparently unaware that his artful coverage of the horrors of war was quietly redefining wartime correspondence. When they saw the raw talent Hemingway displayed in short stories such as Indian Camp, they next encouraged him to write a novel. Under their mentoring, in 1925 Hemingway completed his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which was published the following year by Scribner's.

While it cannot be denied that Stein, an acknowledged leader of the avant-garde and modernist movements in Paris, deeply influenced Hemingway's writing style, despite her prodigious intellect she had never published anything. Thus, she benefitted from Hemingway's help when she tackled her first few serious writing projects. He is credited with helping Stein make her rather stiff dialogue more natural, but when she went on to write several works now considered to be masterpieces, it only increased Hemingway's resentment of her.

Despite the many difficulties, created mostly by his alcoholism and volcanic temper, after Hemingway and his second wife moved back to America in 1928, he kept in touch with his literary mentors, even though he and Stein famously engaged in a 20-year literary quarrel that consisted mostly of an ongoing exchange of insults through third parties.

While few of us may ever be lucky enough to be part of a group that includes authors of such status, that doesn't mean we should ever stop trying to find fellow writers who like the idea of sharing critiques. You may have to visit several groups to find one that suits your personality and is supportive of your writing style. Or, you may prefer to find one good writing friend who understands your work and critiques it in an honest and truly helpful way, while you are able to do the same for him or her.

The benefits of being a member of such a group are indisputable. Writing is by its very nature a lonely profession. It's all too easy to isolate yourself in favor of falling into the arms of a sometimes indifferent muse. When you find other writers who can help you through your slumps and genuinely celebrate your triumphs, you just may have found the key to a more successful and satisfying writing career.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

10 comments :

  1. This is a fabulous post, Pat. Imagine finding oneself in a group with such literary luminaries as Lewis, Tolkien, Joyce, etc. Thank you for this journey back into stunning critique groups of the past. It makes me consider an adjustment in my current thinking about these groups based on my very limited experience.

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  2. Thank you, Linda. When I started the research and saw the celebrated writers who were members of these groups, I was stunned. I cannot imagine being part of such a group, but would like to be. What an adventure that would be!

    And look at all the timeless literature that members of these two groups alone left to the world.

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  3. Oh to be a fly on the wall! I visited Oxford and stood in one of the halls JRR Tolkein frequented. There were other places and times I'd like to visit: The Algonquin Roundtable aka The Vicious Circle of actors, playwrights, agents, The Bloomsbury Group at King's College with Virginia Woolf and EM Forster; Stratford-on-Odeon with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wonder what the modern day equivalents are?

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    1. If you ever decide to take that trip, I'd love to be a fly with you. What a feast for the literary senses that would be.

      I cannot begin to fathom how I would feel standing in a room where Tolkien and Lewis once sat and discussed their work. And it's doable. The pub where they met is still open in Oxford.

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  4. Terrific post and fun to read about famous authors. I admit, I'm not big on participating in live group exchanges, though I have tried. Online groups work better for me.

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  5. Thank you, Dani. As I grow older, I find myself retreating more frequently to the comfort and solitude of my cozy little cottage. If I have spare time, I prefer to spend it writing, reading or gardening.

    The few groups I tried were either contentious or not well-balanced. That's another lesson aging teaches...to stop squandering time on things that don't feed your soul or fill your heart. Or that make you giggle. I can't get enough of those giggly moments even though my grandson works tirelessly to provide them.

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    1. Pat, I think many of us of a certain age share your sentiment about protecting our time more carefully. That said, I do miss the feedback and sharing that went on in two critique groups that I was in. The first was years ago - The Greater Dallas Writers Association - and members there were mostly published authors. They always gave valuable commentary on works being read, and I learned as much listening to others being critiqued as when it was my turn to read.

      The other group was in Omaha NE, but this old brain has misplaced the name of that group. However, the members were equally proficient in giving good feedback. A few members were published and several went on to get published. I learned a lot about writing from both of those groups and miss the interaction.

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  6. Thanks for the nod to my critique group post, Pat. I'd like to hear more about yours as well. But what you gave us here is priceless. Wouldn't it have been something special to be mentored by James Joyce, etal?

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  7. Maryann, both the groups you mentioned sound wonderful. I was not as fortunate with my selection of critique groups when I was a younger, aspiring writer, and eventually just went my own way. Fortunately, that worked out for me.

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  8. Patricia, can you imagine? If I had ever been in the same room with Tolkien and Lewis, I think my brain might have melted.

    My critique post was going to be more along the lines of what to look for in a group and what to avoid but after I read your marvelous post based on your own personal experience, I knew you had captured everything a writer looking for such a group might possibly need. So I decided to look to history and did a few days of research and entertaining reading of first-person accounts, letters, articles, etc., before I found my hook and figured out how to dive into the topic and still make it work with our Best Ever theme.

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