I was so excited about this post because it validated something that's been on my mind a lot lately. I think and talk with others about this idea of criticism in the workshop all the time. I run writing workshops, and feedback is kind of their bread and butter, but I encounter students who complain that in our workshops--which aren't structured classically, or as the "Iowa-method" in our hallways--they don't get enough feedback. I think it's a really common perception among writers who are working in a group session that you aren't getting good feedback if your work doesn't come back to you dripping with comments and changes, with red ink. No pain, no gain, right? You need to know what to do to make your work better, but you won't know unless you distribute it to fifteen people and they rip into it for a good forty minutes. This is probably what the instructor had to undergo in the '70s, it's only fair that you budding writers get your turn. But does this really make you a better writer?
Now, I can't say yes or no unequivocally, because I've never been in one of those standard classical workshops. I'm biased. I don't know what it's like to have your work criticized in such a manner. But I know myself, and I really, really don't think it would be helpful. I think it would make me defensive, and defeated, and I'd probably drop out of a class where the professor made it his/her goal to put my work (and my self-esteem) into a blender and hit "pulverize" on the regular. On top of which, I'm not actually sure what this teaches you to do, besides to be critical (and generally in quite an unproductive way) of others. I had a conference with a student recently who was bemoaning the fact that this isn't how we run workshops, under the misnomer of constructive criticism, and I told him why. The reason his work isn't covered in comments is because that when he gets it back, he writes to the comments. When a roomful of people take aim at your writing--which is always, I don't care who you are, a deeply personal thing--and they tell you what's wrong with it and where it sucks, you write to their comments. These comments don't tell you anything about your process, or anything about your patterns, or anything about what's working in your writing and how to make more of the story work. All you learn from these comments is that (for instance) your dialogue is unbelievable, your main character seems wooden, and nobody likes the fact that you're writing about the suburbs of Maryland instead of New York.
Don't misunderstand me. A writer needs to be critical of her work. Fall in love with her prose all she wants, the next day or week or whatever, she needs to view it with a detached, unemotional eye. She needs to have a deep sense of her standards, her voice and her message, and she needs to be able to recognize when she's saying the thing she means to say, and when she's not. But she needs to be able to recognize those things. She needs to learn how to recognize strong work in her writing, so that when her writing falters, or flounders, or just plain fails, she can recognize that too, and do something about it. Critical writing workshops give people too many opportunities to smear their own creative and emotional baggage all over other people, rather than allowing them to make ask questions and make observations that are supportive and helpful to the writer. I'm not sure if they teach writers how to recognize what's working about their writing, and how to make choices about to make the stuff that's weak stronger.
So the obvious question is, Jess, if you don't allow your students to take shots and unload on each other about their writing, how do they give feedback? Well, I don't want this post to turn into a plug for my alma mater and current employer, but I'll say this: I and my fellow directors encourage our students to listen for their voices and the voices of the work, to listen for where the story is working, where it's reaching them as audience members. We teach them how to recognize these things, and how to talk about why moments or qualities of writing are working so effectively, and also to be mindful of what questions they have about places where things aren't working, where they weren't clear or were rushed or hard to understand. We teach them to look for patterns, and we teach them to be observant about their own processes as artists. The idea, my sincere hope, is that the feedback they receive in my class is going to make them a better writer because it's putting them in touch with their process and their voice, and because it's teaching them how to reflect upon their own work in an even, honest way.