Midnight in Paris (2011) is a Woody Allen film about a fantasy many writers have of living among their idols in the past, and features lovingly sketched caricatures of Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.
To the delight of Gil Pender, the nebbish screenwriter who is magically transported from our time to theirs, these luminaries cavort through the Paris night demanding that artists love passionately and speak truly. Whereas Gil is only now learning to follow his bliss.
The most cringeworthy moment, for Gil, is one in which his shallow and derisive fiance and her pretentious friends dismiss his literary aspirations as sentimental fantasies. They’re right, of course, but speak with a total disregard for his feelings. The crux of their criticism is that Gil is too cowardly to show his novel to anyone and not enough interested in other people’s opinions.
That’s all set to change, however, when Gil steps through the looking glass and into a flapper party straight out of the Twenties. There he encounters his literary idols and, immediately entranced, starts asking them to read his work. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid, he just wanted the evaluation of somebody he considered truly worthy. That or he had the good sense not to show it to his mean-spirited companions.
Finding readers is an interesting conundrum for writers. It must be done, but you’re almost certain not to like what they have to say. Good critiques push for improvements, sometimes contradictory ones, and it’s up to the author to sift for gems. On top of that, hearing criticism requires an ego strong enough to withstand it. There are those that thrive by this process and those who wither.
In Paris in the 1920s of course, writers workshops did not exist as they do now. Instead they had salons, the most famous of which was Gertrude Stein’s. These meetups served some of the same purpose as a writing group, but without the formalities. Gil visits a salon and gets direct input of the most basic sort. He is told to fix one big thing, and in a single day rewrites the first four chapters. In reality this is not how these things work, of course.
Peter Turchi has a thoughtful and realistic discussion of writer workshops at his website. He describes them as laboratories and medical theaters, acknowledging that they can be instructive, but warning that they are too often “intent on finding fault.” Turchi says all writers have “horror stories to tell: stories about rude behavior, harsh comments, savage ‘advice,’ someone trying to dictate how someone else should write, writers in tears, writers enraged, or friends who feel obliged to ‘defend’ each others’ work.”
The reasons for this are reflected in the film when the Hemingway character, asked if he will read Gil’s novel, says something to the effect of, “I already know that I will hate it. If it’s bad, I will hate it because it’s bad, if it’s good I will hate it because I did not write it. All writers are competitors.”
To get away from the jealousies and trash talk, Turchi recommends focusing on a work’s intentions first and then taking the foray into craft.
One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her. It is of course helpful to give the writer suggestions for developing the work; and it’s useful for every writer to learn to diagnose the ailments of a draft that falls short. But falls short of what? If the conversation doesn’t begin by trying to recognize the work’s intention, there’s a great risk that the suggestions offered will be suggestions for ways to make the story what the speaker thinks it should be, or could be, or might be.
This puts the critique firmly on the side of the author, and to my mind that’s the only place to be in a workshop. In this regard, Midnight in Paris may be a bit flip with the details, but its feeling is correct. What Gil gets at the salon is a thoughtful critique, delivered in a respectful manner, with no other intention save the improvement of the work. He takes this critique to heart, and produces something better.
At some point Gil quotes Hemingway to himself, saying that all modern American literature can be traced back to Huckleberry Finn. Twain is a great example in critique, too; he always shared his unpublished manuscripts with “a private group of friends.” In the following video, read by John Lithgow, Twain describes the 14 types of people whose opinions he sought. It’s an amusing and insightful look at how writers get feedback.