By Bob Hart
A Frivolette in 2600 words. A short essay on our origins, or a homily to early homonyms.
To a new author there is nothing quite as thrilling, or more daunting, than to present work to other writers for their opinion, which they naturally consider educated and meaningful. Not that every writer necessarily wants to, but it is a tradition that passes for a write-of-passage (sic) for books and stories. The reasons a writer exposes any work to public review are legion; attention and approval, respect, putting others in their place, strutting their stuff, or in New Age language, self-actualization. The reasons that reviewers review these proffered works are legion, their own attention and approval, garnering respect, instilling fear, putting others in their place, strutting their stuff, or in New Age language, their own self-actualization.
You arm yourself with twenty copies, or disperse them via cyberspace, hoping more than five other writers show up, down half a bottle of Maalox, and set forth. You expect consideration, reasoned comment, an apologetic exposure of possible weaknesses, and suggestions that might possibly help you enhance your work, and certainly praise for a masterpiece that strikes at the emotional heart of the reading public. What you hear might depend on a spousal argument before breakfast, dyspepsia, or a traffic ticket on the way to the meeting. But putting human frailties aside, how on earth did this practice of artistic self-flagellation come about?
As this is a politically incorrect history of the writer’s evolution, to paraphrase Huizinga, history is a way a group wishes its actions to be remembered, so I am getting my version in first. Forget what the intelligentsia say on their own behalf about how they became such erudite spokesmen for us all—this is the real skinny.
Question: What is a story?
Answer: A tale of derring-do you want to share with others. We freeze a period of time, an experience, imaginary or factual, which has emotional value and resonates with our listeners or readers. A story is the oldest form of human communication; one that entertains, educates, or scares someone’s pants off.
Since the first group of our ancestors gathered around a fire, we have shared tales. At that early stage of human development, our ancestors had limited subjects to talk or fantasize about. They focused on daily life, hunting or food gathering, lack of or an overabundance of sex, and fighting off dangers or rivals. These provided stories to while away an otherwise boring evening, and were the foundation of the genres of adventure, horror, romance, crime and mystery. Maybe a bit of romance or erotica if they seized partners from another camp-fire group?
Narcissistic storytellers expanded the genres by talking about themselves and their deeds in autobiography and memoir, and the more charitable among them told a biography or two. Probably a little early for historical. Since we were begotten by the camp-fire folk repeatedly begetting, children also figured in the mix. However, children and young adult stories were a small group as even then they were expected to be seen but not heard.
Our ancestors were not dumb—they survived, didn’t they?—but their knowledge was limited. Some of this exists in story-tellers today, so we know it’s genetic. However all those spooky things outside the rim of light, and the lack of understanding of natural phenomena led to the growth of the fantasy and paranormal, genres, which in turn begat myths, fables, fairytales, and legends.
One can’t tell stories, particularly about others, without slipping in a funny tale or two, so the late night camp-fire comics gave rise to humor. Poking fun started here, adding to the growth of erotica. The spiritual genres had to wait for the emergence of shamans, priests, ministers, and clerics. Science fiction was an even later development for obvious reasons.
Camp-fire tales were the creative Big Bang of the literary world, from which would develop audiences, platforms, Robert’s Rules to keep groups in order, and The Chicago Manual of Style.
Camp-fires begat storytellers and listeners, and attracted wolves. Storytellers begat writers and readers. Wolves begat dogs. Writers begat genres. Readers begat reviewers, and dogs begat breeds. Begorra!
Each group evolved its Ying and Yang, but the camp-fire environment shaped their behavior. The first camp-firees developed into two groups, those who told stories, and those who listened, which in turn became writers and readers.
How did they survive? A few lucky storytellers earned a bone or two, a few berries, or a better seat near the fire. Others had a harder job to develop a platform, exploit the limited social media of the day—shouting, and drum beating—widen their audience and increase their market share, or get rid of the competition. At times, we think our meetings are tough. Ha. Their’s was a really brutal time.
The great historical conundrum is how storytellers evolved into writers.
First they had to learn how to write, the main incentive for which was to settle arguments over copyright and plagiarism between the ‘got it mades’ and the ‘wannabe’ storyists, and back their argument with a transcript. When it was found that solving these disagreements with rock and club often lost the point of the story, a group leader put her fist down with a firm hand and told them that submissions would only be accepted in one of two formats, scratched in clay, suffix SIC, or written in stone, WIS.
Writers held several advantages. Their stories could be read by the read/write gurus of other camp-fire groups. They didn’t have to be present when their works were read. They reached a wider audience, and there was a sense of permanence.
As clay and stone tablets were difficult to carry, it birthed flash fiction and short stories with all the associated rules against wasted words and waffling, so that hard won word forms, the adjectives and adverbs, found they were displaced by strong nouns and action verbs. This led to arguments over style, and the first self-help writing courses.
Writers had to wait for kings and emperors to build stone walls for their own self-edification to find something longer to write on, and historical scribes to develop papyrus to take their master’s dictation about their wondrous deeds, before writers could develop an alphabet (or several), scribbles, graffiti, cursive writing, and graphic arts. At that time, there were no formal rules of grammar so sentences and paragraphs could be of any length!
Artists insisted writers wouldn’t remember what their little squiggles meant, and they coveted the wall space, so they insisted on adding their two cents worth with pictographs. See how effective they were? Pop along to Egypt and check out a temple. Easy reading?
As stone tablets, long walls and priestly papyrus were expensive media, and scarce, errors were severely punished with rejections. from Latin reiectus, past participle of reiectare “throw away, cast away, vomit”—or if you want a longer definition, “to refuse to acknowledge or submit to, to refuse to take or accept, to refuse to grant, consider, or accede to, to throw out especially as useless or unsatisfactory.” Whatever—they didn’t get published. Now the anomaly is that the Neolithic writers existed before Latin, but their words for rejection were lost when the corner was knocked off the Rosetta stone. Anyway, some of us are still stuck with rejection.
Camp-fire evening get-togethers had a profound effect on wildlife, what with the flames and smoke, to say nothing of the noisy babble, and odd bits of meat and bones being thrown around. Story-telling as a form of communication was so powerful however, wolves crept up to listen, became scared of the dark, wouldn’t leave and became dogs. This persists to this day. Tell a story even on a Saturday morning, or even better, publish one. Listen to those strange sounds from your reader-listeners; “wow, yuck, great, rubbish!” It’s the wolves creeping closer.
Dogs are not politically correct although their critic descendants try to be. They do not drop parts of their language that offend others such as the bark, whine, and growl. These persist even in the presence of humans and cats. They don’t know right from left unless they are trained to herd sheep so they tolerate all of us—well, most—including some they might consider ovine. We know they understand us, and they are brutally honest. Most of us don’t realize that they can mimic emotion and expression without the slightest idea of what they mean, just that they appreciate the results they get. Guilt and shame for example; dogs don’t feel them but they sure make humans think they do. We can trace our behaviors, canine and humine, back to the camp-fires. Similarities are not surprising as we have been associating together for longer than we have made wine, which later became a staple at literary functions.
Writing is a mixed blessing. It is more permanent than the ephemeral spoken story, but recording one’s brilliance on a stone wall or a sheet of purloined papyrus is akin to using an unsafe server. They can be scribbled on, or painted over, and occasionally, deliberately destroyed. And writers beget critiques, critics, reviewers, and party poopers. Remember, those that can, do; those that can’t, should seek another camp-fire.
Writers wanted to write better stories. Readers wanted them to write better stories. Readers wanted more entertaining writing. Writers wanted more intelligent and understanding readers. Writers had to learn to leave out the bits that readers didn’t read—this saved stone slabs, walls, and papyrus—and readers had to read like writers and understand why they didn’t leave bits out. So writers started reading other writers in an incestuous relationship that was first fanned by the flames of a camp-fire. They shared their aspirations by mutual critique. This evolved into a symbiotic love/hate relationship to bridge the chasm between otherwise well behaved people.
Thus were writing groups born.
It’s hard to believe, and harder to accept, that writers and critiquers evolved from the same stock, and we can trace our behaviors back to the same roots. That relationship includes dogs, so it is not surprising that we all share certain characteristics. This is shown by the number of dog word associations, idioms, proverbs, and sayings. At least 100, to over 500 depending how strictly you interpret the associations.
Writers, readers, critiquers, and dogs behave and express themselves as determined by their ability, acumennd jealousy—that’s also a gene thing, and the way they were nurtured after they left the safety of the camp-fire. Look around you. Check out the behavior of the writers and readers.
I identify those around me in terms of canine behavior. Well, we all have the traits we evolved with, and these traits have modern human counterparts. Since writers groups gather to tell each other stories and critique each other, let the ravishing begin!
I shall not bother explaining our role as writers. We know who we are, our skill with words, and our ability to thrill people with our farfetched lies, otherwise known as fiction. Writers like to believe their style and voice are unique. Accomplished writers know, and woe betide a reviewer who disagrees. They can be unfriended. While this is not the painful experience it once was around the camp-fire, it is no less a form of ostracism—one of those long erudite literary words after the Greeks and Romans developed philosophy.
I am concerned with our behavior on the flip side of the coin, critique or review. The way our works are received depends on genre, attitude, and as mentioned before, might be influenced by spousal argument, dyspepsia, or a traffic ticket on the way to the meeting. But basically it comes down to the persistent behavioral canine traits that are buried in all of us related to breed characteristics, attitude, and manner.
Do critiquers and reviewers act like Terriers who never stop worrying a point, or like happy Boxers, hinged in the middle so their remarks go both ways, all slobber and twist, to the laid back approach of a Labrador, the eerie quiet of a Basenji, the vocal yappety-yap-yap of a Chihuahua who likes the sound of its own critical voice, or the Beagle who will sniff out anything they can get their teeth in—I’m sometimes surprised that punctuation, spelling, and formatting seem so tasty when the problem at hand is the story and has it been told the best way possible. Some of your fellows, like Rottweilers, eat stories alive!
And they do it in different ways. Some grab big hunks of your story, some worry over small bones, and some get a meaty phrase stuck in their craw. Some content themselves with scratching around the edges, as if looking for fleas and other ways to irritate. Some act as if they were stalking around in the dark.
All the breeds can at times behave in particular ways.
Like the young of any breed, some will be fawning; pups trying to be dogs. “It’s so wonderful, I particularly like…” This shows their inexperience or they are trying for a date. Be tolerant. We all started there, for as Dr. Seuss said, “Adults are just outdated children.”
Some act superior like Afghans, canine variety, of this world. Nothing quite meets their approval. Gerunds should be gerundive; past participles, the past tense of a verb; adverbs and adjectives are for the weak of expression. If all else fails, they will argue over the size of the periods.
Some can be downright aggressive, pretending to be the Pitbulls of the group. They growl and stalk stiff-legged around your manuscript, but usually they are kitty cats in disguise until they see a small furry writer. Then the genes take over.
The standoffish are the Borzois of the group. They say very little because they consider themselves too brilliant to comment as an excuse for not understanding a word you have written, try to appear sophisticated, decline to get involved, but act as a threat by never letting you forget they are there. They occasionally growl in their private darkness as they hide from the light.
The opinionated, like the Border collie, always direct you in the direction they want. “I’ve re-written paragraph three to show what you should have meant.”
The apologetic or scared often carry a history of spending time in a sheltered writing group. They allow their insecurity to peer between the comments of others.
There are fear biters in all breeds. This is no less the case with critiquers. The fearful attack first in case someone attacks their work.
And we must not forget the hesitant. They run forward with their comments, hesitate, and leap back, “I am not sure. I think. Perhaps. Oh, it’s just me.”
And beware the unrecognizable, those in disguise. Some are actually cats. Quite a different animal. Unlike dogs, which are pack hunters, cats are ambush hunters. They purr over your work and swat you when you relax and least expect it.
That is the brief unofficial and unauthorized history of the writer/critique phenomenon, and the remarkable similarity in our critiquing behavior to the canineswhich evolved alongside us from wolves to dogs
So when you next decide, in a very long sentence, that there is nothing quite as thrilling, or more daunting, than to present work to other writers for their opinion, or expose your work to public review, arm yourself with twenty copies, or disperse them via cyberspace, down half a bottle of Maalox and set forth, expecting consideration, reasoned comment, an apologetic exposure of possible weaknesses, and suggestions that might possibly help you enhance your work, you can now interpret critiques, theirs and your own, understanding our origins and the evolution of the characteristics when we whine, bark, snap, growl, or purr at each other.
Possibly the end.