In The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, (which I talked about here) Diana Pavlac Glyer established herself among the foremost Inklings scholars. It’s one of those rarities, a deeply academic book that is also immensely readable.
That book proved that the Inklings really were a collaborative group, and not a bunch of lone geniuses who got together regularly to read bits then retreated to their man caves for more solitary labor.
In Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, she shows how they did it. I reviewed the book specifically over at Goodreads, but in this post I’d like to use the book as a springboard to write up some thoughts about writing groups and different meanings of collaboration, as this is a subject (or net of subjects) that I always like discussing.
I will pull out one quote that I thought furnished a great look at the idea of writers’ group collaboration in the sense that Glyer is writing about.
When JRRT began writing what became Lord of the Rings (it was called “the new Hobbit” for years) C.S. Lewis was excited by the idea, but he said the beginning bogged down in a lot of hobbit talk. This grieved Tolkien, as he loved his hobbits, and his idea of a good hobbit book included lots of hobbits gossiping, eating, gardening, and pottering about the Shire.
But JRRT got stuck early on—and couldn’t move on the book for several years, until he had lunch with Lewis, who pointed out that “hobbits are only amusing in unhobbit-like situations.”
Bang. That was exactly what Tolkien needed. Lewis didn’t write a word of the book, but he sure influenced it. And Glyer goes on to demonstrate through quotes in letters, memoirs, essays, and little pencil notations on drafts how influence among the group worked. Collaboration in this sense, or “exchange” (the buzzword of mid-20th century Oxford) can mean influence, feedback, suggestions, or just cheering along with mentions of “Oh I love those chapters about elves.”
A glance at the acknowledgment pages of a lot of current books will make it clear that the early twentieth century idea of the writer creating in a vacuum is pretty much over. A lot of the writers I’ve become acquainted with are parts of groups, either formal or informal—a lot of us are constantly seeking what are now called beta readers.
There’s also the converse. After showing extensively how the Inklings gained benefit from one another’s influence, Glyer gets into what finally killed the group—and once again it’s Lord of the Rings at the center.
Some of the Inklings, including Owen Barfield, didn’t care for Lord of the Rings, but kept silent when it was Tolkien’s turn to read.
But Hugo Dyson, a man they all liked and respected, loathed LOTR so much he would complain loudly if Tolkien showed up with papers—“Oh, God, no more Elves.”
So Tolkien stopped reading when Dyson showed up. And though none of them knew it at the time, that was the breaking point of the Inklings.
The rule that had governed them—the call at the beginning of each meeting, “Well, has nobody got anything to read?”—had been an invitation to everyone. But Dyson led a kind of indirect veto, and in silencing Tolkien, strangled the vital freedom of exchange.
This is a great illustration of the difference between keeping silence if you’ve got nothing to say past “I’m not the audience for this work,” and silencing someone.
Glyer offers the word “resonator” for the participant in such a group, and goes on to define it; from my perspective, her resonator is what I understand when using the word “beta” these days. A beta can be so many things. Sometimes writers have to negotiate what they want in a beta—though occasionally it’s the non-negotiated reaction that can benefit the project most. The beta gives the writer something useful, whether it’s just “I really like this, keep going!” or a full-on structural analysis.
Glyer’s view of the Inklings illustrates that always-changing tension point in a successful writers’ group between all fans of one another all the time, and the “boot camp of horror” type of group, in which members go in knowing they’ll be ripped to shreds.
I’ve seen people make cases for both types of group—and really whatever works is of course good. But in my experience, at least, I’ve seen several “all fans all the time” groups that gradually led to a kind of general complacency—stories that seem to say the same thing over and over—a group voice, and occasionally the regrettable smugness of in-jokes.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen writers who endured the “boot camp of horror” because they thought it would make them tougher, or more able to face the indifferent world out there with its tidal wave of new material always coming out, who ended with writers’ block . Or fell into a Stockholm Syndrome tendency to write for the quirks of the nastiest critic, rather than for themself or for the general readership.
Glyer provides a sensible list of things to consider when starting, or running, a group, among which are “Criticize but don’t Silence,” “Meet Often,” “Stay Focused,” and “Embrace Difference.”
She also recommends starting small—like with one or two, which I thought interesting as I’ve seen advice to avoid that, as it can be easy to fall into the trap of writing to please one person.
I guess, like anything, it depends. If that person is really insightful, then yeah. You’ve got a treasure. But if that person has some narrative kinks or idiosyncrasies and the only feedback you get is from that person, it can distort your process so much that it can take time to work free of that stranglehold.
But that can easily extend to the group dynamic. We all can name famous writers’ groups. How many of the individuals in them might never have become successful if they hadn’t lucked into their group?
There are a lot of people who can’t stick the idea of a group, and further, who do fine on their own. I can’t. I need feedback—I know a lot of people like me who crave it. One friend said to me once that she believed inside our own skulls we’re all geniuses. But it’s an echo chamber. We need someone outside to tell us whether we’re making music or noise—or maybe to hint that that note is a little flat.
Well, back to the book, which ends with a terrific meditation on collaboration in the wider sense. Glyer quotes Charles Williams in saying, “Everyone, all the time, owes his life to others.” He recognized that he could enjoy his intellectual life in England because unknown young men were dying in the trenches in France. He went on to extend his thought in all directions: writers can write because builders made their houses, farmers grew their food, grocers distributed it.
I’ve come to the conclusion, as have many, that literature is an ongoing conversation across the world, across the centuries. Influence happens when we read, and when we discuss what we read, before we ever type the first word.
Glyer furnishes an excellent quote from Dorothy Sayers: “Poets do not merely pass on the torch in a relay race; they toss the ball to one another, to and fro, across the centuries. Dante would have been different if Virgil had never been, but if Dante had never been, we should know Virgil differently; across both their heads Ezekiel calls to Blake, and Milton to Homer.”