Peer Review

Yeah, funny.

I think often about the differences between art forms: different expectations for who does them, how often, with what level of review or oversight or feedback. I have a friend who’s a brilliant wood turner, for instance. He treats each piece of wood as its own event, has almost never made the same thing twice. But he doesn’t take a bowl or a vase that’s drying after having been turned, and carry it to a colleague’s house and say “have a look, tell me what you think about that curve there.” No, he trusts his experience and his eye and he does what he wants. And when he’s accepted to a juried show, the jurors carry no expectation that they’ll be able to say “We’ll take it, but we have some recommendations…” No, they accept it or they don’t.

But writers are different from that. We belong to writers’ groups, send our work to be workshopped, sometimes more than once, while we’re working on it. If we’re lucky enough to have an agent take it on, that agent feels entirely warranted in making substantial recommendations about the book they see hiding inside the book we wrote. And then if that agent is lucky enough to sell it, the author goes through it all over again with an editor. I’m not complaining about that—I’ve had really wonderful relationships with a couple of different editors who’ve helped me make stories better—but I’m just noting it as a fundamental difference between craft practices.

That wood turner has made about five or six hundred beautiful things in a dozen years of work; that works out to maybe one a week. Each one might be two years in the making, but he’ll be working on a bunch of them at once, turning some and drying others and finishing yet more. I’ve made a dozen things in seven years, not quite two a year. And in the writing world, that’s suspect, the notion that someone might be able to write a novel in four or six months. It must be rote, formulaic. Hack work. (And working fast certainly CAN produce hack work. I read a novella today as one of my free downloads on my new iPhone, by a writer who’s written almost three dozen books in the same period since 2013 that I’ve been writing fiction. And good lord, it’s awful.)

So we have different expectations by pace, different expectations by nature of review and editorial input. It’s fun, as a counterfactual exercise, to imagine taking on another way of working. To say, as a writer, that I’m going to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about stories, and the people who’ll like it will like it. Everybody else can go on to the next booth.


I’ve been doing some academic coaching lately. And without putting a precise dollar amount on it, I can say that I’ve made about the same in the past five months of that work than I’ll have made from everything I’ve ever published in thirty years. (You can make your own case as to whether one is underpaid or the other overpaid.) And that coaching is only possible because I’ve had twenty years of practice at doing what I do around assessment. I’m able to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about how colleges work, and get good products onto the table reliably and fast. The novelist William Saroyan once wrote that “I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”

I watch my friend Aimee make jiseung. She’s been doing it for decades, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Now she’s in Korea, watching the “intangible cultural resource holder” Bak Seong-chun make bamboo screens. He’s been doing it for seventy years, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Jazz players improvise every night. Decades of practice makes them reliable. But in the twenty-five years since he became a professional golfer, Tiger Woods has had a daily swing coach in all but six of those years, seeing the things that Tiger himself could not, tinkering and tweaking every day toward incremental perfection. So the role of collaboration and oversight varies even at the highest possible levels of different art forms.

I’m self-taught in almost everything I do, though that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had feedback. And we all are, aren’t we. We all taught ourselves how to cook and how to be parents or friends. We all taught ourselves how to drive, really, and how to read, really, with only the lightest forms of coaching along the way. No state licensing board requires a masters degree in parenting before one’s first child, and THERE’s a high-stakes practice, isn’t it? And with only a few guides along the way, I’ve taught myself how to write.

As Marge Piercy wrote in her brilliant poem “For the Young Who Want To,” every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall. We just do the work, over and over, and occasionally we ask someone to look over our shoulder.