Gaming the Workshop
by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
The team behind LitReactor, a literary website that offers online classes and writers’ workshops, a features magazine, a podcast, and a Reddit-esque community chatroom, doesn’t shy away from bold claims. On their about page, they boast: “If you’re passionate about reading and/or writing, this is the only website you ever need to visit for the rest of your life.”
Launched in 2011, LitReactor grew out of Chuck Palahniuk’s (Fight Club and more recently Bait) author website. When Palahniuk’s site began to host extremely popular online author interviews, writers’ workshops, and writing classes, the website team, including LitReactor’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Dennis Widmyer, realized that these features needed to be on a separate website. Now, LitReactor’s spring roster alone includes fifteen different classes spanning fiction, genre fiction, publishing, and even blogging, by professional authors and industry veterans.
While these classes can be accessed by participants from all around the globe, they still involve “weekly lectures, homework assignments, peer reviews, critiques from instructors, and discussion forums.” Month-long courses cost a fair $300–$400, which is a bit less than, for example, the week-long online intensives at 24PearlStreet (the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown’s online extension). The site also does a great job clearly listing the expectations, contents, and goals for each class. Course titles like “Publish or Perish” or “Writing From Your Queer Heart” reflect the quirky sense of humor which is abundant in all aspects of the site.
Another feature, which seems pretty genius, is LitReactor’s writer’s workshop. Using gaming techniques, LitReactor incentivizes participants to provide helpful feedback on their peers’ work. When site members (who pay $9/month or $45/six months) leave constructive comments, their peers can reward them with points, which can then be exchanged in order to post their own work. There are also “badges,” à la Boy Scouts, for achievements: “Gregarious” for adding a first friend, “Cool Hundo” for earning 100 workshop review points. Arguably, LitReactor’s point system encourages not only good writerly citizenship but also personal productivity.
One noticeable absence in LitReactor’s course catalogue, on a site which claims to serve as a catch-all for all readers and writers, is that of poetry, and perhaps playwriting. However, while there are already many MFAs, writing centers, and online resources such as 24PearlStreet that cater to the poetry crowd, one area where LitReactor does stand out is in their offerings to genre writers: mystery, science fiction, etc. These genres are often not taught in academic programs. LitReactor, therefore, provides a space for genre authors to participate in professional-led writing courses and workshops.
Really, the only area of LitReactor that truly gives me pause is gender divides both in the site leadership, workshop leaders, and promotional materials. In a 2011 interview with Huffington Post, co-founders Kirk Clawes and Dennis Widmyer stated that their target audience is “aged 24 and up, and a 50-50 gender split, [whereas] the audience of most writing websites is 55 and up, often women.” Looking at the site, I wonder if some of their effort to maintain a 50-50 gender split is achieved by marketing directly to men while assuming that women will participate anyway. Of the fifteen authors teaching on the spring roster, only four are female. All the testimonies and successful LitReactor participants touted on the site are male; and while the LitReactor team has grown to include many female staff members, the founders, who are placed highest on the page, are all male as well.
In their early review of LitReactor, The Huffington Post’s main question was whether the website membership was worth the financial cost. Especially for genre writers and prose writers who are not participating in an MFA program (for all the great host of reasons not to), LitReactor membership is definitely worth it. While a great deal of writerly life involves solitude, LitReactor provides the necessary vivacious, quirky writers’ community of teachers and peers to inspire new work and share important feedback.
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