Sam returned the stares of the six silent writers as he tried to decide whether he should throttle them individually, or just go ahead and bang his own head against the rough round oak table they were sitting about. His friend Charles Browne (not in attendance) had talked him into submitting his latest short story to this particular critique group to – as he put it – “glean fresh semi-professional input with a common man’s perspective.”

Well, Charles had been partly right about that. Their perspectives were certainly fresh, because in truth, Sam had never before heard such uniquely half-witted comments. But these three “common” men and three “common” women were more unprofessional than semi-professional. Six more seasoned writers from among his peers wouldn’t have had as much trouble recognizing quality writing.

Sam decided it was Charles’ head that should be banged against the table. Repeatedly.

Henry, the group’s leader, broke the silence.

“So, Samuel. You’ve heard our criticisms and thankfully, you’ve honored our tradition of remaining silent during each turn. We don’t expect you to defend your piece – and I honestly don’t think it can be defended – but we would like to hear your thoughts as to what you’ve been told. Have you learned anything? Do you have any comments?” He picked up his mug of dark ale and downed half of it.

“It’s Sam,” Sam said. “Not Samuel. And yes, I do have a few comments. I’d first like to congratulate myself on the restraint I’ve been able to muster these last painful minutes in keeping myself from biting through my own tongue. And secondly, I think your time here in this… ahem, delightfully atmospheric pub you’ve chosen, would be better spent in drinking… and only drinking. I suggest you avoid literature and literary criticism in all its forms. You are all floundering, adrift in a sea of imagination, heavily laden with two-dimensional minds.”

Their reactions were as Sam anticipated. Scowls and harrumphs abounded.

“Oh, come now, Sam,” Henry barked. “None of us attend these meetings thinking our stories are flawless. You can’t truly believe that your piece is publishable. I mean look at your opening line. It’s an unnecessarily long run-on sentence. Your whole piece is awash in them. In fact, it starts off 43 words long, followed immediately by a 71-word sentence. And the next paragraph begins with a 44-word sentence. I don’t see the point in it.” Several others at the table nodded and murmured in agreement. “It would read so much better with more independent thoughts and simple sentences.” 

Sam opened his mouth but chose not to lend a counter argument. Instead, he shook his head and just stared at the speaker.

“Sam, you’ve got to admit,” Emily said. She was seated to his left. “It does tend to come off rather pretentiously. And I also think this is a good time to bring up your excessive use of semi-colons. I counted 23 of them. In many cases, you’ve actually coupled them with another conjunction. Five times with the word but and seven times with the word and. Completely unnecessary. It’s as if you were trying to impress your readers with your knowledge of punctuation marks, or how to abuse them, overuse them, and outright avoid them when they’re most necessary. Do you have something against commas? Your dialogue seems to be devoid of them when they’re most needed.”

“It’s a style, Emily,” he said. “It’s not wrong. It’s just my particular style in this particular story.”

“But it is wrong, Sam,” May said. She sat directly across from him. “Individual style or not, if using deliberately bad grammar counts as style, what good are rules?”

“Sam, I feel we’re all sounding like we’re adding more logs to your fire, and over what we’ve already covered. I’ll apologize now for that, but apparently much of this bears repeating. Because ironically, I need to bring up your repetitiveness.”

All faces turned to listen to Herman. His opinion held the most sway in the group, having had several stories published in various journals throughout New England.

“Three times on the very first page your narrator tells of his inquiries into the wellbeing of someone named Leonidas. You say it in almost the exact same way – three times. It’s not only overdone, it’s just not funny. On top of that, Leonidas never actually appears in the story anyway. I believe you should drop this part altogether. It does nothing to move the story forward. I started to lose interest.”

Henry spoke up. “I must agree, Sam. I kept wondering when we were going to get to the point of your tale.” Most of the others muttered their assent.

“Listen, people,” Sam said. “My purpose –”

“And the misspellings!” Emily interjected. “And the slurring of so many words! Talking like this is one thing, but writing like this? Just seeing them, one after another, is tiresome and distracting, I didn’t find that humorous at all, if that’s what you were trying to do. It got to the point where I thought perhaps you weren’t doing it on purpose and you were, in fact, a terrible speller.”

“Before you go on, Sam,” Walter jumped in. “I think we should discuss the animal cruelty that you seem to find so funny throughout this piece. I find nothing at all amusing in cat fights, chicken fights, or dog fights. Seriously, this one dog was already missing its hind legs when it was mauled and thrashed, shaken, tossed into the air and left for dead. You have a meanspirited sense of humor if you think that’s funny.”

“To say nothing of the way one of your characters mistreats a frog,” Emily added. “It’s criminal.”

Charlotte, seated to Sam’s right, the only member of the group who hadn’t spoken yet, laid her hand on top of his. She locked eyes with him, and he could tell she felt embarrassed for him. And that embarrassed him.

“Sam,” she said. “There are a lot of things in this story that I really liked. I like how you described the frog whirling in the air like a doughnut. That was clever. And –”

“But cruel also,” said Walter.

“Yes,” Charlotte agreed. “It was. But still it was a memorable image. And I like how you described that one dog’s jaw as resembling the foc’s’le of a steamboat. I thought that was very well put.”

“But mean,” Walter again. “Sam, you seem to take great joy in poking fun at animals’ appearances and peoples’ appearances, education, hygiene, and especially their mental state. Yet you have absolutely no character development throughout the entire story – if you could call it that. Because in all honesty, there doesn’t even appear to be a story here. Nothing really happens.”

Sam looked at each face as he surveyed the table. They all were nodding in agreement.

“I’ve wasted my time here,” he finally said, glowering at them as he stood up. “I was hoping for something constructive. Even if it was only one thing. But what I got was nothing. What I received was the opposite of constructive. It tasted of bile and bitterness. Your comments prove to me that your minds are completely closed and unwilling to consider something new and experimental. If the common American reader is as thick-headed as you six, the future of literature in this country is in for a dumbfounding downfall of perplexing proportions. God help the future!”

He grabbed his coat from the back of his chair and headed for the door. But then he stopped and looked down at his notepad. He turned back to them one last time.

“Actually, I’m wrong. I did get one good piece of advice here, regarding the title of my story. I very much appreciate your suggestion, Charlotte. I’m going to take it. All of your other suggestions are…” He took a deep breath and then let out a single syllable. “Baah!”

He swung the tavern door wide, strode through, and slammed it behind him.

All eyes turned to Charlotte.

“Refresh my memory, Charlotte. What was the title of his piece?” asked Henry.

She flipped through her papers until she found the first page. “Uh… Jim Smiley’s Jumping Frog.”

“Yes. I remember now. And what was your suggested title?”

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” she replied.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Vince Dowdle Jr.

Vince Dowdle Jr. is the author/creator of two independently published pieces: his novel, Big Change Gonna Come, and a photo/trivia history of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Sampler of Photographs Past and Present.