Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up: The Decline and Fall of Cowbird

And it is that word “hummy,” my darlings, that marks the first place where Tonstant Weader fwowed up.
-Constant Reader (Dorothy Parker), reviewing A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner

This is a waste of your time, and, what is infinitely worse, a waste of mine.
-A Beautiful Mind

For months now, I’ve been recommending the Cowbird site, as well as writing for it. I hope you will forgive me for that. While I will keep my existing posts up on the site, I have no intention of writing for them again until there’s a change in how the site is managed. My faults as a writer are many, but I’m a good literary critic, and this site is placing its bets on atrocious writing in order to draw in sentimental readers.

Follow me, if you’re so inclined, to the Twitter page for Cowbird. Here are excerpts from the four stories Cowbird has featured most recently, one of which is the “Daily Story”:

Here, everybody is equal.

The cool breeze that blows over the city brings the entire city on to the roof tops. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the Hindus and the Muslims, they all come together to share a buzz that will make hives full of bees jealous. The walled city, opens up to the sky.

Gopal MS, “Rooftop Ahmedabad”

(Actually, that’s the whole story.)

The cavern by beach was his precious pirate’s cove. He wanted to send a message in a bottle to pirate Blackbeard and ask for treasure map leading to golden doubloons…

At twelve he wanted to throw flat stones on surface of water and count the bounces. Twelve was the record, same as his age. Twelve marvellous bounces. And that girl who wasn’t interested in bounces, he wanted to push that girl into water with all her Sunday clothes on. And he did. Lots of screaming followed but who cares.

At fifteen he wanted to shot one gigantisque boulder with giant catapult to water and observe what happens.

Jari Järvelä, “Breaking the waves”

Next up, Deborah Lewis’s “Playing with humans”:

I heard Elizabeth giggle loudly and looked across at Amy whose face showed the precise quality of my concern… [Near our boat were] smaller spinner dolphins who swam off the acrobatic, exhibitionist, exuberant. They put on a great display but they like to keep to themselves.

And finally, Jim Reardon’s “First Rain”:

It was only a drizzle and the type of rain that is ever present in Seattle but easier ignored than evaded.
The type of rain that you can mostly notice because the city turns darker shades of brown and black and tan.

On and off it sprinkled when I noticed slowly
that so many people passing had umbrellas
trying valiantly to stay out of the rain
even though it was mostly
blowing sideways.

I’m not cherry-picking here. These are verbatim quotes from the four most recent features. I think anybody who cares about writing would have to agree that all four pieces, considered as works written by adults, are wretched. They are simply awful. If they were the work of Ms. Phillips’s 7th grade class, they would be, at best, pretty good.

The rooftop story is just offensive. Talking about “making bees jealous” is personally offensive to me as a writer, but much more serious is the mawkish attempt to deal with religious conflict and economic oppression by taking a photograph of people standing on rooftops. Yes, I didn’t include the photograph, and it’s a pretty wonderful photograph, but that’s not the point. Cowbird isn’t a photography site; it’s a site that markets itself as a refuge for “storytelling.” Well, the story being told here is little more than a Hallmark postcard from one of the most troubled areas in the world.

By contrast, one of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs also features (as its spoken-word intro) a story about rooftops: in this case, the rooftops of New York. While Ani finds them fascinating, they don’t inspire her to conclude that everyone in New York City is living in a utopian state of equality. Ani is pretty blunt in another song, entitled “Willling To Fight”: “If you’re not angry / You’re just stupid, you don’t care.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I hate to pick on “Breaking the waves,” because I’ve read a lot of Jarvela’s stories, and he’s a sweet guy. But since it’s there on the timeline, I have no choice. Sentences like “Twelve marvellous bounces” are just childish, and even though the character is a child, this isn’t some incredible evocation of a child’s voice. This is the best the writer himself can do. A lot of the set-up for the story involves sentimental “memories” of childhood that just don’t ring true. Even if, at age six, this child was thinking in terms of “doubloons,” it doesn’t matter, because as a term included in this story it doesn’t work at all. “Lots of screaming followed but who cares” isn’t charming, either, even if Jarvela believes that it is.

There are a ton of ESL mistakes in the story, and even a word that’s not a word (“gigantisque”). Again, I don’t want to punish somebody for being ESL, but the fact remains that when I’ve written for Cowbird, I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make sure that my stories are copyedited and read smoothly. I couldn’t write the same stories in French, but on the other hand, I don’t submit stories to whatever the French equivalent of Cowbird might be. When stories this sloppy become central to the site, writing carefully begins to seem like a waste of effort.

When it comes to stories about dolphins playing friskily around boats, one problem is that I don’t want to read stories about dolphins playing around boats. (I also, for example, don’t want to read stories that consist of monologues delivered to an audience of dolls, unless the monologue is seriously weird.) But even setting that aside, Ms. Lewis is exceptionally fond of a well-crafted oxymoron. Amy’s face “showed the precise quality of my concern”? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? I mean, fine, I understand that she and Amy were apparently both concerned about the dolphins in the same way, but it’s overblown “poetic” nonsense — and just like the doubloons, it’s not credible. I’m really supposed to believe that this family is going on a boating expedition in Kauai despite their crippling fear of, um, playful dolphins? “Acrobatic, exhibitionist, exuberant” is also bad writing — YA fiction anthropomorphism of the worst kind — and even that is topped by “They put on a great display but they like to keep to themselves.” Ah, yes. Dolphins truly are the shyest exhibitionists in the world. I bet you didn’t even know that exuberant exhibitionists could be shy!

Part of the problem with these stories is that they’re not really stories. Nothing much happens, which is why the authors have to pretend (for example) to be scared of dolphins, just so there will be some sort of dramatic tension. It’s exactly the same authorial desperation that lead Cheryl Strayed to pretend people in Wild were constantly interested in raping her, because a strange man who simply gives you a lift and shares his Red Vines with you isn’t that interesting.

The final story is definitely the best of the bunch, although it is also at the 7th grade level. There are no characters, just massed humanity in the streets of Seattle, all trying valiantly to do exactly the same thing together in the rain, because apparently they’re a Seattle flash mob. And the irony, my darlings, is that they’re trying to use their umbrellas without realizing that the rain is blowing sideways! Which will make their umbrellas ineffective! If that doesn’t convey something fundamental about the human condition, well then I simply don’t know what could.

Still, like the other writers, a paralyzing fear of having nothing to say leads Reardon to take dramatic risks; in his case, that means suddenly switching from prose into achy, line-breaky poetry. The first such line break occurs right in the middle of his noticing umbrellas, which (perhaps because he does not realize how much coffee is available in Seattle) he notices slowly.

And it was at that word “slowly” — at that astonishing, unbelievable line break — well, dear readers, you know the rest.