Most of the time they are literary agents and book editors who sit behind desks as they pore over unpublished manuscripts. But last weekend they were Simon, Paula, and Randy.
They were the judges in this literary version of "American Idol," in which dozens of fledgling authors offered up their books instead of their voices for a public and, thankfully, anonymous skewering.
Actor Martha Johnson collected pages from the audience, then read each aloud until two of the three judges raised their hands. In a move that was more "Gong Show" than "Idol," the actor stopped reading mid-sentence, and the judges explained what had turned them off. Comments included "too predictable," "overwritten," and "please don't ever start a book with somebody staring in a mirror."
On the other hand, the line "When Zachary points the gun at me, I have an overwhelming desire to kiss him" inspired two judges to call out their e-mail addresses and beg the author to send the entire book.
The good-natured dissection of words was one small part of the seventh annual "Muse and the Marketplace," a two-day conference run by the independent writing center Grub Street Inc. The craft workshops, panel discussions, and one-on-one critiques all revolved around the often elusive dream of writing a good book and bringing it to the public.
Known as the Muse, the conference has become a highlight of the Boston literary scene. Top writing talent - including Jonathan Franzen, Julia Glass, Anita Shreve, and nearly 50 other guest authors - gathered with agents, editors, and about 330 publishing hopefuls who paid for the privilege to mix and mingle with them.
Organizers agree that the long and impressive roster is unusual. Most writing conferences "get two or three top-tier writers," said Chris Castellani, a three-time novelist who is the artistic director of Grub Street. "We get a real high caliber across the board. It's because there's such an incredible concentration of high-quality writers who live in Boston."
It's true that most guest authors who converged on the Omni Parker House for the conference live just a T ride away.
"Boston really is a literary hotbed," said five-time novelist Mameve Medwed of Cambridge, a regular at the Muse. "It's amazing. There are seven writers living within two blocks in my neighborhood."
The authors say they flood the Muse because it's a great opportunity to promote their latest books, connect with fans, and party with their publishing peers.
But Bret Anthony Johnston, author of an award-winning book of short stories and director of the creative writing program at Harvard University, said that unlike other conferences he has attended, there is no real divide between the published and the unpublished.
"At the Muse, National Book Award winners have coffee with writers who've just picked up the pen for the first time," he said. "It's inspiring."
Attendees are invited - for an additional fee - to submit a 20-page excerpt of their work to the agent or editor of their choice beforehand, then sit with that person for a 20-minute critique.
Katherine Ozment, a freelance writer from Cambridge, met with Kathy Pories, an editor from Algonquin Press, on Sunday. Before their meeting, Pories read two chapters of Ozment's memoir-in-progress about her brother who committed suicide at age 26.
"I've shown it to some friends, and I've shown it to my husband," Ozment said of the book. "But I really wanted an honest evaluation from a professional."
She said she had no expectations that Pories would offer her a book contract ("though that would be the dream"), but was hoping to get a "good, solid critique."
She did. During their meeting, Ozment said, Pories gave her "a healthy dose of encouragement and praise," plus specific suggestions for structuring the book and "digging deeper" to tell her story. "I feel really fortunate to have been able to step behind the door of the publishing industry," Ozment said. "My only complaint is that I didn't have more time" with her.
Lisa Tallin, a social worker who lives in Central Square, met with agent Mitchell Waters to discuss the first 20 pages of her novel. While she was impressed with his thorough evaluation, she was a little daunted when he outlined all the work ahead.
"I kind of want to vomit," said Tallin with a grin. "It's all pretty overwhelming."
Still, a spirit of fun prevailed. Each day was capped off with a cocktail party, where authors mingled and signed books.
During lunch in the hotel's rooftop ballroom Sunday, rock-star writer Franzen took a fair amount of ribbing about his notorious dissing of Oprah Winfrey, and his lampooning on "The Simpsons." As a writer, he said, "I don't have to be merely tormented by my life. I can be amused and enlightened."
Praise also ran rampant for Grub Street, started just a decade ago. The organization, said Johnston, is as vital to Boston writers as "oxygen is to fire."
"There's such a vibrant literary community in Boston that writers flock here," he said. "Or, as often - and this is in no way unrelated to Grub Street - the city itself gives birth to writers and their stories."