Bad Novel, Good Friend

Over at Cary Tennis’ Salon advice column today, he handles one of the most important questions of our age: What do you say when you don’t like a friend’s novel?

And, I disagree with the answer. Here’s the letter:

Two days ago, my friend sent me the final draft of a novel she’s been working on for the past six months. Well, I’ve read it. I know she’s waiting for feedback, but I have no idea what to say to her.

My friend has always identified herself as a writer, even though her output over the past 25 years has been scanty and her work has never been published. She has real talent, but she lacks discipline and is acutely sensitive to criticism. While her latest work contains many passages of exceptional beauty, on the whole it’s a dense bramble of twisted, thorny sentences — impenetrable. And bloodless: The characters never come to life, and the scenes come across as studied, stilted tableaux tricked up with verbal filigree.

I can’t tell her what I really think of her work — it would hurt her too much. In the past, I have responded with vague praise (“wonderful!”, “remarkable!”), and have cited particular passages that I liked. But when I do that, I know I’m not taking her seriously as a writer, and she wants to be taken seriously. Her ego is protected by a thick layer of arrogance (teachers, mentors and editors have nothing to offer her), and I’m afraid that if I give her an honest assessment she would push me away for good.

What is my duty here? I am not a writer, Cary, but you are — how can I help my friend without hurting her? And what should I say about her novel? I would be grateful for any insights you can provide.

A Writer’s Friend

Cary’s answer is here. You can see, he put a lot of effort into spoofing some pretty awful fiction writing.  To be clear, I’m not satirizing him. I just think he’s wrong. His answer was, Refuse to comment. And then a lengthy defense of refusing to comment.

Well…no. You have to say something. If you’re really going to stay friends.

Here’s what happens if you “refuse to comment” – your friendship will go away. It won’t be ‘protected’ by your refusal. It will end. Your friend will know you didn’t like it and will be offended by the fact that you don’t care enough to help. They’ll know they don’t matter enough to hear the truth. So, one answer is, if you want to end your friendship, refuse to comment. People who have real friends expect to be told the hard truth – they really do. And I don’t want friends who won’t. I had a lesson in this about 10 years ago with an author friend who was angry to discover that someone he’d asked to read an early novel of his hadn’t liked it, and hadn’t wanted to say so. He was furious. The reason being that this was his career on the line, his life and livelihood, and he’d expected his friend to take it seriously – and not to bullshit him.

Over the summer, I heard from a student who said, I’ve taken about 4 creative writing classes here and yours was the first one where I felt like I learned anything. And it’s because you were willing to tell me what was wrong. It was hard to take at the time, but I really appreciate it now and I can tell I’ve gotten better.

People don’t want to waste their life hearing platitudes. If I had to name one thing that I think of as the malaise of our modern age, I think it’s listening to people who don’t even believe what they’re saying. We’re all sick to death of it. And it’s destroying our politics, our country, and our environment. So, stop here.

My advice to this woman: if you really want to keep this friendship, say, “I think you have a hard time taking criticism, but I want you to know, what I’m saying, I’m saying because I care about you as a friend, and I can tell how much your writing matters to you.”

Then, lead with the praise from your own letter: I think you have real talent, and there are passages of exceptional beauty.

Go to the hard part – don’t be as brutal as you were in your letter, but be clear about what’s wrong: “I think this is too dense, on the whole, and the characters never came to life for me. And I don’t know why, as I’m not a writer myself. I’m just a reader. And so while I know you are suspicious of editors and teachers, I think it’s time for you to go seek an editor or a teacher.”

You address what you call her thick layer of arrogance – and yet she did ask you for help. People who won’t listen to most people will however listen when they ask you for help. In those moments they are dropping the defenses you are so accustomed to and willing to hear what’s wrong. As someone once said to me, arrogance is a sign of unhappiness, and if this woman is as trapped as you say, chances are she’s very unhappy and unwilling to go on being unpublished while hearing from friends that it is “wonderful”.

*More writing advice posts: here, here and here, or, click “writing” on my tag cloud to see all of them.

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21 comments

  1. Emily

    Yes. Thanks for this. I read Cary’s column this morning and had a similar response. I read a lot of things for a lot of people, and I always give what I call “New York-style, well-therapized direct feedback.” I will tell you what I think needs work. I think that’s why people send me their stuff. I mean, my friends already know I really like them–that’s why we spend time together and go to the movies and get drinks and talk about how we’re smarter than people who are not our friends. I don’t think that’s what they’re asking for when they ask me to read things.

    That said, I just had something I wrote come out in a magazine. It’s too late now for edits. I know in my heart that the ending of the article is pat and I didn’t earn it. And while I’m happy to discuss and debate the argument I made, I’d rather not hear critiques of my prose at this point. So, after something’s come out, I prefer the straight up celebration.

    • koreanish

      True enough. I think that after something has been published, that is not the time to tell the friend you don’t like it. Just “hooray!” is sufficient.

      • JenniferWriter

        I have to agree about not critiquing something for a friend once it’s been published.

        I think of it this way: if you and a friend are getting dressed to go out and your friend asks you if her dress makes her look fat (and it really does), you tell her. That way she can change. If you’re on the town and she is about to go talk to a cute guy and she asks you how her butt looks in her dress (ready to mutiny at any moment) you tell her it looks fantastic because more than anything at that moment she needs confidence. She can’t change her dress anymore, she can only change the way she carries herself as she struts across the bar.

  2. Elizabeth Collins

    I agree. If someone (a writer) asks you to read a piece of work, that writer is showing you his or her naked self, his or her brainchild. That writer really, genuinely, wants to know what you think. It’s not just for ego-stroking.

    Having said that, there are plenty of people who do seem to have this “thick layer of arrogance” and do not actually want criticism. I even see that, sometimes, in people who join writing workshops. I often see it in younger people, but that’s just normal, at that point.

    I don’t really understand rejection of honest, helpful criticism, but I do believe that most people who write, and who know, deep down, that they have talent and intelligence, will not be destroyed by it.

    Writing is hard work. Criticism is tricky, and nerve-wracking. Addressing criticism in order to make one’s writing stronger–that’s the hardest thing of all.

    But thoughtful words delivered with sincere empathy should always be received well.

    If this “friend” freaks out after constructive criticism, then that’s a mark of immaturity and/or insecurity, and that’s not something anyone else can control in another person.

    • koreanish

      Ha. Judy, we know you’re not afraid to tell someone it isn’t any good. But no, he was one of the few I let actually skip over Fiction 1.

  3. Elizabeth Benedict

    Alex- I have been teaching fiction writing workshops for 23 years +/- but have been an amateur psychologist for longer, and my instant diagnosis is that this person could well be a narcissist. The arrogance mentioned – believes that “teachers, mentors, and editors have nothing to offer her” – sounds like narcissism. Would a musician say that a music teacher had nothing to offer her? Would a dancer say that a professional dancer had nothing to offer her? By narcissism, I don’t mean high self regard, I mean people who will take any criticism as an attack and attack back, who are arrogant beyond belief, and who may indicate they want a critique but you give one at your peril. I may be overreacting, over-diagnosing, as we say in the profession (of amateur shrinks); I am hyper-sensitive to these folks and run the other way when I smell them. Advice regardless of diagnosis: Praise the pluses first, suggest areas for improvement. And if the person refuses further contact, you’ve got your diagnosis. If person is inspired to keep working with the critique, suggest places/people to work with-either adult ed courses or private editors (including moi, with my varied practice). XOX Dr. B.

    • koreanish

      Ha. I ALSO am afraid of them! But am learning the differences. And if the person is in fact that kind of narcissist, then …you’re well rid of them.

      I also think that there’s so much backlash to writing workshops, many people who might easily be helped get no help and spend 25 years unpublished and wondering. And miserable.

    • jadepark

      I hear you Elizabeth. I sensed the same–and there are writers like that everywhere…who write for a different purpose than to create art. And I guess in that case, I may oblige them with silence…if they walk away, like Alex says below..then I’d welcome it. :P

  4. Ben Godby

    You, sir, are an accurate marksman. I have long since given up sending my short stories to my friends and family who say, “Whoa, really cool, really nice, really great!” Now, I only send my work to the guy who returns them dripping with red marks.

    -bn

    • koreanish

      Thanks, Ben. And good luck with your work. Learning to take criticism and run with it is one of the best skills you can pick up.

    • koreanish

      Agreed. My rule is, you should avoid letting people you are having sex with read what you’re writing until it is published. Also, people you are related to—especially moms.

  5. tericoyne

    As a writer I have learned to be clear with my readers what I am looking for and yes, there are times when I need support and I ask for it, but most of the time I am looking for real feedback and while I am happy to hear about what works I am anxious to know what doesn’t work. I often attach a list of questions (or my own concerns) to give the reader a jumping off point to get into it with me. I’m rarely disappointed.

    As a reader, I ask the writer ahead of time what they are looking for (in essence I try to find out WHY they want me to read it) as I have discovered that quite often they are asking for my feedback but what they really want is for me to pass it on to my agent. So I’m clear, this is what I’ll do if you ask me to read this, if that’s not what you are looking for I will cheer you on when you get published.

    And like you I NEVER show my work to anyone I’m involved with or — my mom.

  6. Jane Kokernak

    I like your reply to the letter writer, Alex. That’s how a true friend, thoughtful reader, and experienced writer would treat the work of another friend/writer, even if the writer were a novice.

    However, I don’t know if the letter writer, who calls him/her self “A Writer’s Friend,” is much of a friend to begin with. S/he sort of reminds me of someone I sat next to at a dinner once, who was telling me about her various friends, and classifying them as “real” friends and “pity” friends, the pity friends apparently being the people she only hung around with because she felt sorry for them. I think A Writer’s Friend is the same kind of person, and is therefore not even an actual friend to begin with.

  7. jadepark

    Thank you for saying what needed to be said and what wasn’t said in that other blog post. There was one friend/instructor of mine who ripped my story apart…now I know you’re advising that one not “rip apart” story, but in my case, it was exactly what I needed at that time in my learning as a writer. I needed that wake up call. It made me cry, and I found myself at the prof’s office hours to ask for clarification, to beg for encouragement…and I would not otherwise have bothered to go for further advice, had I been given middling feedback.

    He helped me in office hours with encouragement, and my writing was better for it. I am indebted to him forever for that sharp change in writing direction.

    I don’t need that kind of slashing feedback anymore (though I can handle it, too), but what I tell my friends is this: If I had a booger in my nose, you would TELL ME, right…? So if my writing has boogers all over it, please tell me, don’t let it walk around like that.

    Or because I love metaphors, I also say, if my ass looks fat in a particular pair of jeans you would TELL me, but then you’d ALSO point me lovingly to a pair of more flattering pants, too.

    Okay I’ll stop here.

    Thank you Alex.

  8. Marie

    Oh, Alex. I’m afraid I’ve broken both your rules! But, seriously, I do agree with you, particularly if the person giving advice is a writer–I mean a real writer. Would any other expert in any other field give a bullsh*t answer?

    Have you seen the brouhaha surrounding Po Bronson’s new book? Among the subjects he tackles: the over-praising of children. His point; kids know when they are being lied to and when the praise is false. This can’t be good for society. It can’t be good for adults either.

  9. moonrat

    Much, I think, is in delivery. You, for example, must excel at giving smart, useful criticism, even if it’s hard criticism (otherwise your former student wouldn’t have said what they did).

    In this, you are lucky. I think I am much less talented at giving hard criticism (especially complicated considering, erm, what I do for a living).

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  11. bookfraud

    and now, for something completely different (or at least a bit contrary):

    while i think alex’s advise is excellent, if i were the letter-writer, i would just offer some vague praise and criticism, because the “author” isn’t going to listen to anything else.

    the key phrase in the original letter is “she wants to be taken seriously. Her ego is protected by a thick layer of arrogance (teachers, mentors and editors have nothing to offer her), and I’m afraid that if I give her an honest assessment she would push me away for good.

    it doesn’t sound like the novel-writer really wants to be a writer, but be praised to the heavens about her talent. i’ve seen this person in writing workshops and elsewhere, and you wonder why they even bother letting others read their work. they get too defensive and try to explain away their choices and mistakes; they seem more interested in defending their work than actually trying to improve it. if the friend she tells the truth about the awfulness of the novel, she loses her pal and doesn’t really accomplish anything.

    who knows? perhaps the novelist is an unrecognized genius. but i kinda doubt it.

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