"If Hell exists, it’s filled with old boyfriends . . . and a cat."
So begins the manuscript I’m editing right now in which Sasha Solomon, my protagonist, is plagued by nightmares about relationships gone bad. Because I’m thinking so much about her life, I’m remembering fragments of my own.
Many years ago, I had a boyfriend who was an artist. Since our first interactions neglected talking in favor of aerobics, we didn’t get to know each other much until we were well into being "a couple."
One day, he showed me his art.
I broke up with him that night.
You see, I didn’t get it — his art, I mean. He spent hours with pastels and watercolors creating images of flying chairs. These weren’t chairs with wings; I think I would have liked that. No, his renditions were chairs moving through the air — white background, slightly bent chrome or wooden legs, and blah upholstery. Like I said, I didn’t get it.
I broke up with him because I felt our relationship had no future if something so important, something that tagged his essence as a human being, evoked mocking emotions in me.
As writers, we know writers. Every convention, every trip to the bookstore or library, offers oppportunities to read friends’ works.
What do you do when you care for the person, but not for his story — or craft?
I’m not thinking of anyone in particular here — not when it comes to mystery authors — but I know it’s happened to me. I’ve picked up a book by someone I like, wanted to love it, and haven’t.
It’s an uncomfortable, incomplete, and slightly treacherous response — and it needles me when I see that person later.
Right now, I can imagine several of you are wondering if I’m writing about you.
Don’t go there.
I’m not thinking of anyone in particular.
I simply want to explore this uneasy subject because it’s one of those things we don’t talk about — and it stymies forthright communication and makes us cringe internally.
So, I want to know: How do you handle it when a friend asks you to read his book — or expects that you have — and you have . . . but you don’t want to talk about it because you couldn’t get past p. 40?
I’ve begun to search for the good in every work — something I can praise or admire. But it can be difficult and I still feel like a traitor for not adoring the entire tome, the baby that it took a friend or acquaintance so much effort to create.
Has this ever happened to you?
How have you handled it?
Hey Pari, I usually look for something to compliment an author about even if I did not finish their novel. People’s tastes are so different. Some readers do not touch historicals because many historical mystery writers have a “romantic style”, or are cozy in style. I don’t enjoy those kinds of books, but I meet many authors who write historicals because of Maureen, who writes gritty police procedurals. So I am always polite and friendly of course, and always compliment an author on their success and publication. Clearly an author is published because somebody likes their work and they have a fan base. But it’s all taste, what can you do except find the positive and realize we are not all going to like the same things.
Here’s my take before I start to rant; always tell the truth. If you have a friend, then you’re dishonoring that friend and the friendship with a lie, and if it’s a stranger, then who the hell are they you have to lie to them?
I count on my wirter friends to tell me the truth re: my work. Now I have people who ALWAYS say “great job” whenever they read anything of mine, but I don’t respect them, and chances are I’m not very close with them. If you like something, great – scream about it. But if you didn’t like something, pull me aside and tell me why.
I’ve spent the past few years around the mystery/crime community, and what I fell in love with – and still love – is the genuine comradery, the feeling that, with a few exceptions, all authors pull for each other, want to help each other, share that feeling that “if they buy yours, they’ll buy mine,” etc.
That’s far different than the screenwriting community, which is generally a paranoid, selfish, and down right nasty bunch. A finite number of writers competing for a finite number of jobs.
That being said…
What I cannot stand within the mystery/crime community is the false praise, or rather the dishonesty of people and their opinions. I would estimate that 90% of the people I know in this community do just what you’re saying – lie. Tell someone they loved their book when they didn’t. Or worse yet, talk about how they couldn’t finish the book when in a bar with friends, but then claim the opposite opinion in mixed company.
Now, I’m obviously not saying people should be rude or thoughtless. As writers, we’re putting parts of ourselves out there, and it can hurt to know someone “doesn’t like us.” But what I HATE more than any ego-slap is false praise. Ass kissing. Someone telling me “great story” when they really didn’t like it.
I want to know if someone didn’t like something because I want to know if I can learn from it. Why didn’t they like it? Why did they stop at page 40? Maybe my ego isn’t as fragile as others, but I think if you’re someone who can be offended – not hurt, but offended – by another’s opinion about your work, then you are in the wrong business. And you need to seek professional help.
Now let’s talk about the hurt thing… get over yourself. If your self-image is so thin that you can be hurt by another’s opinion of something you wrote AND THEN GAVE TO THE PUBLIC, you’re an idiot. If you want people to always tell you what a good job you did, go draw pictures for your mommy to put on the fridge.
If you don’t want negative reaction to your work, don’t put it out there. Art, and both good and bad writing is art, is like all art – subjective. Pari didn’t like the guy’s paintings. Maybe another woman LOVED them. Thought the chairs were flying right out of her soul.
It’s subjective, people.
Again, I’m not saying be rude. There are many ways to tell someone you didn’t like their book without saying, “I didn’t like your book.” You obviously don’t have to say you couldn’t get beyond page forty.
You can say, “You know what, tell me what you were trying to do, because I just didn’t get it. But I want to know what you were going for.” Generally, you can then engage in a craft discussion which will benefit both parties, and here’s the thing:
The writer will RESPECT you. If they don’t, then they’re drawing pictures for the fridge.
There’s a fairly well-known blogger within the community who literally has the (unrevealed) opinion that you should, not only never tell a NYTBS author you didn’t care for their book, but that you should treat them with some sort of ass-kissing worship. What this person doesn’t get is that these authors see right through him/her.
I’ve had discussions with Michael Connelly, Lee Child (and others of their status) and they all say that they can spot false praise a mile off. And they all have tremendous respect for someone who will come up and say they didn’t care for a book – as long as that person’s opinion is informed.
I think it was Ellison who said, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion.”
I guess that’s the bottom line. If you didn’t like something and know why you didn’t, tell the author. In a nice way. If you have no idea why you didn’t like something – other than “I hate stories with green-eyed protagonists” – keep your mouth shut.
Iden and Paul,You both demonstrate why I put up this post in the first place — and I’m glad for the discussion.
I really think it’s important.
Iden, you’re not saying to lie; you’re trying to find something good in the works you read. I don’t think that’s dishonest– though it can be if you give the impression that you found more to praise than you did.
Paul made several critical points as well.
Honesty is essential for us to become better writers — and I don’t know anyone in this field whose ego is so secure that he or she believes improvement is unnecessary. (Is there such an animal? I don’t want to meet him or her.)
So much depends on delivery. Guyot’s suggested comment, “You know what, tell me what you were trying to do, because I just didn’t get it,” makes sense. I wish people who didn’t get my work would be that honest with me. It’d open up useful conversation and would, indeed, make me respect that friend even more.
I write in a subgenre that evokes definite responses from certain readers and I’ve had them send me emails saying — “You know, I like you, but I tried to read your book and just couldn’t get through it because I don’t like the genre and never have.” It hurt a little, but I got past it because that was just what Paul urges — an honest response. Once an agent told me she didn’t like Sasha. Fine, I could live with that.
But, my ego is still pretty fragile. I had a couple of horrid experiences with nasty authors when I first started out; their comments were downright cruel–for example: “Pari, your arrogance exceeds your ability as a writer.” That kind of stuff is just plain hurtful.
So, I think I subconsciously equated honest assessment with hurting my friends. Guyot’s “rant” set that one aright.
It’s about intent.
Again, thank you both.
Oh, boy. This one is a doozy. See Pari, this is why we call you Fearless Leader.
Paul is so on the money — this is a subjective business. As I’ve found from reviewing, some books are just plain better than others. Longevity doesn’t equal talent, in some cases. Rookie mistakes are pervasive. But… being a rookie myself, I’m hesitant to lambaste anyone, whether they deserve it or not, because where would that get me in life? An enemy before I leave the gates. ‘Cause face it, negative reviews, on the page or in person, don’t make buddies.
And I’m certainly not perfect. I have a lot to learn. I think this issue is different for someone a little more seasoned.
Do I need to worry about upsetting someone with a negative review? Sure. If I come out of the gate as some kind of hypercritical harpy, and people think my work stinks, my career’s over before it even began.
But, I’ll be the first to say hey, your second book outshone your first by a mile. Or your series is getting stronger and stronger. Or this/that didn’t work for the story. I try to be honest without being hurtful.
I haven’t had a lot of contact with authors that I’ve read so the point is moot until I get out on the mashed potato circuit.That said, I’m transitioning out of reviewing. Too much to do, too little time. And if I read something I don’t like, I don’t have to find the good in it for the press.
“Pari, your arrogance exceeds your ability as a writer.”
See, that makes me feel like person saying it is of the UNinformed opinion. Someone who has their own self-worth issues, and must work through them by bashing others.
There is never a reason to act like that. Recently, I was asked (by another writer) my opinion on something they’d recently written. I told her (in a sitting of four people) that “didn’t work for me” and explained why, always keeping it in the “this is only my opinion” tone.
Now, this piece was – in my opinion – really, really weak. But there was no need to be brutal. And I do not feel I was being dishonest for one second. I told the writer the problems I had with the piece, and it was done only after having been asked for my opinion.
There was nothing positive that could come from me saying something akin to “That piece was just awful.” Nobody benefits, and this planet already has more than enough negative energy floating around.
Sticky issue, Pari. At the moment I’m personally more mortified by not having even READ so many of the authors that I’m meeting. It’s overwhelming. But of course, I know exactly what you mean.
When I read some work I don’t love of a friend’s or new acquaintance’s, I tend to shift into dance teacher mode. I really play up the strengths and make only the helpful suggestions that I feel the person is open to hearing – and only if I think it will help. Dance students are uniquely vulnerable because it’s their BODIES you’re talking about – and with writers we’re talking about their souls.
I also keep chacun a son gout taped to my forehead (metaphorically). I’m ridiculously picky about reading and I’m simply NOT going to love most of what I read.
Kudo’s to Pari for having the courage to even bring this subject up. Why courage? Because that’s what it takes to be honest in this biz. Not being known as shy, or without definite opinions, I’ve nevertheless decided to subscribe to the ‘don’t ask and don’t tell’ mode. Why? Because most writers who ask are only looking for praise anyway. Besides, who the hell REALLY cares what I think about their book? I get into enough trouble as it is.
But let me qualify that – I’m honest with friends. That is part of what being a friend is – a true friend that is. So, to my ‘true friends’ out there – and you know who you are – I meant what I said.
And just for the record – the only On The Bubble interviews you’ll see will be with writers and people I truly admire, and whose work I honestly enjoy.
And further more – “Pari, your arrogance exceeds your ability as a writer” -WTF??
Arrogance? Oh, please. ‘She’ obviously doesn’t know you. Bitchy comments like that (and yeah,there are plenty of bitchy female writers out there)are classic signs of jealously and envy. Which means, dear Pari – you’re doing good! And also means she ain’t ever managed to snare the noms you have!
J.T.,I doubt your reviews were ever venal. The writer to whom I referred with the arrogance phrase wrote marvelous, snotty reviews. They were great fun to read BEFORE I was published.
Paul,I think we’re on the same page here about negative energy — though I think you’ve been around longer (no, you’re not older, just more experienced) and have dealt with more crap. I’m still gun shy and want to be “nice.”
I always learn so much from your posts; they’re absolutely real.
Alexandra,Dance teacher mode? Great way to think about it. Of course, when I taught belly dancing, I was too young to know that bodies didn’t do what mine did . . .
Elaine, ah, Elaine. I’d expect nothing less than the truth from you — always. That’s one of the things I adore about you.
But, let me set the record straight about the woman who slammed me: her first book earned a $450,000 advance, she was on the NYT bestseller list for weeks (getting $70,000 bonus for each one), was on the Today Show, is frequently a guest speaker on the literary circuit, now has her own movie/video production company, and has published two more big sellers since.
She’s earned more and won more awards than I’m likely ever to do. So, it’s not a question of her being jealous of my writing. Something else was/is going on . . .
Ah, well. No more lost sleep over that one.
Hey, knowing women as well as I do (Let’s face it, I’ve got a lot of years on most of you) – comments like that can only mean one thing. She sees something in you that she finds lacking in herself. ‘Arrogance’ can easily be translated to ‘self-confidence’. So-in spite of her successes, she must feel inadequate about some damn thing. Else why bother?
“…your arrogance exceeds your ability as a writer.” Wow, she must have had a really bad day to take it out on you like that! Of course, perhaps she is the one with the arrogance problem, and it could be that you’re genuinely better liked than she is. Big paydays do not necessarily a gracious person make. (And what Elaine said.)
As a reader, when I meet authors, I find it more enlightening to have them talk about their work — and listening, especially when they obviously enjoy what they do, is a lovely way to spend a conversation. However, I’ll comment if asked and if I’ve either read enough of an author’s work to have a good feel for it or if I’ve just finished reading a specific work — my memory can be seriously fallible (I can’t blame my age, it’s always been like that) and I seldom remember much further than a book or two away from what’s currently sitting in my lap unless I have paid special attention for some reason. When I do comment though, I try to be as specific as I can about what I like or dislike, and why I think it matters.
Great question, Pari.
And everyone has made good points. As a teacher, I’ve learned that every person’s work has positive elements, and they need SOME praise. That doesn’t mean I have to lie to students or give them A’s they don’t deserve. It’s the same with writers, I think. I doubt anyone has ever been helped by totally negative feedback, except in forming a vague desire for success-as-revenge.
And Pari, that’s neat that you did aerobics with your boyfriend. What was it, like jumping jacks or something? 🙂
Elaine, really, it’s okay — grin.
B.G., The way you comment about an author’s work is exactly right; it’s considered and honest. I know your observations about Sasha’s vocabulary really interested me.
And, Julia . . . the aerobics were more like push ups.
If anybody ever said that “arrogance comment” to my wife, I’d tell them to get to the gym and work off their aggression. That is nasty and hurtful thing to say and I would stay 100 miles away from that person. If you want critical feedback, that is not the kind of thing that helps. Who could say such a thing to you? your so nice and friendly and fun. Frankly I think the best feedback you get is from your true readers. Over the long haul they tell you which books they like and why. If they don’t like something, you’ll find out about it.
Ouch. The truth hurts.
I recently had to give some feedback on a person’s manuscript. I didn’t want to give this person any B.S., any false hope. Of course, it’s just my opinion. That’s all it can be.
Iden,Sorry not to respond to your comment yesterday; a marvelous thunderstorm ripped through Albuquerque and I turned off the computer.
The writer to whom I referred lives in Albuquerque and we’ve managed not to bump into each other for quite some time. I do now avoid her — in the same way I avoid anyone who is compelled to make her-or-himself feel good by putting others down.
Life is too short . . .
I’m late with this (because of my galleys, due back “yesterday”) and most everything has been said, but I had to laugh at Paul’s “I hate stories with green-eyed protagonists.” I once had a rejection from a Big NY Pub House Editor on my history-mystery-romance, Dream Dancer. The book revolves around an 1875 circus. The editor wrote (and I swear I’m not making this up): “I hate circus books.”Signed, Editor.
Being insincere about a book (to a friend) is kind of like the “She has a nice personality” response. So I have mixed feelings about Pari’s question. I once asked a well-known on-line reviewer if I could send her my latest book and she said, “I don’t like your books.” I suppose I could have said, “Why?” but I was taken aback. And maybe I didn’t want to hear why.
The thing is, reviewer aside, I would never, ever ask a friend how she/he liked my book. I’d figure if she/he liked it, she/he would say something 🙂
By the way, Pari, I really like your third book’s opening sentence.
Well, I’m late but my comment’s brief. I avoid problems by simply not reading books by writers I know.
Actually, I think that’s great advice, Deni — about not asking a friend what he or she thinks. Oh, sage one.
BTW: I’m glad you like that first line. So did Sasha.
Eric, you’re kidding, right? I can’t imagine my life without reading — and respecting — the books by my Murderati partners. It’d be poorer by far.