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".