Tell the Truth about Bad Writing
Over at Salon today, columnist Cary Tennis answered a letter that deals with a problem many of us have had to face before or will face in the future; what to do when you are asked to comment on a terrible piece of writing:

"Dear Cary,

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"

Tennis gives an interesting answer. After a literary object lesson in how writing is a series of arbitrary choices, he advises this "writer's friend" to say nothing, to clam up and keep their relationship healthy by keeping art out of it.

I think Tennis' response is amusing and wise. But he's also dead wrong. As an editor at a world-renowned literary magazine, I send out thousands of personal rejection letters every day. And I have discovered something valuable: writers want to know what you think -- you personally -- and they will always get over it if you tell them the truth. If they don't, then they are not writers, and they need permission to stop.

Professionals want cold-ass judgment. They won't even feel your criticism. They hear a thousand conflicting opinions about their work, and they just want honesty so they can establish a clear baseline.

Amateurs want to be taken seriously. The criticism will sting and make them defensive and pouty, but they will secretly love every minute of it. As long as you make it clear that you carefully read every word and did not flinch away from their terrible prose, they will secretly feel like superheroes, no matter how much they balk and bitch.

The "tell them nothing!" approach is not helpful because any logical person who gets this response knows that this means that their writing sucks. If you bake somebody a cake, and then ask them how it tastes, and they put their fork aside after eating a slice and say "I am not going to tell you," then that means your cake tastes like foamy, frosted dogshit.

Criticizing a novel is a lot of work. Generally, it is a quid pro quo affair. I would only ask somebody to read and respond to my novel for free if I was willing to read and respond to their novel for free. This is maybe five people in the world. So here are your best options for what to say when somebody delivers a terrible piece of writing to you:

1). You need to read this out loud to yourself before you give it to me. Record it and listen to it and then give it back to me with new edits. Editing is the most painful part of writing, and you want somebody else to suffer instead of doing the work yourself. Why do you want to nail me to a cross and spear me in the side? Why do you want me to die for your sins?

2). I don't have time to give you the criticism you need. I suggest that you get together with a writing group of like-minded creative professionals. There are problems with your writing, but they can be fixed. I think the whole novel needs to be more like "Chapter X." However, I don't have the expertise or the time to tell you how to do this.

3). Even terrible writers, like Miracle Jones, sit down and bang out thousands of words every day, just to delete them, just to stay in practice. To get accustomed to the physical act of writing. To fight the fear! Are you writing thousands of words every day and pissing them into the sea through a strainer, only sifting out the kidney stones, or are you saving every delicate excretion in a labeled glass jar? Why should I have to look at your hundreds of glass jars full of boring yellow piss? I want to see the perversions and the anomalies! I want to see the rock shaped like a shark tooth that you squeezed out of your sensitive little hole after weeks of fevers and sobbing! Show me what you are proud of! I deserve your best!

4). Your novel is not publishable. If I bought it in a store, I would feel cheated. That doesn't mean it is not well-written or interesting to me personally, but it is certainly not in a sellable condition. Are you writing for yourself or for others? If you are writing for yourself, then why are you asking me to read it? If you are writing for others, then why don't you get a stranger to read this instead of someone so close to you?

5). A professional editor makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I am not a professional editor. I don't know what is wrong with your book, but I know it has problems. I wish I could tell you what they are and how to fix them, but if I could do that, I would quit my job working here at Jiffy Lube and peddle my sweet ass to Random House. I'd have college interns getting me coffee and fat, glowing egg-sandwiches every morning. You would be embarrassed to ask me to read your novel. It would be like asking a priest to bless your swimming pool.

NOTE: nobody is going to fuck you if you read their novel and say you love it. Don't even think about it. Put it out of your mind. They might fuck you if you read their novel and say you hate it, just to get weird revenge. But love is not currency to an artist. It is a thing to be mistrusted; a false positive.

Tell the truth, and if they can't handle it, then they will never ask you for your opinion again. You win either way, and by telling the truth, literature as a whole gets incrementally better. And by teaching you to tell the truth, literature has done its damn job, however roundabout, however terrible the piece of writing.

Posted by miracle on Wed, 26 Aug 2009 17:03:26 -0400 -- permanent link

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