Thursday, December 22, 2011

"You're not a novelist"

Two months ago very old friend bought my novel. We met for lunch yesterday and he was ready to comment. "You're a very good writer," he told me, "but you're not a novelist."

He was not, I'm sure, deliberately malicious. I asked why he thought I wasn't a novelist. Because the book didn't hold his or his wife's interest. We spent the rest of the lunch talking about other things, but I'm afraid I have not yet recovered.

It's one thing to say, "The book did not hold my interest," or "I found the situation preposterous," or "I did not like the main character," or as another friend just said about a book (thankfully not mine), "it is woefully over-written, and under-imagined." Novels fail for different reasons for different people.

Moreover, it's one thing to say, "You're not a very good novelist." It's very different to dismiss someone with, "You're not a novelist." That statement closes the door on any improvement, on any possibility of being a novelist. It's both thoughtless and cruel.

First, it assumes there's a profession(?), trade(?), racket(?) called "novelist," akin to doctor, lawyer, truck driver. Second, it assumes, I believe, a level of craft rather than a diploma or acceptance into a professional group. It assumes one is a novelist, not by writing long fictions, but by writing novels that meet a certain standard of excellence, and that standard can be defined and measured.

There is, however, very little agreement over what defines a novel. It's a work of fiction, in prose, and lengthy, but even these can provoke debate. And if we cannot even pin down the concept of the "novel" who would be arrogant enough to define a novelist?

My toxic friend.

He knows what is a novel and what is not. (Robert B. Parker is one of his favorite novelists. Now there's someone who holds your interest! I agree; I'm not Robert B. Parker.) He knows my book is not a novel because it didn't hold his interest. Nor did it hold his wife's interest. Ergo: He knows I'm not a novelist. As a friend, he wants to save me from wasting any more time writing works for which I am not naturally suited.

I'm ashamed that his arrogant ignorance bothers me so much I took time from my current novel to write this. I wish I knew why mild criticism stings so much more painfully than sincere praise gives delight. It's something I'll work on.


  1. Wally,

    Writing a novel, especially a serious and personal novel, requires the opening of a door to emotion, memory and compassion in oneself that cannot be entirely closed even after the book is done and published. Careless, thoughtless responses, therefore, crash in and stain the interiror, feeling almost like acts of spiritual vandalism. Readers respond to literature with a level of sensitivity and understanding more or less approximating how open are their own emotional doors. There are many lousy readers out there, who view the act of reading not in the way I describe, but rather as a transaction, something bought and something sold. For that kind of reader, the product or service must "work" as anticipated or else the purchase and the product itself are deemed inferior. There are already too many novelists out there willing to write to the specs of that sort of transactional relationship. God knows the world doesn't need more of them. Look for more open readers, is my advice.

  2. What your friend did was incredibly rude and insensitive. He may or may not have meant it maliciously, but it was simply wrong to say what he said. Too often, people offer up "helpful" advice which is self-serving. It's not about helping you, but rather about elevating themselves. In this case, he is taking on a position of power and authority that he does not own by telling you what you are and are not.

    He is toxic. You called it right.

  3. I couldn't put the novel down. Does that mean I'm not a reader if my experience doesn't match the "experts'"? When does Phil get to another tour?