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.