Thinking of dishing out some love or hate to your literary friends, enemies, frenemies? Not sure how to take those increasingly probing questions about your novel from co-workers, loved ones, strangers? Here’s a starter guide for this season’s ins and outs in the world of writerly commentary.
“His writing is so good, I would read his grocery list.”
Nope, nuh uh, no way. Hell no. This is the compliment you get when the person delivering it has nothing good to say about your writing. And it’s a damn lie. You wouldn’t read that person’s grocery list. That person’s grocery list is boring as hell! Here’s a list I made for a recent trip to the hardware store:
What a talent!
And besides: the second you do start adding creative flair to a grocery list, it because something else, like a lyric poem written in the form of a grocery list, or some other highly conceptual bullshit that has a 90-percent chance of making the reader roll her eyes and groan.
“You don’t look like a writer.”
This is not a diss; this is a fucking compliment. The first time someone said this to me, I literally shimmied with glee on my barstool. Then I tweeted about it.
Who the fuck wants to look like a writer? No one! Because real writers don’t look like anything, except maybe sad. When people say this to you, their reference point for what a writer looks like is almost definitely the guy in their least favorite coffee shop who wears like six scarves and a beret (with a flannel that’s probably hiding a black T-shirt screenprinted with some awful Shakespeare pun) and looks up every once in a while to sigh too loudly before going back to composing (in Scrivener) his Facebook posts about life as a tortured, starving artist.
When people tell you that you don’t look like a writer, what they’re really saying is you don’t look like someone hell bent on convincing everyone around you that you’re sacrificing your happiness for the sake of the Next Great American Novel (even if you are).
“Writing isn’t a real job.”
Don’t do it. Do not press START on that thinkpiece machine. The only people insulted by this are the kind of people who will write a 4,000 takedown of the person who wrote a 1,000-word defense of the person who wrote a 2,000-word confession about all the bad choices he made after he published his first novel with an indie press and was certain he could live the next ten years on his $5,000 advance.
“Oh, so you’re a writer? Would I have read anything of yours?”
This one is flames because it swings both ways. Obviously if someone asks you this question, there’s approximately a zero percent change he or she (come on, it’s a he) has read anything you’ve written. If you haven’t published a book, it’s hard not to take the L here. What are you going to say? Well, Bertram, that depends on whether you’re familiar with New Ohio Review! You can either play it off with self-depreciation or earnestly admit the sad truth: that you’ve appeared in a few literary magazines that your MFA classmates were fucking stoked about but no one other than MFA students will ever actually read.
On the other hand, if you have published a book, here’s your chance to give Bertram the business. Well, I don’t know, Bertram. That depends on whether you’re interested in coming-of-age narratives of homeless youth in San Francisco. Better yet: just laugh off the question and stare into the distance while your spouse puts his/her hand on your back, stares and you admiringly and says, Oh, he’s a brilliant novelist. There’s no way Bertram won’t be impressed.
“Her writing is a little bit…derivative.”
OK, so there’s actually a lot of derivative writing out there–young bro writers spewing awful Kerouac-ean prose, to list one example. Don’t do that shit.
But this is really just here so I can bitch about the one time my entire workshop railed against a book because it was based around a failing relationship, which meant that it “wasn’t doing anything new.”
Nothing is new, you fuckers! That’s why we have to immediately place each book in context of its literary fathers and brothers and morally questionable distant cousins. We are complicated animals; we are not bound simply to plot and premise. We like new takes on old themes and old takes on new themes and everything in between.
This is among the most unimaginative of writerly disses, and is almost never in style.
“His imagery was so good; I could practically see it right in front of me!”
Oh, you like that imagery, huh? How about this tense, seven-page description of a leaf poised to fall off its parental maple tree and signify the advent of fall? How about this slightly sexist description of the buxom young barista who foams my latte every morning? You like all this flotsam and jetsam, just flotsaming and jetsaming around? Oh, yeah. You do. Yeah, you do.
Justin Bouckaert lives, writes and composes boring grocery lists in Columbia, SC. Thankfully, no one at his day job knows he’s working on a novel.