When I was in graduate school, we had a grad student reading series. And in this grad student reading series, we had to introduce our fellow students. And in these introductions, we were required to say nice things about their work. However, you didn’t get to choose who you would introduce: it was semi-randomly assigned to you by the readings coordinator. Which meant that not infrequently someone had to introduce a person whose work they didn’t really care for. I’m not putting that out there in a hostile way. It’s not as if people didn’t like each other and weren’t able to critique each other. It’s just that in any group of ten writers, there are people whose work you really like and people whose work you don’t really like. And, what’s more, since writers tend to sit around talking about each other, we all tended to know exactly what our classmates thought of each others’ work. Which is why, after listening to a few dozen of these introductions, I realized that there are two handy things people do whenever they want to give insincere praise.
1. They don’t praise the work. Instead, they just describe several of its key features. For instance, if you hate how ornate someone’s writing is, you might say, “Beverly has such a lush, ornate writing style.” Or if you hate that they’re always writing these tedious domestic dramas, you might say, “Jonathan writes such careful, quiet domestic dramas.” You’re not actually praising the work, but no one notices.
2. The funnier thing people would do, though, was say exactly the opposite of what they really thought. For instance, if you thought that someone’s work was trivial and aimless. You might say, “Jonathan writes careful, domestic stories that manage to avoid being trivial and aimless.”
The lesson I took from this is that if you’re going to lie to someone about their work, you should just commit to it, because lots of writers have tremendous social anxiety and if there’s one thing that people with social anxiety are good at, it’s picking out the hidden subtext of what you’re trying to say. So instead of attempting to have your cake and eat to it too, you should just say something like, “I was on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. And I cried at the end. Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that! This is a work of genius!”
(This blog post was prompted not by anything I did or said, but by a review I just read of Amanda Filipacchi’s novel, where the reviewer said, “Amanda Filipacchi is the funniest novelist you’ve never heard of… Few comic novelists get characters talking so naturally, and amusingly… ” And I was like, umm, no. There are many good things to be said about this novel, but its dialogue is not natural.)