If you’re trying to lie about how much you like something, here are two things you should NEVER say.

two_face_piece_xlargeWhen 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.)

Awkward and stilted is an effective writing style sometimes

Just finished Amanda Filipacchi’s The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. It was an extremely good book. Very surreal. Very absurd. It’s about a beautiful woman who dresses up in a fat suit in order to find a man who’ll love her for herself, and about a very ugly woman who keeps trying to convince one particular man to love her. And there’s also a murderer in there for some reason.

But what this description can’t convey is how bizarre this book is. I think it was in the third chapter that I realized what I was dealing with, when I read this passage:

I always do whatever I can to help Penelope. She’s a dear friend who’s had a tough life. Or rather, she had a tough three days, six years ago. She was kidnapped and kept in a coffin for sixty-nine hours.

And that’s played neither seriously nor for laughs. It’s just a bit of background! At that point, I accepted that bizarre things were going to happen for bizarre reasons, and they did. Still, the novel remained very thematically cohesive, very focused on the body, and everything paid off in a satisfactory way.

The other thing that stands out about the book is how stilted and mannered the writing is. None of the dialogue sounds anything like what a real person would say. For instance:

“It has been brought to my attention by one of you that women can hide weapons inside their bodies in the fashion of a tampon, and that the weapon can easily be accessed, especially when the woman goes to the bathroom.”

“Typical that a man should think of this,” Penelope mutters, looking at her shoes.

Jack seems taken aback by her guess, but doesn’t deny it. “I’m a cop! That’s why I thought of it. Not because I’m a man.”

It took a little while to get used to the writing style. It reminds me of nothing so much as the style in Kafka or Calvino or Houellebecq or other European surrealists who’ve been translated into English. I always assumed that the particular stiltedness of these books was an artifact of translation. I thought that maybe the dialogue in Kafka sounded more natural in German. And perhaps that’s true. But reading this book has made me realize that overly-mannered writing can create effects that naturalistic dialogue can’t. It allows characters to say more. And it allows more things to happen. And, at least in this book, it didn’t prevent me from seeing the human side to these characters. They weren’t real people, but they were emblematic of certain real things that exist in people. And that was enough to allow them to touch me.41idOJWOhxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_