In the mail last week I received a parcel from France. It contained a paperback novel with an attractive jacket featuring bands of medieval illumination enclosing the image of a lone fortress on a hilltop.
I knew at once what it was. This time last year my agent had asked me if I would read a manuscript for another of her clients and write a report. It was a commission by the client herself who had previously published non-fiction and memoir, but had never written a novel and was seeking professional opinion.
The subject was an historical incident in a part of France that I know a little, and I was intrigued. I said yes. The manuscript arrived and I began to read. By the time I was halfway through I was almost certain that the book would not be acceptable to a mainstream publisher. Although the story was a gripping and ultimately tragic one, the author’s lack of experience as a novelist was throwing up too many obstacles.
I wondered what to say. Should I encourage her to continue and offer some pointers as to what she could do to improve it? That would be disingenuous, I felt. The problems were too fundamental. Writing a novel is long, hard labour and it seemed disrespectful to offer half-truths for the sake of not offending. The only thing I could do was to explain as fully and honestly as possible where I thought the flaws lay.
It took a long time to write the report. At every turn I was challenged to dig for my deepest knowledge of plot and characterisation and the other essentials of good fiction, while trying to frame everything I said in the most constructive way possible. Once completed I read it and re-read it and eventually, in great trepidation, sent it off.
To my surprise, almost by return, an email arrived thanking me for my ‘valuable and considered report’. She went on, ‘I greatly appreciate it, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear!’ I was transported to a moment in my own writing career when an agent who had sought me out after the publication of my second novel told me in no uncertain terms, having read the manuscript of the third, that she seemed to have made a mistake and what did I think I had written here?
I remembered leaving her office in London with bad grace and the feeling of being crushed (though she was right, and the novel still languishes in a bottom drawer). In contrast, my client had responded with such openness. We later had a long skype call and discussed other ways for her to deal with the subject matter, including the possibility of weaving it into a second volume of memoir; for there were substantial echoes of her own life in the fictional story she had told.
We parted cordially and I thought no more about it until I heard from her again a few weeks ago, with the news that she had decided to self-publish. She had acted on as much of what I had said about the book as she felt capable of, she said. The book was now out and was gathering a lot of attention. I wrote back to congratulate her, and took the opportunity to say how anxious I had been about her possible reaction to my report and how much I had admired the way she had responded.
She replied to say that her sister, who has for many years worked as a commissioning editor in television, had read the report and observed how difficult it is to get an ‘honest comment on a creative work from a respected source’ – which left me thinking that this is not a good state of affairs. Respected source or not, honesty is surely one of the great responsibilities that comes with experience, a duty to pass on the lessons that one has learnt with as much truthfulness and compassion and humility as possible.
All it takes is to remember a moment when your own journey might have been made easier had someone else done the same for you.
I enjoyed reading this; it sent me back to my days as a literary agent when I had to be the imparter of bad news. I once took a train all the way to Newcastle to tell an author her second novel (I had loved the first which had garnered a lot of attention and won a prize) was unpublishable. She knew the minute she looked at my anxious face on the platform.
I was more cavalier with authors I didn’t know and it’s only now, training to be a counsellor, that I realise I undoubtedly hurt a lot of people with my blunt rejections.
Being honest constructively and sensitively is so hard to achieve and, as you say, rare to find. I’d want you to read my novel, as I know how valuable your honesty and expertise is to those that have sought it.
I have been impressed to see ‘critique’ included as a central practice in some art schools: coaching students to be able to give and receive constructive critique of their own and others’ creative work as part of finding their own voice, refining their technique, and also as preparation for the ‘professional’ world. I have sought for a while to import this practice – a basic life skill – into other educational settings. Schools, for example, are hotbeds of critique – much of it unconscious and unskillful. I have not given up. Shifts in culture can take a long time. This story helps to prove the value of the endeavour. Thank you.
I completely agree : honesty is so much more useful than being “nice” but it is so difficult to practice : it requires a lot more work and attention from oneself and also skills which take some time to acquire : basically it is honesty towards oneself and being clear with oneself before being able to transmit one’s real opinion about a manuscript or a anything else. It applies to everything and every occasion in life and it is so hard to express, but yet absolutely essential if one really cares. Hope I’m clear ! Thanks for writing about your experience.
That is a mighty generous act, Jamie. The time it takes — the reading, thinking, evaluating, the consideration, the report..Lordy. Of course, you being you, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. She’s to be commended for finding a way to get the feedback she needed. As the sister said, very hard to find this kind of generosity and truthfulness.
I believe that a key to what you achieved is humility; without humility, empathy and its consequent compassion are unlikely to accompany bald truth. Humility is a mark of greatness.