10. How Not to Read
by Steve Rosse
For a writer, sometimes the verb “to read” means something different than it means for regular folk. For a writer, sometimes the verb “to read” means “to tell the truth.”
It is something very serious when one writer asks another to read unpublished work, and to be asked to read in this context is a profound compliment and a weighty responsibility.
About two years ago a friend from grad school asked me if I would read her boss’ manuscript. My friend has published two novels that I read in manuscript and she appreciated my suggestions, so she thought I might be able to help her boss. She didn’t want to read for him herself because he is her boss and she didn’t want to muddy those waters.
So the guy is wealthy, she tells me. He owns an advertising company that employs dozens of writers. He’s done amazing things in his life and now he’s turned his hand to writing fiction. He’s willing to pay for help. I was flattered to be asked, as I always am when I’m asked to read a manuscript. I said “yes.”
So he sent me his manuscript and I read it. It was a novel based on the author’s childhood, and its plot covered the weeks between the assassination of John Kennedy and Christmas, 1963. The protagonist was a pre-teen boy in a large, Catholic family in the American Midwest.
The author could write character and setting well. The family and their town were rock solid in my mind, well observed and rich with detail. But a lot of those details didn’t exist in 1963: TV shows that weren’t on the air yet and cars that weren’t on the roads yet. Celebrities who weren’t celebrities yet. I assumed he was aiming for some sort of magical realism, mixing every icon of the 1960’s into one six-week period, but it wasn’t working.
So I told him so. I wrote him a 5,000-word critique of his 30,000-word manuscript. I was blunt. I listed the anachronisms and pointed out garbled bits of dialogue. I pointed out typos and bad grammar and missing paragraph breaks. I gave him my opinion of his plot, his pace, his narrative arc, his character development and his style.
And I praised what I thought should be praised, but here’s the thing: I don’t think you ask somebody to read your manuscript because you want them to tell you what they love about it. I think you ask them to read because you want to know what’s wrong with it. So I did not spend many words telling this man what I liked about his novel. A few, but not many. I spent almost five thousand words telling him what I thought needed more work.
And I never heard from him again. Not a peep. Three chatty e-mails from him leading up to sending me his manuscript. Then nothing. Sending him that critique was like dropping a rock down a dry well. Nothing came back.
I read his manuscript exactly as I’ve read dozens of others: critically. Some other writers have responded well, either taken or left my suggestions, and we’ve stayed friends. The author who asked me to read for her boss had already acknowledged me in her published novels. But others have become bottomless wells. Silence. Or worse.
“Who are you to tell me what’s good or bad?”
Well, I’m the guy you asked.
I guess there are two ways to read another writer’s work. You can read with the intention of being this person’s friend, in which case you deliver one of those glowing hug-fests that show up in the Amazon reviews.
Or you can read critically, honestly and bluntly. You can give the writer feedback he can either take or leave and either he stays your friend or he doesn’t. And taking your suggestions or not has nothing to do with staying your friend.
Or it shouldn’t, at any rate. If it does, then that’s too bad. But I believe that when another writer asks you to read, he’s asking you to tell the truth.
Eastlit Note on How Not to Read:
How Not to Read is the tenth article in the series. Previous articles in the series are:
Steve Rosse is a former columnist for The Nation newspaper in Bangkok. His books are available on Amazon.com