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April 2006

Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News

Remember the old Twilight Zone episode (and, before that, the superb short story) about the little boy who controlled everyone and everything in his town? If you angered him, he sent you to the cornfield. This story was often invoked in The (Baltimore) Sun newsroom, circa 1993-2003, where it reminded people of a certain boss.

If he declared that he wanted coverage of, say, a non-existent lunar eclipse, a reporter would be dispatched to write an article on why the moon stubbornly insisted on appearing in that night's sky. It was simply easier to calibrate the world to the boss's expectations rather than vice versa. Otherwise, he might send you to the cornfield.

Look, no one likes bad news or criticism. But it's always instructive to see who wants to bring it to you, and how. Rather than kill the messenger, consider his or her motives. Does he care for you? Does she want you to be happy? Is she trying to keep you from walking down the street naked or is she a toadying sycophant who insists your new invisible suit is beautiful? Is there a touch of schadenfreude in the conciliatory e-mail, a secret glee muffled by those oh-so-sympathetic tones? Does the person manage to miss your true triumphs while ferreting out the most obscure humiliations? ("No, I didn't see the front-page announcement about the Pulitzer, but that photo in the Pennysaver makes your butt look huge.") It can't hurt to observe these things. I take that back. It can hurt quite a bit. Still, it's good to information to have.

Let's take the generous view, however, and assume that some of these things happen because people don't know what to say to writers. We are odd people, after all, who work in our pajamas and consider the UPS guy a co-worker. So, with a nod to my old favorite, Jean Kerr, who often used this format, here are six tips for "How to Talk to An Author."
  1. Don't say: "How's the book?" For one thing, the author on the book-a-year schedule is utterly flummoxed by this question. What book? The most recently published title? The about-to-be-published title? Or the work-in-progress, which is almost certainly torturing the author at that very moment? Besides, "How's the book?" implies sinister things about the state of the author's work and publishing at large. The only possible answer seems to be: "Oh, sitting up in bed and taking a little dry toast and tea."
  2. If you haven't read an author's latest title and can't even recall the name, say: "I hear the latest book is magnificent." If, in fact, you've heard that the book is a steaming pile of crap and you dislike lying, say: "I've been hearing a lot of intriguing things about the new book." Another surefire winner: "I bought your book the day it came out, but I just haven't had a chance to read it yet." Read or unread, the royalty rate on a hardcover remains the same.
  3. Never reference a writer's bad review, no matter how prominent or notorious. Think of the bad review as the piece of toilet paper that was stuck to the author's shoe yesterday. At this point, there's nothing constructive to be gained by mentioning it. If the author tries to draw you into a discussion of a bad review, stoutly insist you never saw it. Maintain that no one saw it, that no one will ever see it, that the publication has zero readers and even less credibility. "The cover of the New York Times Book Review? Oh nobody sees that."
  4. If the author begins reciting a bad review back to you, refuse to agree that it's negative. "Steaming pile of crap -- I think that's sort of grudging praise in her lexicon, a coded way of saying it's a great read." When all else fails, try the "Whitman," the Hail Mary pass of dealing with bad reviews. "When Leaves of Grass was published, Whitman was compared to a pig rooting in garbage."
  5. Never say: "You know I'm not much of a writer, but I've got some great ideas for a book, if I could just get someone to, you know, jot them down and shape them into a workable manuscript, I'd be willing to go fifty-fifty on it."
  6. And if a writer burbles, "Guess what? I got a starred Kirkus for No Good Deeds and a Gumshoe nomination for Best Novel for To The Power of Three!" say: "I have no friggin' idea what a Kirkus is, but I'll let you buy me a drink if you stop being so damn perky."
Meanwhile, a free copy of PISTOL POETS to the first person who tells me what inspired the title of this month's letter. You're on the honor system, which means no Googling. PISTOL POETS is the greatest novel ever written about an MFA program in Oklahoma and is now second only to STRAIGHT MAN as my all-time favorite academic novel. PISTOL POETS will teach you not only how to speak to a writer, but how to drink like one and how, when necessary, to shoot at one and even ride a motorcycle bare-assed on a cold day. So if you lucky enough to meet Victor Gischler, feel free to ask him a seventh question: Is all your work autobiographical?

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