Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why the advice in the columns is free

I enjoy reading advice columns for the letters, because they are often such vivid, painful glimpses of human life. But I often disagree with the answers. This week a reader wrote to Emily Yoffe, who took over the "Dear Prudence" column in Slate from Margo Howard. Yoffee herself is always worth reading; she has an offbeat energy that is smarter-than-your-average eccentric magazine writer, and she is charmingly open about her own flaws and foibles. She is a gem in her "Human Guinea Pig" pieces, and overall I consider her quite talented.

But this time around I must take issue with her resolution to a wife's question in the December 11 column (2nd letter). The wife has finished editing her husband's book manuscript, and she thinks it's awful. She wants to know if she should just keep her mouth shut, or sit him down and inform him that he'll never be published. Yoffee writes "You don't need to crush your husband—you're right, the marketplace will take care of that task—but you should be honest. The next time he starts talking about what he's going to say to Meredith Vieira when she's interviewing him on the Today show, you need to convey that the chances of anyone's book becoming a best-seller are vanishingly small, and his are less than that."

Bzzzzzzzt! As someone who has mediated in many a would-be literary partnership masquerading as a marriage, I have to throw a flag here. What? Why? How on earth can this be helpful advice? Everyone has to learn to write somehow, and some of the best-published authors today -- authors sitting at the top of the bestseller lists -- got off to a rough start. An underrated but lovely volume called Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul has a zillion of these stories, including mystery author Tony Hillerman, whose agent told him the Native American theme would never sell, and the now-insanely-rich romance author Debbie Macomber, whose friends begged her to stop typing at the kitchen table and get a real job so she could help support her family. In my own past I have a rogue's gallery of people who felt the need to inform me that my interest in writing books and working with them for a living was both unrealistic and self-indulgent. (Sometimes I think this society must have an undeclared war on literary interests.)

I am grateful to Yoffe for publishing the letter, though, because it highlights why in an earlier post I urged authors to stop making your spouses, partners, parents and colleagues your readers. 97% of the people close to us have no qualifications whatsoever to read and edit our writing, yet I counsel author after author who has been actively discouraged by loved ones who thought they were helping by being honest (i.e. unkind).

Here is my answer to the woman who wrote that letter. "You are his wife, not his editor, so if you don't care for his writing then I urge you to resign at once and return to your most important role in his life: that of partner and supporter (the role that he should also fulfill for you). Personally I would nurture my partner's dreams, whether that person wanted to write books, act, direct, sail, or run marathons. It doesn't matter if you think he's good or bad at it -- what matters is that when you two merged your futures as one, you agreed to be there for each other. If he joined a running club and had the slowest time in the group, you wouldn't stand out there on the trail yelling 'Give it up! You'll never win the Marine Corps Marathon so stop embarrassing me and get back to the couch where you belong!'

By the way, editors are losing jobs every day in this country, and most of them are very good. Let him pay a professional editor to work with him (or send him right here to Booklab!), and enjoy your retirement from the defacto book coaching profession."

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