On Advice, and Where It Comes From

This morning over coffee I saw one of those ubiquitous bits of Facebook wisdom attributed to everyone from Anonymous to Abraham Lincoln to Morgan Freeman. It said, “Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given: Don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”

No matter who said it, when we’re starting out as writers, we’re always (or should be, anyway) looking for advice and help from established authors. When I give talks, I’m sometimes asked what was the best advice I ever received. I’m hardly ever asked what was the worst advice, yet that can sometimes be as useful as the best advice.

Back in the seventies, when I had written my first novel, I gave the manuscript to the author John Gardner to read, comment on, and, I’d hoped in my wildest dreams, recommend to his agent. Gardner is no longer with us, but at the time he was quite a famous guy. I was hungry for what he could tell me.

Not to be confused with the John Gardner who took over the James Bond series, this one wrote some best-selling literary novels in the late seventies and early eighties (including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, October Light, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts) in addition to children’s books, well-regarded books of criticism, and—guess what—advice for writers (The Art of FictionOn Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist).

At that time he was running the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, and he was friends with my wife, who was also teaching in the English Department.

I was an adjunct instructor in the department, and had met him on several occasions. He had the reputation for being extremely helpful to apprentice writers. I’d see him around the department, and in my interactions with him he was warm and friendly, and treated me like a colleague. He asked to see some of my writing, and told me he’d publish me in the new literary journal he had started at Binghamton, he’d recommend me to his agent, he’d help get me published, and so on.

I had written a draft of a novel, my first, a kind of bildungsroman about a young man who gradually learns to get in touch with “the life he had lost in living,” to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. Called Vital Signs, it was a typical first book, not groundbreaking, I knew, but still I thought it had its merits.

I put it off as long as possible, but I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and with high hopes I gave him the manuscript.

Time passed.

More time passed.

Even more time passed and I hadn’t heard back from him. So one night, when we were both at the English Department’s annual Christmas party (a huge event, since the department was large, with large undergrad and grad programs), I took the opportunity to approach him to ask if he’d had a chance to read the book.

He told me he had.

And he told me my book was evil.

He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Not like, “Dude, your book is eeeeevillllll!”

No, the best-selling author of On Moral Fiction had just told me I’d written an evil novel.

Evil, as in morally corrosive.

As in bad. As in no good.

I’d read On Moral Fiction . . . I knew what he meant: it was trivial, it was boring, it was a lie.

He told me there wasn’t much to do with an evil book.

As you might expect, this was not good news. Here was this big-time, best-selling, hot-shot author known around the English department (and indeed, around the country) as a generous and helpful mentor of young writers, and all he had to say about my book was that it was evil.

It was a blow it took me a while to recover from. (If you’ve read my June 4th blog post, you’ll know this was one of a series of blows that drove me away from writing for awhile.)

Two things happened that helped me come to terms with it. One was what I subsequently learned about that night. Not only was he drunk when I talked to him at the party, but his wife had sued him for divorce earlier that day. 

So he was not only plastered, but he was in a particularly foul mood.

The second thing was, a few days later, I got a note from him, apologizing. He told me he enjoyed the book, that he meant to just skim it but it engaged him so much he read it through entirely, that there were many good things about it, and that he would gladly write a blurb for it.

That salved the wound, but the constant little demon-critic who lives on our shoulders still had me wondering: was it really such a bad book that it took drunkenness for him to be honest about it? In vino veritas?

Still, I gained a lot from this interaction with Gardner—not so much that I am an evil writer, but that you really do have to be careful about whom you seek criticism from (despite all his gifts, Gardner was, I subsequently discovered, an extremely, even reactionarily, conservative critic); you have to be careful about when you ask for it; and—most of all—you have to be very careful about investing too much in what you hear. Another writer, even the hottest, best-selling peddler of moral fiction, is just another point of view, a man or woman with problems and limitations of perspective and weaknesses and failed marriages that sometimes color the advice.

I also learned the importance of being kind when dealing with a young writer, something I never forgot when I became a professor, and, ultimately, a published novelist and poet interacting with other writers, both beginning and established.

I never did publish that manuscript I gave Gardner to review, but I published lots of other things, and why I was able to go on writing was due in part to something he wrote about being a novelist. In fact, it was the best piece of wisdom I’ve ever read about writing in his On Becoming a Novelist:

”Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

I’ve gone back to this paragraph time and again for its wisdom. While the episode with Vital Signs was demoralizing, it turned out that Gardner’s words have seen me through some difficult times, after all.