I’m going to take the truth on this one, and a big thank you to K. Turley for asking it. I would’ve been cool doing the dare, too, but K. Turley’s question had the makings for a semi-interesting blog post.
Here’s the question:
Have you ever told someone you liked their book when you actually didn’t (and what’s the reason why)?
So the answer to this is both no and…yes, kinda. I would be an outright liar if I tried to tell you that I’m always completely honest about my feelings for every book/manuscript/story I’ve read. I definitely censor. I definitely don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. I don’t want my own feelings to get stomped on. I believe in paying-it-forward and do unto others and karma and all of that. I don’t believe that telling someone you hated their story serves any purpose other than to hurt and teardown.
I have not, however, ever told someone at length that I liked/loved their book in its entirety when I actually didn’t. Instead, I focus on any element of the book I genuinely liked and refer to that specifically. For example, I might’ve said, “I really liked character So-and-So,” or “Wow, that was a killer ending,” or “Great dialogue.” The truth of the matter is, almost every story has some kind of redeeming quality to it if you look hard enough.
There are exceptions. I once read a story in a short fiction class in college that was so horrible and offensive that I simply couldn’t comment on it in any way that wasn’t negative and so I didn’t. I might’ve even skipped class the day it was scheduled to be discussed, although I don’t remember for sure.
But the point I want to make is this: human beings learn better and faster from positive feedback than negative. Now, you may disagree with me, and that’s fine. But I can say for myself, that nothing makes me strive harder to do well than positive reinforcement. When someone tells me I’ve done something well, I try to do that thing again and again, but only better. I emphasize the positive.
Here’s another example, but in reverse. There are people who believe that by leaving a bad tip for a server is a way to teach them to do better. This is wrong. Just plain wrong. Now, I fully expect people to disagree with me, but I’m speaking from experience here. I waited tables all throughout college, and never once in all that time did I ever hear a fellow server say, “Gee, I guess that customer left that crappy tip because I didn’t fill their drink often enough or because I was inattentive in some way.”
Nope, not once. Ever.
Wanna know what they do say? “Gee, those people are a bunch of cheap a**holes.” By leaving that bad tip those customers might think they’re teaching a bad server a lesson, but it’s not true. You can’t really teach the bad ones anything, anyway. You can’t teach people to be good. All you can do is encourage them to be better. By leaving a server a nice tip, even if they sucked, you might be helping the next customer get better service.
The same premise is applicable to writing. If I really enjoyed a particular character or element of a story, then by pointing it out to the writer, I might help make sure those good elements make it into the next story and so on.
Don’t get me wrong, in a critique situation I will point out the parts of a story that didn’t work for me or that I think need to be revised. There is such a thing as constructive criticism, but flat-out telling an author you hated their book isn’t for me. And honestly, the books I’m liable to hate, I don’t read anyway.