I hate it when I’m wrong. My type-A tendencies and absolute certainty that I know everything are not a good combination when it comes to taking criticism. Soon after I started working with Jane Dystel (sometime in the Paleozoic Era) she pointed out to me that my editorial memos were mean. I was affronted. I was trying to help authors by giving them the benefit of my brilliant insights and I really didn’t have time to soft-soap my comments! I’m sure Jane was laughing internally when she suggested that maybe I should start my missives with a positive comment or two about the work and then offer my honest opinion in a thoughtful, sensitive way without showing off or trying to make the recipient feel like a no-talent slob. She was right, of course, and I learned that if the goal is to have an author improve his/her work, I needed to be nicer when I offered my feedback. Jane made me realize that we are more likely to digest and respond well to criticism if it’s offered with kindness and sensitivity rather than relish and disdain. It was, for me, an invaluable lesson.
The fact is that a big and important part of our job as agents is to offer constructive criticism that will take a proposal or manuscript to the level it needs to be at in order to maximize our chances of selling it. All of us here at DGLM spend a great deal of time on our clients’ projects helping authors to clearly communicate their message, smooth over rough prose, beef up a weak marketing section, etc. Sometimes, it’s our unpleasant task to tell someone that their work is simply not good enough and that no amount of fixing is going to change that.
In my experience, the best, most talented authors are the ones who take their criticism neat. They knock it back with a big gulp, thank you for your time and effort in reviewing and critiquing their materials, take a little while to process what you’ve told them, and do their best to incorporate your comments and suggestions into that piece of fiction or nonfiction they thought was perfect when they sent it in to you with the expectation that you’d be able to immediately sell it for six figures. These authors put their egos and bruised pride aside (no matter how successful they are) and get to work. They ask follow-up questions and evenly discuss why they think they might or might not agree with one or more of your edits. The result, more often than not, is a much improved proposal or manuscript that has a much better shot at the big time and an author who is genuinely grateful for the help.
Then there are those authors who never get past their anger and disappointment and whose reactions range from the merely childish, “I’m taking my marbles and going elsewhere,” to the unprofessional, “You suck and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Recently, an author suggested that both his editor (someone who’d been successfully plying her craft for over a decade) and I were mistaken in our critique of his work, strongly implying that neither one of us had understood his category well enough to be able to comment intelligently on his novel. His words were offensive in a way that our criticism had not been. We were both trying to help him.
I sincerely believe that authors (or any artist for that matter) must be able to defend their vision of and approach to their work. But, they should also have the ability (and humility) to look at the manuscript they’ve slaved away on for months or years and see it as a living, evolving thing that is never going to be absolutely perfect and that will probably benefit from an informed and caring review. They should also understand that in this agent/client partnership it’s in no one’s interest to purposely give bad advice and that only a sadist takes pleasure in inflicting pain. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing how to take criticism with grace is an indicator of success in our business. It’s often what separates those who have thriving writing careers and those who just sit around darkly muttering over their rejection letters.
Almost twenty years after that enlightening conversation with Jane, I’ve figured out that I don’t, in fact, know everything, and so I rely on instinct, experience, my skills as a lifelong, passionate reader, and hard-earned knowledge of our business when I offer authors criticism of their work. The whole point is to sell their novel or nonfiction and to set them on the path to successful writing careers. Ultimately, we, as agents, don’t succeed unless our clients do.