June 11, 2010

A Short Rant against Kindness

Yesterday I got a rejection from an agent. It was the second one she wrote for the same submission. Apparently she thought so well of her earlier decision, she chose to e-mail me again. Here’s her comment: 

“The premise of the book is very compelling but I’m afraid I just didn’t feel as passionate about the voice as I wanted to.”

As my central character is not a singer, I scratched my head and forwarded the remark to a friend. She was equally mystified.

We were both struck by the lack of clarity coming from this arbiter of good writing. We understood the meaning of the individual words but not the sentence. Were I to write in her place, I would have been more direct about my shortcomings. I might have said:

“Your heroine speaks with the wisdom of a Barbie Doll.” Or, “I’ve seen bird droppings with more definition.”  

Perhaps her comment was not about the character but about the writing. If so, she could have said:

“I’ve read bar codes with more plot.” Or, “There’s more variety on a line of wet laundry than in your prose.”    

Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian once wrote that sometimes it’s necessary to be cruel to be kind. I agree. In this case, kindness was not enough.  Worse, it could have been a mask. Was the agent attempting to feel good about herself or trying to enlighten me?  If the latter, she failed miserably.

It is impossible to refuse someone’s work and leave that person happy. The best an agent can do is to tell the truth. If the comment is insightful, the writer might grow. An agent who has neither the time nor the inclination to be clear should send the standard rejection. “Sorry, not for me.”