Ever get the feeling someone’s trying to tell you something by not telling you something? Psychotherapists (that identifier feels awkward for some reason) have to learn to interpret the unsaid, by thinking about non-verbal information: everything from muted sighs to averted glances at a hidden clock, to I’m-running-late text messages, belated vacation or business trip announcements; e-mail terminations. Relationships in some people’s lives end with tumbling regularity. Exchanges are transient. Promises are easily given, and more easily withdrawn or better yet, forgotten. If you wrote it down, good for you. Kudos for the documentation, signifying that something meaningful happened.
I don’t spend a lot of time documenting psychotherapy, largely because it makes for dull reading, the type of notes one is meant to write for nosy overseers. It makes for good stories however, not that I can lift them directly from my clients’ shares. Instead, it’s an exercise in grabbing at pieces, tossing them at a blank page, worrying later about the links. For my first four novels I’d picked sketchily from my clients’ backstories, preferring to represent moments, unidentifiable fragments of individuals’ lives, maintaining everyone’s confidentiality. Except mine, of course. It’s several years since my first effort, the much somethinged Living Without Blood, about somebody named Eric Metcalf and his friend Richard something else, coming together after years of gradual estrangement in order to…actually, I’ve forgotten what they did together. I loved LWB at its time of publication—2009. It was my first-born: a sloppy, muddled beginner trying to find its legs after a nine-month labor, but occasionally standing tall, inspired by a self-consciously prosy flow. Skip to 2012: the release of Crystal From The Hills, a picaresque adventure that I’d conceived as a 600-page novel, only to split the story in half, releasing its follow-up, The Situation, two years later. Crystal took three years to write, in sporadic bursts in between semesters of my post-graduate training program at the Masterson Institute. Written three times, suffered over like a still-birthed thesis, it was my best effort thus far I thought, and I was confident enough of its value to submit a manuscript for review, with Kirkus magazine, a reputed den of literary cognoscenti.
Kirkus didn’t like Crystal From The Hills, calling it “sprawling”, “meandering” (a reference to its many flashbacks, childhood background material to make John Bowlbyesque sense of my protagonist’s disturbance). I got my first real taste of a reviewer’s, and presumably an average reader’s distaste for disrupted narrative, impatience with detail. I learned that some might find my prose difficult to read, for it was “ponderous”, “stacking of clauses and syllables”; containing way too much minutia. Gee, had they ever read David Foster Wallace? There wasn’t much complaint (from Kirkus) about the plot as such, or about character development—rather a suggestion that readers prefer heroes to be heroes, or at least charming, as opposed to being self-absorbed underdogs, or as one reader put it, losers. Ironic, for the novel’s underlying theme was empathy, so I did indeed fail in my task. I absorbed the criticism graciously, I think, noting that for my modest investment I’d received more honest feedback in two paragraphs—indeed more feedback, period—than I’d received from most non-paid (friendly or not) readers over the previous three years. Seriously, outside of the odd sympathetic review posted on Amazon, my readers, which include one loving family member, plus a rough crossection of my friendship circle, have given me little interest over the years. Some of them don’t care for psychodrama, preferring sci-fi, fantasy, non-fiction, or pleasant yarns about dogs or foreign travelogues. I think some struggle with the opening pages of my books, are left sucking oxygen within minutes having regarded my prose as if it were like the text of vacuum cleaner manuals. Most think that theme is subordinate to plot, which I agree with to some extent, except that some just don’t register ideas, only action. And some just don’t read. Period.
The effort to engage strangers moved on. The Situation received a warmer review from Kirkus, as in lukewarm, with concessions that it contained less of its predecessor’s flaws, as in less background material, less “meandering” plot. This was a somewhat hollow non-criticism, as the novel was a sequel and therefore did not require much backstory. However, other elements, like theme, the relatively fast pace or crisp prose, plus what I thought were clever plot devices (For example, Crystal’s opening, “He’s dead”, regarding a referenced character named Weed, is mirrored by Weed’s opening line of Situation: “I’m alive”. Reaction from Kirkus: nothing). Clarion/Foreword reviews didn’t notice this and other plot tidbits either, but otherwise offered a glowing review of The Situation, giving me four stars out of five, and remarking that my text was “captivating”, my writing assured; the story humorous, adventurous and fast-paced: gratifying, if not quite redemptive of the story as a whole. Kirkus’ reticence continued to irk me. I held the impression that their reviewer was holding something back, thinking my novel worthwhile but not wanting to say so.
This idea was reinforced earlier this year by their latest (and likely the last I’ll solicit) review, for my new novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I was cautiously optimistic this time, half thinking my third submission would be the charm, otherwise simply believing my latest novel is pretty damn good. Alas, it was not to be. Upon providing a typically competent synopsis of the plot and a begrudging recognition that I was “drawing attention to an important issue”, Kirkus then complained that my protagonist, the sarcastic, at times pathetic Daniel Pierce, is not likeable. No kidding. According to them, he is pompous, contrarian (like that word, actually), and anti-feminist—a problem, apparently. Actually, as a therapist he’s resolutely neutral: a Bionion depository, as he puts it, “lacking memory or desire” (a famous Wilfred Bion quote). Outside his office he’s not so much anti-feminist as anti that which co-opts platitudes for self-serving aims, which is why he might be unlikeable. I suppose that negativity is not likeable, which I further suppose depends upon point of view. Anyway, it should tell me something, this reaction: something I’ve known at least since high school: in this world, in nearly all endeavors, it’s not enough to be good. BTW: my novel is damn good! But here’s the thing: you have to be liked.