Writers as a group appreciate having their egos stroked, and if you genuinely like a writer’s work it’s a kindness to tell them so. But there are some compliments which can backfire on the giver, no matter how well-meant the delivery. Most writers, most of the time, will accept a dubious or awkward compliment with a smile and confine themselves to an inward wince or possibly a private gripe session later among friends, but even the nicest writers can have the sort of bad day when the lid comes off of everything, and some writers . . . well, much as it pains me to admit it, writers – even good writers – are as likely to be jerks as anyone else in the general population.
Accordingly, here are a quartet of comments from the top of the Best If Avoided list:
“I loved your book! I’ve loaned it to all my friends!”
The savvy writer accepts such a compliment graciously, because word-of-mouth is still the best advertising, and because making an enemy of a reader is a bad move for a lot of reasons . . . but there’s no escaping the inward wince on behalf of all of the copies that could have been purchased if the bestower-of-compliments had confined themself to making enthusiastic recommendations at the bookstore instead.
“I love all your books! I can’t wait until the library/the used bookstore/my buddy who lends me her copies gets the next one!”
Once again, most writers will take this compliment with a smile, because most writers can remember being young and/or impecunious themselves, and it would be hypocritical for them to complain about somebody else taking advantage of the same shifts and expedients that sustained them once upon a time. But there’s still that inner wince, and the wistful contemplation of sales that might have been.
“I’ve loved your books ever since I was in fifth grade/high school/college!”
Again, the kind-hearted writer has no choice but to smile – and in fact, it’s nice to know that one was a formative or encouraging influence upon somebody in their youth. But there’s no denying the fact that praise of this sort has a corresponding tendency to make the recipient of the compliment feel older than they did in the moment before it was uttered. “I’ve always loved your books!” or “I’ve loved your books for ages!” are words less likely to send the writer in question off into a spell of broody melancholia.
“I don’t usually go for this genre/this trope/this style, but you made me like it!”
This compliment is especially tricky because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Some writers like the idea of doing such a good job of a thing that they succeed in overcoming a reader’s ingrained prejudices. (I confess to being a member of that camp myself.) Others, though, will take offense at the implication that their chosen genre or trope or style has something wrong with it that needs to be dressed up and made palatable to the general public. Unless you know how the recipient is likely to react, this compliment is best deployed with caution.
What do you say to a writer, then, if you want to compliment them?
Well, an unadorned but sincerely-meant “I love your books!” is always good.