Reader Request Week 2011 #5: Taking Compliments
Can you ever just accept a compliment when you get one? Just a curious thought that passed through my mind when reading your answer to the poll that OMW was number one on.
In fact, my standard operating procedure when someone compliments me or my work is to say “thank you,” without too much else in elaboration. I went ahead and overthought the Tor.com poll and what it meant because, hey, it’s Reader Request Week and I don’t think Gareth wanted a one-answer response to his question. But in a general sense I think it’s bad grace, or simply just awkward, to get defensive or overly modest when it comes to being complimented by someone. It’s also not a good idea to go the other direction (“I enjoyed your book.” “Well, of course you did, how could you do otherwise?”). So I find a simple “Thank you” will suffice on nearly every occasion.
That said, there is a certain type of compliment that I go out of my way to respond to in a qualified manner, and that are those compliments I get that come wrapped in a dismissal of someone else or their work, i.e., “I love your books, they’re so much better than the crap [insert author name here] is putting out these days.” Well, thanks, but now I feel that if I accept your compliment, I’m implicit in your trashing of [insert author name here]. If I’m going to trash [insert author name here], I’d prefer to do it under my own steam and not get backed into it. Also sometimes [insert author name here] is a friend of mine; I mean, I know a lot of authors at this point.
I’ll also usually say something additional if I’m complimented for something that I didn’t do. I’m occasionally complimented on my book covers, for example; in which case I’ll say “Thank you. John Harris (or Vincent Chong, or Shelley Eshkar, etc) did a great job” or something along that line, because there’s nothing wrong with crediting work and sharing the love.
I do think people and particularly authors aren’t always comfortable accepting compliments, partly because of standard-issue neuroticism, and partly because no one wants to look like a smug prick. But just as being an author means learning to accept negative reviews, it also means getting used to the idea that people really do like your work and genuinely want to thank you for giving them something they value in their life. You don’t want to make a big deal of it, but I don’t think you should dismiss it, either, because when you do that you in a small way and quite unintentionally devalue their experience of the thing. Don’t do that. The best and simplest thing to do is to say “thank you.”
Conversely, how to give a compliment: Whenever possible, keep it simple. For authors, “I really enjoyed your book,” is always a good short one, as an example. I think there’s a temptation to try to overelaborate compliments because you want them to be different, but speaking as someone who gets compliments from time to time, sincerity and simplicity almost always work, and almost never get old. I think there’s nothing wrong with saying more, if for example there’s something specific about a work that speaks to you; additionally if your attachment to a work is really profound, it’s okay to say so (“What a fantastic book. It was my favorite this year”). I also think there’s nothing wrong with being silly or elaborate with a compliment, if you’re complimenting someone you know well and who can tolerate your silliness. But when in doubt, as with so many things, sincerity and simplicity are always good strategies.
It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.