The Help Desk: You sure did write a book, didn't you?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My friend self-published a novel. I bought a copy and tried to read it and, well, I'm being charitable when I say it's not very good. "Unreadable" is a word I'd use to describe it. What do I do the next time I see my friend? He'll definitely ask what I think of it. I've avoided a few social events out of fear that he'll be there, and I can't keep living like this.


Jim, Bitter Lake

Dear Jim,

You’ve done your duty – you bought the book. That’s all any person should reasonably expect from a friend or partner: the precious token of affection exchanged when one person expresses a shallow interest in another person’s hobby. When my best friend’s hobby was emotional eating, I learned how to open packets of his favorite foods so that we could enjoy what he called “the couple’s gravy experience.” Now that he is a marathon runner, I offer him milk electrolytes and proteins sold in brick form. But I will not ask him about his bowel movements or split times or any of the other silly shit runners are prone to discuss for hours with each other while jogging in place because my attention span is a finite resource that must be reserved for my own hobbies, like watching spiders commit hate crimes on flies.

So what do you do? The next time there’s a party on the horizon, email your writer friend and ask him if he’ll be attending because you want him to sign your copy of his book. Bring the book (make sure to crack the spine in several places) and don’t give him a chance to ask what you think. Go on the offensive: Say that you really enjoyed the work. You immediately connected with the main character and got swept up in the narrative. Tell him he has a unique voice, reminiscent of TKTKTK (throw out the name of some writer he likes). Then, quickly pivot and begin asking him questions: What inspired him to write it? Has the book been reviewed? Has he been conducting readings around town? What feedback has he gotten from his friends/family/significant other? How thick is his fan club? What project is he working on now?

If he asks you any pointed questions about the work that you can’t answer because you haven’t read it, simply respond with, “I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t quite ‘get’ what you were trying to do there. I think it went over my head. What were you going for?”

When you’ve blown enough smoke up your friend’s ass, pivot the conversation again to your own hobbies with something like, “Speaking of man’s eternal struggle with nature, I’m embarrassed to say I think the spiders living in my home are incredibly racist and I’m not sure how to confront them about it. What are your thoughts?”