Thick Skin is an interview series featuring authors talking about negative reviews, from critics and (anonymous) readers alike
See our complete list of conversations, including:
Pixelated, the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat
A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books
The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the marketplace
Episode I: "You put all this energy into trying to make sure the worst thing doesn't happen, but then when it does, it's really liberating."
In this installment, I speak with Sheila Heti. Topics include likable characters, words that don’t mean anything, comparing her work to Girls, fictional narcissism, her James Wood review, the joy of being misunderstood & more.
Hello Sheila. You’re the second author to say yes to this absurd series, and the first to be interviewed. So first: thank you for being brave. Second: This is Thick Skin, an interview series with authors on negative feedback, both professional (published book reviews) and personal (Goodreads, Amazon). The intent is to get at an honest window into how writers digest these reviews, and to dissect what feedback can be when it’s ostensibly one way. All that being said, this is a conversation, and I’ll always go where it takes us. Let me start by saying your work has been heralded as original, vital and honest from The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, LARB, Bookforum—the list goes on and rightfully on. To start, can I ask if you read reviews of your own work, either by critics or readers, and if you consider yourself thick-skinned?
I read most of what has been published. I've probably read most blogs and so on. I'm curious how people respond to what I write. To me that's part of it—the response. I can't imagine working in a vacuum, where I didn't know. That may change in the future. I don't know if I'm thick-skinned or not. Probably medium.
Medium skinned. Noted. I can't imagine any writer stays away from the published reviews. Some say they do, but I'm not sure I believe it. Do you ever go on Goodreads or Amazon and read the reviews there?
Not Goodreads, too much, but I've dipped in. Amazon, sometimes.
Was it a regretful experience?
No. I don't memorize or remember what I read there. The general sense you take away is that some people really like the book, some people really don't. That's okay. I don't think an individual work of art is intended for people who don't like it or get it; it's for the specific people who get it and like it. Not everything is for everyone.
And it wouldn't be powerful or even art if it didn't rub some people the wrong way. I've got a few negative reader reviews that I wanted to share to see what you think when you read them. Some are mean. Some are dumb. Some I think actually frame your work (unintentionally) in a positive light. Are you ready?
Let's start with Ticknor. In case you forgot, this was a book you published in 2007. One reader said, "I like the concept of this novel -- its stream of consciousness and exploration of envy and resentment, plus its lack of interest in traditional narrative -- but ultimately it never came alive for me. I wanted to get caught up in the narrator's voice, but I always felt too distanced."
That's fair. What am I supposed to say? That's how they felt.
Would you classify it as "stream of consciousness"?
Sure. It's literally the stream of his consciousness, probably. I guess the one thing I would say is: I don't know what this person means by "distanced" or what for them would be "not distanced." Ticknor is sort of locked inside of himself, can't relate to other people, is deeply unsuccessful at relating. He's fairly deluded and self-involved. That's the character.
The idea of "likable" characters was bound to come up, and I'm sure it will a lot in this series. But what do you think when readers (as they often do), lay the claim they couldn't connect to a character because they weren't likable?
I think they must have a very high opinion of their own character.
Ha. Okay. For The Middle Stories, a collection of short stories published in 2001 and then in 2002 by McSweeney's, there were two reviews from different readers that were of the same cloth. The first was “I might not be literary enough to enjoy this kind of thing.” The second: “The author uses a bunch of words that sound beautiful but mean nothing.”
The second one might be true.
That the words literally don't mean anything?
I didn't really "mean anything" when I was writing them, so that reviewer is right. But some people can enjoy that. Words that sound beautiful but mean nothing.
And what would you say to someone who walked up to you after a reading and said, "I just think I'm not literary enough to enjoy this kind of thing"?
Well, that might also be true. Some people aren't very sensitive to language or books. We're all different.
Perhaps every author has an anti-author, and everyone who loves one will hate the other, and vice-versa.
I doubt that. That's like saying there's an anti-person to your personality. I mean, someone who has an opposite personality to yours. What could that be? I mean, how could that be?
Well, let's say it's not a matter of anti-personality, but anti-review. So on Goodreads, if it turned out that every 1 star reviewer gave 5 stars to some other author, and vice-versa. The idea reduces personality to metrics and that's wrong. But if this theory were correct, how badly would you want to meet your anti-author?
I don't really feel like meeting people these days.
That's fair, and I respect that. Let’s move on to How Should a Person Be?, by far your most reviewed book (and one that I loved). This review caught my eye for a few reasons: "I've never seen Girls, that TV show everybody seems terribly keen on, but from time to time I read articles criticising it for being about Privileged White Girls. How Should A Person Be? made me think of every criticism I've ever read levelled at that TV show which I haven't seen.”
Lots of things to say. For starters, so what? Most of literature is about Privileged White Men, if you want to look at it that way. Would you then criticize—I don't know, I can't even pick one book, Lolita—would you criticize Lolita by saying, "It reminded me of the criticism of Louie." Which, unlike Girls, though about a privileged white person in New York, wasn't actually even criticized for being about a Privileged White Man. This person isn't a reader. Isn't a thinker. That something is about “privileged white girls” isn’t a criticism.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it sort of felt like the reader knew he was being a bit sexist and used the old "what other people are saying", and then transmitted that to your work. Have you seen Girls?
Are you okay with a criticism of that being mutated and applied to your work? Do you feel any sort of connection with Lena Dunham as an artist?
Yes, but no more than I feel an artistic connection to Wallace Shawn, or Lawrence Weschler, or Rachel Cusk, or Gertrude Stein, or James Baldwin, or Jean Cocteau, or a hundred others.
How Should a Person be? also received this marvel, which made me wonder if the person had ever read a book that satisfied their complaint: “Reading this book was like grabbing drinks with that friend that just rambles on and on about themselves, never asking you how you've been.”
This person has no friends.
No further comment.
Fair. If you could say anything to them to help them enjoy books in general more, what could you say?
You shouldn’t expect a book to ask you about your day.
How about this: "if this book carries the weight of any truth in its pages, then we as people are hopeless and maybe I'd rather not live.”
Haha! People can be pretty hopeless, I agree. It's hard to comment without knowing more of what "truth" they saw in the book, like, what it is in the book that they found so hopeless. I mean, part of the point of the book was to say that we are the generation that didn't enter the Promised Land because we fucked up, because we're so hopeless; we die in the desert. The main problem with some of these reviews is they are upset at the author, thinking that the author is trying to say something else; but in fact, the author is saying just what they think the author is saying—only they don't like it. They think that if the author knew what they were saying, they would say something else. I don't know if that was clear. It's like some of the reviews which say, "This character is narcissistic!" They think the author doesn't know that. Or that the book can't possibly be a comment on narcissism; the book has to necessarily be an unselfconscious portrait of the author, who is a narcissist, who doesn't realise that that's what she is revealing.
If I were you, I'd find a real compliment in that review.
It's not a compliment, it's frustrating because it's clearly a complaint. It's frustrating to see such a misunderstanding. I'll tell you one thing: often reading these reviews, you can't help but think, Why write? Why bother? So many people don’t understand. That's why it's not such a great idea to read them. Even though I sometimes do.
I really hope this interview isn't the thing that makes you put the pen down.
I'll let you konw.
Yeah, I guess if I don't hear from you in four, five years, I'll know.
The smartest thing to do would be not to read reviews at all, just to send your writing to writers or people you respect and deal with their complaints and criticism. But sometimes you just want a hit of pain. Or pleasure. Just a hit of feeling. That's when you go read reviews.
We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask you one last one. It was difficult to find a published negative review of you, but there was one. James Wood’s New Yorker review of How Should A Person Be? starts with him calling it “disconcerting” and ends with him saying the conversation it generates is “vaguely intelligent”. Many writers dream of being reviewed (even defamed) by Wood, and the article wasn’t completely negative by a long shot. Assuming you read it, how did it make you feel?
When I first read the review, I was sitting in a parkette in New York. And I read it in the magazine. And I felt very excited and giddy. I felt he misunderstood the book, and this made me happy. It felt more exciting than if he'd totally understood it.
Why was that?
Because it's awesome. It's so funny. It's like the dream. It's like the history of art!
To be misunderstood?
Yes, especially by someone like James Wood. That's how I felt. I felt very giddy. It's sort of a drag to be given a check mark by someone official. You don't really want to be in that position.
So this was actually the best case scenario for you? What if he had given up a whole big hoorah? No?
No, I don't think it would have made me feel as excited. I was laughing.
I wish I could have seen that.
I was like reading it and pacing and laughing in a park.
How many times did you read it the first day?
Once straight through?
Yes. I immediately called Margaux.
Could you even speak through your giggles?
I had stopped giggling by that point. It was just this nervous-giddy reaction. Once Margaux and I organized a show at the Edith Wharton house, there were all these artists we brought, and a bunch of older rich people in the audience. And they hated it. During intermission, everyone left. That made me laugh giddily in the same way. It's exciting when something goes wrong or the worst thing happens. You put all this energy into trying to make sure the worst thing doesn't happen, but then when it does, it's really liberating. Maybe The New Yorker review was the worst thing, the thing you don't want, rather than the thing I most wanted. But whatever it actually was, I had that same excited feeling inside. That's very different from someone boring on the internet comparing it to Girls, which doesn't make me happy or excited, it just makes me pissed off.
But if you knew that was James Wood? What if he had used those exact words in his review, the words of the reader who compared how he felt to the criticisms against Girls? As if your work had unhinged James Wood to the point of being a truly dumb asshole.
I don't know. Yeah, I don't know how to answer that last question. It's best not to think about these things too much.
I’ll have to take it. We’re out of time Sheila. I cannot thank you enough for this.