Thick Skin is an interview series featuring authors talking about negative reviews, from critics and (anonymous) readers alike

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Episode II: "I'm actually shocked by that comment!"

Published 2/16/16
In this installment, I speak with Michelle GableTopics include her ratings of other books, stomach drops, bad audiobook narrators, the balance of too much gratuity and not enough, Guess Which Of Your Two Books This Review Is About & more.

Today I’m with Michelle Gable, an accomplished author (and a brave one, for being a part of this series). Her debut, A Paris Apartment, was a New York Times Bestseller, and she’s just released her follow-up, I’ll See You in Paris. Putting categories on fiction is generally a useless exercise, but I’ll say that Michelle’s work would most likely be called either General Fiction or Commercial Fiction. I say this only to put the reader reviews we’ll talk about in perspective; I think it’s crucial to consider what a reader is looking for when interpreting their opinion. To start, can I ask if you read reviews of your work, either by critics or readers, and if you consider yourself thick-skinned?

Thanks for having me! I do read trade reviews. I will read others (Goodreads, Amazon) early on but I do stop reading them after a certain point. It doesn't help and god forbid I agree with a negative review...I can't change the book now!

I would say I'm fairly thick-skinned though things will momentarily bother me if whatever is negative isn't "fair." I'm able to move on though! The only ones that really get to me are when someone, for example, tweets at me that my book is drivel.

"Drivel"—what a word. Nowhere is it used more than reviews. Is it ever used anywhere else?

Ha! that's funny. I never thought about that but you're right I think it's the #1 word used for a book someone doesn't like.

You happen to have your own profile on Goodreads, and I noticed that you gave each of the last seven books you’ve read five stars, and you rarely give anything under four. Do you think this is a product of reading books you’re most likely to like? Being empathetic as someone who has received reviews herself? Happenstance?

It's being empathetic! Once I became an author I decided that if I couldn't rate a book 4 of 5 stars that I wouldn't rate it on Goodreads. I've read plenty of 2 and 3 stars lately but I just don't put them on there. If you look at my earlier reviews I have plenty! It's empathy, yes, and also the fiction world can be small and I want to be supportive of my fellow authors. But the books I've rated truly earned that mark.

That's fair. If you don't have something good to say, why say it at all? But of course there are readers who feel differently. Let’s start with your debut, A Paris Apartment. With almost 4,000 reviews on Goodreads alone, some of them are bound to be satisfied, ebullient—others, less than satisfied, less than ebullient. One said: "The writing in this novel seems to be that of someone whose second and very new language is English.”

OMG! I hadn't seen that one. Well, it's definitely not my second language. Wow, that's pretty harsh. Ha! I do think people are unnecessarily rude on that site. You can still express that you didn't care for the writing, or thought it was "amateurish" which is still a bit cutting but doesn't sound so much like someone trying to use Goodreads as a creative writing outlet!

Do you think she actually believes the writing is that of someone ESL?

No, I don't. That's ridiculous.

What’s your physical reaction when you read something like that? What emotions do you feel?

For that specific one, I didn't really have a physical reaction other than I scoffed out loud! Sometimes they make my stomach drop momentarily. Other times I get pissed off if it's something that's wrong...which is hard to explain because how can a review be wrong? Like if someone says "this is the worst book in the world because April makes bad decisions." Uh, yeah she makes bad decisions. That's part of the story!

Okay, here's a head scratcher: "Would have made a better movie than a book.” What do you make of that?

That's an interesting one! I can't wrap my head around that. Maybe the reviewer thought it wasn't complex enough for a book? Do you have any ideas?

I think if a friend I trust told me that, I'd assume there were potential visible spectacles that would be nice to see. I'm guessing, but I think this person means the plot feels like a movie plot?

Yes I agree that maybe it means there are visuals that would work well. Maybe it feels like a movie plot, which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing!

I mean, what author doesn't dream of a movie deal? Might want to send that quote to your agent...On the topic of other mediums, someone said: “I listened to this on audible. The reader for 'April' was AWFUL!”

I've actually heard that about the audio from a few people! I haven't listened to the audio (don't want to!) so I can't comment. I don't want to listen because I just don't want to hear my book read to me, not because of the narrator!

Yes, ha—thanks for clarifying. I hesitate to bring this next one up, because I'm trying to avoid the concept of 'unlikable' characters. It's a claim that's been made against any good book that's ever existed (and a lot of bad ones too). But perhaps I'm allowing myself one per interview: “Evocative and engaging writing, set in an environment of rich people and beautiful things. But none of the characters were likable. The two main heroines were an olden-day prostitute and a modern day woman contemplating an affair. A cheating husband sets a dismal tone from the start of the novel.”

Well first of all who wants to read about pleasant people who have wonderful relationships and everything is humming along smoothly? Boring! Unless, of course, it's satire. ;) Definitely the big knock on A Paris Apartment is the likability of April. And I made her prickly and difficult on purpose. Not to mention, we meet her right after she's found out her husband cheated, so she's not going to be the most happy and upbeat person in the world.

Hm, that's interesting. I think there are layers to the tag 'unlikable', just like real life. There are people who do things that are wrong or amoral that you don't root for, but there are also people who are 'bad' in the classic sense, but you understand their decisions in some way and create empathy for them. Do you think your unlikable characters deserve empathy?

Yes I think they deserve empathy for sure. None of them are "bad" in a classic sense. They make mistakes and can be grumpy but generally they are doing the wrong thing for what are "understandable" reasons. I do try to treat my characters with empathy as I'm writing them because there are many times I don't agree with their decisions. It's funny because the ending (no spoilers) of A Paris Apartment was at first totally opposite of what it is today and my editor asked me, "Are you sure this is how APRIL would handle things/end up and not YOUR judgment on the 'correct thing?" Such a great point to make. And she was right, I needed to change it!

In general, do you ever find readers' reactions lining up with perspectives your editor/agent has shared, or anticipated?

Not really, because if my editor has an "issue" with the book I usually agree with her and change it! Though we did all know/understand/anticipate that some people would have trouble with April (and definitely with her husband).

And what of the sex? One reader wrote: “I love antiques and Paris and I was so excited to read this, however the explicit sexual content was a huge turn off.”

Wow, I'm actually shocked by that comment! The only complaint I've had about the sex scenes are that there aren't enough of them and I leave too much to the imagination. I would not say it's explicit at all. A lot of people have complained about the swear words, but I was not aware it was too sexually explicit. That's funny!

Not to make generalizations on you think people who have a problem with swearing tend to be of a certain age? Same with sex (in the 'there's too much' variety)?

Oh, yes, for sure. I always laugh when someone asks me why I made the conscious decision to have my characters use foul language. I'm like, um...that wasn't a decision. Don't people talk like that? ;) I definitely have an "older" demographic...for my first book at least!

Do you have an "imagined reader" you write to?

No, not really. I like to write the types of books that I love to read. I also like to read books that send me researching/googling and I hope my books do the same. So in that sense I hope my readers are people curious about other places/people/occupations/etc. But nothing specific in terms of age or location or anything else.

Hm—well that sort of brings us to your new novel, I’ll See You in Paris, which really just came out a few days ago, but it already has nearly 100 reviews on Goodreads. One reader said “Alternating chapters of 2001 and 1973 just don't work well because 2001 is boring, boring. I actually enjoyed the 1973 chapters and was relived to see them coming back to back about 3/4 of the way through. That saved the novel for me.”

The 1970s section is definitely supposed to be the meatier part of the story, with the present-day storyline as a wrapper around it. It's a way to connect different aspects of the story and make it more immediate--I was interested in comparing how our idea of war has changed from Vietnam, for example. So I'm not at all surprised when people connect more with the historical parts of the story. As I said, it's meatier, and longer as well. I think it’s about 2/3 or 3/4 the historical part and 1/3 to 1/4 the modern day.

I didn't really know what to make of this one: “…every character in the book, with the exception of Gladys, is timid to the point of trembling through life - not one can make a reasoned adult decision. Gladys is the only character with a spine, but she's not overly likeable herself. How did I wind up with two books in a row with main characters who are afraid of their own shadow?”

I saw that one...I don't know what to make of it either. Annie (the modern day character) is newly out of college, living back home, no job, unsure of herself and her place in life. And she's definitely on the quieter side, which is why her sleuthing in England is such a big deal for her. But I wouldn't say she's afraid of her own shadow. Otherwise she wouldn't be breaking into houses! I laugh when negative reviewers call her insecure or immature. Um, yeah, exactly! She's been raised in this very sheltered environment, on a farm, and knows the person in the world closest to her is also hiding major secrets. As far as Gladys being unlikable, much of her antics are taken from real life, and there were definitely people who would've call her unlikable (Winston Churchill for one hated her!)

It's sort of disconcerting when readers locate a salient personality aspect of a character (immaturity, for one), and then sort of morph it into a negative aspect of the book at large.

Exactly. Those are the times I have to hold myself back from responding. Definitely some of my favorite books have characters with very negative personality quirks!

Okay, we're nearly out of time, so I want to play a three round game of Guess Which Of Your Two Books This Review Is About. Sounds good?

Sounds great!

Round 1: “All she did was play the game and flirt and accept gifts that men with too much money and sense would have given to anybody. . .”

A Paris Apartment?

Yes! Round 2: “The scenes tend to drag on and on without much really happening and I would not consider some of those moments to be of great importance to the actual story. I actually put my kindle down many times to take a break from the story before returning to it to see if it was perhaps my mood that causing me not to enjoy the book. It wasn’t.”

I'll See You in Paris?

Yes! Round 3: "This was fluff, a great deal of cussing and a lack of strong characters to cherish…”

A Paris Apartment!

Yes! Holy heck, Michelle—you know your readers. And you also win the grand prize of getting to be done with this interview!

Ha, well, I've had some people tweet the "fluff" thing at me a few times so I figured it was that one.

Brava! Brava!

Thank you so much...not nearly as painful as I expected! ;)

That's great to hear Michelle. Thanks for your time, and your thick skin.

Thanks! It was fun.