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 III: "Part of being a writer is just accepting the risk that you aren't any good and you can't see it"
In this installment, I speak with Mike Meginnis. Topics include his recurring nightmare, visceral reactions, the curse of deckled edges, humility and harmonicas, sales and online reviews & more.
Today I’m with Mike Meginnis. His debut, FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY, came out in 2014 with Black Balloon Publishing (we happen to sell it on 0s&1s; Mike has also been a part of our series Pixelated, on an episode called “One of the more erotic sports personalities of the last decade”). The book has been hailed by The Millions, Publishers Weekly, Necessary Fiction, The Japan Times (not a usual pick for the acclaim roll call, but nonetheless), and more. That is to say, Mike’s gotten some great reviews. Now, before we throw ourselves into the mud: would you consider yourself thick-skinned?
I don't think that I'm a thick-skinned person in general at all. If you even hint at something you don't like about me I will quietly seethe about it and hate myself and hate you for days. But when it comes to my writing, yeah—or at least, I don't get upset when people criticize my writing, because, it always makes a lot of sense to me. Like, yeah, of course.
Okay, well lucky for you this is just about the book. If you want, I can source negative feedback about you as a person from friends and family, and we can do another interview.
You are literally describing the recurring nightmare I lived with for like a decade. (Basically the nightmare was that I was at a party where the main activity was hating me.)
In this nightmare, are periphery characters there, like your mailman, or just people close to you?
Some family, mostly old friends I don't see anymore, like the housemates I systematically alienated in college. They make some good points.
I'll keep all of this in mind. Let's start off this parade with someone who, amazingly, had added your book to their “burn-after-reading” list, and “really-weird-shit” (it’s the sole occupant of that catalog). They said, “The idea of the novel, the personification of two bombs, appealed to me more than the actual novel or the bombs themselves. The writing is vivid and beautiful, in a way, but I found it too visceral and bloated at times.”
Oh man, I love that they made a category just for my book. So I'll tell you up front that I read everything I can find about my work, obsessively, and remember most of it; with this review in particular, I think they felt like they were saying something pretty negative, but it doesn't feel that way to me.
"Visceral" can be a very positive reaction.
When you're writing a novel you're always taking informed risks. This is a book that deals extensively with damage to human bodies; I intentionally risked "too visceral." You don't want to be bloated, but I did know the book was longer than some people's patience would be. So, again, I knew some readers would feel that way. I am sorry that they were frustrated! But it doesn't make me sad, really. You mostly try to frustrate as few readers as possible.
Sometimes you can't help but frustrate someone who thought they were picking up something completely different. As in: “This is NOT a book version of the movie of the same name about the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos—should have read the reviews more carefully. It's a piece of magical realism set in Japan just after the bombs fell—and a very difficult read for me. I gave it about 6 kindle pages, deleted it, and requested a refund. It's just not the kind of literature style that I find pleasant.”
I've long had a policy of pretending that I don't know the movie they're mentioning exists, just in case the fact that I definitely do has some kind of legal implications. (In my defense, it's an extremely obvious title and I didn't know about the movie when I came up with it.)
This is the sort of review that, again, writing a historical book, you know you're going to get, but it really puzzles me. You bought the book from Amazon. The summary was right there.
I wonder how Richard Ford felt when he found out a movie called "Independence Day" was coming out the same year his book was.
I would have been excited; accidental sales! But I might also have taken the opportunity to reflect on my choice of mega-generic titles.
I'd say there's a greater gap between the two Independence Day’s than the two Fat Man and Little Boy’s. Anyway. This one is interesting because it is commenting on your book, physically: “A morally decrepit group of pages between two covers. A colossal disappointment! Meaningless and pointless, even the quality of the paper used in the book is terrible!” On the plus side for you, only 3 of the 50 people who reviewed that review found it “helpful”. Did you find yourself thumbing the pages of your own book and finding the quality poor?
Now this review is the only one I have somewhat negative feelings about, because this was the first one on the book's Amazon page for like a week. The book wasn't even supposed to be out yet; Amazon had started selling it months in advance of the official date. I'm not sure how this person would have even found it. So there was some concern that this would hurt sales. Who knows if it did.
The paper quality thing is I think a reference to the fact that the book's pages have deckled edges, which some people like a lot and some people don't. I'm neutral toward it myself. I think it looks good in the case of my particular book. I don't blame the reviewer for not liking it. I really like the phrase "morally decrepit."
It's creepy that we can do this, and creepier that we are, but hey, the information's public and so I'll say it. This same reviewer gave one star to "How To Play Harmonica; Beginner's Instructions For Breathing, Rhythm, Keys, Positions, and More", one star to a Fitbit, and three stars to "IZOD Men's Short Sleeve Crew Neck Autostripe T-Shirt". Of the shirt, he said "Nice soft material, a little more snug than I prefer, I was surprised to find it had a pocket, which I am not wild about."
Not being wild about a pocket is a far cry from calling it morally decrepit. Does this rating history and the relativity of his line of consumption change how you see the value of your own product?
I kind of love this man.
Would it have been better for him to say "I am not wild about these deckled edges?"
The humility it would take to buy a harmonica book with that title! I guess it would have been more polite? But then more people might have found the review helpful, thus elevating it on the Amazon page, so it's probably better that he was a little bit rude.
That's interesting. Do you think sales are strongly correlated to positive online feedback?
I don't know enough to say for sure. The folks who are responsible for such things at my publisher seem to feel that there's a connection. In my own experience I think it's less that good feedback leads to sales and more that once you reach a certain threshold of good feedback, a positive mix of stars on the Amazon page, it makes it easier to convert word of mouth into sales.
Amazon randomly put the Kindle version of the book on sale, without any warning, at a period where most of the reviews on that page were from people who liked the book and probably had been following my career for a little while. We suddenly sold a bunch of Kindle copies. I think because it was on sale, it was being highlighted, and the star mix was good.
But then of course some folks had buyer's remorse—they hadn't actually read the summary, they didn't know what they were getting into—and the stars drifted down a little. So sales will also tend to revert you to the mean, ratings-wise.
So here is somebody who did know what they were getting into. “I enjoyed this, though not quite as much as Meginnis' short fiction.”
Yes! I will say I find that review very flattering and I'm grateful to the person who wrote it.
The sort of reader who will follow you from your short work to your novel is a reader you have to really treasure. I don't mind at all if she was disappointed. I hope she'll give the next book a chance.
Speaking of readers, and following your work, have you had much interaction with readers who haven't liked the book online, through social media?
Nobody has ever directly said as much to me that I can remember. I imagine that some of the people who reach out to let me know that they read the book did not really love it.
There's this thing that social media encourages, where you have to be very public about what you're reading if you're part of certain communities, and you have to praise it to the sky, because we're all trying to help each other out.
And I like that, and I appreciate the people who do it, but at the same time, I stay private about my own reading, when my circles overlap with those of the person who wrote whatever book, because I'm a very picky reader and I might not like it.
So I assume that many people who publicize their reading are actually as picky as I am, and disappointed in my work, or anyone's, but they still like reaching out. And because they're kinder than I am, they can hide their frustration. And again, I really appreciate that. It's nice to know you're being read.
It is an odd thing, this refusal to be negative. And I'm guilty as anyone. I interview authors or excerpt a book, and it's very possible I didn't like the book. I probably like 10% or less of the ones I read. It would be blasphemy to say anything of the sort, but it shouldn't be taken badly. I've hated books by authors I've loved, and I've loved books I've once hated. Perhaps it's a matter of relativity? Because no one says anything bad about a work in their 'circle', to do so is a hyper-aggressive move?
Yeah, I mean especially online if you say something negative, it can hang around or even spread around beyond your intended audience, you could be affecting sales. And if we were all getting rich that would be one thing. But we aren't. So it's not as if you begrudge any book, even a bad one, what small readership it can find, in general.
So it's like, "Yeah, I didn't like that either, but don't you have anything better to do?" Which I basically agree with, but it leads to some very shallow discussions at times. Even the books I really like, I usually have a lot to criticize about them. I mean, I write my books with the intent that they have problems and receive deserved criticism.
Yes, I agree completely. I think a world in which you can say, openly, online, about a friend's work, "This book engaged me. I would have wished they explored this more or this less, but I'm happy to have read" is a better one.
For sure. Although I will admit, if my friends talked about my work that way in public, I might feel pretty bad about myself, because I would immediately believe whatever they said. Although that's really my stance in general. I try to believe anything critical (and most positive things) that anyone says about my writing, if I can.
Okay, enough of this morality babbling. Back to the shit storm. Here we have three reviews cut from the same cloth: “This book sucked.”, “Just plain odd.” and “Unreadable by me.”
Seeing those three next to each other, I'm struck by their formal similarities.
Apparently if you really hate a book, the best way to communicate that is with three words. No more and no fewer.
"Unreadable by me" is another one I'm extremely fond of. It's so honest! And "Just plain odd" is absolutely accurate.
This one is more of a head-scratcher: “did not finish reading but scanned after 1/4 and found nothing. could ot tell whether this was a moralistic, anti-war piece or a bit of the author's shoeing off.”
I actually feel like that's a pretty good review, in its own weird way. First, they admit that they didn't finish it. That's nice to know. Second, some of that book is absolutely me showing off. Sometimes it works, I think; for some readers, at least some of the time, it won't. (I think showing off is a cool thing to do in your book, mind you; we don't get mad at musicians or visual artists for showing off, we praise them.)
Does them not finishing it make you think like, maybe, MAYBE if they had, then their opinion would have changed?
No, I think they probably made the right call for them personally. I mean, I also think the book is very easy to read as a "moralistic anti-war piece." That's not totally inaccurate.
I think they understood the book, in their terms, and it wasn't for them.
I think some people have a problem with "showing off", because it implies a sacrifice of realism or plot or character. It's harder for that sacrifice to exist in music or art because the medium is less narrative.
Yeah, that's fair. Personally I don't value realism very much, but I do value constraints, and showing off can be a big problem when it disrespects the work's own constraints.
Let's move on to really the only negative review I could find by a critic, and I'm sure you've read it. Kirkus gave a sort of snyopsis-driven review and then ended it with "A bold concept poorly executed."
Yeah, that one was definitely stressful for me when it came out. I don't remember for sure anymore, but I think it was the first review I saw. And I felt like, "Well shit, maybe everybody's going to feel that way." And I couldn't blame the reviewer, because as I say, I try to believe everything anyone says about my writing, and I can absolutely imagine having that experience with my book.
I mean, if you're not feeling a book with "a bold concept," that's the review you write, right? And I knew some people wouldn't feel the book. So it wasn't a surprise.
But I did live with this feeling, for a couple weeks I think, of "Oh God oh God this is how everyone will feel, I've been revealed as a sham.” "No one will ever publish me again." Fortunately some nicer words came through the pipeline not long after and it stayed largely positive from there.
But, you know, I think that part of being a writer is just accepting the risk that you aren't any good and you can't see it. Because that's true of most writers. If you know a lot of writers, you mostly know people that you would, in your least generous moments, describe exactly that way.
So I asked myself a long time ago if I still wanted to write books, even if it was possible—maybe likely—that I was that person. If I couldn't handle that risk, I had to stop. And apparently I can. Because I haven't stopped.
There's something you said in our Pixelated conversation that I still remember, and I looked it up: "My experience with publication has been that it doesn't really change anything about your life except maybe it makes it easier for you to look yourself in the eye in the mirror." Does any review have the power to avert your glance?
For sure, in the moment that you're reading it, while you're figuring out what it's going to say. You think that maybe they're going to like your book and then they don't. It's heartbreaking, of course. But I always come back to the fact that I believe in writing books that are divisive—that are the most themselves they can possibly be, and therefore absolutely certain to alienate people who happened to want another book. I know I'm making things that not everyone will love, even as I hope that every reader has a great experience. So I can't play dumb when the bill comes due. I did that on purpose. I knew it was going to happen. It's my fault.
Thanks for your time Mike, this has been wonderful.
Thank you for having me! It's been cathartic.