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

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Episode IV: "If you read every book you pick up to see if it meets David Foster Wallace's rule for some hypothetical future vanguard of lit rebels...I just really, really suspect you are a man."

Published 3/1/16
In this installment, I speak with Elisa GabbertTopics include fleeting fantasies of fame, revision, “prose poetry”, Zen koans, Twitter vs. books, her Publishers Weekly (anonymous) review, the backlash to her “Should White Men Stop Writing” column & more.

Today I’m with Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist whose work includes The Self Unstable, The French Exit and Thanks for Sending the Engine. The Rumpus called The Self Unstable, her most recent work, “smart and philosophically dexterous, capable of showing the self to be a fetish-object of its own and also a refractive subject of Lacanian devotion, as a mirror which doesn’t so much distort as endlessly ‘reveal,’ like the panopticon eye of a camera.” Not all reviews are that interesting, florid, or positive. However, I will say that possibly due to the content and genre of your work, the reader reviews of your work were much more well-written and harder to box-in than I’m used to (and on the whole, more positive). Before we jump into them, if I can ask: do you consider yourself thick-skinned?

I'd say I'm relatively thick-skinned, but when it comes to reviews of my work, I haven't had to be incredibly thick-skinned because—as you imply—I haven't really been in a position, career-wise, to get full-force negative criticism. It's not non-existent, but I write poetry, criticism, semi-esoteric essays, mostly published by small presses and lit journals. If I was writing best-selling novels or memoirs I'd be exposing myself to potentially much harsher criticism.

Do you have plans to go down that path in the future, if I may ask?

Aside from fleeting fantasies of wild success/fame, not really. I suppose I can imagine the kind of stuff I write developing a large audience, but it doesn't seem likely, especially with my meager ambitions. (Perhaps I should clarify: I have ambitious standards for my own writing, I'm just not very ambitious about promoting it.)

I'll say that when I read reader reviews of your work, the criticism felt a bit more respondable, or like it demands a response. So far on this series, we mostly talk about comments that are like "this made me feel bad and I wanted to feel good" or "I hated this character" or "this wasn't the right book". What I'm saying is, I don't want you to feel like you have to justify your work against claims in particular, if that doesn't make you comfortable. I'm more interested in how they make you feel, and what your honest reactions are. That being said, first up: "I enjoyed it at first, but 10-15 pages in I began to feel pummeled by the sameness of its sentence structures. Most pieces follow a pattern of Concept->Reaction->Reflection->Twist”.

That's pretty funny because the nouns in that formula are so abstract as to be nearly meaningless. "Concept"? "Reflection"? I'm OK with writing that has a lot of concepts and reflections in it. I might bristle if they really all ended in a "twist" but they really don't. In any case, I purposely constructed the book to be formulaic.

In the course of working with Black Ocean, who published the book, did you receive a lot of editorial feedback?

I wouldn't say it was a lot; the edits on my first book (with Birds LLC) were more extensive. For example I don't think the order of the pieces changed at all from manuscript to finished book. There were some cuts and line edits. Well, actually, they requested I make the first version of the manuscript that they read about 30% longer. So I guess that's a big revision! But after that, it was pretty minimal.

This next one is oddly polite, like straight out of an MFA workshop. “Elisa Gabbert's humor and candor are aptly on display in this new book from Black Ocean, only I'm still trying to understand how 'lyric essays' function, and the way(s) I approach them as a reader.”

I'm guessing this reader was wondering why it's classified as lyric essay rather than poetry, since Black Ocean is mostly a poetry press and I'm mostly a poet. But I've come to dislike the convention of calling prose "prose poetry" just because a poet wrote it. I suppose the best way to figure out how either poetry or lyric essays function is to read them.

In reading the descriptions of your books, it seems there are a lot classification choices that are made because they have to be, because the reader expects them. I'm curious what would be said of your work if it was presented to the average american reader just as a book, without qualification.

I think the fact that it's in prose actually makes it more approachable! I've definitely had very positive reactions from people who don't read a lot of poetry or "lyric essay." It probably doesn't occur to them to try to figure out the subgenre. My college boyfriend kept a book of Zen koans on the back of the toilet. Believe it or not that was one of my inspirations for the form. Most people would probably open it and just call it "a book."

“There is some really excellent language and lines in this one, as well as intriguing use of form, but I wanted to like it more than I did, as I've previously enjoyed this author's tweets and other works I've read around the internet.”

This is the kind of review that makes me hate Goodreads. It's from Goodreads, right? Literally a lot of the lines in the book started as tweets. My tweets are an excellent commercial for the book. Liking my tweets but not the book is unhelpfully idiosyncratic.

Your Twitter game is very, very strong. I also agree it's a great introduction to the book. Do you think it has to do with the medium of Twitter against that of a book?

They are very different delivery platforms! But, like, I assume you know when you purchase a book that it's not going to be exactly like Twitter. Even if the book is just reprinted tweets (like the one Hobart did of Mira Gonzalez and Tao Lin's tweets) it's different to binge-read them than have them doled out in real time.

In the case of my book, the tweet-like sentences are thoughtfully edited and arranged, they're not just getting shot off whenever I think of them.

Publishers Weekly reviewed The Self Unstable, as I’m sure you know. They started by saying it’s “the exact opposite of a cheerful self-help book”, which I don’t think you’d disagree with. They also gave you the tried and true “yields, at best, mixed results” and said “the book’s tone is cold and oppressive”. The whole thing finishes with “Gabbert does not represent such a vanguard”, referring to David Foster Wallace’s claim that the the next generation of lit rebels would “eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue”, that they would be “artists…willing to risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.”

It's (relatively) rare for PW to cover a book from a smaller publisher like Black Ocean. Did you think you'd get covered? What was your first reaction to their review?

That was just weird. Does this reviewer hold every book up to this arbitrary vanguard rule? Who said I was trying to be a vanguard or a "rebel"? From what I can gather, I wouldn't want to write the kind of book this reviewer was looking for. Just because sentimentality and melodrama aren't "hip" doesn't make them good writing.

To answer the second part of your question, I was surprised to find the review mostly because I somehow didn't hear about it until months later. It's also possibly the worst review I've ever seen in PW, of a small-press book or otherwise. I was maybe almost honored. It's hard to be offended when it's obvious that the reviewer's sensibilities are on another plane. Seriously, what does David Foster Wallace have to do with anything? Why not invoke an aphorist?

What was amazing to me was “…on the one hand, the book is full of sleek, provocative lines, and the koan-like structure of each essay invites the reader to linger over it, pondering each line's implication for hours…”—who needs the other hand, when the first hand is that? Who cares what else when you admit a line in a book had you off on a multi-hour rumination?

True. That's the whole point of the book and he went looking for another point.

It's also somewhat off-putting when a review feels personal—and I'm not saying this is "personal" personal, just clearly from a single POV—and there isn't a name attached.

Yes, I used the pronoun "he" even though it's anonymous. I tweeted this review when I found it and someone said to me "This review was written by a man." I'm sure it was.

Further, I love smart negative criticism when I feel I can trust the reviewer, but how do you trust anonymity?

What about it makes you think the reviewer is a man? Full disclosure: I am one.

If you read every book you pick up to see if it meets David Foster Wallace's rule for some hypothetical future vanguard of lit rebels...I just really, really suspect you are a man. I like David Foster Wallace, by the way. But it still doesn't make any sense to view this book through that filter.

Fair. And on the topic of gender. I can't not bring up the "Should White Men Stop Writing?" advice column installment you did for Electric Literature. You've already been interviewed a few times over for the piece, and I won't make you do it again. But I'm curious, did any of the negative feedback you got from that, in the thicket of all the sexist, enraged, red-pill responses, make you think? In other words, was there a response you didn't expect when you published it?

Unfortunately, no. I was open to the possibility, but pretty much without exception I found the negative blowback defensive, reactionary, and closed-minded.

How about the blowback to the blowback, when the wind was in your favor? Did you feel well covered from those in the trenches of the comments section?

I think so, but I tried to stay out of it for the most part, which is to say, I don't think that if you write a controversial article you're like honor-bound to read and respond to every comment on it, or to the comments on the meta-articles etc. Especially when a lot of the people commenting don't seem to have read the article in the first place....

Expecting an audience to read an article when the headline is already hot take-ready, that's a little ambitious no?

So I'm ambitious after all? Why am I not famous then?

Who do you think you'd become if you were famous?

Probably very like myself but a little worse.

In what ways?

Well I'm already pretty self-righteous. If you love me now, you might not love me less, but if you dislike me now you'd probably dislike me more. In general I think fame makes one more detestable even if you also gain more fans at the other end.

And what a moral to end on. Thanks for your time, Elisa, and your words.

Thanks for having me!