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

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A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books

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Episode IX: “The worst things critics have ever said about my work pale in comparison to the worst things I've said to myself”

Published 4/4/16
In this installment, I speak with Laura van den BergTopics include "strange" writing, coherence and thematic overlap, all that pub day nonsense, there's-no-crying-in-baseball kind of families, feeling fraudulent & more.

Today I’m with Laura van den Berg, a writer of novels and short stories (and a 0s&1s interview vet—she was on an episode of Pixelated with Karen Olsson). Salon named Laura “the best young writer in America” and her work has been called “radiant” (The Los Angeles Times), “pleasingly strange…impressively original” (The New York Times Book Review), “marvelous” (Vanity Fair), “curiously beautiful” (Kirkus), “meticulously crafted” (Publishers Weekly) and a lot of other superlative qualifiers. This interview, however, will focus on the flip side of publishing a book: those less-than-happy readers (and critics). Let me start by asking if (a) you’ve looked at the reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and b) you consider yourself thick-skinned.

My dog is asleep on my feet, giving me courage.

I used to read Goodreads and Amazon reviews but have more-or-less stopped: I’m not afraid of the content, and do take a peek on occasion, but I can only spend so much time reading reviews of my own work before I begin to feel like I’m indulging a kind of gross narcissism that, well, is better left unindulged.

I do consider myself thick-skinned. Like every other writer on earth, I’m wildy sensitive in all kinds of ways, but I also have solid armor, though of course little things piece that armor in unexpected ways from time to time.

If you had to guess what readers critique about your writing, both the novels and the short stories, what would you say?

It would be very reasonable to call some of my stuff pretty “weird” or “strange.” Fiction with some element of the “strange” is pretty much the only kind I tend to enjoy myself, but at the same time I get that rabbit masks aren’t for everyone.

Looking past themes, what about the writing itself do you think (or have you found) doesn't click with those few readers?

Honestly? This is not something I really dwell on.

To circle back to your previous question for a moment: my novel is divided into two parts, a structure that naturally invites readers to prefer one part to the other, and indeed some readers were not as into the second part. Which I understand! Shit gets real weird. But the substance of that second part is so very much where my heart was as the creator of that world, so that critique doesn’t bother me or prompt a lot of consideration even—it’s just an indication that our narrative hearts were not aligned, so to speak, with this particular book. 

It’s the reviews that hit on some aspect of the work that I had misgivings about that tend to stay with me. 

I want to discuss the reviews of Find Me (both by critics and readers), but first, do you mind if we jump back to What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, and The Isle of Youth, your two story collections?

By all means.

I'll introduce a reader review, and I don't want you to necessarily feel like you have to respond to it, as if the person were here, but I am curious as to what your instinctual reactions are. First up: "I spent most of the day hate-reading this book. Its repetitive structures (of plot, imagery, relationships) were frustrating and plodding. and yet there were occasional moments of sweetness where something genuine peeked out from behind the undergraduate writing-workshop cleverness."

I am amazed and fascinated by people who have the willpower to finish books they intensely dislike. I give everything 50 pages and then if I'm not into it I'm out. 

When you write, do you imagine a reader?

No. It is very important for me to feel like I'm writing into a void.

The other review I wanted to bring up from What the World: “Her main characters, all female, carry the same voice regardless of who they are, what age they are, and how they are feeling. Van den Berg seems to lack the ability to fully form her characters, and instead they seem to be mere versions of herself. And she must be boring…Van den Berg utilizes exotic places, animals, and customs to try to hide the fact that the stories and characters themselves are flat, underdeveloped, trite, and dull. Her attempts to display "the human condition" are often clichéd and overdone.”

Both collections have a lot of thematic overlap and the narrators are of a similar ilk. For some readers, that quality seemed to create a pleasingly coherence; for others it was annoying. I suspect one’s reaction depends largely on how interesting such a voice is to a particular reader in the first place. Frankly I do think the stories get repetitive in What the World, so that’s not a critique I necessarily disagree with, and I very much wanted to try and re-approach how thematic overlap could operate in Isle. 

There definitely were comments of the same thread for Isle, so I won't retrace our steps. For Isle, we have: “My recurring response to these stories was: ‘This is someone who knows how to write. Too bad she has nothing to say.’" and “These stories are at times compelling, interesting and funny but most of the time they make you feel that they could be written better. I don't know how to put it but there is this enormous dullness in van den Berg's style, which takes all the life out of her characters.”

Oh for sure—I am aware some readers had similar reactions to both collections, in terms of the overlap feeling suffocating and repetitive and shallow. But when I talk about aims, that’s not a statement on whether I felt I was successful or unsuccessful, but rather just to say: “this was the project.” Reviews are not there for the writer, ultimately. The book is no longer ours once it is at the stage where it can be reviewed; it belongs to whoever picks it up and what they think is what they think.

In other news the door of my apartment just opened ON ITS OWN which is surely a sign of something though I'm not sure what.

Ha. That's actually part of the interview; I like to keep the participant on their toes. As we switch over to your debut novel, I'm curious how your mindset going into it differed. The writing is quite a leap from your short stories.

It is! Yes, it was a different and more intense process. I write stories over a span of time and then at a certain point can see a collection taking shape and decide to keep moving in that direction. That a book comes out of it is almost like a weird surprise. 

With the novel, though, I was working on THIS ONE THING for a long time—six years—and partly because I had never written a novel before and partly because I was trying a lot of stuff I had never done before (the speculative element, for one) and partly because writing fiction is just plain tough there were some hardcore challenges along the way. I felt like a stronger person when I got to the other side, so to complete that process via publication was exhilarating and terrifying and also a part of me was sad to let the world of the book, and the narrator, go—we had been together for so long, after all, that she had taken on a near bodily dimension in my life, something I had never felt for a character from a short story.

When you finally reached the end of that process, the mighty publication day, how much of it felt "over"? Were you worried about reviews? Did you anticipate being covered as widely as you were?

Oh man, I don’t think of the publication day as being mighty. It always feels like kind of an ambiguous and weird moment to me. I was supposed to a reading on my pub day but it got snowed out and so my husband and I went out to dinner instead. That was nice.

But my happiest moment of release came when I turned in final edits, even though of course there were a lot of steps between that stage and publication. Also, I got lucky in that I had a one-semester fellowship at Bard College in upstate NY last winter/spring and while normally I wouldn’t worry too much about writing new stuff with a book out, I was like: look, you are here for a finite amount of time, you might never get time like this again, so you had better do some work. So I did, and getting deep into another project, in addition to living on a campus in the woods, was a helpful anxiety buffer. 

But even so I was anxious about reviews. Absolutely! I don't really feel like I have a good radar on what will happen with a book pre-pub. I know people are working hard and thoughtfully, and I'm grateful to them, but the process is kind of a mystery in some respects too. 

And with that, let's go into the reviews—readers first. You were definitely right that most of them hedged on the difference between the first and the second half. To give my personal (and unsolicited) opinion, that gripe is very much of the intellectualized variety; that is, it isn't something that necessarily takes away from the book (and can really add to it), but a reader who wants to develop an opinion might pinpoint it as something they found (and critics too). First up: “The last 50 pages felt completely rushed, as if even the author wanted to be rid of the mess.”

Joy's search for her mother is the impetus for Part 2, but at a certain point her story becomes very much about other, more internal stuff that ultimately consumes the quest for a literal person. In order for the book to work for a reader I’d imagine it’s critical that they are convinced by the “other, more internal stuff”—and if the book fails to do that for a reader, then where Joy lands isn’t likely to be satisfying.  

Also, I can understand someone being just plain pissed off that the book declines to definitively answer certain questions. Again, I know why that choice makes sense to my brain, but I certainly don't expect that to translate to all readers, or even most readers. My parents were extremely annoyed by the ending.

Really? How did they express that? You must have a great relationship with your parents for them to be honest about that.

I think something like "It doesn't end, it just stops!" I do have a really good relationship with both my parents, but they are not people who sugarcoat. They have been finding my endings objectionable for years. I am at peace with this. 

Ha. Sounds like they gave you a great crash course in having thick skin. Back to the sludge: “She told a story, that's to say she didn't let us experience it through the narrator. No she told instead of showed. And the draw back is that I couldn't connect with the characters or the story. It was boring for that reason. On top of that, the sentences were at a third grade level and she treated the reader the same, often using additional sentences to explain to the reader what was already obvious enough. Also she couldn't even make natural breaks in paragraphs and jammed sentences together that clearly didn't belong. This author makes my 10 worst writers list.”

Totally. I come from a there’s-no-crying-in-baseball kind of family.

I have never made a “10 worst writers list.” Who would be on there?! I am going to think about what my list would look like for the rest of the day. Though I just realized dropping books I dislike is going to be a big barrier in making such a list of my own. 

Okay. The real stuff, the critics. I found an unbelievable number of positive reviews for Find Me from top publications—but we're not here for that. You got mixed reviews from the New York Times (though they were much more positive than negative), NPR, and The Sydney Morning Herald. Have you read these?

I have read all of those. 

What were your initial impressions?

I like the NYTBR review a great deal. I felt like the reviewer spoke about the project of the book very elegantly and with insight. Of course it is fun to read a flat-out rave but sometimes the reviews that are more mixed and probing making for more interesting reading ultimately. I remember the Sydney Morning Herald review being thoughtful as well, though the structure didn't work for the reviewer in the end, as I recall. The NPR is the most negative one I got for the book, at least from what I've read, and I remember thinking that just fell into a "this book was clearly not for this person" kind of category. 

It's of course been a while since I have read these, so feel free to let me know if I am grossly misremembering anything. 

(You seem to remembering correctly.) It's odd sometimes you get that impression, that there was a mismatch, and yet that person comes to represent the publication on the whole. Near the end, the NPR said: “Find Me’s biggest misstep, though, is failing to take its main idea in its teeth. The book is about the loss of memory, yet the ramifications of such a monumental thing — personally and societally — are barely brushed upon. Instead, Joy’s own trauma-suppressed memories resurface whenever it’s convenient for the plot, and without much of a statement being made besides the fuzzy notion that maybe America subconsciously willed this disease into existence, and for the most maudlin reason.” How do you feel about that?

I don’t feel anything reading that now! Am I dead inside? I’d say my earlier impression that this review falls into the "this book was clearly not for this person" category still holds. One weird thing about reviews, for the writers that read them, is that it can feel personal but it almost never is (save for the terrible and bizarre category of review that is clearly an attempt to burn another human to the ground). Again reviews aren’t for the authors; they are for the reading public. 

The Sydney Morning Herald’s review was one of those mixed ones that might make a reader want to buy a copy more than a flatly positive one: “In the end, it’s as though as readers we are suffering from a mysterious illness ourselves: intoxicated and confused by van den Berg’s broken world, but not immune to its beauty.” How does that make you feel?

I know it’s not entirely complimentary, but just on an aesthetic level I thought that was a lovely line—good prose in a review is always appreciated. "Intoxicated and confused" is also the state I personally hope to reach when reading, so because of my own inclinations I probably read that as being more positive than intended.

Hey can I ask you a question? 


Have you ever started one of these and the writer got halfway through was like, I'm sorry, I can't finish this interview? I was just thinking if you were a writer who didn't read any reviews and then it was being quoted back to you and how overwhelming that could be. But I guess that person probably wouldn't agree to do this in the first place? 

I am not overwhelmed myself. But I was just thinking that I have some writer friends who would consider an interview of this sort to be among their worst nightmares.

No, that hasn't happened, but the thought consistently crosses my mind when I paste a review I found, and I read it back to myself, and I think, they did sign up for this, but also, some of these are really harsh.

I find it funny when people react on Twitter to them, like I can't believe he asked you that!, like take a look at what the series is. The writer knows what they signed up for.

I wish I had this series to read as a younger writer. Just to get a sense of how other writers deal with criticism, how they see it, how they process it. 

It can feel almost verboten to talk about it in public (for good reason: save for extraordinary circumstances, 500% in favor of authors not replying publicly to their critics), so you just have to learn to deal with it, or not, on your own. Which is true of most things in life, I suppose.

But also it's a privilege to have to learn to deal with it at all, you know? It means someone put your work out there and some other people talked about it. If you get a hideous review, you are in the best company because chances are all your heroes have.

Right, it's all part of the game. And honestly, in the past few years, when a release has achieved universally positive reviews, it’s more likely than not that I haven’t personally connected with it. There's a lot of intellectualization with reviews, and a lot of forcefully developed opinions, and it's somewhat divorced from the very singular and alone experience of reading.

We're nearly out of time, so I'll let you go. But I'll ask one more: If you could go back in time to the Laura van den Berg pre-publication, what advice would you offer?

I would have told her to stop smoking and get more sleep and don’t eat doughnuts for dinner and like magic you will feel SO much better about everything.

Apart for that, two things.

First, a part of me always has, and probably always will, feel fraudulent (this is nothing special and common among writers and a powerful feeling nevertheless). As a younger writer, instead sitting with criticism and releasing what was not for me and absorbing what was, I was tempted to see criticism as confirmation of my fraudulence and praise as a shard of hope that maybe I was not so fraudulent after all. In other words, I was far too dependent on external opinion. The worst things critics have ever said about my work pale in comparison to the worst things I’ve said to myself, and that internal voice is the one I need to worry about reckoning with.

Second, I think some of the “weird feelings” that authors have around publication, regardless of the reception, is that no amount of praise for a book can give you back the time, and the life, it took from you to write it. So don’t expect a book to do that. Let the book make its way in the world. You finished it. You did your part. Now it is beautiful outside and even if it is not beautiful outside one day the days will run out. Go walk the dog.

My younger self needed a lot of help, but I think I'll stop there. She wouldn't have listened anyway.

Thanks so much for your time Laura, and your wonderful words.

Thank you, Andrew! I feel a bit like I've gone to therapy only it was free.