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 V: "This is...like the thing they did in Communist China where people had to get up and 'self-criticize'"
In this installment, I speak with Emily Gould. Topics include criticism vs. trolling, fear of women, marketing and reader expectations, her voice, season 3 of the Mindy Project, “hipsters”, confidence, surviving & more.
Today I’m with Emily Gould who was, honestly, one of the first people I thought of when developing Thick Skin. An author who wasn’t so enthused with series said, to you on Twitter, “Oh man, I cannot imagine doing that but you have a different relationship with your haters than I do.” He could’ve been referring to a number of things. What I find most interesting is the kind of totem you became for anyone against writing that “overshares” (and then, against anyone who claims or has been claimed to be the first to “overshare”, or something). It all starts, debatably, with your work as the former co-editor of Gawker, a site which paved the way with its irreverent, subversive and colloquial tone—now par for a handful of popular publications, and part of the inflection of many more.
Emily the author has written three books, most recently “Friendship” (FSG, 2014), a book that has been hailed, all over, as piercing, honest, vivid, remarkably funny, bittersweet. Some people didn’t like it, of course. Before we jump in, can I ask: a) have you read reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and b) do you consider yourself thick-skinned?
Hi! a) actually...no! I have not. At all. and b) I know myself to be extremely thin-skinned. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my experiences with intense, sustained, daily online criticism starting when I worked as a professional blogger and continuing up to and slightly after the publication of And The Heart Says Whatever left me...I don't want to say "traumatized", but definitely altered. Like, I'll never look at the world the same way as I did before that experience, and while most women have experienced online harassment to some extent, I think I have experienced a high level of it for a long duration, during a time when it was mostly considered socially acceptable. And that's kind of left me with a different perspective on all kinds of criticism, which I know is different from harassment/trolling. (Usually. Sometimes. To varying degrees.)
Do you think your experiences have made you more thick-skinned or more thin-skinned?
Somehow...both? Like, I had to learn how to not take strangers' opinions to heart, in order to survive and continue working. But I also know how stuff can get in my head, even when I think my psychic barriers are thick. So now I do try to protect myself from even knowing about it. I used to think it was important to COUNTENANCE it. And to speak out against critiques that I thought were sexist and weren't about me or my work, but were about fear of women/fear of a woman being public, telling the truth. I kind of feel now like I did my time in those trenches, and it's more important for me to do what I need to do to protect myself so I can keep writing. (Also a sick part of me did used to find it fun, and I don't anymore.)
Well, I certainly appreciate you coming on board to discuss something you know is healthy to ignore. I think people feel the prerogative to be cruel when someone willingly “puts themselves out there”, which can be an act as simple as publishing a book. The veil of anonymity certainly speeds things along. If you had to guess what readers said about Friendship, And The Heart Says Whatever, and Hex Education, what would you say?
Lol, Hex Education—really? I think the statute of limitations has expired on Hex Education. It's not even in print!
Well, some readers have found it, and they've put their opinions online.
I would guess that a lot of readers found the protagonists of Friendship unlikeable and unrelatable. They might also feel that they were sold something other than what they ended up with, and they didn't like that. They might have found the dialogue flat, the ending unrealistic, the whole character of Sally to be superfluous? Oh and the overall narrative voice might have seemed unnecessarily cruel and judgmental. They might have found the book to be about shallow bitchy white people whose problems don't matter. I could go on?
I think your finger's on the pulse, Emily. When you say, 'feel that they were sold something other than what they ended up with,' what do you think they think they were sold?
I think just because of the way books in general are marketed to the widest possible audience, this book was positioned as sort of literary-ish mainstream women's fiction about friends and coming of age. If I picked it up expecting a light read about pals who fight but reconcile, and maybe find love along the way—i.e., a cozy read, a book you'd buy at the airport to kind of dull your senses for a few hours—I'd be bummed to find it prickly and slightly weird. I also think there's just something about my voice that annoys some people. It might be that I have one. Like, that it's a distinct voice, kind of the narrative equivalent of vocal fry. You can always hear me in the book, and for I think 50% of people that's a feature and for the other 50% it's a bug. This is kind of seeming like the thing they did in Communist China where people had to get up and "self-criticize".
Haha. I use Communist China as a sort of aspirational guide in all my endeavors, so that's good to hear. And that’s interesting about marketing, and whose hands the book gets into. I was just interviewing Elisa Gabbert on this series, and her work is the inverse; if someone’s found it, they know what they’re getting into. So people on Goodreads and Amazon are talking about her semantic structure. Whereas, someone said, of Friendship, “Couldn't get past the early pages. Perhaps I've read too much about Emily Gould and/or am just sick of the bratty Brooklynite literati caricatures that are becoming very over-exposed. Perhaps, after reading the amazing Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I was optimistic. This book is awful”, which sounds like it came from someone who literally bought the book in an airport and maybe has never been to Brooklyn.
Heh! Ok, so that's exactly what I expecting. Rather, certainly if you opened the book already feeling sick of Emily Gould, you might continue to feel that way after reading a few pages.
We live in an age of weirdly public information. That being said, would it help if I NOW told you that this same person gave five stars on Amazon to “Jigsaw Puzzles Epic” (an app), five stars to The Mindy Project, Season 3, and just one star to House Hunters International Renovation (“Stop whining already!” they said)?
Hey, season 3 of the Mindy Project was great. But great in the way that I mentioned before, where you're just looking for something to distract you from your own thoughts. I'm looking for that sometimes too! A lot of times, I'm not in the mood for me! So I sympathize.
So this person enjoys the easy whims of Mindy Kaling and Jigsaw Puzzles Epic, and sometimes Emily Gould and House Hunters is just too much. Somebody else said, "It really wasn't as ‘deep’ as the synopsis made it out to be.” What do you make of that?
Wow, so now I'm not shallow enough AND not deep enough? I really can't win.
Can we play a three round game, where I give a piece of (reader-generated) criticism, and you a) guess which of the three books its from (yes, including Hex Education), and then, b) tell me what your honest, physical reaction is?
“Emily Gould is a hipster. Let me get that out of the way. The word never comes up, but it's clear from the first couple of pages.”
I'm smiling. It's very easy for me to discount criticism from someone who thinks "hipster" is an insult, or even...a useful descriptor of a specific type of person? As far as I can tell it can mean anything (I guess that's why I don't use it). Also, at this moment I'm wearing head to toe Gap and Uggs, and am a mom, so I guess the idea that I have ever been "hip" is strangely flattering. Oh and I think it came from And The Heart Says Whatever.
That was all wonderful and yes, you are correct. “Finish it cuz i was on vacation and had some extra time on my hands…Many ( cliche and contrived) events in the story were also randomly thrown in for no reason whatsoever. I could excuse some of that if the characters were at all interesting but they were not. They were one dimensional and boring.”
Um, I'm hoping that's Hex Ed. Tell me if I'm right before I go on.
You are wrong.
Ha! I guess I could roll with "contrived" but I don't think most of what happens in Friendship is "cliché" exactly. But I can't argue with "boring" because different things are interesting to different people. I wish this person had cut his or her losses. Don't waste vacation time reading a book you don't like! Life is too short to keep reading books you aren't into.
Third and final: “…had a good start that held promise. The writing wasn't too horrible, however the plotline itself was kind of blah. Still, it was entertaining and held my attention.”
Oh, praise for my finest work, a co-written YA novel that was published when I was 26.
Ding ding. Do you believe no one should publish before they're 30?
Not at all! Emily Books/Coffee House Press will publish Chloe Caldwell's next essay collection in October, just in time for her to turn 30. I love the perspective of younger people and I think when you're young you have access to a lot of strong emotions and unvarnished opinions. You don't know yet how to quash your own creative impulses.
It's hard for me to get it up to defend Hex Ed, though. I loved the experience of writing it with my friend Zareen. It was great practice and we both learned a lot. Z is now a very important YA editor! But for me it was more a humbling lesson about what I am NOT cut out to do: write formulaic fiction for an audience I don't really understand (teenz).
That's fair. You are like, hyper-logical about all of this. I feel like talking to you that you have a built-in therapist.
I fucking wish, that would save me a lot of money. Surviving as a writer is hard if you don't have rock-solid confidence that something about what you do is important and needs to continue to happen. I still get psyched out all the time about whether I "deserve" to do this, whether I'm really cut out for it, etc. But I mostly think what I do is worthwhile—that even when I can't see the point of it on a day to day, there's someone on the other end of what I'm writing who will find some aspect of it useful or interesting, and so I should keep going. Not everyone has to like it. Not everyone has to like me. I'm gonna keep writing books, and actually should get back to it!
That is actually inspiring. And I’ll let you go after one more question.
I won’t harp on the “middling millennials” piece, given how many words have already been spent on it. There’s even been criticism to the implications of the original criticism (i.e. from the Lena Dunham camp), and pushback to the blowback of the whatever. But I am curious, more generally, now that there’s been a good deal of time since, what your lasting impressions are.
Hard for me to say because I still haven't ever read it.
That's impressive. What about the entire thing, not just the article itself?
It was hard to have a book come out and for a lot of the conversation around it to be about things other than the book itself. When I publish my next book, I'll hope for a different situation, because I don't at all think, "it's all publicity". In general I'd like to get out of the way of my own work more in the future, even if "my own work" is first-person writing. Luckily I think in general as a culture we're finally starting to be able to see past some of the knee-jerk misogyny that's been passing as legitimate book criticism for, like, centuries.
Thanks for your time Emily. I really appreciate it.