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

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Episode VI: The Two Darts

Published 3/15/16
In this installment, I speak with Clancy MartinTopics include unsympathetic characters, conflating writer with protagonist, liking vs. understanding vs. being affected by, the theory of two darts & more.

Today I’m with Clancy Martin, a writer who’s work includes novels (How To Sell and, most recently, Bad Sex), philosophic work (Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love), and very philosophic work (Nietzsche’s ‘This Spoke Zarathustra’: A Reader’s Guide). Bad Sex, which I read as I believe it should be, across one night and one morning, has been called “painfully honest”, “great fun”, “dark and sexy and unrepentant”, “tense, beautiful”, etc. Some readers didn’t like it of course. Before we get into the reviews (of all your work), let me ask: a) how many of the reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon have you read? b) do you consider yourself thick-skinned?

(a) I haven't read any of the Goodreads reviews except one that a friend sent me and posted to Facebook, a very nice review by Roxane Gay. I think I must have read the Amazon reviews that come up when you click on the novel, but I don't honestly recall them…which probably means they were nice? You tend to remember the hard to read ones better than the nice ones. Which answers your second question: (b) I am not at all thick-skinned, sigh. I am very very very thin-skinned, a total wimp.

If you had to guess what the negative reader reviews of Bad Sex look like (without checking!) what would you say?

Ha! Interesting question. Maybe: doesn't understand women. Boring, flat prose. Unsympathetic characters. Depressing. Doesn't understand love, sex or romance. As short as this was, it was nevertheless a waste of time, this guy can't write. If this guy can get published, anyone can.

When someone says "unsympathetic characters", what exactly do you think they mean?

I don't know, but people said that a lot about How To Sell. Maybe they mean: characters who don't have a lot of traditional moral virtues? I struggle with this. My students think Meursault is an unsympathetic character. He doesn't read that way to me. My students think Raskolnikov is an unsympathetic character. I love Raskolnikov. I don't get it, frankly.

It means, maybe: I don't want to be friends with that person. But I love so many characters in literature that are not at all the type of person I would want as a friend. Most of them, in fact. I don't even think I’d want Jakes Barnes as a friend. Too uptight, and a bit anti-Semitic.

Ha. Ok. Given the autobiographical (and semi-auto (and semi-semi-auto)) nature of your work, would you ever take a claim like that personally?

No, not really. I'd feel that I failed as a writer, though. I want my characters to feel like real people. And most real people, if you get to know them, well, have a sympathetic side, I think. That is, one comes to sympathize. To understand is to forgive and all that...

On How To Sell, one lucky reader said “Depressing, and more depressing to think about this character and the novelist's probable autobiographical resemblance. No redeeming value in the story at all.”

I have to say I completely disagree with this reader. Bobby does find redemption. As did I. Of a kind. That's why he finally says "No" to his big brother. That's a huge thing for him. That's when he becomes a man.

Yeah, I think "no redeeming value" is something reader critics say when they really want to say "I didn't like this". Kind of like the word "drivel". Maybe they didn't mean that they thought the characters weren't redeemed.

Well, "I really didn't like this" is fair. I have that reaction to a lot of books myself. Although I don't think I've ever said that outside of the context of a print book review or a conversation.

Speaking of characters being redeemed, it seems, by and large, readers willing to share their thoughts on Goodreads really just had problems with the immorality of the characters. Such as: “The protagonist needs to get herself in rehab and therapy. But she doesn't. And pretty much the whole book is just a series of TERRIBLE decisions. If you like watching car wrecks and feeling gross then this is the book for you.”

I think that's a fair criticism of the book. Poor ole Brett is a bit of a car crash or a slow trainwreck. Now I'm not sure how interesting it would have been if I’d just sent her to a therapist...And she does try to talk it through with Sadie. But the point is, no matter how hard she tries, she's addicted. To booze, to Eduard, to self-destruction.

It makes you think, what did the reader want to happen? For her to find a fix in the middle of the book, and then the reader could join her in her high road to recovery? That would be a different type of book. I wonder if a lot of criticism comes with the person not knowing what they're getting into it.

Yes, people read for many different reasons I think, and it's just good luck when the right reader finds the right book. "To MY reader" Kierkegaard used to like to say. You can feel how much he means it. Nietzsche used to say the same thing. That's the great luck of finding someone who is the right fit for you as a writer. Finding a book you love is just as hard as finding a reader who will love your book. And just as lucky.

But sometimes you get the sense a reader wasn't a great fit for the book (and they say as much in their review)—and yet they still 'get it':  “…I simply didn't like her too much. I didn't like Eduard at all. It's frustrating to watch people deliberately sabotage their own lives, and that's what she was doing. Brett's husband, Paul, and his sons represented stability and love. Eduard....did not.”

So, yes, understanding a book doesn't mean that it's the right book for you, I guess. I'm trying to think of books I "understood" but didn't like. I suppose I must have some reviews in which I say something along those lines...I was tough on one of Rick Moody's books, e.g., though I think he's a marvelous writer. I tend to stop reading after a page or two if I don't like a book. I am surrounded by stacks of books that I want to read, so I am disinclined to read books that don't really grab me quickly. That said, I'll force myself through things, like Seneca's plays, because I know they are good for me.

And just as there's a difference between "understanding" a book and "liking" it, further still is the mighty "being affected by it". One reader wrote, of Love and Lies:  “My straight-forward review: I don't think it is ever a good idea to blur the lines of reality. Does that mean I won't in the context of a relationship? Honestly, no, but it does mean that this essay of a book made me feel extremely sick.” It sort of makes me think that, though they were willing to give it a negative review, it did get to them.

If I can make someone feel extremely sick with Love and Lies, that is a victory. I mean that sincerely and also kindly, gratefully. It is a sickening book in some ways. Much of my own experience in the book is sickening. But you know what? Life can be sickening. That's part of the deal. "Monks, this life is suffering." The opening of every sutra, some people claim.... 

Having a book with that mission makes it a tough sell for reviews, both from readers and critics today, where the point of the review is, often enough, will this make you feel good or bad? You’ve had the great honor of being reviewed in the New York Times (with 'Love and Lies'), and with that honor comes the chance that review will be “mixed”, as they say. The reviewer points out the positives (calling your thesis “provocative and promising”), but also says “‘How to Sell’ was taut and controlled; ‘Love and Lies’ is repetitive and sloppy, full of non sequiturs and statements of the obvious”, and then “There’s an artless, almost childlike quality to the writing, a naïve self-­obsession that wouldn’t be out of keeping in a journal.” The entire thing ends with “What ‘Love and Lies’ has in its favor is a naked sincerity that is almost painfully touching at moments. The book feels like a genuine if unsuccessful attempt on Martin’s part to make sense of his life. Given how many books are written because there is a perceived market for them, this isn’t nothing. Unfortunately, it’s also not nearly enough.” Assuming you read this review, what was your initial reaction, and how do you now feel about it?

I laughed and cried as I read the review. Literally. I think she makes some good points, and if I wrote the book again, I would probably change a few things with her observations in mind. I wish I'd had her as an early reader, she's obviously very smart. But some great writer wrote: You just have to write the books and then let them go, let them make their own way in the world. And I think that's exactly right. Move on to your next book. Write each of them the best you can when you're working on that one. And hopefully, with time, you'll have a few that you are proud of.

I have friends who don't read any of their reviews, because (they tell me) they don't think any critic, good or bad, can have a healthy influence on your writing. I'm not sure that's true, but I do think both good press and bad press can have a strange effect on your everyday life. Writing is hard and the publishing process is really hard. Especially with your first couple of books.

My wife Amie Barrodale, a much greater writer than I am, has her first collection about to come out—it's called YOU ARE HAVING A GOOD TIME (FSG, this summer), and I worry about the emotional rollercoaster ahead. Your first book is so hard. 

I look very much forward to reading it. When you say "a strange effect on your everyday life", what sort of effects do you mean?

A relentless and nauseating oscillation between elation and despondency.

In the way of self-perception, outside-perception, confidence?

All of it, yes. The Buddha talks about "the two darts." The first dart is the emotional response, or the pain or pleasure response. The second dart is how we respond to that response. Now, there's nothing we can do about the first dart, but the second dart, that's the dart of ego, of attachment, of vanity, of self-protection, of fear, of aggression. And though the world throws the first dart, the second dart is one we throw at ourselves, which maybe is not very smart.

Does any good come from the second dart? (I'm asking either Clancy Martin, author, or Clancy Martin, rep of Buddha.)

No and no.

We're nearly out of time. So I'll let you go after this: Say you could go back in time and talk to Clancy Martin before he was published. On the topic of thick skin, what would you say?

Great question. I would go back to that guy and tell him what my dad used to tell me when he was teaching me how to box. It's the same advice Thom Jones talks about at some point, I think. It must be old boxer's lore. "It's just a fight. There's nothing to be afraid of. It's just a fight." Every book is just a fight. Your life doesn't depend on it. The world isn't going to end tomorrow. Just write the book, best you can. Then write the next one. There's nothing to be scared of. It's just a fight. 

Thanks for your time and words Clancy.

Thank you Andrew!