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 VII: "My whole world cracked open and the potential for what my life could be completely shifted"
In this installment, I speak with Catie Disabato. Topics include truly bleak dark nights, using criticism as fuel, ambition, comparisons to Ayn Rand, the power of pop stars, happiness norms & more.
Today I’m with Catie Disabato, whose debut novel The Ghost Network came out in 2015 from Melville House. This is the second time Catie’s lent me her time, the first being an episode of Pixelated with Scott McClanahan, the week the book came out. She was hilarious then and I know she’ll be great now. The Ghost Network has received rave reviews from Kirkus, The Millions, Publishers Weekly, LARB, Chicago Tribune, and the Globe and Mail, among others. The New York Times’ very positive review ended with: “Disabato leads her readers expertly though a kind of Wonderland that requires footnotes, walking the balance of tension and action with the same comfort her protagonist would take with an arena crowd. Like the trap doors and hidden hallways of the New Situationist headquarters, ‘The Ghost Network’ presents the maze of modern culture with all its dead ends and truncations, but reveals treasure to those who walk the path.” Slate’s review had the subhead “Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network perfectly nails the relationship between pop culture and American youth.” But enough of the praise. Let’s start with this: Do you think you have thick skin? Have your read reader reviews?
I'm going to answer the second question first, because it's easier—I have in the past read reader reviews. Mostly on Goodreads rather than Amazon, because I like the aesthetics of the Goodreads interface more. I don't read them daily, or even regularly, just one or two dark nights of the soul, right when my book first started getting reviews. I wanted to know what people thought, people I had no connections to, people who I hadn't made friends with due to shared interests (and were therefore more likely to respond to my book, which had everything to do with things I was interested in). So, like, do I have a thick skin? I don't know. I have a great capacity to ignore or absorb criticism for my writing.
What were your impressions on those dark nights? Before the book was published, did you anticipate what negative feedback would look like?
I did my first critique-based writing workshops in high school, so I've been hearing criticisms-with-the-intent-to-improve for over 10 years. However, I'm like, a super duper sensitive bird at unexpected moments and those dark nights were truly bleak. I did anticipate what negative feedback would look like. And I was kind of right and kind of wrong.
Well, I anticipated it being a difficult book for some people because although it is a mystery, the structure is super strange and non-traditional. Readers going in looking for a very traditional mystery would be put off by that, I anticipated. Also, I wrote the book as fictional nonfiction, a book that pretends to be written by a character in the story, who is not present during most of the action. So, as a direct result, he can't be inside the characters' heads. I anticipated some readers wishing for closer contact with the characters. I didn't think, in advance, about all the people that would start to read the book, hate it, and then write about that on the internet.
Ha. Well, on that note. Let's jump into what those readers said.
I want to clarify I present these not as something you should feel compelled to 'respond' to per se, but I am curious what your emotions and instinctual reactions are.
I think you anticipated reviews like this coming, and a good portion of those I found are of this species. “You are either a fiction book or you are not. You either want to include the 'information/cite' or yo don't. None of the cites added to the narrative. It went on tirades of information that did not move the plot or explain the motives. Why put websites in the footnotes if they don't exist. If you are going to take the extra step take it all the way, make the website/Facebook post. It was a total disappointment I had to force myself to finish.”
I don't feel very hurt by this one. This review comes from a reader who doesn't like the kind of things that I am interested in making, and never would've liked my book, no matter what. I wish that they hadn't forced themselves to finish! There are so many amazing books in the world, ones that they will love. I wish they had used the time they spent on my book to read something they really enjoyed.
“Buzzfeed said it was one of the novels that I HAD to read this summer. I should have known better, Buzzfeed has never led me down the right path. And they always guess the wrong age for me on their stupid ‘We Can Guess Your Age Based on Nothing’ quizzes. Anyway. It wasn't awful. I really enjoyed the first half of the book, it was creepy and mysterious. And then it kind of unravelled for me. The ending was kind of a let down.”
Oh this one makes me feel baaaaaaad. This is the dark night of the soul fodder right here. These are the kind of reviews I read (during those nights I mentioned) as a way to punish myself for being not good enough of a writer. I was very nervous about sticking the landing for my book, and I honestly love the ending which I worked on extensively myself and with my editor Kirsten Reach who helped make it exactly what I want. But, man, I was worried about the ending not working and it is a real stomach churner when people think it didn't work. Haters to the left, though, I guess.
The emotional experience of this interview is like being on Celebrities Read Mean Tweets but, like, many more words typed.
Haters to the left indeed. When you say 'punish myself for being not good enough of a writer', does any part of you think your reactions to these reviews will push you harder to actually be better?
Yeah, I think so. I try to take any negative feelings about my writing—jealousy about others' work, feelings of not being good enough—and turn it into the positive fire that fuels not just my creative process, but my ambition. I'm very ambitious, but ambition is a fire that needs lots and lots of wood to keep it burning.
Does it make you feel better or worse to know that same reviewer gave 5 stars to “Royal Canine German Shepherd Dry Dog Food, 30-Pound”, 2 starts to “Pokémon Battle Ready Pikachu (Toy)”, 4 stars to Ferrets 2015 Wall Calendar, and 5 stars to “Universal Toilet Tank Flush Lever, Chrome Finish Toilet Handle Fits Most Toilets”?
Honestly, these facts make me feel nothing? Not in a bad way. It's like comparing apples to a Chrome Finish Toilet Handle that Fits Most Toilets.
That's fair. “I feel like this book was the liberal version of Atlas Shrugged.” Positive? Negative?
I'm stung by it! But in the way you are stung when a good friend does a sick burn about you that's totally true and really gets you. Like, the way someone who really knows you can get at the core of what are the dumb things about you, but it's okay when they say it because you know they love you anyway. I should say that while I have knowledge of Atlas Shrugged from the cultural consciousness, I've never read it.
I think that's true for, um, a lot of people.
Hahaah yeah. I have more to say on this. Ayn Rand wrote books to express her own political viewpoint, but I didn't do that with The Ghost Network. I don't believe in the viability of utopias, I don't believe we can solve the problems in our world by disappearing and making a new world. One of the hardest things for me to do when writing this book was to put myself in the shoes of characters that thought they could do that. I really believe that a pop star can change the world for the better, maybe only through shifting the culture but still. However, I believe this has to be done through their art, not through their politics. Shifting the culture is very important and pop stars have a greater ability to do so than politicians, at least in America. They are very very powerful, which is why what they do matters, and why it is interesting. However, in terms of the separatist or utopian impulse, I don't share that with my characters. And that is where the Atlas Shrugged comparison fails, for me. It's valid, regarding the book's content, but becomes invalid in the implied comparison between Rand and myself.
Or maybe that comparison between Rand and myself isn't implied, and I used this moment to go off on a tangent I enjoyed being on! Who can say?
Yeah I don’t know about the veracity of the original comment (though I will say the rest of that person’s review was relatively well written). How do you think Ayn Rand would feel being called the conservative Catie Disabato?
I think she would say "Who is Catie Disabato?"
How did it feel to be universally hailed by professional critics?
Really fucking awesome. The actual best thing that ever happened to me (not including my relationships with friends and family, which are in a different category).
I couldn't find one negative review honestly. Was there?
The Los Angeles Review of Books took a more mixed viewpoint on things. In my dark anticipations for the novel's release, I worried more reviews were going to be like the LA Review of Books review.
How happy were you? Did it change your life?
Yes. And like, no. The patterns of my life didn't change (wake up, go to work, have some wine, hang with friends, write at night, go to bed). Sometimes, the patterns of a writer's life change when they publish a book, their daily activities shift. Mine didn't. But I felt like my whole world cracked open and the potential for what my life could be completely shifted. Pivoted towards something I desired greatly, that I had been wanting to pivot towards, been trying to pivot towards. But a strong yes to your question, because how I felt about my life changed.
Do you think this change was apparent to acquaintances?
Maybe not acquaintances, but to close friends.
Did you ever come down to regular happiness levels, or is your new norm higher?
Very interesting question, especially because I'm a person who regularly says a joke that's also kinda not a joke: "I've never been happy in my life." That's not true any more, I experienced moments of real solid honest happiness in association with my book. And I experience moments of real solid honest happiness with friends and family sometimes. However, the Book High is a bright hot flame that burns through fuel fast. (I'm using lots of fire metaphors in this convo.) So, there was a definite come down, and I had some Rough Months in the latter part of last year. However, there is some kind of new norm, some different place I'm creating from. I don't think "higher" is the right word to describe it. That's the wrong scale, it's like trying to measure water using one of those scales you have in your bathroom.
Anything you would have told yourself in preparation, back before it came out?
Nothing I could've told myself could've prepared myself for the experience, both the good and bad parts. I am not the kind of person that can mitigate the feeling of something actually happening with non-experiential preparation. I told myself lots of things, the right things, the things other writers tell you to tell yourself. But none of it replaced going through those actual things and feeling those actual feelings. I'm a daydreamer, I imagine many different scenarios and how I would respond and even if I'm exactly right about the actions I would take, it's never the same as actually feeling something in the moment.
For example, I always assumed about myself that if I was out late at night and I saw some people in a fight and it looked like someone needed help, I'd run towards it not away from it. Like a small dog that thinks it can fight a bear. I had no proof to back this up, just an idea about myself. Recently, I was met with a situation like this, and I found out I was right about myself. But even though I knew intellectually "I will be scared, there will be adrenaline" etc., I was shocked by the intensity of the feelings of fear, the feeling of the fight part of fight or flight. I will conclude this story by saying everyone is okay and everything is fine and no dogs or bears were harmed in the making of this cocktail party story.
Phew. Well, that was great. I like to end these interviews with an author trying to figure out which book a review was about, but The Ghost Network was your debut, and so I'd like to ask you to guess whether a review was about you or Atlas Shrugged. 7 rounds. Sound fair?
“Seriously? People think this is a well-written book with something to say?”
Correct. “Seriously pretentious. DNF.” and “Pretentious”.
The Ghost Network. ("DNF" gave it away, I get a lot of DNF's.)
Correct. “My copy of this book is glued shut with all the vomit I expelled while reading.”
Ummm, The Ghost Network. Wait no, changing my answer: Atlas Shrugged. I feel like that violent of a response comes from a lot of anticipation based on cultural weight. Which my book doesn't have, like Atlas Shrugged does. (Not being self depreciating, Atlas Shrugged has lots of history)
Wrong. It was The Ghost Network. “While this book is wildly inventive, the style of writing – all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’ - creates a book…represents the antithesis of entertainment.”
Oh man! Vomit! This one was The Ghost Network. I've read that one I think.
Yes. “...a flawed epic, strident with a swaggering ambition, yet almost fable-like in its overly simplistic social and economic criticisms.”
Correct. “This book, however, is a constant dump of info about boring characters, and it is told with a complete absence of emotion.”
The Ghost Network.
Correct. Last one. “no, REALLY?!?! people LOVE this...but i just... i realize that, in disliking cucumbers, i am siding with a very scant and unpopular team, but i have my reasons: i chewed on them while i was teething, so it's an association thing. i realize they have merit and i love all other veggies, it's just they're not for me. but it seems more people like this book than even cucumbers, which we know is saying a lot. and this book's got NOTHING going for it.”
The Ghost Network.
That one was Atlas Shrugged, actually. 5/7. Sounds like you might not be so different from Rand after all.
5/7 is a B plus right?
Actually it's 71%
C student, bummer.
I want you to know, I did a Google search for that vomit review and couldn't find it.
Don't send me the link.
Are you sure?
Not totally sure, I might email you to ask for it later. But for right now, I'm good.
How would you feel if you found out I actually made up all of these reviews?
Surprised, because many of them seemed like the language in bad reader reviews I'd read. And the critiques seemed familiar. So, if you did make them up, I would guess you used language from real reviews. Or the type of criticisms of my book that you encountered while doing research. Which means that even if they were made up, they weren't really made up, you know?
Okay, you are officially done with this interview. Thanks for your wonderful words and your time Catie.
Thanks! This was fun like therapy is fun!