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

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Episode VIII: “Some have called it the worst review of all time”

Published 3/29/16
In this installment, I speak with Porochista KhakpourTopics include loving and hating yourself, “pretentious” as code, the ESL effect, books as experiments, discomfort with 9/11, the See review, the Champion debacle & more.

Today I’m with Porochista Khapour, a novelist and essayist. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Elle and more. She has two novels under her belt, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007, Grove), and The Last Illusion (2014, Bloomsbury). Her debut was a NYT Editor’s Choice, and won the California Book Award in First Fiction. She’s been called “luminously intelligent” (Publishers Weekly), “one of our best new satirists” (Alexander Chee) and “utterly original and compelling” (Claire Messud). I hope all of that helps you sleep well, and before we jump into what doesn’t, let me ask: i) Do you consider yourself thick-skinned? ii) Do you read reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads?

Ha! I'm pretty thick-skinned generally, I think, in that I have so many "real life" problems that these type of ones (reviews) don't generally irk me too bad. ii) I used to religiously. Now not so much. But if someone asks me to I totally look--I'm not one of those writers who is like "no way, I never read bad reviews." I am interested in all of it.

Do you tend to feel like they're accurate, or understand where they're coming from? Do you think you have a grasp of what people don't like if they don't like something you've written?

When they are even sort of accurate, I really respect them--I love being taken seriously as an author. If I feel like someone really chewed on my work, then awesome. It doesn't have to be all praisey only. There were a few mixed reviews of both novels that I really loved. When it doesn't ring true to me, I can sort of understand where they are coming from too, because I'm also a critic. I can put myself in their shoes. Then there are some that, well, I can't justify. They are just bad. I feel like I have a sense of these things through a combo of both loving and hating myself and loving and hating books and loving and hating book reviews--you know?

I know. And let's get to it, starting with your debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Our first contestant said: “I have never read a book that provided so many characters interior monologues, and come away knowing so little about them. I am baffled by this book, by the disassociation that seems to exist between the author's words and the things they describe, much more than the purposeful and situational disassociation of the characters from the things they loved. And the end, at the airport, with character D and character S . . . oh, that was just creepy.” How does this make you feel?

Ha! I love this. I feel like this person actually really got the book, but it wasn't for them at all. I'm not sure "creepy" is the right word, but I feel this is one of those good bad reviews. I feel I did my job well!

What about the part where they didn't feel like they knew the characters?

Well, SONS was not conventional psychological realism. I once said that book for me was a "language showcase experiment" which is to say I was very much concerned with style and its intersection with substance as well as the basic plot, which is a very simple one. Language was what that whole book is about to me and the key to getting the depth of the father and son crisis. People who love it tend to feel it more in the gut. This person did not but was unsettled by it and I think that's kind of great.

That's a pretty fair response. “This book is so overwritten and pretentious that it gets in the way of enjoying it. Completely forgettable, I just couldn't care about the characters; I barely got through the whole thing, and that's only because I always finish a book I'm reading, on principle and with hopes that I'd change my mind.”

Okay, I laughed very loudly, so that it awoke the grumpy napping poodle on my lap rather violently. On the one hand, my first instinct is: I think "pretentious" is a very boring code word but it's also used for all sorts of people and objects and experiments I love, so I don't know. This person probably would hate my old mentor Stephen Dixon's work. I don't know--this person is maybe a skimmer. One the other hand: well, forgettable is a bit depressing. Give me anything but that. (By the way: what is up with a person who always finishes a book no matter what? Just put the damn thing down!)

Yeah. Out of all the words you see everywhere, I feel like "pretentious" often can mean something positive if you offset your perspective, but forgettable just hurts across the board. You saying "skimmer" makes me curious, and this is something I've never asked, but if you had to choose how someone's reading your book, would you prefer physical book, or ebook? Caveat: You can't say you're indifferent.


What say you to those readers who don’t know a word you've chosen, and don't have the energy to look it up?

I don't tend to use too many million-dollar-words or whatever they call them now, but especially in my first novel, the sentences were very relentlessly maximalist. That was more the issue. But occasionally someone notes sometimes in my essays or reviews and gets a thesaurus-y feeling. But in my defense: I'm an immigrant, English is my second language, I've always read a lot, I latch onto all sorts of weird and antiquated words. I enjoy learning new words--I don't consider it a terrible interruption. My attention span is not that screwed up (especially with physical books). But I say, the old Faulkner Sound & the Fury Benjy section rule applies: just keep reading (er, skimming?!)

When did you learn English?

It was all a bit disjointed but in 1st grade the debate was whether I should be in ESL or not. My family left Iran when the Iran-Iraq war began so I came to language in a weird sort of way---Farsi and then the language of wherever we were, France or Germany, for instance, but really it was mainly buses and trains and planes and eventually America.

That's an incredible story, and it's surreal to think how much you as a writer, on a very practical, straightforward level, were impacted by personal and geo-political events. We’ve got a lot on the docket, so we’re going to jump ahead to your most recent novel: “The Last Illusion, though I did finish it, became so illogical within the world created for it that I was shaking my head in disbelief - often. Way. Too. Often. Coincidences happen in the real world. But, I'm constantly astounded by how often they happen in novels. And, trying to successfully mix reality with mythical and magical is a trick rarely if ever accomplished. It didn't come together all that well here.”

Hmmm, yeah, my gut says this person sort of seems like a decent reader, so I'm sad to have lost them. I mean TLI was its own experiment for me, its own performance, and it was, as some review said, a tightrope act. I feel like one would have had to enjoy it for the allegorical and thematic but I feel like maybe a long conversation with this reviewer would be interesting for me.

When you say it's an experiment, what do you specifically mean?

It is very complicated with this one but it was an experiment on several levels. This time language was not my focus but plot and theme. Also it is a sort of memoir for me, in many ways, though of course it is also a fabulist thriller in many ways. But more than anything, the way the project came about and the way I built it was an experiment for me. Almost in the way you'd think of an art book, if that makes sense. Experimental elements reside in theme, allegory and myth, not language here.

That does make sense, and I'm interested to hear how that resonates with: “I love magical realism but this did not work for me. Early on, it was quite interesting but building the novel around 9/11 seemed glib.”

Glib! Well, my magician who is based on a sort of more grotesque version of David Copperfield, and who only becomes really human at a certain point, does make readers often think of it that way. That was the risk, placing 9/11 within the Y2K context and in the hands of a very pre-9/11 NYC storyteller. But a lot of readers just wanted the "Bird Boy" story and not the 9/11, I found, but I think that just has to do with out extreme discomfort with 9/11 and the fact that it feels like we are in an eternal post-9/11 era. So in other words, I am used to this response!

It sounds it. That was very well constructed. Let's switch gears from reader reviews to professional ones, starting with that oft-read weekly rag you may have heard of, The New Yorker. Their review of SONS was decidedly mixed, some good, some bad, and included the line: "Khakpour’s comic sense of familial tensions—particularly father-son enmity—is infectious, but she does not quite succeed in developing this into a convincing story." Can I assume you've already read this review? What was your reaction?

Yes, I felt this was actually a really good review (where it becomes bad is sort of funny to me) and I loved it. I was also so excited they bothered to review it! It came out a few months after the bulk of the reviews and I remember I was on a LIRR train coming from Hofstra, where Garth Risk Hallberg was also teaching too, and we were both so poor and struggling and my novel experience was sort of exciting for him. I remember my agent calling me to say it was in there and reading it to me on the phone, and then me not knowing where to find it (couldn't find a newsstand in Hempstead near the station) but I got really gushy about it to Garth!

What a story. Speaking of that time, let’s talk about the review Sons and Other Flammable Objects received in the Washington Post. It was bad. Bad reviews happen. What doesn’t happen so often is that the author responds, which you did, in a post on your blog that received a lot of attention (and is now removed). It is recorded, however, that you called the reviewer “a very bitter, confused old lady” with “her granny panties in a bunch”. Ouch. You’ve had more than eight years to think about the entire situation, and I’m curious what perspective you’ve gained.

Ah, my favorite bad review of all! Some have called it the worst review of all time, but I think of it as a worst in so many ways now. At the time when I got it, it was the morning after my first book tour stop, in DC, and it was a big party that was partially sponsored by Politics & Prose, and I felt so fancy and loved. Everyone was saying a big review was slated there. Well…it was shocking. It was an open letter, to me, a nobody! My blog back then was just a teeny blogspot. I mean, her takedown of me was really rough and gutted me but thank goodness it was so absurd. I have to say that I'm a bit proud of my response now--I mean, I was 29 and so rough around the edges, so I could have put it a bit more "politely" but her review was not polite. It was insane! Why was she going to call the Iranian Consulate in DC? Which Consulate? No diplomatic ties with Iran for decades, lady! Also, why was she writing so fixed on my blurbs? The whole thing was so bizarre. I've not talked about it some and it's a hit on Twitter as people still can't believe a review that crazy ran in the Washington Post . . . and I survived!

I do think her point about "snapped" was pretty good and just this week in my Bard Intro to Fiction workshop, when I was talking about tags and attribution, I brought it up. Just use "said," I said! Most of my students seemed sort of appalled a reviewer had bothered to count, but I feel like I give Carolyn See a point for that one!

Obviously some mysteries never get resolved, but why do you think she reacted as she did, and felt compelled to put her thoughts in that format? Have you been in touch with her since?

I have never been in touch with her but that whole episode struck a big chord on the internet and it was sort of seen as a case where a response to negative review might be justified. Alexander Chee's defense of my response on his blog was how we became close friends in the first place. It made all sorts of lit news which was very overwhelming for me but also consoling. I remember one blogger later noted that year See was obsessed with taking down young female debut authors--it was one in a long line of really bizarre takedowns by her. It was also the era of Marissha Pessl's debut and people were having these long boring discussions about women and their author photos—there was so much mainstream misogyny in the air that I don't think would fly now.

This series aims to deconstruct negative feedback, and it's called Thick Skin after all, so I'm going to ask about the debacle that happened in 2014 between you and Edward Champion. Could you sum up what happened, and if there are any lasting scars/hard feelings?

Ah, well, that was an awful episode but it's impossible to run away from it, so I'll say this: Ed was a reviewer who had interviewed me twice and had done a rather good job of reading and interviewing. We became friendly and then one day I deleted a nasty comment he made about someone I did not know on Facebook and it set him off and I was on the receiving end of something that had become a pattern. He threatened me on the internet and a lot of people came to my defense and his Twitter account was suspended. But it went far deeper than that for so many people. And him. It was a big mess, and I still have a lot of trauma from it.

Ok, that's a very judicious, objective retelling, and I appreciate it. Do you consider the event seminal in either your ability to take criticism, or how you perceive internet culture?

Well, it sure shaped how others saw me. Suddenly I was being attacked by MRAs all over the place for months later and being called a SJW, which, fine, I'll take it, especially if it means being on their block list (which was a delight to be on--I get so much less harassment now). It was really upsetting, not what I wanted in my life at all--I wanted people to focus on my second novel and all my other work and instead everyone kept talking about that. I'd go to events and people would only refer to it. People still come up to me and go "oh, hey, yeah, you're the cyberharassment girl, I know you."

It made me very suspicious of the internet but at the same time I was all alone that night when it all happened and I felt consoled by the way online communities supported me and others involved.

I'm a bit embarrassed I had to look up both of those acronyms, but also maybe relieved?

Ha, yes, be relieved! (Should I feel hip?!)

We live in a crazy weird time of transparency and breakdowns of personal barriers, and it was a joy to hear about your experiences with all of it. We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask you, if you could go back to 2006 and give yourself one piece of advice regarding feedback, what would it be?

Well, I think I did do it the best I possibly could, back in 2006. I don't really have regrets about it. I maybe would like more wisdom in this moment on onward on how to deal with feedback, how to possibly digest, say, particularly angry criticism in a moment of intense mainstream hate speech! If I had a novel out today and had to deal with a lot of negative stuff now, I'd probably crawl in a hole with the dog and never come out, you know?

Thanks for your time, Porochista, and your words.

Thank you, Andrew.