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

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Episode X: "We need a pain scale like the one in the ER"

Published 4/12/16
In this installment, I speak with Rebecca MakkaiTopics include the difference between critics and readers, expectations, "boring things", invoking family members in reviews, factual corrections, misrepresentations & more.

Today I’m with Rebecca Makkai, the author of three books to date: Music for Wartime (2015), The Hundred-Year House (2014) and The Borrower (2011), all from Viking. Rebecca’s been hailed with all the great words by all the great publications, and just to prove it I’ll put the following into quotes: “richly imagined”, “impressive”, “engrossing”, “inventive”, “playful and crisp and strangely elfin”. Those last words actually originated with you, but were then echoed by Dwight Garner in a New York Times review that finished, “It’s a gut-punch that lands”, referring to both the quoted passage that precedes, and Music for Wartime as a whole.

Before we get into the less enthusiastic reactions to your work, let me ask: (i) do you consider yourself thick-skinned? (ii) do you check out reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon?

Thick-skinned -- yes, at least now. That was not always the case. And yes, I occasionally will look at reader reviews, mostly in the days before a book is out and those are the only things up. The smart ones can be a bit of an indication of how the book will be perceived, how it might be reviewed. So it's hard not to look. It's a little like getting your tarot read. After that, I don't have any use for them.

Do you have an idea of what people object to in general if they don’t like your writing?

Yes. There are different things for each book -- I'm not sure there's anything across the board. With both of my novels, I was pretty well able to predict ahead of time exactly what people wouldn't like. THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE has a ton of characters and a complex plot, and I knew that certain readers would be confused or wouldn't appreciate having to do that much work. THE BORROWER was about a kidnapping, and I knew some people would be like "It's wrong to kidnap! One star!" For the story collection, I didn't know what to expect (although I expected SOMETHING, I'm not an idiot), and in fact there doesn't seem to be much consensus on the negatives. Some people's (and reviewers') least favorite stories are others' favorites.

I found a funny inversion between professional reviewers and readers on the topics of pretentiousness and sentimentality. The reviewers, by and large, touted your ability to deliver intellectual and emotional depth without going too far, while some readers thought just the opposite. Is this something you anticipate before a release, or even bother thinking about?

I mean, you could think about it, but as much as you might try to predict the reaction, you'd be wrong half the time anyway. And to a certain extent, you write like you write; you aren't going to change your voice or subject matter to suit certain readers, so why bother thinking about it? I think that with THYH in particular, one major difference between reviewers and certain readers was that the reviewers had read it slowly and carefully; whereas a lot of the negative reader reviews start with something like "I picked this up expecting a light beach read, but..." Well, yeah. When I pick up my toothpaste expecting eye cream, I'm disappointed too.

Or worse, vice-versa. Shall we dive in?

Wait, do I need alcohol? I really shouldn't have scheduled this for early afternoon. Crap.

You should talk to your doctor to see if drinking while being prodded about negative reviews is right for you.

I already lie to my doctor about how much I drink, so I think we're good to go.

Right—why do they even ask? Also, I like to emphasize you shouldn't feel like you have to respond directly to the review—I'm more interested in your honest, instinctual reaction.

So I can send you photos of the dartboards I've made out of individual reviewers' faces? Cool.

Cool. We'll start with the THE BORROWER, and this gem: “…pick a theme, author, PLEASE. She bounced around from one theme to structure the novel to another, with no transitions and no internal logic. If the chapter headings and some of the plot was supposed to mimic the plots of famous children's books, why not spend a weeeeeeeeeee bit of energy to make sure that remains consistent throughout?”

Ha -- I'm going to assume that's a reader review rather than, say, Kakutani. Yeah, there are some criticisms that hit close to home, and that's just not one of them. It's a postmodern book, and the riffs on children's books (which are there because the narrator is a children's librarian who's gone a bit off the rails) are pretty damn evenly spaced. My editor and I spent a lot of time making sure they were. It's true that some chapters are references to children's book and some aren't, but... I feel like maybe this person has some OCD? Which is cool. I do too.

I should add that I don't reject all negative reviews. You know they might be right when they hurt. But this one... nothing.

Okay, fair. (Also, these will all be reader reviews unless noted.) Next up: "All in all, I found this book meandered and had no clear point. It wants to make a statement about gay rights, making choices, conservatives, but I'm not sure what that statement is when it's done.”

I think you could make the opposite point just as well -- that the book states its messages too clearly. Ultimately, the reviews that said THAT were the ones that hit home for me. So it's kind of nice to hear this, oddly. Looking back years later, if I were going to do one thing to that book, it would be to lighten up on the idea of message and meaning.

But that's a sort of first novel commonality, no?

Probably so. Overreaching, trying a little too hard. When you write something over the course of ten years and you never know if anyone will read it, you end up shouting into the wind a bit, I think.

OK, jumping ahead now to THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, starting with NPR, which gave a pretty good review overall, but included the line: "Makkai fails to make the estate the foreboding character it needs to be to both ground and uproot these privileged characters who can't see how lucky they are and how self-absorbed their lives have become.” Do you remember reading this review when it came out?

I don't remember it, but there was another review--I think in Kirkus--that also seemed to have issues with wealthy characters not being in some way punished for their wealth. It's funny, because one of the characters living on the grounds this estate is a Marxist literary critic who's largely rejected her family's wealth and legacy... and at least two sources end up giving the book kind of a Marxist reading.

About the house, though... I wanted to both take part in and subvert some of the conventions of the haunted house novel, and the problem is that as soon as you raise the possibility of a haunted house, some readers are going to want you to jump wholly into that genre; they're going to be disappointed that you're not writing THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Which I would write if I could, but I'm not Shirley Jackson and I was doing something else.

One lovely, positive thing that nevertheless kind of drives me nuts is when people say "You made the house itself a character!" Because I really don't think I did that. The house is a setting.

It had a different title for a long time, and I think once I put the word "house" in there -- long after I'd finished writing it -- it drew attention to the house itself, set up some expectations that I might not have met.

That's all fair. Here's a review you maybe didn't expect: “Honestly I can't give an overall view of this book because I stopped on chapter 34. Why? Because I was tired of filling my brain with filth. This would definitely be an r rated movie, so if that doesn't bother you then go ahead. Talk of pornography, usage of the "F" word and no uplifting characters (this is stated in several reviews as no likable characters. I would submit this is because none of them have morals). If it wasn't for this being a book club read, I wouldn't have made it to 34. It was brilliantly dark.”

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA. That is awesome. That is my ideal reader, I think. Like, I want a photo of her to hang above my desk, and every so often I'll check in with myself to make sure I'm appalling her enough.

So—she's not your target?

I mean...You want everyone to read your books. Maybe I'll just say that I probably wouldn't invite this person to join my book club, because it would be a pain to deal with the constant swooning.

This is more in line with the reviews you expected for the book, no? "Warning: Boring bohemians ahead! This novel just didn't work for me at all. Makkai can write, there are some lovely gems hidden among the smashed-up pieces that make up this novel. It's peopled with unlikeable characters doing boring or inane things, and runs out of gas early on. The mysteries are a nonstarter, as is the ‘ghost.'"

One thing that's cracked me up about both my novels: The first line of THYH is "For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming." And then people are like "I didn't like this, because it wasn't really a ghost story!" For THE BORROWER, the first line was "I might be the villain of this story." And then there were reviews going "I don't think the author realizes that her character makes bad choices!" Like, I TRIED TO WARN YOU, people!

The "boring things" doesn't really get to me, because again, I feel like the opposite is true, like the more valid criticism would be that too much happens. Identity theft, affairs, public nudism, a fatal car crash, guns, suicide, blackmail, etc. I did forget to put the aliens in though, so maybe that's the issue?

But yeah, I got "unlikeable characters" for both novels (not for the story collection, though) and there's a certain point as an author where you're like, "Wait, am *I* unlikeable? Do I have no morals?" So the novel I'm writing now is about a virginal nun who just sits there and thinks good thoughts. (Not really.)

What's becoming funny to me is that before this interview you mentioned some hesitation, that you could maybe have some thicker skin, but what I'm getting in tone here is that you do, in fact, have incredibly thick skin, to the extent that none of these are getting to you in any way at all.

Are you sad that I'm not crying? You are, aren't you! No, really -- I think that what happens with me is that immediately afterwards, when the book is still new and all my hopes are pinned on it, and the reviews are fresh, I do get bothered. But as time passes and I've moved on to new projects, I deal with things very well. Reviews that really hurt a few months ago, I can laugh at now -- and I don't have that voice in my head as I sit down to write something new. When you first approached me about doing this, there were some reviews of MUSIC FOR WARTIME that were still too raw. A few months later, it feels like ancient history.

Also, you can't see me right now. What if I'm sobbing? What if I'm like sobbing and punching a mirror and calling myself stupid? You'll never know.

If I could see you do that now, I'd finally be satisfied with myself, and I could put to bed this whole silly series and website.

I can tell you that after the Publishers Weekly review of THE BORROWER came out -- it was the second of the early reviews, and it was following on great starred Booklist review, but it was sort of mixed/negative/snarky/condescending, I really thought my career was over. The book wasn't even out yet, and I was like, "Oh, this is how things are going to be, and I'm going to vanish in a blip." My husband and I had tickets to see David Sedaris that night, and I sat there with a sort of buzzing gray cloud around my head, and I was the only person there not laughing. It was such a waste of good David Sedaris tickets! I've only felt that bad once since then, but at least the second time I knew it would pass.

Has a bad review ever ruined an author? Especially one anonymous?

I don't think a bad review can ruin an author, and there's some evidence that it would be worse not to be reviewed at all, that even a very negative public review builds sales. I do sometimes wonder if a negative review might convince a busy reader with a stack of books to consider for a prize to skip that one, though. I do think there are invisible repercussions. But no, I wasn't worried that this PW review itself would hurt me; I was worried that this was how all the reviews were going to be, that I was going to be quickly spat out and dismissed by the literary establishment.

Mm—that makes much more sense. This whole idea of literary acceptance or dismissal—it's a bit silly, no? I mean, it's not, because this is a business and there are real career repercussions, but how often is an author celebrated in such a major, unanimous way deserving of it?

I mean, cream rises, and a lot of celebration generally means something's good. But there's plenty of cream that doesn't rise, too. Also, sometimes scum floats.

On the topic of professional reviews, I could really only find a negative paragraph or two about MUSIC FOR WARTIME, and it was in that same review I quoted in the intro, from the Times:

"Ms.Makkai grew up in Illinois. Her father, Adam Makkai, is a Hungarian-born linguist, and her paternal grandmother, Ignacz Rozsa, was a famous actress and leftist novelist in Hungary. The author leans upon her family history, and upon other Old World echoes, to lend her stories a gravity they only rarely earn on their own. In the end, every writer must make his or her own authenticity.

The self-conscious high-mindedness keeps coming. When the Holocaust is not in sight, there are stories about AIDS and terrorism. There are few ideas. Words like 'grief' and 'heartbreak' appear, but the emotions themselves are never quite summoned in us.”

Can I just say that I think it's really weird and unfair to put my father's name in the middle of a negative review? My grandmother is in the book, so that's fair game, but I never give my father's name, even in the acknowledgments. My grandmother was not a leftist in any way -- she spent much of her life fighting communism -- although I know the website where he got that information, because it's the one place it's misstated. This is the one review that's still really raw for me, and it wasn't because of the criticisms, but because of the factual errors and misrepresentations, which were plentiful and egregious. Just in this one paragraph, there's false information about my grandmother, but also: I know because I checked (so there's some evidence of thin skin) -- the word "heartbreak" appears once in the collection, and it's talking about, in passing, a literal past relationship. But you pull that word out and isolate it like it's all over the collection, or like it's used in some key, profound place, and yeah, it sounds silly. 

There were something like ten factual errors in this review, and it's frustrating because there's really nothing you can do about it. Everyone you know is going to read it, and you can't write to the Times and make them take it back. It stands as the truth.

I think that your grandmother was famous and mentioned in the novel makes her fair game, but it's hard to justify pulling in information about family (even if it's correct). Do you feel the need to tell your friends who read the review about the errors? (I don't think researching how many times 'heartbreak' appears in the novel is evidence of thin skin, by the way.)

I got a lot of texts from people right after that came out, and I think I griped at some good friends. Anyone who already knew my work could tell that he hadn't read it very carefully, so that was helpful. He was dismissive of both my novels in that review, and in dismissing THYH, he made a big deal of my naming a character Zenobia. The thing is, that isn't her name. At all. One of the main characters is named Zee, which is short for Zilla. If you read the whole book, that's not something you can forget; it's major plot point that she's named after another Zilla. But she has a colleague who thinks it's funny to call her Zelda and all these other things that start with Z. Halfway through the book, one time, he calls her Zenobia. I probably shouldn't make public assumptions about whether Garner actually read the book, but it does raise some questions. So at the very least, anyone who'd read that book would have a major red flag on the whole review. 

I feel weird saying this even now, because it probably falls under the heading of "Don't ever respond to bad reviews." Although that's kind of what we're doing here, so...

But what bothered me more were the misrepresentations of the story collection, taking two lines from different pages and them putting them together as if they were a conversation, and then saying it was a cheesy conversation. 

At the same time, I'm hugely grateful that it got reviewed in the Times, and I'm grateful that Garner started and ended the review positively. That's all that many readers check out. And it's quotable! 

Where do you think that idea of "Don't ever respond to bad reviews" comes from?

There are some cases of writers going off the rails... And you don't want to be the person who writes into the paper complaining that they didn't love you enough. Even with these factual errors and misrepresentations, my agent talked me down and convinced me it would be worse to say something than to let it lie. And I think it's true. The exception being a case like Patrick Somerville's last book, where the misreading was so outrageous that it could only make him look better to fix it. But even then, it was other reviewers and readers who wrote in, not Patrick himself.

Was it easy for your agent to talk you down?

Yes. I always listen to her, and she has this really convincing British accent. And she's always right.

But most importantly, the accent.

Oh, for sure. The other great thing about her accent is that when you get a bad review, she swears for you in this wonderful British English. I could swear for myself, but it feels better to have a surrogate British swearer.

Perhaps all reviews should come with audio of the reviewer reading, so we can feel how strong their conviction is—if they're all in or just trying to make deadline.

Garner seemed pretty convicted in his writing, if not in his reading. (Okay, that's the kind of thing I'm not supposed to say, right? I meant to say something more like "Please sir, may I have another?") But you're right, especially with the early reviews, where the reviewers are often grad students getting paid very little per review. We need a pain scale like the one in the ER.

I think we've fixed the whole system right here, Rebecca, so we'll just cosign a letter to the AP and be on our way. We are nearly out of time, so I'll ask for a closing thought to shut us down.

Hmmm. I'll say that the whole process of being reviewed has made me so much less likely to take any one review of someone else's book as gospel truth. Actually, no -- it's really seeing reviews of books by friends that's helped with that. When it's my own book and I see some left-field criticism, there's always a part of me that wonders if it's true. But I'll follow reviews for friends' books, often ones I've already read, and sometimes the review is just so off-base, or so weirdly personal, that it's more about the reviewer than the book. And knowing that--that critics have bad moods, perhaps more bad moods than the rest of us--it helps me be a better reader of reviews. And it also helps me (OKAY HERE IS WHERE YOU START PLAYING THE THEME MUSIC FOR YOUR BLOG, AND IF YOU DON'T HAVE THEME MUSIC YOU NEED TO GET SOME IMMEDIATELY) have thicker skin. (Awwww...)

Fade to black. Thanks for your time and words Rebecca.