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 XI: "NO ONE separates the art from the artist anymore. It's like, a lost art."
In this installment, I speak with Chloe Caldwell. Topics include indie presses, wine-fueled critiques, the Hallet review, Starbucks shame, separating art and artist & more.
Today I’m with Chloe Caldwell, author of the novella Women (Short Flight/Long Drive, 2014), the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books, 2012), and the forthcoming essay collection I’ll Tell You In Person (Coffee House Press & Emily Books). I recently went to hear Chloe speak at The Strand, but the event was sold out and the line was immense—which is a good thing of course. She’s been called “a rare bird: fearless, dark, prolific, unpretentious, and truly honest” (Elisa Albert), praised for writing “a beautiful read” (Lena Dunham) and eulogized for producing “a scorching hot glitter box of youthful despair and dark delight” (Cheryl Strayed). Before we get into the not so “scorching” reviews of your writing, let me ask (a) do you have thick skin, (b) do you read reviews of your work on Goodreads and Amazon?
Unfortunately I do. I tweeted this the other day—one of my favorite sentences is by Kate Zambreno, who, in her chapbook TOILET BOWL, says "I become obsessed with myself as a minor author in society. I visit my Goodreads page."
However, I have 5 months to create some new habits and I'm thinking I may not read reviews for my next essay collection. I could get away with it when I was 25, because I was just so cocky about having a book out. I'm more thin skinned and paranoid now.
But I think reading reviews can sometimes be constructive. I like seeing how readers perceive or interpret my books.
I will say that what I've found is that the more mainstream a book is, the more ridiculously weird things an author has to deal with. Have a book geared (marketed) to a more niche market makes it (somewhat) easier to deal with the feedback.
Such a good point, I never thought of that. Both my books were published by such indie presses that the people reading them were going into it ready to support the book regardless, maybe. If WOMEN had been published by like, Henry Holt, the reviews might have been very different.
In your experience reading Goodreads reviews, if someone doesn’t like your writing, do you have an idea of what it is they don’t like?
Sometimes on Goodreads it feels like people just want to be rebellious and go against what everyone else is saying. On Goodreads there are many kind reviews about WOMEN, but my favorite is this girl who's like, "Did I read the same book as everyone else on Goodreads?"
I think it's interesting when they give specific examples. I take what's helpful and leave the rest. It's like free feedback. Maybe I feel that way because I haven't been in many workshops and didn't go to school for writing.
That's a good point. I should've been cataloguing this whole time on past interviews. Have you had less 'literary-inclined' friends or family give you feedback on your writing?
Sure. My mom's side of the family are big readers (and wine drinkers) and sometimes will bring up my writing at like, Christmas parties. It's fine.
It's fine like, you've learned to get over it fine, or the comments themselves are actually fine?
Like, I'd rather be in a family that talks about stuff then ignores it/is in denial. When one of my uncles read WOMEN he emailed me and told me different pages I could have ended on. Haha.
That's healthy. Shall we jump in the mud then?
Let's start with Legs Get Led Astray. One articulate reviewer wrote: “I am so fucking bored of reading essays about being young and confused, sexually virile, and stoned in a big city. I hate Girls for this, as well as for the total narcissism of every character, and I disliked this essay collection for the same reasons. As a rule, I kinda find these kinds of people in real life boring and self-absorbed and pretentious. Sure, they're fucked up, but fucked up isn't automatically interesting, and it really bothers me that people tend to assume it is.”
How does this make you feel (if it makes you feel)?
I think it's funny. She obviously is a big hater! Kill joy. I don't think I'd find her all that interesting either. She sounds resentful and bitter and maybe even jealous.
Have you encountered women like this at readings?
Not to my face, But I have some friends who dislike GIRLS, the characters on it, and maybe they feel the same about my work. Fine with me. Not everyone is going to like what you're doing.
And speaking of: "An awful collection of the most annoying Williamsburg hipster cliched bullshit you will ever read, made worse by the fact that it's non-fiction.”
I don't know why I find these hilarious. I guess because that book is old news to me now so I have distance. I can see how one could feel that way. I do mention Kerouac, Bukowski, North 6th Street, and Coco Rosie numerous times.
I'll let you go on LGLA after this one. A review in the Portland Mercury begins, “There are essays in Legs Get Led Astray that made me want to throw the book across the room” and soon continues, “Caldwell's fascination with the ups and downs of her own life feels cramped and self-aggrandizing, and it's easy to be irked by a tone that veers into too cool for school. In an otherwise solid essay about finding herself homeless in Brooklyn, Caldwell writes, "I uncharacteristically went to a Starbucks down the street." Caldwell is trying to tell us she is the kind of person who doesn't go to Starbucks; what she is actually telling us is that she is the kind of person who thinks of herself as someone who doesn't go to Starbucks. My copy of the book almost hit the wall right there.”
That was the first review I ever got. I was in Portland, my book wasn't legit released yet, and I pulled the Portland Mercury out of a box on the street and saw the review and picture of my book. I got a horrible stomachache after reading that. I was hurt. But after moving to Portland I realized Allison Hallet's THING is being snarky and mean. At my book party my publisher read that review out loud and people threw the books against the wall. Plus I do/did think of myself as a person who didn't go to Starbucks. So?
Well let's not beat around the bush. Do you or do you not go to Starbucks?
Now I will. Because it's convenient. But I don't enjoy it. Do you?
Yes. The coffee is exceptionally strong.
I get smoothies or bagels there at the airport. But come on, if one is living in WB, it would be dumb for them to go to Starbucks. She doesn't get it.
WB yes. I walked from my place in Park Slope to the park and passed two Starbucks, and each time I thought to myself, "this here doesn't not blend in." Anyway. Onto Women. One review ended with the following p.s.: “I feel some type of way that the author is a white woman from a nice enough (read: affluent) upbringing to love both her parents and Finn is a woman of color. Real tired of reading about rich people's flights of personal discovery through their interactions with those of different, less upwardly mobile backgrounds, no matter how much agency they are given by their white observers. But maybe that's none of my business…”
That pissed me off. It IS none of her business and I grew up incredibly unaffluent if she must know. I won't brag here about how poor I am, but give me a break. Also, NO ONE separates the art from the artist anymore. It's like, a lost art.
The thing is, that woman is all projection. She must have had a bad experience with some 'white rich woman' and perhaps is a person of color and she blames me and my book. Putting a book into the world means you become a huge projector screen.
I think is part of a deeper strain of negative reader feedback, which is that of the aspiring writer, who sees someone who's been published as having an unfair advantage in life over them.
That could be true.
Two reviews here of a similar flavor. 1) “both protagonists felt cardboard-flat (one stitched together out of a stereotypes about lesbians 101 list, the other a stereotypical young writer with 0 preoccupation about the writerly craft or community to show for that characterization). All in all, I'm pretty sure I've seen breakups documented with more insight, humour or style on twitter than in the novel.” 2) “The characters are flat and I did not connect with them or the story. I experienced the book as a cold collection of personal facts.”
That's sort of fascinating. I get how one could read it that way. I mean, I gave the narrator no name and no city and a vague job at a library. I was sort of withholding in that arena. I read somewhere that someone opened WOMEN and saw the word 'twitter' so didn't buy it. Okay. God, I guess I do have thick skin!
What sort of reader are you in the realm of negative feedback? When you read something you don't like, do you share with friends? Online?
Rarely. I'm of the Emma Straub/Isaac Fitzgerald/Cheryl Strayed religion, which is, if you hated it so much, why continue reading it and spread nasty hate? I tweet or Goodreads review (rarely) about books I love, not dislike. That said, negative reviews are helpful...they often help me decide if I want to buy a book or not. Often times I read a negative review of something and think it sounds right up my alley and buy it. I hope that happens with the negative reviews of my work, too.
If a friend recommends a book to me and I hate it, I'll email with that person about it, but I don't feel a strong need to make it public.
Yes—a negative review has more of an ability to drive me to purchase than a positive one.
On the blog Infinite Organs, the review of Women was titled “Millennials Talk Millennial Nonsense” and was mostly written as a text message conversation. The review was mostly positive, but it must be labeled “mixed”. What were your impressions when you first read it?
I liked the idea of it...I felt like a voyeur on a very meta level especially because it looked liked many of the convos my girl friends and I have via text about women writers and books. I enjoyed much of what they said. BUT. Some of it was backhanded. They were like, "I don't think she's a genius." Like, duh?
How often do you think that word is deserved?
Rarely. I'm sure I overuse it. We all do because we speak so dramatically. "She's a genius." "I'm going to kill myself" etc. I'll tell a friend something is 'genius' if I really want them to read/watch it.
Do you think taken literally the word has any worth?
I guess not. It's kind of like how the word "awesome" doesn't mean anything anymore. It means 'nice' or 'okay'
Ready for one last review of Women?
Yup. I'm emotionally exhausted now. I'm gonna kill myself since I'm not a genius.
Whoops. “I found the writing wooden and colourless. It read like a report where she'd made observations and had to spell everything out literally "I felt sad," "I woke up depressed," "I was angry." Even her tender relationship with her mother was prefaced by writing something like "I've always been close to my mother." I didn't get any texture to the story, it was like being bombarded with this endless stream of basic observations about herself and partner.”
Where did you find that one?
What if I told you that I wrote it for the sake of this interview?
Nah I think I read it somewhere
Let's see. I don't know, I guess that's example of constructive feedback. I'm like, oh yeah, maybe I did too much 'telling'. Oh well! Who cares?
The thing about negative feedback is that if it's my friends or the NYT or writers I think are smart, I'll be hurt. But it's hard for me to care about reviews from strangers.
How much editing did you receive from the folks at SF/LD and Future Tense?
Future Tense was VERY light. But Elizabeth Ellen at SF/LD and I worked on many drafts of WOMEN.
CHP sort of splits the difference between those two and a more traditional house. Do you have sights (short term or long term) on going that route?
Oh. Not sure. I love Coffee House and think it would be amazing to do more books with them or SF/LD or Graywolf. Moderate advances, tons of attention on your book, lots of support. But sure, yeah, maybe, eventually. I could use money.
We're nearing time, and I feel like you do have pretty strong skin that I've failed to get through in any way. Is there a shortcut? Anything you're extraordinarily sensitive about and yet also okay with sharing on a public forum?
If I hadn't read all those reviews I'd be trippin'. But also if I hadn't read those reviews I would never have agreed to do this interview. This interview has made it clear to me I should not read reviews for I'll Tell You In Person.
That's funny. Do you think that material lends itself more or less to the type of feedback we've talked through today?
Essay collections are panic inducing. People think they know you, and project onto you, and when they review you're work they are really reviewing what they think to be your life. It's gonna suck. Ha.
Thanks for your time Chloe, and your words.