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

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Episode XII: “Art can no longer successfully be the mirror it once was”

Published 5/24/16
In this installment, I speak with Thomas Christopher GreeneTopics include evolving as a writer, letting punctuation go, the questions publishers ask themselves, the Charles review & more.

Today we’re with Thomas Christopher Greene, an author of four novels (his fifth, If I Forget You, is forthcoming in June from St. Martin’s Press), and a college president (Vermont College of Fine Arts). His most well known book is The Headmaster’s Wife, which has been heralded as “incandescent” (Kirkus) and “poetic” (Booklist). He’s been translated into eleven languages and carries a global following and yada yada yada—we’re not here for that. Today we’ll be discussing those on the bottom side of your “mixed” reviews. Before we begin, can I ask: a) Do you consider yourself thick-skinned? b) Do you read reader reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon?

I do consider myself thick-skinned. In fact, outside of talent, it's the thing I tell the aspiring writers at VCFA is the most important attribute you can have. And, yes, I read every review of all my books including those by readers.

Every single one?

Every snarky last one.

Wow. So none of those I bring up will come as news to you. Why do you feel compelled to read them all?

I'm curious. I think a novel is a contract between storyteller and listener. Sometimes you can learn something from them, even if it’s just that some people are just angry.

Well then let's jump into it. I'll want to focus mostly on The Headmaster's Wife in this interview, but let's start with one review from your earlier novel, Mirror Lake, to get our feet wet. (I also like to say that you shouldn't feel you have to respond to the review—we're just looking for your honest reactions.) One reader wrote: “I had the ending figured out about 1/4 of the way into the book. The plot is very transparent. I was not a fan of the author's writing style- he uses a LOT of commas- and I found myself skipping over complete sentences without missing anything."

A lot of criticism of my early work was predictability, which I didn't really understand. So some of that is valid. And I use less commas and long sentences now. But also I've realized some people respond to your language as you intended and others just don't.

When you started using less commas and long sentences, was that a result of reader feedback?

No, I think my style just evolved. Many of the writers I admired as a young writer wrote long sentences with punctuation driving it. I was more showy then. As I got older, I discovered my own sense of language. The predictability thing, though, was a result of reader feedback. I didn't think my novels had predictable plots but others did. I took notice.

Well that's a good segue into The Headmaster's Wife, which seemed to be built with that sense of unpredictability in mind. You seem to have a good sense of what readers liked and didn't like about your writing. So: if you could sum up what the criticism to THW, what would you say?

People hated the characters, especially Arthur. This whole idea that they weren't sympathetic, which is a relatively new concern in literature. Imagine LOLITA being published today.

Yes, if there was a recurring theme in this series (or really, all of my author series), it would be this idea of likability. Where do you think this (relatively new) flavor of criticism comes from?

I have to imagine it’s something in the larger zeitgeist. Cultural. I mean, it's one thing to root for someone, but oftentimes we root for bad people because that's where the stakes are. But there certainly is this current out there now where readers want to feel like the protagonist is someone they want to hang out with and be friends.

What of the culture could spawn such an idea?

Well, I think readership has changed. More people reading but a narrower band of people reading. It's skewed older and female, for the most part. Also, more conservative, I think. Our country in general has become more conservative in relation to literature. What passes for risks today are tame, but of course we are also not banning books, so it's a paradox.

That was unexpected. Why do you feel we've become more conservative in relation to literature?

I don't know--there is this larger idea that risky art is something to be protected from. Art should be both a mirror and a window, but we live in a time of trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses and the assumption now is that if you did what Nabokov did now you yourself would be a pedophile. In other words, art can no longer successfully be the mirror it once was, or a pathway to exposing some of the darkness of humanity.

How much of that is owed to the readership, you think, and how much of that is a business decision—larger publishers not able to take the risks they once did? (Or are the two inextricably linked?)

It's a good point. I am sure it is a little bit of both. But the majority of publishers are not asking themselves the question: is this good? But rather, will this particular 42-year-old woman and her book club relate to the characters and like it? For that is what drives the market. It's not necessarily wrong, except for the fact that they don't actually know what that particular 42-year-old woman may want and to some extent it’s insulting to make those assumptions. Ten publishers turned down Headmaster's Wife for that reason. They were all wrong.

I appreciate your candor. Now onto the readers'. I think this is in line with Nabokov reference: “Really strongly disliked this book. Started out with the headmaster recounting his affair with a student. I almost didn't finish the book because of the sexual predator intonations.”

Yeah, that was a common refrain among the negative reviews. And he is creepy. And supposed to be. Makes the whole axis of the narrative work.

This seems to be a matter of—not a trigger warning per se— upfrontness in the description?

You mean on behalf of the publisher? I don't know.

Correct. If there are sexual predations, by no means should that be off limits in fiction—but perhaps the reader should be aware of it, so if it's not right for them they can look elsewhere.

“If you like illicit sex and the descriptions, and a lot of F-bombs, this is the book for you. It could've been so good. I am surprised that the president of a fine arts college would consider this fine art. Sad.”

That's a good one, I don't remember reading that. Funny thing is, and this is a spoiler but the illicit sex is only imagined. Don't know how that changes things though. Hopefully someone read that and thought, I love illicit sex and F-bombs!

Ha. I'm not sure if that's all one's looking for in art they're going to be rifling through literary fiction. Any comment on the reference to your vocation?

It's an occupational hazard. I was more worried that the book is about a headmaster in Vermont who thinks he is having an affair with a student, and I am the president of a school in Vermont. I joked with my board that they had nothing to worry about.

And did they? Worry?

Not at all. And the book is not autobiographical, except on the matter of grief.

Someone seems to sense it is, unless I'm reading the following wrong: "This book shares a suspicious similarity with Love in the Time of Cholera--reconnection of past lovers and the river symbolism to name the two major elements. But unlike Marquez's penetrating insights this work trades on stereotypes of New England academics. It just doesn't seem 'real', which I am sad to say given the profound personal experience which stimulated the author to take on the project.”

Boy, I wish I deserved some same sentence mention with Marquez. It's amazing, though, how different readers receive the same material. It's all good, I think.

I could go on with the reader reviews, but they are sort of the same flavor as those we've covered. How do you feel your new title will dance with the easily offended?

I think they will find that the characters in IF I FORGET YOU are actually rather sympathetic, though I hate that word. On the other hand, it's a straightforward love story, no murders, so some will quibble with that, I bet.

Are there any professional reviews, by critics, that still stick with you?

I certainly remember the positive ones. But Ron Charles of the Washington Post absolutely skewered my second novel. And I was so excited to read the review since it was the first time I had been in a major newspaper. I learned from that review, though. Much of his criticism was spot on. Years later he friended me on Facebook and he didn't remember the review but we ended having this long dialogue about reviewing and publishing and finally I said, why don't you come up to the college and let's have this conversation on a stage in front of my students? He agreed and we became friends.

I actually interviewed Ron. He was a great subject. For reference, he said, of I'LL NEVER BE LONG GONE, "It's galling that some authors, such as, say, Anita Shreve, must constantly defend themselves from the pejorative ‘romance’ label no matter how well they write, while romantic fluff like this can pass itself off as 'literary fiction.' It's the same in the kitchen, of course: Women just cook, but men are chefs. Check, please."

Yeah, brutal. I confess that one stung.

What was it like to read it? Did the sting last?

I was surprised when I read it. Mainly because I was such a nobody then and this wasn't anyone's idea of a big book. I wondered why he even reviewed it. And it stung for a bit but it also motivated me. Nothing worse than not being taken seriously to get you focused.

How did the talk with Charles go on stage? How tangibly did his opinion change how you wrote?

We had a great talk. I concluded by saying, now that we're friends this means you can no longer review me? He said, yes, and I said, mission accomplished. But he was very generous and I think the students learned a lot. It also spawned an annual conversation at the college I have now, though with writers. Richard Russo, Cheryl Strayed and Andre Dubus III have all come up. As for changing how I write? I don't know that it had a particular impact other than that I knew I needed to get better.

We're nearly out of time, but I also wanted to bring up the review of THE HEADMASTER'S WIFE in USA Today, which included the line “The accretion of detail and atmosphere that would provide richness to this very particular setting is scant. We are told but not shown that Winthrop is a great teacher. Winthrop's father, who preceded him as headmaster, is often referred to but barely sketched in. The book's ending is rushed and, as a result, not very convincing.”

One person's scantness is another's economy, right? In the end as writers we must remember that these are all subjective judgments, and maybe if everyone is saying the same thing, learn from it. But in general, we just need to write the books we want to read, and hope for the best.

That's a great ending note, Thomas. Thanks for your time, and your words.

Thanks for having me, Andrew. And for the thoughtful questions.