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

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Episode XIII: “The bubbling sarcastic anger of one male attempting to take another male down through the time-honored tradition of online comments”

Published 7/12/16
In this installment, I speak with Teddy Wayne. Topics include sarcasm, choice words, Bieber and Jonny Valentine, critical distance & more.

Today I'm with Teddy Wayne, the author of Kapitoil (2010, Harper Perennial), The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (2013, Free Press), and the forthcoming Loner (September, Simon & Schuster). (He’s also a journalist, writing for The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ and more—though that’s less of a concern to us today.) Teddy’s been hailed by all the right people in all the right places, but the focus of this conversation is those readers with buyer’s remorse, those who couldn't decide whether to give a book of yours one star or two. Before we dive into the mud, I’m curious: i) Do you read the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads? ii) Do you consider yourself thick-skinned?

I've seen a bunch of the Amazon/Goodreads reviews over the years—there aren't all that many on Amazon, so I've probably ended up seeing them. I imagine I haven't seen the majority of Goodreads reviews. I'm relatively thick-skinned, conditioned by years of rejection from freelance writing.

And yet I somehow doubt editors reject with you the same tone and rigor we'll deal with today. Let's start with your first book, Kapitoil. Before I deliver our first review, I want to clarify that you shouldn't feel like you have to respond to each of these as if they were arguments (you, of course can); more to the point, I'm looking for your honest reaction. One lucky contestant said the following: “It is a mystery, that is, how something like Kapitoil ever reaches print. The story lacks any insight. The narrative techniques are tedious. I found myself skimming the text and skipping the definitions at the end of the journal entries. The characters are flat and the situations are cliches. You have your socially maladroit programmer; your wise black man driving a car; your nefarious, conniving rich people with cretinous offspring; your Williamsburg hipsters; your ethnically diverse Thanksgiving celebration; oh, and hold the press, musings on the significance of the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Wow, Mr. Wayne, that Harvard College is doing a bang-up job. I suggest the reader applies his or her time and money to another, perhaps actually literary, endeavor.”

The guy (and this is clearly a guy writing) has some valid points, in stereotyping the characters/drawing attention to my own stereotyping, though you could make the same kind of argument for any book. (You have the equivocating prince who wants to murder his uncle, the neurotic girlfriend who drowns herself, the promiscuous queen who forsakes the memory of her dead husband, etc.). But the guy's overriding sarcasm (and his vagueness otherwise) discounts this as meaningful criticism for me; he was clearly coming into the book wanting to hate it, mainly because of my own background or identity. These kind of reviews make me laugh more than anything else.

What pins him as male?

The bubbling sarcastic anger of one male attempting to take another male down through the time-honored tradition of online comments. Also the overreaching vocab—that's a male thing. "Cretinous," etc.

And speaking of time-honored: “I really disliked the visual that I got from the author as American businesspeople as being stupid, lazy and ‘users’. I hated that concept of the book. I felt the author wanted to get digs in at Americanism.”

All accurate! "Americanism" has lots of flaws! I will present a more even-handed "visual" next time.

In reading most of these, you get the feeling you were never going to win them over. How often do you read a reader review and think, 'I had a chance with this person'?

I don't know percentages, but most of the time they're reasonable. But what also happens most of the time, with negative reviews—by readers or critics—is that they're simply the wrong reader for a particular book (mine or anyone's). I saw this much more with my second book, which got more publicity and reached more readers, many of whom were not its ideal audience. My first book had a smaller readership, but because of that, they were more so the "right" readers for it.

Well let's jump into The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. Before I bring up tangible examples, can you put into words what you saw as the most common criticism?

People not liking Jonny, the narrator—thinking he was too much like Justin Bieber, or finding him annoying, or not wanting to read about an 11-year-old boy masturbating.

Man, you nailed it. It seemed to me that Jonny being based on Bieber (or at least the obvious relativism) was part of it, was assumed. No?

I certainly invite the comparisons—it has a Bieber quote as an epigraph, and there are a few biographical similarities—but for people to think he's a carbon copy of Bieber is, frankly, obtuse. Justin Bieber is nothing like him as a personality, and even if he were, in the real world we never have access to Justin Bieber's interiority, which is what the book attempts to convey for Jonny.

I should point out that when I said I was "thick-skinned," what I meant is criticism rarely gets me down—but I tend to find ways to dismiss or discount it, which is perhaps a sign of thin-skinnedness.

Hm. I guess there's two ways of looking at it. The comments surrounding Bieber and Jonny make me think that Norman Mailer's Marilyn couldn't have been published today. Or maybe he just benefited from a time that kept him from his readers' thoughts. On to it: “This was a very long read, while it had interesting parts overall it felt kind of creepy. Jane the pushy stage mom, horrible mom, and Jonny basically growing up on his own. Insert missing father, who takes money over his son, a few creepy sex scenes that felt like child porn, sums it up. Don't waste your money.”

And: “I really wanted to like this book. I kept reading thinking it would get better but it didn't. I hated how the 11 yr old main character kept talking about getting ‘a boner.’ It made me uncomfortable! I don't think I'm a prude but I found it to be unnecessary to the story.”

This may sound snobby, but comments written at this level—comma splices, the word "creepy" used more than once, other grammar errors—have no effect on me. This is, as I said before, someone who never should have read it. I was surprised so many people had issues with Jonny's references to his sexuality. Note that no one, as far as I could tell, had a problem with his playing a violent video game throughout the novel, which is a fundamental hypocrisy of our culture.

In doing this series, I nearly always come across a review by Roxane Gay, which Goodreads undoubtably puts first. It's always positive. Not the case here. “Throughout the novel, I kept thinking it was written by someone who has read books about pop culture rather than consumed popular culture itself. The distance shows.”

I'm certainly not an avid fan of bubblegum pop music, but I've "consumed" my share of pop culture over the years. I can't imagine anyone who was deeply into it could write a halfway decent adult novel about the subject. You need some critical distance to do it justice and not write a version of fan fiction.

You were reviewed not once by the New York Times but twice. Can I assume you've read both reviews?


What were your initial impressions?

I was very happy to be reviewed there and recall really enjoying the reviews.

They were both uniformly positive, and to be honest I couldn't find any review of your work to be, on the whole, negative. There was one line from each that stuck with me however.

Kakutani: "Much the way the hyper-articulate John Updike struggled at times to channel his very literary observations and musings through the point of view of Rabbit Angstrom — an ordinary small-town Toyota salesman — so Mr. Wayne sometimes struggles to depict the thinking of his 11-year-old hero, a precocious and knowing kid, but an 11-year-old nonetheless."

Walter: "The novel has its zits, too. Like a pop song, its themes and rhythms seem a little clean, a little manufactured. As the book drives toward Jonny finding his father, the drumbeats of an allegorical video game he’s playing (“I couldn’t believe they’d make the emperor this easy to get to”) become heavy-handed, as do the allusions to books on slavery that his tutor has assigned."

I'll gladly take an invidious comparison to Updike, and Jess's point is well taken—perhaps I could have toned down a few of those moments and risked losing some readers.

Speaking of the Times, you have a column in it. How often do you read the comments online?

I don't believe they put comments on my articles, or if they do, it's rare and hasn't happened in a while. I sometimes see the Times post my articles in my Facebook feed, and the comments there are always amusing. People really have it in for the New York Times, especially the Styles section, where my column is, and love to attack it when they can.

Sometimes authors on here seem to have thick skin, in that they are great at hiding their thin skin, but I'm under the solid impression you really couldn't give much of a fuck. Have you ever?

Well, first of all, I've never gotten a truly devastating review in a place where it really mattered. I imagine that would be hard to deal with, and I'm sure it'll happen (probably this fall, too).

I can recall just two reviews that upset me, though now I don't care. The first was for "Kapitoil," in the Morning News Tournament of Books, in 2011. I was excited for my book, which hadn't gotten reviewed much when it came out, to be in the tournament, and to be pitted against Franzen's "Freedom," especially since he'd blurbed "Kapitoil." Sarah Manguso "judged" the two books and wrote what I felt was a really nasty, venomous appraisal of mine. I can certainly understand hating books, and by extension starting to hate the author who forced you to read said book, so maybe that's all there was to it. The other time was by Tom LeClair, in the LA Review of Books, for "Jonny Valentine." I didn't see it until months after it came out, when I came across it accidentally. He really didn't like the book, and basically accused me of selling out. It was distressing at the time because I'd read and enjoyed some of LeClair's criticism as an undergrad. But I also think that this was a case of the reviewer partially reviewing the context, not the text. The book was published by Simon & Schuster with a holographic cover; it looked like a commercial product. Had the same book been published by an indie press with a demure cover, my guess is he would have had a different, more amenable reaction. (This reviewing of context and not the text could apply to any reviewer, of course; I don't mean to single LeClair out.)

That point, attacking the context over the text, is so true, in so many ways, and points to the arbitrariness of a lot of aspects of publishing. Does this have something to do with why you (if it's more than preparatory pessimism) anticipate a negative review in a major pub for Loner?

Somewhat, though I'm thinking more about the subject matter and the protagonist, who's intended to be an antihero (if partially drawing the reader's empathy). A lot of readers and even reviewers simply can't tolerate an "unlikable" protagonist, even if it's obvious the author is intentionally portraying him to be that way.

We're nearly out of time, but would you give us a plug for the book (to the supposed reader who can stand an antihero)?

It's about a meek Harvard freshman who becomes infatuated with a charismatic girl in his dorm and stalks her.

I look forward to the reviews. Thanks for your time and words, Teddy.

Thank you, and thanks for having me, Andrew.