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 XIV: “You're freaking me out now.”
In this installment, I speak with Joe McGinniss Jr. Topics include fuzzysquid.com, "non-fiction novelists" and their existence, his toughest critic, reviews vs. sales & more.
Today I’m with Joe McGinniss Jr. ahead of the publication of his second novel, Carousel Court (out August 2nd from Simon & Schuster). His first, The Delivery Man (2008, Grove Press) received rave reviews from the New York Times (“The Madonna-whore complex is seldom as well defined as in ‘The Delivery Man,’ Joe McGinniss Jr.’s brisk, bleak debut novel”), the LA Times, Penthouse (“that rare first novel that could well become a classic.”), and more. But today we’re discussing those other reviews, the ones that balance out your five star reviews to give you that 3.22 we see on Goodreads. Let me start by asking: a) Do you consider yourself thick-skinned? b) Do you read the reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads?
Haha...yes and no. I'm kind of thick-skinned but then kind of not…depends on where in the process I am with the book. And my guilty pleasure is checking obsessively for new Goodreads reviews and messaging the bad review writers and challenging them. (Not actually.)
If a reader didn’t like The Delivery Man, can you guess what it was about it that put them off?
In a word—dark. Oh and "no one to root for". Did you see Goodfellas?
Who did you root for?
Point taken. Have you ever read a review, reader or otherwise, that struck a chord?
Oh yeah...Ed Park wrote something about TDM that made my year. And Peter Bloch in Penthouse. Then a reviewer from Las Vegas shredded it, and that stung.
What was the Ed Park line that made your year? What I can find is: "Some of the book’s cruelest, most searing moments don’t involve bodily fluids or body blows."
That's not it! But that's gold. It was the review itself…the sense that he really got the book and wasn't reviewing based on tired adolescent preoccupation with "rooting" for this character or that character. Who did I root for in Revolutionary Road? Neither one—but I was riveted.
Oh, so it struck a chord in a good way? There's also this: "McGinniss lacks Ellis’s sly humor, and at times the deliberate flatness and repetition need a good shaking. ('She says her orientation was fine. She says she was surprised when he didn’t ask how it went the last time they spoke. She sounds agitated.')"
Well yeah there's that. And he's right. I do lack Ellis's sly humor. And AM Homes’ humor. She also write protagonists who are hard to "root" for.
Shall we jump into reader reviews?
I want to add that you don’t have to respond to them, per se, just really looking for your honest reaction. “In this world the only things people smell like are hair gel and marijuana. Ugh. Most vapid book I've read in a long time.”
“Recommends it for: people tirelessly scrolling and refreshing fuzzysquid.com hoping for a glimpse of porn. I took this book as a personal challenge. I didn't want to finish it. It seemed like this story had been told (at least once) and the characters were hard to give a damn about. Reading this book was like being home alone with a six pack of something cheap masturbating to reruns of the OC. I kept thinking ‘How embarressing! I hope no one catches me READING this’. Anyway, I won the challenge. Just not anymore enlightened or entertained on the last page than I was on the first.”
Awesome. That's a gem. Did I mention TDM was a NY Time's Editor's Choice? (I'm playing around.) But that's a reader who bought or borrowed the book and didn't feel it. Fine. At least they're reading. They may be an idiot but they're reading. That's sweet...where is that from?
Nice! What is fuzzysquid.com? Wait hold on. Let me check...
You know, I think they just made it up in that review, but it turns out it's some guy's website.
Who is Daniel Kuo?
I wonder if he knows.
Yeah. He's a consultant. Started his own firm. Seems like a good guy.
Looks like he's got some good experience. Carnegie Mellon University School of Design.
Kind of guy my mother hoped I'd become.
Mm. Do you want to go full on therapy here?
I'm down for whatever. At this stage i just don't give a f***.
I'm streetviewing Kuo's house on Google. It's pretty decent.
That's the move. Where does he live? Let's call him I'm following him now on twitter
Well one of us can call him, but we're typing to each other.
San Fran. I'm sending him an invite to my reading @ Booksmith. It'll be vapid and he'll smell like weed and Axe body spray and stare listlessly at a painting of his dead brother.
This sounds like the start to a terrible, contrived novel.
At least he'll be Korean and not a blonde white boy.
Man, San Francisco is beautiful.
I lived there for four years after college, in South of Market off the Bay Bridge. Have you been?
To SF? Yeah. Let's get back on track: “Another Bret Easton Ellis wannabe pens his first novel. And someone published it, probably because he is the son of Joe McGinniss, Sr., an investigative journalist and non-fiction novelist of some repute (the Making of the President, etc.)The prose here though does not exactly crackle, and the characters failed to come alive for me. It was a boring, boring, boring read. Of course I am not a big Bret Easton Ellis fan either, but at least Mr. Ellis has something to say and he has moments of blinding brilliance.”
I stopped at "non-fiction novelist".
Can you continue? I can wait.
No. Why bother? What is a non-fiction novelist? You can't be a non-fiction novelist.
Well Mailer, or Capote. Tom Wolfe.
Can a novel be non-fiction?
I don't think the guy's using the term right here, but sure, why not. Novelized non-fiction. Creative non-fiction. A non-fiction novel.
A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. That's a novel. Creative non-fiction is a different writing form. That's journalism. Nonfiction. Fiction is a novel. Made up.
According to Oxford. Who'd trust them?
So that person who wrote that review is an idiot. I'm sure they have other nice qualities. Or maybe they don’t.
Whose opinion would you care most about?
My wife. And mine. And my agent
Does your wife read your work?
Always! She's much smarter than me. And knows fiction. And has an MBA.
Does she write?
She CAN write very well. She wants to write a novel. She's making notes.
Who's the toughest critic: your wife, you or your agent?
Me because I'm very hard on myself. And then when my wife isn't blown away by something I was sure was really strong I hate myself for a while.
But your agent...
She's brilliant and very easy going never too excited or too down. But she knows just what to say to let me know if something is working.
Are you nervous about the reviews to come for Carousel Court?
So far so good, knock on wood. God bless you Kirkus. And booklist and Publishers Weekly. And shelf awareness and the booksellers from IndieNext who wrote in on its behalf. So yeah—terrified.
Ok, enough of the acceptance speech. Are there reviewers you trust the most? For books you didn't pen?
There will be hate. I was being sarcastic. There are opinions. They're like, you know, subjective. So if some reviewer for some "important" publication pans a book I think "shit, that's harsh". If they fall over themselves to gush about something—I'm envious and try to take cues from what worked from that novel, if I get to read it. It's only happened twice. I guess feeling like: this is the novel I wanted to write.
What do you get more nervous about: reviews or sales?
You're freaking me out now.
Hm. I'll take that as a compliment.
Sales. I was calm and now I'm freaking out.
I could ask the usual: How have you grown as a writer since your last release?
What do you hope to express to the reader?
It's 2 weeks away! Argh! Okay…chill. This is when I wished I drank or smoked weed like the vapid character from TDM. Growth-wise I feel like Dirk Diggler accepting his second consecutive porn star of the year. Like…it's a book. I like it a lot. It does what I want it to. I can't believe I wrote it. I'm very grateful. Did you see Boogie Nights?
Thank goodness. You never know. Some people…
Do you like the media events surrounding the release?
HA! Events…media…um…Charlie Rose has not yet called, but I'm staring at my phone and just followed him on twitter, so there's hope.
Well. Interviews, reviews, excerpts, blah blah.
Any pre-pub coverage of a book I wrote is like a celebration. I love Charlie Rose. I’d pay to sit at that round table and sip water against and slouch in my chair.
Honestly, wasn't sure he was alive until you said that.
I came to writing fiction very late. Anything that occurs around a novel I wrote is ridiculous.
How do you mean?
I'm very fortunate. I worked very hard and put myself through personal hell at times (who doesn't though when they're passionate about something). But I've written two novels I'm proud of that I think work pretty well and are exactly what I set out to write. So if Charlie Rose doesn't call (and he wont) seriously…life is grand.
What a nice note to end on. I'll leave it here. Any last words to someone who wants to know how thick your skin is?
I can shoot from anywhere on the court. Nothing but net no matter how much shit you talk.
Thanks for your time and words, Joe.
Thank you, Andrew. This is so cool. I love what you're doing even though I still don't fully understand it.