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 XIX: "I don't necessarily love that girl either"
In this installment, I speak with Stephanie LaCava. Topics include her first real professional criticism, "insouciant", her book trailer, the Gawker piece, the direction of her future work & more.
Today I’m with Stephanie LaCava, the author of the memoir AN EXTRAORDINARY THEORY OF OBJECTS, with words in The Paris Review, Interview Magazine, Tin House and more. With a sturdy online presence detailing a well curated life of fashion and art and the like, it seems natural that you’d be willing to discuss the negative feedback that comes with such a public existence. I think I know the answer but: do you consider yourself thick-skinned?
I would love so much to be, but, no. Was that the answer you expected?
It wasn't! How do you consider yourself thin-skinned then? Do you take feedback personally, or…?
I'm extremely sensitive and aware, and although this causes me to be affected by all kinds of things, I'm also able to—eventually—regard them more cooly and process them. It takes time though. I’ve changed so much since I started work in publishing, when I was twenty years old.
What was the first real professional criticism that you took to heart?
Oh wow, there's been so much! And often well-deserved. I think maybe a good thing to say in advance of answering that is a person’s intentions matter. My best friends are super critical and it helps us all to not become static and question what we do/how we do it. Funnily enough, my first professional criticism of this kind was that I was too sensitive.
Before we jump into more professional critiques, I want to start on reader reviews of your book. Do you read reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon?
Yes, I have.
What has your general reaction been? If somebody didn’t like AN EXTRAORDINARY THEORY OF OBJECTS, do you know why that usually is?
I think it's often because they don't like the main character, the young woman in the story. They feel she's narcissistic and unaware of a larger world, feel she views her struggles as somehow “special.” The reason I word it like this is that I'm not writing in many scenes of the book looking back telling the reader what I'm aware of now, how trivial certain things may seem, rather some were written precisely with the awareness of this very adolescent self.
Also, because parts are left out and it’s more of an abstract sketch, there has been dismissal of the depression as rote teenage sadness, for example. This criticism bothers me though as if one would be able to read a diagnosis. It was very serious and very present in my life in a real way.
You also don't need to like the narrator to appreciate aspects of a work. Think about all the unlikeable narrators in other books and films. In memoir, the narrator is not always the writer at the moment she is writing either.
Perhaps the fault then is mine to not have clearly commented on that, but that would be a different book. One person’s past can be different books, different “memoirs.” I also think to look back on this years from now in relation to my other work, it will be seen in a very different way. This may not make sense now, but it will. Act I Part I. Something to this effect is also said about the objects in the introduction.
No no, that all makes sense. I want to now introduce tangible reader feedback and try to understand it from your point of view. That is: don't feel compelled to 'respond' per se, but instead say your honest reaction. Sound good?
“Woof. A very dear friend sent this to me knowing my affinity for all things Paris. But this book was just narcissistic and pointless, and she isn't actually in Paris for the majority of the book, but the banlieue/suburbs (nitpicking, but valid). The author tries so hard to be deep and eloquent and falls embarrassingly short. The prose reeks of desperation (her depression is kicked off because no boys want to dance with her at a school dance, so she goes into the forest and lays facedown in the dark, a la Bella in Twilight when Edward left her) and reads like LiveJournal-circa-2002-vague-blogging. I finished it in a few hours, so I can't be too upset that I wasted time on it; it was a fast read, made faster by my decision halfway through to stop reading the footnotes that pervaded the entire book and served no purpose (unless you wanted to know the origin of pajamas or street signs...seriously). There are about 45 references to 'Bonjour Tristesse' and the word 'insouciant' pops up constantly, as does the author's humblebrag that all French people adore her authentic French accent. No merci.”
This is great! Could not be worse. She makes valid points.
Really? How so?
In regards to reading as narcissistic—what teenage girl isn’t, especially in the drama of recounting her experience? I think this critic’s read is rather face value in some ways, considering the dismissal of the footnotes and how they reassemble a consciousness of a moment in time. Skipping even the observation of spacing or some part of the book kind of means not reading the book. Breaks, leaps, images are all part of a narrative.
Memoir by nature can be seen as self-important too. I can nod to the above interview again in the sense of memoir not being autobiography or biography and hybrid works being sometimes difficult to “read."
I did use “insouciant” too much. And perhaps this girl—this girl, meaning me—was too invested in being likable in proving something.
I'm down with that review, could have used some of that insight. It was also written when I was very young and had a narrower set of experiences. There are great books written by people in their twenties, usually not memoirs. I say this laughing at myself.
I understand, and I understand the use of third person in describing the book and the idea of lines being blurred in terms of fiction and non, but I'm also trying to get my head around the following: Are you implying AN EXTRAORDINARY THEORY should be considered as the work of a teenage girl and, if so, should we publishing more books by teenage girls?
No, no, but certain moments are amplified or written as they would have been experienced. The book uses objects, drawings and their stories to create a consciousness. There is an introduction that explains this interconnectivity. I think some of the criticism is towards the realness of that, does that make sense? I don't necessarily love that girl either. Or think she's appealing, especially now.
I receive a lot of emails—even still—from women who said the book helped them or held that state of recognition in a narrative that endears a reader to it. Many of them have had similarity with depression or grown up as third culture children.
That makes sense, and dovetailing with that, I'm curious what you think of the following. “Not extraordinary. Not a theory. Not all that much about Paris: Teenaged Stephanie lives in a suburb and attends an American school. Interesting idea, but it goes no further than the title. There are few, if any, meaningful connections made between the objects and life being explicated. The descriptions of teen angst read as if written by a teenager, as if the author hasn't gained any distance or perspective on her adolescent emotions and still takes them oh-so-seriously. I probably would not have stuck with this one to the end if it hadn't been so short.”
Good thing it was short! I say this with a grin. I also think it's important to have a sense of humor in a work. And to be honest, this book as a stand-alone lacks that.
Remember though, that I think in the future it will make more sense and be seen as lighter more whimsical, aware of itself and its market. Maybe this is all also clear retroactively, which in and of itself is interesting, I'm presently obsessed with artists co-opting the take of critics or findings of critics as their own, as intended...but that's another discussion entirely.
On the note of lacking humor, I want to switch to the reaction to the book's trailer, of which The Cut (from New York Magazine) wrote an article entitled "Nine Questions We Have After Watching Stephanie LaCava’s Book Trailer." Those questions end with the following three: "7. What is she laughing about? 8. Are you actually an outsider if you're known for basically being at all the big parties and socialite-y events, in Paris and the U.S.? 9. How do we get a book deal?"
In retrospect, do you think the trailer is a bit self-serious?
First of all, prior to the book being published, I went to the aforementioned events and parties often as part of my work, which often involved covering them. At that moment, they were part of my job. I don’t really have a place at many similar events now, but at that moment I felt was part of that work.
The trailer is totally self-serious! It's a parody of a perfume ad, Henry Joost—my friend who made it—is a film director and thought it would be fun approach. He actually was the boy in a few scenes in the book—meaning my close childhood friend growing up in France—Jake (the names are changed). He was in on it too.
So you're saying it was self-serious satirically? Do you think that aspect was lost to a lot of people who saw it?
Completely. This is all playing into my interest in intention and perception.
I get it though. I may seem one way and in reality be entirely different when you meet me or whatever that even means. I also may have made some mistakes in not seeing that a certain sort of image is not considerate of all of what I'm explaining now. But that's part of the exercise—a kind of naiveté to that…at first. The whole book is incredibly self-serious. Painfully so. So was I.
Did you read Gawker's piece "A Sneak Peek at a Fashionista Socialite's Important New Novel", and if you did, what did you make of it? It starts, "Stephanie LaCava, the young Vogue writer and lit society socialite, has penned a ‘novel' about a rich girl spending high school in Paris. Someone's slipped us a draft. Let's take a look…” and goes on to even imply you didn't write it.
Oh yeah, this was incredibly painful in many ways. My workplace should not have come up, first of all, and I was aware of that and how wrong that was to draw that in as a means of establishing credibility. I was always adamant that my writing was separate from that, but it became conflated because of what's discussed above in earlier questions, perception and maybe a little gossip, as well. This was now ten years ago.
I was super lucky to have gotten a job at Vogue when I was very young, 21. I wasn't as guarded as I should have been in many ways and it also took time to learn the pitfalls of earnestness. But again, in due course, I think the work proves one’s mettle.
Wait—how do you mean? Did you leverage your workplace in the outreach?
No, that's my point. I didn't want it linked to the book. The book doesn't discuss this time. This piece seems to make that a character or a player in the work. I would hope that time and work prove that clearly. Does that make sense? That piece was heartbreaking for me.
You've been insinuating an upcoming work. Is there one coming in the near future?
Yes, and there have been many essays and interviews since then. The past few years have had a lot of good work even if not a book just yet. Work in the direction I want to be going. There will be nothing else like this first book from me.
I'm curious who, in the future, you'd hope to be in the public's eye.
A thoughtful writer and bookmaker. I'd like my work to be what is important.
Anything more specific? It sounded like you were going to invert your current persona, or use it in some art form, a la Joaquin Phoenix's I'M STILL HERE.
Smart man. Perhaps the new work does play with this very notion.
I've been speaking with a lot of older artists and writers and often I think about how time changes things, how work is disregarded and tossed out only to be revisited at a later time. It's undeniable, especially in this moment that there are marketplace and media forces playing, so much so that they have become dangerous.
Can you hint at what medium your new work will take?
Writing, but, you know, text as still life sort of thing. That white space matters, the form matters...a sense of humor matters, and intention...
I have no idea what I'm doing, by the way. I write as a way of trying to somehow figure that out.
Well that's as good a way to end as any I think. Any last words before we close the book on this one?
Thank you, was a pleasure. I don't often have the chance to offer any sort of explanation, which I think is fair because people think the explanation is there—in the writing in what's said, especially for an essayist or in a memoirist. Maybe though form can be a means to play.