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 XV: "Anyone who is coming to my work because they find me sexually attractive is going to be disappointed. I write long sentences about water."
In this installment, I speak with Kathleen Alcott. Topics include reading readers through their reviews, DeLillo, Salter, growth, how the public perceives follow-ups, fear & more.
Today I’m with Kathleen Alcott, whose second novel, Infinite Home, just came out in paperback (it originally released in 2015 from Riverhead). Her debut, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, released in 2012 from Other Press. She’s been hailed everywhere—really, everywhere—but today we’re only concerned with the negative. Before we start, let me ask: i) Do you consider yourself thick-skinned? ii) Do you read reader reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon?
I am absolutely not thick-skinned. I saw the new Ghostbusters yesterday, and the ghosts were a little too scary. Maybe it was just the heat.
In seriousness, and with respect to your second question, I do. It has provided me with such amusement, such a regular dose of human drama. When you're reading someone's Goodreads/Amazon review of your work you're also, definitely, always, reading about who they are, which is not necessarily true with professional critics.
When someone reveals themselves in a review, what qualifiers are you noticing? How do you categorize these readers—or, I guess, people in general?
I'm noticing anger, probably, first. It seems strange to me that so many people feel they have earned a book suited just to their life and circumstances; it's the same thing you see in Yelp reviews of bodegas. "My girlfriend made me walk for a very long time and it had been a long day at work, so I HATED this corner store AND the starbursts they sold me!" That is not to say that their negative feelings about my work are not sincere, but the personal is just very present.
That's fair. If someone doesn’t like your writing, do you have a good idea what it is they don’t like?
Oh, yes. One amazon review of my second novel is entitled "Great but too great." There's one of my first in which the reviewer mentions that he generally highlights sentences that he thinks are beautiful, and in the case of Alphabets, he had highlighted almost everything, and he was pissed about it. People who dislike my writing tend to find it indulgent or too eager to backflip or too involved for too long. I'm okay with that; just as those are the sentences I like to write, they're generally the type I like to read, and I understand that just because I like to, say, eat dinner in a taco costume (I don't, but only because I don't own a taco costume) doesn't mean everyone else does.
I usually don't ask this, but it might help, given what you said. Can you name five authors you enjoy?
Don DeLillo, Shirley Jackson, James Salter, Joy Williams, Junichiro Tanizaki.
And yet DeLillo, Salter—rarely do they have a mark against them for purple writing. Perhaps it's because nowadays no one would approach them at all if they weren't primed to like that.
Sure they do! Salter's first novel was lambasted for it.
Maybe you're right. Let's jump in the reviews, yes?
Starting with The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets: "Beautiful use of language; clever approach to the subjective rationale. Sadly, beneath such exquisite wrapping paper lies an empty box. And this brings to light my chief complaint with literature today. I find it frustrating that so many new (and nearly new) novelists who are lost to themselves are being encouraged by academics, workshops, publishers and each other to believe the simple act of navel-gazing constitutes story. Some form of resolution, if not reached, must at least be actively sought. Do not expect me to pay for the privilege of watching you shrug your shoulders. There's a difference between a reader and a therapist. Figure it out."
I'm making a weird noise with my body right now, sort of like a shitty sink. You want me to just respond, or do you have a specific question?
Oh, that's a good point. Ok—I normally say: don't feel like you have to respond, per se. I'm just looking for your honest reaction. Ha. I just sort of dumped that on you. It's been a long day.
Well, here goes. That novel in particular is dealing almost exclusively in analepsis. And its narrator is helpless to the past, unable to really continue until she feels she has sufficiently organized these memories of a systemic dysfunction. So I'd like to think that feeling, the equivalent of a sound being made again and again until it occurs to us as a different sound, is in place there for a reason, and that it adheres to Ida as narrator.
(I also find it funny when a reader assumes autobiography. I've never had a love affair with two brothers; I would certainly be paying some hefty CBT fines right now.)
To let these sort of reviews get to you, affect your writing, that'd be death. But I'm curious if you ever take them to heart as a whole? Do you ever reconsider your style?
My rule is generally to ask myself the question: "is the same complaint, albeit registered with different levels of articulation, coming in from various channels?" If the answer is yes, I sit myself down for a talk. But in term of my style, I think its evolution is always a product of the work I'm doing with the sentence, then the sentence within the paragraph, then the paragraph within the page. I'm deep into my third book now, and I'm more conscious of sentences on a continuum in a work. I'm placing them a little more carefully, depending on what they follow and precede.
I was 22 when I sold my first novel, and 25 when I sold the second. These are years in which an individual changes significantly, and I'd like to take credit for any growth; I don't think it belongs to one whiny guy in Ohio.
Addendum: somebody on the internet thinks I'm mean to midwesterners, I remember. I'm sorry about that.
This guy seems like he could be from the midwest: "I admit I was interested because she's my age and looked seductive. I could have sworn I bought her a drink in Brooklyn once. I watched some videos on Youtube and disliked her excessive use of the word 'Um.' I got to the part in this book over the course of an afternoon wherein a voice is referred to as a 'Muted foghorn,' laughed, and thought, 'This book seems like it was written by a romantically intelligent 16-year old."
Oh, THIS fucker. Yes, I remember this. He says he bought it because he saw my face on the cover of a magazine. I think he was disappointed the book didn't contain a face on a magazine. Case closed.
In general anyone who is coming to my work because they find me sexually attractive is going to be disappointed. I write long sentences about water.
That’s something DeLillo never suffered, for sure.
Oh, I think Don has his charms.
Salter too, but at least with him you can end up getting what you came for. Anyway. Let's move on to Infinite Home.
You seem to know your Goodreads readers well. Was there a noticeable difference in the response to each of your first two novels?
Oh, no. I hope not. The first book I know really well, but by the second I realized I could not afford to know. Are we speaking strictly "user" reviews here?
Not necessarily. In fact, the only real negative comments from critics were for Infinite Home. But I usually save those for last.
It's impossible to not separate the consideration of this issue from the larger cultural reception of a debut novel versus the follow-up. In general what might be cattily called "sloppy" in a work by an established writer is called "raw" or "barbed" or "promising" in a debut novelist. You can swap out that first adjective for something else, and there's another corresponding list of its synonyms for the sophomore novel.
So I didn't at all feel my second novel was received "worse." I felt it was received in the way all second novels are, which is with more of a calculating eye and a kind of hidden question to the tune of "Who does this writer think he or she is?" By the second novel people/critics are saying "Who does Kathleen Alcott thinks she is? These are the patterns in evidence; are they going to carry her any further?"
Well then let's just skip the reader reviews and head right for the critics. I think Publishers Weekly's review serves as a fine example of what you're citing: "The writing is dreamy and easy to inhabit, but is occasionally undermined by its tendency toward abstraction, when it would benefit more from precise plot development."
Well: sure! I understand that as a valid complaint. I like the documentary films of Chantal Akerman, which deal a lot in how people respond to waiting and silence. A lot of people really do not. I get it. Curtains a depressing shade of yellow and a stilted conversation do not entertain everyone, but they make me very anxious and interested and committed.
That being said, the book I'm working on now does have its head tilted more toward momentum. It's tied to a cultural moment that did not afford anyone a great deal of waiting. So I'm sure I have internalized these sorts of complaints, but it's hard to say how much of that accounts for any shift; probably a great deal has to do with a dilation of interests and a certain maturation.
Again, I was very young when I wrote my first and second books. I think that is in evidence—there's a great deal of processing going on, and choices when they come are hard-won.
Which cultural moment?
It deals with the intersection of the Apollo program and anti-Vietnam activism.
Do you know of another critic's review I'm going to bring up?
Honestly it was hard to find anything really negative. But there was a tidbit in the Wall Street Journal: “Ms. Alcott produces a kind of cotton-candy prose that’s gorgeously spun but cloying in large servings. This perfectly suited her slim, enchanting debut ‘The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets’ (2012), but in graduating from a tale of lovesickness to one of actual illness, she can seem out of her depth. Her characters are defined exclusively by their disabilities, and Ms. Alcott is prone to treating them like babies. Paulie’s fascination with fireflies is so saccharine you’ll need to brush your teeth after reading: 'He wondered if maybe each time they lit up they were remembering other places they’d been. Like, fwoosh, light, and here is the meadow that swelled around a little house left behind: fwoosh.' "
Sam Sacks has a fine mind, and it hurt that he didn't love that book. Writing Paulie was a great challenge to me, and trying to balance the sanguine aspects of his disability with his dark obsessions was a goal. I tried to make sure that for every moment like this, which is stylistically simple and focused on a literal glow, the reader had, for instance, a look at Paulie trying to understand that his life was sexless and always would be and feeling very angry about that. I'm sorry Mr. Sacks didn't appreciate that attempt.
When you read something like this, what's your physical reaction? Do you think your (relative) youth, and maturation ahead of you, steels you against it, or makes it harder?
I cried when I read that review. It was the exact matter about which I had felt fear. But that was not the reaction to that book across the board, and again, yesterday I felt the ghosts in Ghostbusters were too scary, so the fact that I cried does not totally dog-ear the moment I read that review as an emotional upheaval.
Do you think a review could make you cry ever again?
I don't know how to answer that question. If it did, it would probably have to do with many other factors contributing to my happiness. I'd like to say no. But it seems like a silly bet to make. Again, Ghostbusters.
Always Ghostbusters. Whenever I ask someone this next question, I feel like it leads to a somewhat cathartic moment. So here goes: what would be your greatest fear as a writer?
Would be, or is?
Is, with 'would be' to hedge, so you don't have to imply this is something you've thought about, or your answer is definite.
I don't have a lot of fears about Being A Writer in general. My fears are always tied to a work. I fear for my old age, I guess, and hope I'll be funded long and widely enough that my children don't have to worry about paying my medical bills. But I think of something Townes Van Zandt said, which I think was "My life will run out before my work does. I've designed it that way."
He was a huge alcoholic and that is probably the heft of that statement, but I think it can be interpreted separately: you will always be following the work around some dim-lit corner, and never the other way around. In that way I'm not afraid. I will be provided for.
And those are as good as words can be to end on. Thanks for putting up with this Kathleen.