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

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Episode XVI: "Personal failing? Moral ineptitude? Limited exposure to art?"

Published 8/29/16
In this installment, I speak with Hannah PittardTopics include defensiveness, not plagiarizing The Virgin Suicides, books as Google Maps, first-order and second-order reviews, & more.

Here we are with Hannah Pittard, the author of three novels with one forthcoming next year: Atlanta, 1962. Her most recent, Listen to Me, came out in July from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and was met with wide acclaim—a NYTBR “Editor’s Choice”, “Best Summer Thriller” by Washington Post, so forth, so on. Today we’re talking about those less than happy readers. To start: a) do you consider yourself thick-skinned, and b) do you read the reviews on sits like Goodreads and Amazon?

I read reviews—nearly everything I can get my hands on. I do think of myself as thick-skinned but I am nearly 100% positive I am wrong. 

What would be evidence to the contrary?

I am told I can be...defensive? And defensiveness seems a sign of sensitivity? 

You phrased that like someone who can be defensive.

Oh yeah! I know my stuff!

If someone generally doesn’t like your writing, do you have an idea why that is?

I suppose I would say that person is probably looking for a different type of writing than I'm offering...That different type being easy or accessible or more mainstream. 

I'll say that the reactions have been quite different to each of your three novels, which isn't normally the case. Usually you can take one negative reader review and apply it to a different book just the same. Perhaps it's because your first, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was written in a very specific POV.

I think it also depends a lot on how a book is packaged. Whether we want to admit it or not, how a book looks and how it's pushed by its publisher, can absolutely affect how we read it. 

Which of your books are you thinking about here?

I think REUNION looks light-weight and a lot of places didn't review it for that reason. I think Barthelme called LtM "Hitchcockian" early on and the peaked a lot of interest. 

That said, REUNION is certainly my most "accessible" novel. At least I think so. 

So by "light-weight" we mean "accessible". "Easy", right? Do you think of LtM as firmly literary fiction?

I do think of it that way, yes. 

Is that, in your eyes, the line between literary and commercial? How much it asks of the reader?

Not necessarily in my eyes—I wouldn't go out of my way to define that line—but looking at all the anecdotal evidence out there, I would say that seems to be the consensus. 

Got it. Shall we jump into the reviews now?

Yes. Sure. I'm both nervous and excited. 

That's good. I like to think of this as a free therapy session. Just to be clear, you shouldn’t feel like you have to respond to any of these. I’m really looking for your honest reaction: how it makes you feel and how it fits into your categorization of readers, of yourself as a writer, whatever. For The Fates Will Find Their Way, as you know, much of the comparison was to The Virgin Suicides, for both the plot and the collective tense. This is a pretty standard comment: "Well, here's a question I never thought I would ask. Can you have a cover version of a book? This is obviously the Virgin Suicides - a favourite book - rehashed. Everything is the same - a singular missing girl and a bunch of fellas growing older - wondering what happened to her. All told in a well written, dreamlike quality. How on earth it gained all the plaudits, I do not know. Surely plagiarism of the higest order and if she cannot be bothered to write an original book, I cannot be bothered to provide it with an original review."

Wow, Andrew. We're starting off super strong! So this is not a review I have read before. I don't think FATES is remotely plagiarized. Is it influenced? Yes. By VIRGIN SUICIDES? To a degree. I think there's much more influence from someone like Muriel Spark or even Tim O'Brien. The first person plural makes everyone think immediately of SUICIDES. I think that's a fairly sophomoric response. But all things on the table: reading that review makes me sick to my stomach. That's in part because I feel the book has been misperceived and I never like feeling that way. And I suppose I'm the one "feeling" on behalf of the book. And to be defensive, I'll add that it's funny that the reviewer is saying she won't offer an original review, but why isn't her review original? Her caveat makes no sense!

If you're looking for sense, you stepped into the wrong interview. You do know that this is just a small subset of the readers of the books. And surely Eugenides doesn't have all rights to a book being written that way, nor does he have a missing teenager monopoly. Did you, your agent, or your publisher expect this type of response pre-pub?

We expected the type of response we got from critics, which overwhelmingly was glowing. (A major exception being the Washington Times review). I think FATES was "hate" read by a lot of people. It got a big advance; I was young; there was hype. I can imagine a different version of me thinking something similar about the book because I was jealous. I feel I'm definitely in the right interview. You should bill for this!

Maybe I should. That's so true about young debut novelists with hype. I think of Emma Cline. Do you think some real reviewers have the same chip on their shoulder?

I read some of Emma's reviews. I haven't read her book. I think there are real reviewers out there who are sometimes annoyed with big publishers and the power they wield or can wield over which books get notice. I feel that sometimes I'm reading a critic who is saying, "Shame on you, publisher. You shouldn't have paid this much for this book. You're contributing to the dumbing down of our culture." In fact, B R Meyers says exactly this in his "take down" of THE ART OF FIELDING. His problem isn't with the book so much as it is with the response to the book...He doesn't say that "exactly," but you get the idea...

Having done a handful of interviews for this series, I can definitely say that there are two types of reviews: first-order and second-order. The first deals with the book itself, how it alchemized with a reader's set of desires and expectations. The second is meta, treats the book like an item of commerce, and pulls anyone involved with its production into the line of fire. The second always feels more personal, obviously, and it makes me think about how everyone in publishing probably had writing aspirations at one point, or still does, and how much that obscures the way we see what's good and what's not.

Absolutely. There is a time and place for that "meta" type of review, and it's when the critic is actively reviewing culture and not simply one book. 

Or when you're at the bar with your other unpublished friends. Shall we move on to Reunion?

Funny! And yes...

"I really disliked this novel. Yes, the protagonist is very unlikeable but you keep reading, thinking or at least hoping that she will have some type of epiphany that redeems her. However, at the end of the book she is just as selfish and narcissistic as she was at the beginning. And the author's disdain for Atlanta was very plain. The whole novel was snarky and pretty much a waste of time."

I love Atlanta! I'm sorry I wasted this poor woman's time with my novel. As an author, I'm never after an easy epiphany or an un-earned catharsis. I am hoping always to tell the truth. I think we are strange, complicated, sometimes loving, often solipsistic beings. When I write, I am trying to make sense of the best and the worst of us and how we can be filled with both good qualities and bad ones. To allow Kate anything more than the little progress she does make would have been inauthentic. Also, I absolutely disagree with REUNION as snarky. I hate snark. It's useless. I do however think that review is snarky. There's that...

You see what I mean about defensive? 

You're not being defensive. There are books I can think of but won't name that this reviewer might enjoy, but which fail unapologetically for being sentimental. I usually don't get this involved. Maybe it's because I'm even getting sick of this unsympathetic thing. People are people! They don't have static personalities. They don't achieve epiphanies one day. They have parts that would make you not root for them should you put them accurately to a page.

I often feel like the old lady in A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND: She would a been an all right lady if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life. (I'm badly paraphrasing). 

Oh gosh, Andrew, and if we did achieve epiphanies in one day (or four) then we'd be back at our worst by the end of the month. 

I like that you're getting involved!

We don't need them to be back at our worst. There's always rent. It's time for Listen to Me, despite the wounds still being fresh. This is a good transition: "Alas, another novel with husband-and-wife main characters, and they are both so un-likable that I couldn't care less what happens to them. In this case, you need characters to do stupid, illogical things in order to have a plot, but I was doing a lot of eye-rolling. They seemed too stupid and self-absorbed to make it through this road trip alive, lol."

This is a review I've read! I laughed then and I'm laughing now. 

Laughing how?

I can't be mad at this reviewer because it so obviously fails to engage with the text. "It" being the reader. Or "it" being the review. You get the point. 

Nice. What makes a reader fail to engage with the text?

Personal failing? Moral ineptitude? Limited exposure to art? I'm being intentionally dismissive. Not of you but of that sort of reader. 

You're not fucking around.

You (a writer) cannot please everyone, nor should that be your intention. My intention, as I've said, is to "make art" and to "tell the truth." And, on a personal level, it is simply to make sense of this big, weird, complicated, hard-as-fuck world that we live in together. 

You accusing the reader of having a limited exposure to art for not appreciating yours is, honestly, the type of statement I hoped for when I made this series. It's just true, and raw, unshaved, and all authors or art-creators think it, so why not just say it?

I got an email today from a man who graduated from my high school in 1957. He was writing to thank me for Listen to Me, which he recently read and which he said had helped him assess his life with his wife, who died last year. That email (and sentiments like it) are why I write. 

We try not to say it because we want readers to like us. I'm probably hurting myself here by being so candid. We want readers to like us because, in addition to being "Artists," we also want to sell books. You know?

Sure. There can be nothing better than letters like that because, I think, in some way it cuts through even the idea of art. Has art ever seemed more abstract and useless in the face of real connection and transmission of emotion?

Good question. I'm constantly trying to teach my students to find the universal in the particular. That man who emailed me probably hadn't been on a harrowing road trip with his wife (at least not recently). It wasn't the road trip that reached him, it was something universal that was sparked by the singularity of the story. That's my guess anyway. 

Hard to bring up another bad review now, but it's my duty. "Gothic thriller? This appears to me to be another case of the blurbs and reviews about a book being completely off base. It seems to be the case with too many blurbs these days these days; it's almost as if the people who are asked to give their opinions won't get their reviews printed if they don't say something good. Are there just so many novels being printed, many about the same subject, that they have to reach to come up with something to say about them?"

That's interesting. I read that one. I have some sympathy for the reader who wanted more "gothic" and more "thriller." At the same time, eh...This review doesn't make me mad, sad, or feel silly. 

Then it fails as a review.

It just makes me shrug. The thing is, so many of these reviews (and this is probably why you love doing this sort of interview and finding these reviews) say more about the writer of the review than the book.

"Look, I don't have to have likable characters to enjoy a book. But these characters were insufferable and their motivations made no sense. So you hate Ohio and everyone in it but you need to drive across? Sure, take a route that's barely a highway and will add several hours to the trip! You'll get a close-up, slowed-down look at exactly everything you find intolerable. You're obsessed with bad news but somehow miss that a series of storms has led to federal emergencies in four states, including the ones you're driving through? Far beyond my willing suspension of disbelief. I think there were some lovely passages I would have enjoyed and some interesting commentary on marriage that might have provoked thought had I not been so distracted by the mess of the story."

I read that review too! In fact, the Ohio method of getting from Chicago to Charlottesville is by far the shortest. I couldn't be bothered by this review because factually it is wrong. I feel like the book IS COMMENTARY ON MARRIAGE. The book itself is my commentary. I suppose instead of writing a novel, I could have just said, aloud, "Marriage is hard. Why do we do it?" I'm recently divorced, by the way. That's not even a joke!

Wait, books aren't about travel recommendations in the absence of Google Maps? Going back to what you said just then about focusing on the reviewer. I think part of it is that you get to guess at people by the (astringent) words they choose, but it's also hearing other (potentially wrong) perspectives on something that has existed as a very singular object in your head, the producer. To imagine someone missing the point almost gives the product substance. Delineates its boundaries, and gives it weight.

I like that. And it's absolutely maddening to know there are people out there who are "missing the point," but to allow those people to inhibit us would be... even more maddening?

If an art piece satisfied everyone, it wouldn't be art, it would be Coca Cola, produced to maximize market effect.

Yes to the Coca Cola comment. 100%. And some books are produced to maximize their appeal to the market and that is OK. Mine aren't. That's OK too. 

There's the idea of universality in experience, it's what you teach your students to locate in the narrow details of just one life. But that's not the same idea as universality in taste, and the truth is nothing can satisfy everyone without being the lowest common denominator.

I'm certainly not going to disagree with that. 

I was hoping to make you a bit more defensive here. We're agreeing too much and we're nearly out of time.

Ha! Sorry. I think you were hoping for another statement on the order of "moral failing" and you're disappointed I'm not giving in!

That's right. It's early, but what do you forecast from the chorus of disapprovers for Atlanta, 1962?

Oh man. There will be some talk about how I am not Atlantan enough. About how I am not old enough. 

I buy it.

About how I have no idea ever about anything. But they'll like the sentences! Maybe...

That's a line for your tombstone. "But they'll like the sentences!" Thanks for your time and words, Hannah, it's been something.

Thanks, Andrew. I hope I didn't disappoint.