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 XVII: "Most people who hate my book hate it for some combination of three reasons"
In this installment, I speak with Tony Tulathimutte. Topics include the three reasons why someone might hate his book, satire or not, supra, Sex in [sic] the City, incompatible literary values & more.
Today I'm with Tony Tulathimutte, whose debut, PRIVATE CITIZENS, came out in February (William Morrow) to wide acclaim: “The first great millennial novel" (New York Magazine), “[a] hilarious portrait of youthful self-centeredness" (The Paris Review), "a Balzacian microcosm that seems to contain every germ of contemporary American life and youth" (Flavorwire; not one you hear every day). But today we're focusing on those who were less than jazzed about your book—both critics and readers alike. Before we start, I'd like to ask if a) you consider yourself thick-skinned, and b) if you look at reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads? (You're at least partly in tune with that network; you yourself gave PRIVATE CITIZENS 5 stars, saying "A fine book by an anxious man.")
Wow, I've never gotten the entire introduction as the lead-in question before. Artifact of the interviewing medium I guess.
I'll start with A. I don't think I'm exceptionally thick- or thin-skinned, but I do definitely weight my responses to criticism with respect to the medium. You could say I'm a McLuhanite in that regard. I am never going to take internet comments very closely to heart, but that's not because, like some people say, they're all just randos or basement-dwelling keyboard-jockeys with too much time on their hands, but because the very nature of the internet enables you to basically pick and choose a context in which to interpret any given remark. If I meet a stranger on the train, they're going to assess me by the way I look, speak, behave, etc.
If someone discovers something I write online and then goes off in search of information, that search is going to be far more heavily informed by what they're specifically looking for—the confirmation bias goes through the roof and the resulting opinion is often a lot stronger than it might be face-to-face, which is in many ways a more ambiguous way of engaging with someone. I feel like I'm talking too much so I'll move on to B.
I used to scrape every last bit of info about myself off the internet because it was a way of confirming that people still knew I existed. Validation being like 80% of the reason most people use social media. It was also driven by paranoia, since anything anyone said about me would be very loud in what was a tiny pond of search results attached to my unique name. After the book came out I got too overwhelmed by the volume of opinions from strangers that I just elected to neither seek them nor screen them out. That said, I've still seen a lot of shitty reviews, even though debut novelists usually get treated a lot nicer than midcareer ones.
When someone doesn't like your book, do you know what that reason usually is?
Most people who hate my book hate it for some combination of three reasons:
1. they hate millennials and categorically reject a book that would portray them as human beings,
2. they read the book as a heavy-handed satire full of clichéd millennial archetypes, without character depth or nuance,
and 3. they compare it invidiously to other books it bears superficial resemblances to.
With a fourth, smaller reason possibly being that they don't expect an Asian guy to be capable of writing an American social novel the way that, say, Robert Olen Butler can write about the Vietnamese. Obviously I don't think any of those hold water, but I also know that I can't do anything about any of it. If a reader hates millennials—as in people born between 1980 and 2000 who wear clothes and occasionally text—no amount of nuancing is going to change their minds. Same goes for #2 and #3.
Do you consider PRIVATE CITIZENS a work of satire?
The New York Times did.
I know. I'm not saying there aren't moments of satirical exaggeration. Vanya is satirical. The tech bros and business development gurus in Cory's chapter are satirical. But none of the main characters are. People have a tendency to name any book where the main characters are portrayed humorously unflatteringly as satire.
At this point I want to throw some actual reader reviews into the mix. I’m not looking for a defense, say, but an honest reaction—how you felt when you first read them (or how you feel now, if this is in fact the first time you’ve seen any of the quotes). Sound good?
"None of the characters appealed. I am surprised how stupid and self-absorbed they were. They were supposed to be Stanford grads/successful technopreneurs, but they have less self-awareness than the kids in Narnia or Hogswart. There seems no moral compass whatsoever, no sensible thoughts, no sensitive insights or nuances. It's just high speed and crash and philosophical musings and complaints."
Ah yeah, this is one of those self-own reviews, where the combo of typos and lame assumptions makes the reviewer look way worse than the book. Like this is someone who thinks sensible thoughts are preferable to philosophical musings. I would never have won this reader over no matter what. But that's partly by design. I wanted to foolproof the book the way a bulletproof vest is bulletproof, i.e. fools wouldn't be able to get through it.
"If these are the only kinds of female characters that live in your head, please stick to the men. It's a shame because he's a really talented writer stylistically, but this book was painful to me as a female reader. And I'm not usually that sensitive to this kind of thing."
Now this I have a lot more time for.
All I can say is, maybe she's right. As a man there's absolutely no grounds for me to claim that I've successfully evoked being a woman, and I'm not going to hide behind female friends and/or critics who've endorsed it as if they speak for all women. So I just have to shrug and say I'll try to do better next time.
What do you think she means, exactly?
I can't really presume to know. I'd certainly have liked to hear it, but that's all we've got, right?
"Private Citizens is a novel that reads as though it is trying to evoke Edith Wharton and instead hits closer to an episode of Sex in the City that should have been left on the editing floor...Instead of emotion and self-reflection, the characters interact in lengthy paragraphs about literary deconstructionism, postmodern philosophy, transcultural racism, feminist theory, and a host of other liberal-arts-senior-seminar-worthy topics for which most of us would no longer sign up...Some readers might interpret those vast swaths of the book as satire, or funny, or impressive. But good editing is most helpful when it involves gently steering enthusiastic authors away from that sort of self-congratulatory intellectual muscle-flexing, and a more active editor would have served the novel very well."
Now which episode of Sex in [sic] the City would that be, because I would watch the fuck out of that. I will say, in defense of my agent and editors, that there was a whole lot of steering away. This was a 900-page novel that became a 380-pager, so you can at least thank them for that.
I'd watch SATC regardless of philosophical musings. That show was so tightly edited, wasn't it? Do you buy that PRIVATE CITIZENS could have benefited from some more editorial rendering?
Nope. Just the right amount.
Also, this is a book that went through five years of workshops, writing groups, thesis advisor boards, agents, editors, and copyeditors. The complaint is usually that there's too much editing in that regard. It seems obvious to me that the best writing comes from intense writing and intense editing, where nothing is left of anybody but a glistening heap of splintered bone and torn sinew.
"Ugh, I'm getting really tired of these contemporary coming-of-age stories where privileged, over-educated kids don't learn until their 20's what most of learnt in middle-school: no, we're not all special snowflakes; yes, the rules of life do apply to us. The author uses an excess of verbal diarrhea and word gymnastics, which I guess was necessary to cover for the fact that there is no 'there' there."
See point A, supra.
About the last line, though. It's always fun to see how people react to domain-specific or extended vocab. I really don't think there's anything hard to understand about the way I write, especially not by the lights of any modernist you'd care to name. I know I'm not going to win over any Carverites though.
I think that today, it's never a matter of failing to understand a text because of vocab. We all have the internet, and on a Kindle looking up a word is done simply by pressing your finger down. I think where these comments come from is that words are used not out of necessity, nor do they serve the text, but are made to flatter the writer. I have a feeling this same reader would question why you didn't just say "above" instead of "supra", above.
Point taken and touché. So the reason I used "supra" is because I was trying to make my response sound ironic and academic in a context in response to a comment that was neither. But now I'm explaining my own joke, so I lose. Anyway, with things like word choice, you're always trying to do these really subtle spins to make them more interesting, to say something slightly more interesting than what people are used to, and I definitely cop to going too far a lot of the time, that's a fair criticism. But there are still some readers whose heads it will always go supra.
Fair. And I don't mean to argue you should risk an extended vocabulary for the sake of the lay reader, nor should you not use words that most of your readers will have to look up, but there are words that serve the purpose of the text, and those that serve the writer. I think readers are especially keen to these categories for debut authors, especially debut authors who are heralded, especially debut authors who are heralded as writing the first great millennial novel. The rail against millennials is of a similar cut, isn't it—that they do things for the sake of the thing itself?
But let's cut to the last reader review, before we jump to a couple of press pieces. This was my favorite, and I think one of yours as well: "...for the jugular vein. Souls are cheap in Hell, at a premium in Heaven and what lies in-between is lived average. This novel is cheap and its author is made out cheaper in his thesaurus suit. This is an overly indulgent, literary fueled storyline. I don't particularly, utterly care what these deadbeat, nobody characters are ‘doing.’ I think most chimney sweeps have a more profound, cosmic view. Does the ego quite control the twenty-four hours of the writer? A hint: not everything you write needs reading, because un-reading this tripe is not an option, it will kill the reader. The use of superfluous prose is often employed to disguise a faulty, or in this case familiar and or dead urban setting. San Francisco, really, in real time? Brah, the city lived and died in the nineteen-sixties. Hippies are ghosting, not posting on Suckbook. Wave goodbye and goodbye. On that note, don't. write. another. word. ever. and. the. world. will. remember. you. again. I think. If you want to duel me, I'm down, in surround sound - just not the Bay ‘City.’ Anywhere else will be the wave."
Ha! Yeah, so, speaking of writing that serves the writer, that critique applies to reviewers, too. When a review contains so little actual reference to your book it's just a sure thing that they're just grinding their teeth on their keyboards. I will say that it is actually shockingly common even among workaday reviewers to question the validity of a book based on the locale it's set in, as if some places were inherently worthier for novelistic treatment than others.
And it goes both ways—New York is said to be overplayed, San Francisco and Seattle and Austin and Chicago and all points between are said to be irrelevant. I'm not sick of books set in London in the 19th century or books set in Paris in the 20th. To me this is just as dumb as dismissing a book because it's about millennials.
Of course there are clichéd ways of treating a locale—the City that Never Sleeps...But I'll read a hundred books set in the Himalayas if that's where the good books are being set.
All fair. I've got just a couple of negative pieces from the press—as stated, PRIVATE CITIZENS was heralded from New York to Tibet. Do you know where they're from?
Well, I know the Guardian and the Spectator fucking loathed me. And Hyphen magazine! Et tu?
That's what I've got. From The Guardian: "Maybe if Tulathimutte had allowed himself to play the classic realist narrator, his characters could have enjoyed a little more space to act. Instead, they are cramped and inert. Very little happens to or is done by them for most of the book, and the flimsy threads of plot run alongside each other rather than intersecting – Linda might complain that San Francisco is ‘too small to churn away consequence’, but that’s not the impression given by the parallel lives of her and her friends. There’s incident, but not much import. What results is a time capsule rather than a novel. Private Citizens repeatedly spins you out of the fiction to check when smartphones became ubiquitous, or at what time the word ‘cishet’ might plausibly have appeared in the vocabulary of the right-on, or when describing oneself as a ‘ronin’ or ‘ninja’ became a tedious habit in the creative industries. Tulathimutte reliably gets these details right, but details are all they are. They signify little more than nostalgia. In the absence of complex characters and a detailed social world, Private Citizens is less Middlemarch and more I Love the 00s."
How do we feel about that?
Well, that's a lot to parse. Obviously it didn't feel great to be shredded in the British journal of record, however legitimately. But this is another review that does more to articulate the values of the reviewer than function as a critique of the book. For example, since when is nostalgia something people don't enjoy in fiction? When we read novels written contemporaneously in the 19th century, we don't dock points because it evokes that time period—that's sort of what it's supposed to do.
What was your initial reaction when you first read it? Did you feel like the reviewer had it out for you?
Nah, I was stoked to be published in the UK by Oneworld to begin with. I don't see myself as a big enough deal that anyone would "have it out for" me as an individual. With an author so weakly and lazily branded, all you can do is really go after what you assume he represents. I just think she has literary values totally incompatible with and baffling to mine. But she's just a working writer like me, being asked to offer an opinion.
It just so happens that I don't agree with her about virtually anything.
We're nearly out of time, which you've been generous with. To close, tell me this: will any of this feedback help shape your next novel?
Of course. I'm even working on a long essay called "Feedback," which is about feedback.
Well, by all means, send it.
It needs more feedback.
Thanks so much for your time and words Tony.