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

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Episode XVIII: "An elephant, however good, is not a good warthog"

Published 3/30/17
In this installment, I speak with Sigrid NunezTopics include problems with form, Sontag's advice to her, Messud's review and honesty, elephants not being good warthogs & more.

Credit:  Marion Ettlinger

Credit: Marion Ettlinger

Today I’m with Sigrid Nunez, the author of six novels and a memoir, SEMPRE SUSAN: A MEMOIR OF SUSAN SONTAG—how I first came across her name. She’s received the Whiting Award, been in four volumes of the Pushcart Prize, and contributed to The New York Times, Harper’s, Tin House and more. Her newest novel, THE FRIEND, will come out in February, 2018 (Riverhead). 

She’s agreed to talk about her career through the least kind lens, that of her most negative reviewers. Let me start by asking if you consider yourself thick-skinned?

I've never been good at taking criticism of any sort, but over the years I've gotten better at least. Still, I'd be dishonest if I described myself as thick-skinned, about anything.

When you think back, can you recall any especially notable negative reviews (by critics) of you work? Do you read reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads?

I remember one review that ended with a line that says it all: "Nunez doesn't even manage that." I can't remember anything else, though, including the name of the critic, but it was a review of my novel FOR ROUENNA.

I don't pay that much attention to reader reviews because those reviews tend to treat books as if they're just another consumer product, like an appliance or a pair of shoes, rather than as an experience, an encounter with another consciousness. Also, there's the matter of subjectivity. Most online reviewers are the kind of reader who looks into a book wanting to find his or her own opinions and beliefs and a protagonist with whom they strongly identify. If they don't find these so-called relatable things, they blame the book's author and don't think anything of panning the book, very often hyperbolically, and with unseemly relish.

That's an eloquent way to say what many writers on this series have been trying to. When a given reviewer—whether that be critic or reader—doesn't like your work, what do you think is the reason why? In other words, what might be the average of all of your critiques?

Often the reader has a problem with the form, which isn't straightforward enough. Or they feel my writing is too elliptical; I don't explain enough. Or they don't like the fact that they aren't sure whether they're reading fiction or memoir and can't accept that there might be elements of both. Or they hate the first-person narrator, whom they identify as the author, I think sometimes because they have an idea that, in writing the book, I "used" other people.

That last line brings my mind to SEMPRE SUSAN, as well as the reference to elliptical writing. You mention in that book that Sontag gave you the advice to write more elliptically, and some of your critics have observed you took this to heart—and then some. 

From The New York Times: "In one remarkable sequence, Nunez says first that Sontag carried a lifelong wound from her mother’s persistent neglect and selfishness. Then she says that Sontag had an asthma attack at age 5, after which her family moved from New York to Tucson for her health. Then she says that as a child, Susan drank a glass of blood every day, which her mother brought home from the butcher’s. I like an elliptical style as well as the next hard-core modernist, but surely a touch of elaboration would not have been overly Victorian here."

Of course it's impossible to appease everyone, and when you try to do that, writing becomes rounded or ovular, flat and even. As far as your own writerly growth is concerned, whose feedback do you alchemize and whose do you discard? When is advice to be used as a polestar, and when is it only the underside of having a well-wrought style, so to speak?

Sontag didn't exactly advise me to write more elliptically. She cautioned me against being too explicit; in other words, don't assume the reader isn't as intelligent as you are. This was very sound advice. I think the problem the critic you quote had wasn't with my being too elliptical. Her problem was with the collage form of the memoir. Here she makes it sound as if I just thoughtlessly slapped down these details about Sontag, one after the other. In fact, there is no such "sequence" in the book, "remarkable" or otherwise. Also, I don't believe this critic likes an elliptical style, or that she's any kind of "hard-core modernist.”

As for feedback, at this point I pay attention mostly to other writers, by which I mean not the persons themselves but their works. Everything I learn about writing now comes from what I read.

We'll get back to more concrete criticism of your work in a moment (you're not off the hook yet), but I am curious—what writing has been most influential in yours?

I find that hard to answer, because there's no one writer or group of writers I can point to as influences without leaving so many others out. When I was younger, writers like Dickens and Woolf meant a lot to me, they made me want to be a writer, but my own writing isn't anything like theirs. I do think, though, that my writing is influenced at least to some extent by every good writer I read.

Then to give you an even more unfair question, what makes writing 'good' in your eyes? Even if it's just by route of your own experience, why is one writer first-rate and another not?

The style, for one thing. How the writer uses language. The shape of the sentences, and precision in the choice of words. Also what kind of vision the writer has. How well does he or she perceive the world and human experience, and how successful are they at translating this into something the reader can understand and be truly affected by. And of course there's the quality of imagination, inventiveness. Is the writer a good storyteller, the kind who knows how to cast a spell?

In your opinion, which of your books scores highest on that rubric?

I guess this is a way of asking me which of my books I consider my best one, and I think I would say FOR ROUENNA.

I'm trying and failing to find the interview you referenced earlier ("Nunez doesn't even manage that.") To be honest, in regards to FOR ROUENNA, I could hardly find a bad review, and the rest are not only glowing but inspired—that is, the writing of the review itself.

You followed FOR ROUENNA with, perhaps, your most read novel, THE LAST OF HER KIND, which I could find a bit more negative feedback for. For instance, NPR said, “It’s turbulent technicolor storyline…dumbs down the book, and Nunez’s technique of summoning up multiple narrators seems more distracting than enlightening.” This doesn't seem to fit within your categories of why someone might dislike your writing—in fact, it seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

I think the bad review of FOR ROUENNA was in a Baltimore paper. And the reviewer was definitely a woman as I now recall.

I'm very confused by the NPR review. There aren't multiple narrators, for one thing. There's a single narrator, a first-person narrator named George (though she's a woman). Late in the book we hear another voice, a woman serving time in prison, who writes a memoir essay that she submits to a journal. Her written text forms one chapter of the novel. How is this "multiple"? Why was this “distracting"?

Anyway, while this critic found the book somehow "dumbed down," I recall another one referring to the prose as "almost scholarly." Can they both be right?

No, and they both can't be wrong either—they are just voices representing a certain number of readers. This leads me to invoke a reader I found on Goodreads who, writing about THE LAST OF HER KIND, said: "Over the course of the last couple of years, several different people have recommended this book to me. Perhaps they figured that my own story as a scholarship girl in the Ivy League/Seven Sisters and/or my own political involvement would make me identify with the narrator. But, I didn't; and quite simply it was because of one thing: I never got a real sense of the narrator at all. Instead of being a compelling central figure, George, the narrator, is simply the conveyor of facts and details about the stories of those around her; namely, her mentally ill sister and her former college roommate. Neither of whom I found particularly interesting, individually, and who, as a whole, never quite came together in a synthesize story."

I don't expect you to 'agree' with this reader in any sense of the word, but I do wonder if you understand her perspective?

I do understand it, because once again here is someone who, as she explicitly states, was disappointed not to find a character with whom she could identify. If that's how she feels, so be it. This was not the book she wanted it to be, and she wished to share that piece of information with the world.

You seem to contain an unshakable objectivity—were you always this way? Or is this what a writer looks like in the third decade of her career?

Do you recall such level-headedness when you published your debut, A FEATHER ON THE BREATH OF GOD?

I do think time, experience, and growing older matter a lot in this regard. I don't respond to anything having to do with being published now as I did when my first book came out. But as far as responding to criticism, I'd like to say this. Claire Messud gave THE LAST OF HER KIND a less than glowing review in The New York Review of Books, and when later we met for the first time at some literary event there was not a hint of awkwardness between us. Why? Because she's an intelligent, serious, responsible critic and because she treated my novel with respect, writing about it in such a way that, even though I was disappointed (very much so!), I never doubted her honesty. I had nothing to be angry or resentful about, and she had nothing to be guilty about.

Yes, that review stands in stark relief to some of the reader reviews I browsed before this interview. It's impossible to take anything personally when the words are so well propped up and, as you say, honest.

In this interview series, I've heard a few anecdotes where a writer later meets a critic who once downpoured on their work. It's usually a happy story—the critic later revised their opinion, or the two were able to render the disagreement into humor. (Funny enough, I think of Messud's husband, James Wood, and his review of Sheila Heti, which Sheila and I discussed in the first interview I did for this series.) But at the end of the day two intelligent people can come from two different points and any bridge between simply won't hold.

This is as good a spot to end as any, I think, but before I let you go, I'm curious how you read reviews of books you didn't write. That is, how often do you take the reviewer at their word, and how much does the reviewer's name (or the publication's) effect the weight to which you allow its opinion?

I try not to read reviews of books that I know I'm going to want to read, for the obvious reasons. But when I do read reviews I try not to be too influenced by the reviewer, even when it's someone whose criticism I admire, for example, since you mention him, James Wood. In fact, when the critic is a good one, what I'm really interested in is the piece itself. He or she could be, in my opinion, totally wrong about the book under review, but I can admire the critic's style, the play of ideas, the elegance of an argument for or against the work being discussed wholly for its own sake.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes, by Ford Maddox Ford: It's an easy job to say that an elephant, however good, is not a good warthog; for most criticism comes to that.

Thanks for your time and words Sigrid, this was a pleasure.

I enjoyed it, Andrew. Many thanks.