Thursday: The Book Klatch

THURSDAY From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: The worst thing ever What’s the most upsetting thing anyone’s every written or said about your work, and how, if at all, did it affect you … Read More

By / December 7, 2006


From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: The worst thing ever

What’s the most upsetting thing anyone’s every written or said about your work, and how, if at all, did it affect you the next time you sat down to write (and thereafter)?

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: "Hi, I've read your book!"

People have said so many upsetting things, even when they’re not trying to be critical.

It all goes back to my first workshop, back in the high school creative writing club when the idea of a workshop seemed so revolutionary and enchanting. Then someone said my work wasn’t genius, and my relationship to the workshop forum has gone sour ever since. In grad school, I got so mad at one group I, I turned in a story called “The Mutual Masturbation Workshop.”

When my book was published, it was just like workshop, but on a bigger stage. All the things people liked and disliked in class were the same things they mentioned in the reviews.

I remember I had one extremely caustic review that found nothing good to say about one of my books. Not one single tidbit of merit. The reviewer singled out lines from my book that had received praise from other quarters as evidence of how awful I was, and how I had somehow conned Random House into publishing me. It was my first really negative review, and I remember I blushed as I read it, as if ha, ha, this guy has caught me! I am an imposter and a fraud, and he knows it and is telling the world. Later, I was talking with a bookstore owner in the area where the review came out and she said, “We just sold out of all your books after that wonderful review!” And then I realized, that it really is true no one reads your reviews as closely as you do and that the only thing that matters is if you get mentioned in the paper, and if you get a lot of inches.

Another upsetting thing people have said to me is, "Hi, I’ve read your book!" and then nothing. Would you go to someone’s house for dinner and say, "Hi, I ate the dinner you cooked!" Either pretend you haven’t read it or lie. Or if you have some interesting criticism to offer, you could do that, I guess, even though it isn’t so useful once the book is done. I really believe that each book comes with its own problems to solve and lessons to learn, lessons that are not transferable to your next project.

So far the really negative comments haven’t affected me greatly because I haven’t agreed with them or found them useful. Also, because I write reviews sometimes, I know that a lot of it is taste-based, trying to come up with objective reasons for a subjective opinion you may have had. For a while, the experience of being reviewed tempered the way I reviewed. “So what?” I said to myself, “This guy wrote a bad book. He didn’t kill anyone.” But then I read some books that really made me burn because I disliked them so much, and then I felt the reason I disliked them was important enough to mention.

So I’ve resigned myself to criticizing when I think it’s warranted, while trying to be as precise as possible. And I always relate my critiques to specific textual examples.

Negative comments have shaken my confidence a good deal as I read them, made me feel bad that they might affect my future fortunes in some way, but by the time I sit down to write, I try to make it a new day. Also, when my second book came out, I tried not to read reviews, and when I did read them, to quickly glance over and then forget.

None of this is easy, but necessary.

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Noooooooo Mercy!

I never had that quintessential fuck-all-y’all workshop experience, happily. I was always cool with disagreements about the merits of my work in the MFA setting, no biggie. But holy crap, the reviews have thrown me for a loop. To be fair, it’s only been a couple of bad ones, far outnumbered (so far!) by the good, but freaking OUCH.

The title of the most irritating one was “Without Mercy” and the pull quote (placed next to a sizable picture of me) said “If it’s not hard-wired into us as a species to look askance at characters such as these, it really ought to be.” The best part was that I got the same reaction Aaron mentioned! People were like, hey, pretty good review! Hilarious. For the next few days my boyfriend and I did this bit where I would mock-attack and tackle him and he would cry “Mercy!” and I would go “Noooooooooo! No Mercy!”

I’m sorry to say that I actually have lost sleep over shit reviews. Not because I think my book is perfection—I could talk the ear off any reviewer about what’s wrong with it—but because I was so frustrated and upset about what they’d taken issue with. It was all “This is bad for the Jews” and, like I mentioned before, “These people are bad people” and “No character becomes a better person” and crazy stuff like that. Funnily enough, none of the (very real) weaknesses in narrative or prose were even mentioned.

And also sorry to say that I’ve had a harder time working than usual this summer—I find myself writing defensively, suddenly. It blows. I tried burning some white sage, which the dude at the health store says destroys negative energy. I’m tempted to try a red-string Kabbalah bracelet.

Did any of you guys see the harsh review Owen King got in The New York Times last year? The reviewer was especially obnoxious in making a huge deal out of the fact that Owen is Stephen King’s son, and basically had nothing nice to say at all about Owen’s own work. But Owen had such a great sense of humor about it; he added the following to his blurb list:

“…Owen King…”

The New York Times

I thought that was pretty awesome of him.

Aaron, I think I may have thrown you a “I read your book!” once, when I first met you. Because I hadn’t yet, and was embarrassed, and am an idiot. But I have since read them both, and hey, they’re wonderful.

From: Stacey Richter To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Karen Russell Subject: "So, don't you have any real stories?"

I’m sort of with Elisa on the getting high/cutting oneself front, though I have a good writer friend who’s published a ton of books who was the most popular girl in her high school. Every time she tells me I explain my need to kill her (which makes her laugh—but I’m not joking.) I still think that there’s some loneliness, isolation, privateness, and rage that drives story making, at least in our generation of ironic, spiritually adrift self-deprecators, but then I remember those guys. You know, those guys. Didn’t they sit around thinking how brilliant they are, laughing and writing books and porking their students? I don’t know—Saul Bellow? Mario Puzo?

I’m totally with Aaron on everything he said. The “I read your book” statement is weirdly common and a bummer. But at least they’ve read it. What I’ve heard a lot is: “I saw your book.”

And I don’t even like reviewing books, period. It’s hard enough to be an artist without having to tell other artists what’s wrong with their work. I want celebration and solidarity.

Also Elisa, I don’t even understand a review saying your characters are unlikable. What? They’re all totally engaging, though still haven’t read the last two or three stories yet. Is that where the serial killers are? I’m just stumped here.

The meanest thing anyone ever said to me came from an unnamed teacher—and I love love love her work. She was doing a short, one week tutorial when I was in grad school, and it was during our one-on-one meeting: “So, don’t you have any real stories?” And after I stuttered for a while she said, “I guess I’m just used to teaching at Iowa, where they screen the students very carefully.”

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: A plea for "pork."

Please please please can we all make a pact to use “pork” as a verb more often?

From: Angela Pneuman To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: "Oh, you dressed up!"

Yes, “pork.” I was just about to weigh in on the vocabulary, which has been making me giggle.

What Aaron said about "I read your book," periodsounds like someone saying "Oh, you dressed up."

My book hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t have the experience with reviews that the rest of you have. And Stacey’s teacher’s comments made me wince. I hope never to say anything so thoughtless to a student.

What I do remember from workshops—early, early on—is that the written comments would be diametrically opposed. One person says her use of commas makes her sentences unreadable, and another person admires her masterful use of the long, clause-filled sentences. I think, as Aaron notes, the negative often has the power to seem more insightful. Like the person who says, “oh, you dressed up!” is the keeper of the dress code or something. But, as Aaron also notes, it’s great, period, that people are paying attention.

Elisa, I am off to pick up your book this afternoon, finally!

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Agendas, agendas

Re: Elisa’s “bad for the Jews” review, I think it’s important to remember that people read with agendas in mind, not just reviewers, but also the public. It all goes back to that question of why do we write? Just to please ourselves? Then why publish? For the ideal enlightened reader? But then isn’t that just preaching to the choir? For the general public? Then shouldn’t we measure the quality of art by who sells the most and give Da Vinci Code the Pulitzer? For posterity? In 500 years, if the planet still exists, there’s a good chance our work will not be read, except by academics, maybe.

I have no good answer to this question.

Re: reviewing, I’d like to celebrate and be in solidarity with other writers. For that reason, I’ve declined to review the books I really hated. At the same time, though, I think it’s very important to look seriously and critically and what you don’t like, if you think there’s something important to be said there. I don’t like being on the receiving end of it, but for me starting a dialogue about what a book is doing is a celebration, isn’t it? Very often I’ve been inspired by “bad” reviews to go out and buy a book, and been turned off by “good” reviews to decide not to buy a book. Case in point: James Wood’s dissing of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days made me run to the store and pick it up. Whereas anything that John Updike praises makes me immediately suspicious…

From: Karen Russell To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter Subject: The klatch hive-mind

YES!!!! (Fists pumping in the air) I swear, the klatch is developing some sort of insect-like hive mind, because I, too, made a mental note to comment on “porking” in my next response (cut to Mario Puzo poolside, winking at us over the back of his student lover). It sounds so sinister to me! Like a mobster homicide technique. Like, instead of smothering someone with a pillow, you’d use a slab of raw tenderloin, slowly porking them to death. Again, an image I readily associate with Mario Puzo….

Well, I’m glad to see I’m pulling my intellectual weight in the klatch. What I’ve been thinking about nonstop are your comments from yesterday—the relationship between creative impulse and the cutting self/getting high impulse. I know that neither exists in a vacuum, but I haven’t figured out exactly what the relationship between them is. I do agree with Elisa that if I had spent my teenage weekends out clubbing on South Beach with Florizio, I doubt I’d be writing stories right now. I saw this lonely girl sitting by the pond in Central Park the other day, feeding geese in fuzzy purple light and looking like YA novel cover art, and I wanted to yell “Hold on, lonely girl! Teach yourself acoustic guitar now! Start with E minor. And don’t feel bad if you spend prom night writing some wise-beyond-your-years haikus! College is coming, I promise!”

My book hasn’t come out yet, either (there’s a low-key book party at Radio Perfecto on Sept 9 at 7:00pm if any of you New Yorksters want to stop by. I sure do wish I could think of a snappy “porking” joke to insert here). But Elisa, I feel you girl, I’ve found myself following early reviews with a sort of unhealthy interest and, in true workshop fashion, retaining only the negative stuff. Even the positive stuff makes me feel this squeamish, abdominal unease—I think it’s that “imposter” terror that Aaron was talking about. I wish I didn’t put as much stock in reviews and workshop critiques as I do. It’s just been very disorienting to me, after sharing my work with my eight trusty MFA buddies, to have strangers weighing in on these stories.

What stuck with me most was this line from the Publisher’s Weekly review that said something like, "If Russell, at 24, hasn’t quite found a theme beyond growing up is hard to do…." This made me feel a dismal sense of failure for some reason, like the collection had only hit this one note. It also made me worried for the novel, because right now a lot of it explores some coming-of-age type stuff (again! do you guys feel obsessively drawn to certain voices and events in your fiction? Adolescence has this gravitational tug for me…). So now I feel like, yikes, I’m not growing as a writer, I don’t want to do a pasty retread of the story collection, I’d better shoehorn some grown-up themes in there stat, like social justice or medical ethics or something.

Owen King is my hero, BTW!

From: Stacey Richter To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Karen Russell Subject: What?

Jesus Karen, are you 24?

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Reviewers, get past your personal tastes

The coming-of-age seemed to work just fine for Thomas Mann, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Marguerite Duras…, shall I go on? I hate these stupid reviews where they say, “Oh, the characters aren’t likeable.” “Oh, the characters aren’t this, that, or the other.” Why can’t they just evaluate the book on its own terms? Maybe you’re a critic who doesn’t like coming-of-age novels. Fine. But then, for the large number of readers out there who do enjoy reading coming-of-age novels, can’t you overlook your own personal taste and let us know how this particular writer handled this theme?

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Tricky bastard terrorists

They probably give you way more shit for the coming-of-age stuff knowing you’re 24, tricky bastards. If [insert old dude] [(but do not pork him)] had written your collection, they’d praise him for reconnecting with and breathing new life into the oh-so-fascinating coming-of-age motif.

In my more reasonable moments I think: keep doing what you want to do, and eventually it’ll all come out in the wash. The shit people said to/about Roth in 1959 has come to look absurdly limited and unintelligent as he’s just continued to write the books he wants to write. So, fine. At 24 they may take issue with Russell’s writerly obsession with coming-of-age. At 74 there’ll be PhD students clawing each other’s eyes out for new ways to breathlessly describe the coming-of-age themes oft-repeated by Russell.

If you change your novel an iota with some PW reviewer in mind, the terrorists have won, do you hear me?!

Next round: "How does it feel to be worshipped?" 



Do: "I don't read my reviews" is the biggest lie writers tell one another. As a reader, whose hatchet-jobs are you constantly on the lookout for? Tell us below. Read: In Slate, Ben Yagoda argued that Michiko Kakutani, far from being the arbiter of taste every scribbler on both coasts has deemed her, is a hack reviewer rather than a literary critic.

Tagged with: