Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.
Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.
I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.
Fiction Chronicle, Sunday, November 20, 2005. The Mercy of Thin Air (Atria Books)
Domingue’s first novel is like “The Lovely Bones” minus the lovely prose; its young narrator, Raziela Nolan, died in the 1920’s before she could choose between medical school and a marriage proposal, and she has spent the next 70 years hovering between life and whatever comes next, acting as a kind of admissions counselor to the spirit world while she keeps tabs on her remaining family and friends. But Andrew, the man she loved, has eluded her efforts to locate him, and so she lingers, unable to cross over to the other side until she can satisfy her curiosity. The story cuts back and forth between Razi’s life, where she was a flapper and an early birth control advocate in New Orleans, and her afterlife, where she haunts an unhappy young couple whose connection to her past grows gradually clearer. Familiar as all this is, it might hold a certain morbid appeal if it weren’t marred by so heavy an emotional hand – especially in the earnest, sentimental and utterly false dialogue, as in one regrettable scene where Andrew’s black maid offers him some folksy hard truths: “Miss Razi, she love you. You think she would want you burning her letters like this? Trying to forget her? You not going to forget her. Ever. She going to live inside your soul till you die. . . . That what going to teach you how to love next time.” Readers interested in heartbreaking ghost stories from New Orleans will do well to pick up a newspaper instead.
If only that had been as mercifully succinct as the one Spinal Tap got for its album release in 1980. A terse “Shit sandwich.”
Months before my novel came out, both my editor and my agent gave me the same advice about reviews. They will be mixed, you know. I mean, we expect most of them to be wonderful, but these things happen. You have to have a thick skin. Don’t let it get to you.
I knew this intellectually. It’s not as if I’d been spared criticism on my writer’s journey. My first MFA workshop was a bi-polar mix of respectful feedback and sneering remarks. Getting an agent took more than a year and 59 rejections, some of which were harsh, even damning.
The experience was quite different when my book was in print, out of my hands and control. Expectations take hold. Reality shape-shifts. I found strength I didn’t know I had and weaknesses I tried to bury.
With that said…
Two weeks before my novel launched, Hurricane Katrina made a mess of the Gulf Coast. The city where I lived became a chaotic refuge for thousands of grieving, confused people. One of them was my closest friend, who sought shelter at our house until she left to go North. Katrina hit home—my rooted sense of it, Southern to the tips—and I had to leave for a month to promote a book, oh so ironically set in New Orleans.
Then I, an avowed introvert and regular hours keeper, went on said month-long book tour. I was suddenly thrust into ten to twelve hour days talking to people, strangers mind you, insomniac thrashings until midnight, and four a.m. wake-up calls. I liked the people I met and had some spectacular meals. I was spent when I finally returned home.
The magic six-week window closed, the period in which a book takes off, falls flat, or drifts to build an audience. Mine floated. I knew the novel wasn’t selling as well as I’d hoped. How many first novels do for their authors? Call me ambitious. Call me unrealistic. Both are accurate. If my publisher was chagrined, I never heard a word of it, although there was suddenly more talk of plans for the paperback.
Some readers e-mailed to share their thoughts, often personal and touching. The notes gave me comfort and validation as I dealt with an exhausted body and a frustrated mind. As for traditional reviews, they were good. A few were tepid. Now and then, a straggler appeared in a newspaper somewhere. My publicist assured me that she was still in communication with one of the top reviewers at the NYT. It might well happen. I flung this possibility to the edge of my radar, cautiously optimistic. Be careful what you wish for.
November arrived. I had a few book signings on my calendar. I tried to relax, attempted to work on a second novel, and struggled with doubts about myself and my work. And then the news came. A NYT review was imminent. I tried not to be hopeful, but fantasy overtook me. Oh, what if it’s really good and bumps sales? It is right before Christmas and…
Moments after I got the news through e-mail, I talked to Jandy, my agent at the time, a woman of preternatural sensitivity and sincere support.
“This is great news. Everybody reads the Sunday review. It’s so exciting!” she said. (Everything was exciting in the publishing world then. Has the adjective changed yet?)
A glimmer of hope gleamed. I had to agree. It was, indeed, exciting. Many writers dream of getting NYT reviews, and for me, it was going to come true.
Days later, I had a book signing in North Louisiana. I’d been courted by a cheerful independent bookseller who assured me I’d be well cared for and get plenty of media. And they loved the book, too. The bookseller delivered. My first night, I visited with a book club. The next day, November 17, I received copious publicity through print, TV, and radio. After a social yet calm afternoon, I returned to my hotel room, a grand honeymoon suite.
I’d left my cell phone in the room all day. I had a message from my editor. It was a little late on the East Coast, but I decided to return the call. In a couple of hours, I had to attend a book signing. The truism is indeed true: Hindsight is 20/20.
My editor Sarah—adorable, intelligent, and seasoned—told me the review had come in.
“It’s disappointing,” she said.
“Disappointing? You mean there’s not even a pull quote?”
Silence. Or maybe there wasn’t. I think I blacked out. She didn’t read it aloud and I didn’t ask her to. Somehow, we ended the conversation. Disappointing. Code for something worse, I was sure.
Then I called my West Coast agent for the calm she gave me, which came from the sound of her voice. Jandy had already received an e-mail with the review. She assured me everything was going to be okay.
“Nobody reads the Chronicle anyway,” she said.
“I thought you told me everyone reads NYT reviews.”
Silence. Until I said, “I’m not going to read the review. What’s the point?”
She agreed that might be for the best.
To this day, I don’t think I caught her in a lie. Plenty of people and I didn’t read NYT reviews—and still don’t. Others avidly await them. In this circumstance, I was a writer thrust from the rigidity of either/or and into the realm of both/and. I’d have more to learn about this soon enough. Anyway, my agent did her best to ease the sting, but there was no balm. I knew I’d been panned by the newspaper of record. Forever and ever, my first novel would bear the taint of its NYT review.
I called home, talked to my partner Todd, calmed down. Then I dug deep, because that’s what professionals do. Even when I felt myself and my career desiccate. Wine tasting and good company proved to be an antidote for self-pity until I got to the bookstore. I stood in front of a stack of fresh first editions, and I seethed. This is what I asked for? What did I do wrong? What was I thinking, being a writer? Doubt attached itself to my hip. Hello, old bean.
Sunday, November 20 arrived. I was at the Miami Book Fair International. That late morning, I had to read with three well-known authors. I wasn’t worried about the reading in the least, not only because I don’t get stage fright. As I sat alone near the auditorium—I kid you not—I imagined thousands of bed-headed, caffeine-needy people skimming the NYT Fiction Chronicle. Reading my novel’s review. I considered the danger of seeing someone with a copy of the newspaper. After all, the place was lousy with literati and their admirers.
At the airport, I called Todd. He said he’d read the review online. Yes, it was bad. He ranted not only about the review but also its writer. An extensive Google search had occurred. In another time and place, I suspect Todd would have challenged this person to a duel.
My determination not to read it lasted one week. Alone, at my desk, a quick Internet search, and there it was. My head, neck, and torso throbbed as if I’d been pummeled. My mind formed a judgment. The review was cruel. The words seemed chosen with contempt for my work, my home, my people, and me.
I can count on one hand the number of people I told about this review. I tried to hide from it, but there was no protection. More was to come, from friends and acquaintances.
The first was a bookstore owner I knew relatively well. He mentioned outright that he’d seen the review. Wow, that was awful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t speak, so I shrugged.
Please, sir, may I have another?
The second was a writer friend who e-mailed to congratulate me that I got a NYT review at all. What an honor. Then she said she was sorry about the coverage. It wasn’t fair. I e-mailed back some trite mumble about thick skins.
Please, sir, may I have another?
For whatever reason, a few others were compelled to mention the review to me. Not that I think they intended to salt the wound. I suspect they assumed, by appearances, I was just fine. They couldn’t imagine how conflicted I felt about my book or how one review could shake me so badly. Yet it did.
Not long after these events, I settled into work on a second novel. One of the books I read for research was Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Basically, it’s about the evil that human beings do to each other. In a chapter about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the author referenced psychologist William James. James wrote about the possible reaction of seeing one’s own manuscript collection physically destroyed, which causes “a sense of shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness.” Ding, ding, ding! I didn’t have to watch my work get ripped up or tossed into a fire. I knew exactly what James meant. The NYT review had the same effect.
I spent years on that book, doing my honest best. My first novel is an extension of me. It reveals a few personal beliefs and unanswered questions, some nameable, some that remain ambiguous or unconscious. It revealed an appreciation, even love, for the South and its people that I thought I didn’t possess. The Mercy of Thin Air shares my lifeblood as much as any organ or limb. It is not a fallen hair, a trimmed fingernail. The word-made-flesh has a spine holding it together. My reaction to the bad review was a feeling of negation, that what I wrote, even I, didn’t matter.
Ergo, a matter of ego.
Almost four years later, I’ve accepted the extremes. I realize that I gave way too much power to the Dark Side. The Shadow came to call. It was the umbra opposite my fiery effort to finish the novel and get published. The review incarnated my worst fears, hidden and denied. My work—therefore, I—was unoriginal, talentless, ridiculous.
Although the advice to have a thick skin was well-meant, it is emotionally dishonest. Sharing one’s writing is a naked act not intended for the meek. Harsh words can—and sometimes do—undermine the most confident, successful writers. It’s human. It’s okay. It will pass. Now, my guidance to myself, and others, is to have a permeable skin, one that doesn’t resist or trap the good or the bad. Reviews, critiques, comments come in, then move on. Then there’s space, inside and out, for something new.
Today, I can hold the tension of both/and, along with what flows in between.
My novel is, in fact, one of the worst books some people have ever read. An insipid waste of paper. Readers writhed in agony at florid prose, gnashed teeth at familiar characters, fumed at confusing shifts of time and place, and grimaced at the triteness of it all. There are unsubstantiated reports of eyes bleeding.
My novel is, in fact, one of the most amazing books some people have ever read. A soulful work of beauty. Readers found peace while grieving lost friends and family, bonded more deeply with people they care about, and enjoyed the story long past their bedtimes because they couldn’t put it down. This book changed lives.
I’m a horrible writer, and I’m a brilliant writer. Next time, I won’t need reviews to reveal this. Lesson learned.
Source: James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1. London: MacMillan and Co., 1891. p. 293.