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What a bad review can teach you

How the novel and the review that ruined my career for a year became the novel and the review that actually saved it.

What a bad review can teach you
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When I tell people how many novels I’ve published, I always leave out one, my third novel out of 12, the ugly stepchild called Jealousies, a disaster that ruined my career for a year and that I’ve disowned all these years.

Until now.

Before Jealousies, there was my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, which, to my shock, was a sensation. A short story I had written was lifted from a slush pile to win a young writers contest, and suddenly literary agents and publishers came courting. I got a book deal for two novels! My first novel, based on that short story, was reviewed everywhere, on the radio and on TV, and I was feted. I was in my 20s and so naïve that I was sure that this would happen for me every year, that none of it was a big deal. But then my second novel, though it garnered some great reviews, didn’t sell as well, and the publisher – I swear not because of me – went out of business, and my then-agent got me signed with another publisher that said it had plans for me.

Plans. Beware of plans.

“We are going to make you a star,” my new editor told me. “But we need you to be more commercial.” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but I was hooked on those words: Star. Commercial. “We want to hammer out an outline with you and switch things up,” she told me.

What writer wouldn’t love to hear that? Fame! Glory! And a whole new publishing house behind you! We began to have meetings, lots of meetings, some with my then-agent, too, all of us sitting around a table, and I was so eager for any crumbs of appreciation and hope that if they had told me to write about a lumberjack who decides to become a fly fisherman, I would have. “Tell us what interests you,” they said to me, so I told them. Human relationships. Loss. The thorny tangle of family. Lies. Drama. Around the table, their faces looked impassively at me. “Hmmm,” my editor said. She tapped her pen.

They told me to go home and think up ideas, which isn’t the way I was used to writing. Usually what happened was something would haunt me, something I didn’t understand, a question I hoped to answer, and then I would sit at my computer. My first novel was about my older sister and how she had changed and pulled away from me, which had left me heartbroken. It was about how and why my mother still pined for the man who had jilted her years ago. I had written that novel to try to figure out why my sister didn’t love me anymore, why my mom couldn’t move on. As a writer, I wrote down the things that I obsessed over, like what if someone you love dies suddenly? What if you always feel like an outsider, and you move to this community, but they don’t want you there either? But when I presented those ideas, my then-editor cleared her throat. “Maybe you can write about love,” she said. “But remember, switch it up.”

Who was I, a newish author who needed something good to happen, to go against an established publishing house of people who were all smiling at me, helping me?

OK, I could do that, I thought. So I threw out new ideas that no one liked, and when I blurted out an idea about a love triangle between three people, a woman in love with a man who loves his old flame, they lit up. “That’s it!” they said. I wasn’t so sure. But who was I, a newish author who needed something good to happen, to go against an established publishing house of people who were all smiling at me, helping me? “Go home and write the outline,” I was told. “Then writing it will be a snap! We can have this book out in a year for you!”

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I went home. I stared at the walls. I paced. I drank coffee and then wine. I made up three characters: a woman who was a primatologist for no other reason than I was reading about ape intelligence, her boyfriend who was obsessed with his old girlfriend, Zooey, and Zooey, who really didn’t have a character but was there just to add conflict. Except there wasn’t any. It felt forced to me. I cried and called the editor and told her, and she said. “No, no, you’re just not used to writing commercially. This is going to be great!”

I called it Jealousies, and the only thing I liked about the title was the s on the end. It took me a month to write an outline. Every time someone asked me what Jealousies was about, I felt myself freeze, my words knotting in my throat. “It’s about jealousy,” I said, and then whoever I was talking to would still look blank, or else they would say, “And?”

“It’s about a threesome,” I said, and I instantly felt ashamed because the truth was it wasn’t about that. I didn’t really know what it was about at all. I just keep writing incidents. Here is where the two lovers meet. Here is where the old girlfriend shows up. And, oh, wait, here is where Emma, the chimp, shows up. “What if you make the chimp more sentient?” my editor asked me. So I did, making Emma so depressed she is found dead outside a window, but did she jump? I felt ill when I wrote it, but when I showed the editor the pages, she nodded her head. “Oh, this is good,” she said. “Very good.”

Six months later, I turned the book in. I felt none of the usual excitement, none of the hope or anxiety. Instead, I just felt exhausted. I told myself that the reason why I didn’t feel the way I did when I turned in my first two books was because this was new to me, writing something commercial. That everything would fall into place.

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And then it didn’t.

Jealousies received only one review, shortly before actual publication, from Kirkus, and it was so horrific, I still have it memorized. Listen to my reprise of the Kirkus: More psychopathology masquerading as fiction from the previously white-hot Leavitt who has no one but herself to blame for this unholy mess that is filled with yards and yards of talk and a tiresome chimp named Emma.

I stared at it, stunned and ashamed. My then-boyfriend let me cry in his arms. My friends were polite and comforting, but no one actually said, “Well, I thought it was a good read.” I was so ashamed, I didn’t come out of my apartment for a month. I didn’t go to work, explaining I had virulent bronchitis. I couldn’t write. I cried to my then-agent, who told me, “You’re lucky just to be published. Next time might be better.” I never once thought to ask, was it because I tried to be commercial? Or was the book really that bad?

When my copies of the novel came, I threw them all out onto the street except for one, which I kept hidden in the back of my closet. I never talked about that novel again.

It took me a year to start writing again. I made a new plan that involved getting a new agent, but to get her, I’d have to show her something. I began writing a novel, about a family and about love, the ideas about being commercial still floating in my head. I was terrified that it would garner another horrific Kirkus, that it would die like my previous book, but I kept on.

When I was finished, as I was packaging it up, an image hurtled into my brain: a man in an empty diner late at night, feeding a bottle to a baby. I had no idea what it meant, what it was, except that I had to write it, so I sat at the computer, and five pages came out in a fever. The man’s wife was mysteriously ill. He had lost his job because he was taking care of this baby. His whole life was on hold, and he didn’t know what to do except to tend this tiny baby. That was all I knew, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that story. So I packaged up those five pages to the agent as well, thinking I could show her I was versatile.

A week later, the agent called. “So I read the whole novel, and I’m happy to send it out if you want, but honestly – it’s those five pages I want to do. I could have read all night. I wanted more,” she said.

I was stunned.

I wrote that novel obsessed, and it became Coming Back to Me, and it was praised by Kirkus in a way that seemed as if they had forgotten how much they had hated me before. But I hadn’t forgotten, and I considered their praise a fluke, and when other publications began raving, my joy was always still tempered by that bad Kirkus, a ghost haunting me. Still, that book did so well, I got another contract, and then another. I began to have to have a career again. I got a wonderful new publisher, and I became a NYT bestseller. Book 12 came out this month, along with an anniversary reissue of book No. 9, and I signed a contract for Book 13.

Jealousies, I thought, had receded into the past. Kirkus, I decided, had been just plain wrong, and too bad for them, and too bad for me for having believed them. Shored up with this newfound confidence, I got out that review again (yes, I had saved it), and reading it brought back that intense flare of hurt, that shame. Stop this, I told myself. Stop. After all, hadn’t I proved Kirkus incorrect? But I read the review again and then actually started to reread the book, and to my surprise, I felt something different and astonishing. Kirkus was right. The difference was that now I knew why.

I had been writing to the market, to be what an editor had wanted, to twist myself into something I was clearly not and didn’t want to be.

The ape was indeed tiresome because that simian was tiresome to me to write. The characters were indeed all talk and no action because I didn’t love them, I hadn’t known what to do with them, so I was forcing them through their paces. The writing did feel like a masquerade instead of the breathing aliveness of real fiction because I hadn’t really been writing it from my gut. I had been writing to the market, to be what an editor had wanted, to twist myself into something I was clearly not and didn’t want to be.

Rereading that review absolutely freed me. That Kirkus suddenly, instead of being a stain on my career, a splinter of a terrible time in my life that kept working itself to the surface but never got free, was now a gift, bringing me clarity about what it meant for me to be a writer. Reminding me.

I teach writing now, online at Stanford and UCLA, and I work with writers on their manuscripts, and I always ask them what’s haunting them into writing their stories, what question they want to ask for themselves. When they tell me they’ve studied the market, that they want to be commercial, I tell them not to. Instead, I tell them not to listen to all the noise out there, or at the very least not to misinterpret it. Instead, I urge them to go deep and listen to themselves because if they are being true to themselves, that will make their art true.

Believe me, I tell them. I know.

 

—Caroline Leavitt’s 12th novel, With or Without You, will be published August 4, along with a 10th anniversary edition of her ninth novel, Pictures of You.

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