My first novel, The Funny Man, was recently published. Things got off to a good start, with The Daily Beast naming it one of the “Best Debuts of the Fall.”
As novelists will do, I lied about not reading reviews. The truth is, I have a Google alert for my title and name, and one day it informed me of a new review at an upstart book site, DBC Reads.
Kevin Morris, one of the founders of DBC Reads, didn’t just not like The Funny Man. He really, really hated it.
The review begins:
When a work hinges on an implausible premise or an annoying concept, a doubtful set-up or a poorly assembled criticism, can it recover? If its foundation is faulty, can anything that comes from it avoid failure? John Warner’s debut novel The Funny Man seems like it was written only to provoke—and emphatically answer—such questions.
It only gets worse from there. Seriously. Read the whole thing.
Paul Fussell calls responding to your reviewers the “author’s big mistake.” History bears this out. Confronting your reviewers never seems to go well.
But I did it anyway. Kevin Morris, loather of my novel, responded, and we thought it might be interesting to talk about why he hated my book with such intensity.
The following email correspondence occurred over several days following that initial contact.
John Warner: Are you surprised that I’m emailing you?
Kevin Morris: A little bit. My only other reviewer-author interaction was neither substantive nor constructive, so I don’t really know what to expect.
JW: You really seemed to hate it.
KM: Perhaps viscerally so, but yes, hate is hate.
JW: I assume a lot of books come across your radar, more than you could ever read, yet you chose The Funny Man. Why? What interested you enough to pick it up, and what were you expecting from it as you began reading?
KM: Choosing The Funny Man came down to a shared interest: stand-up comedy. I’m interested in stand-up because I enjoy comedians who have mastered their craft, am horrified by comedians who have no idea what they’re doing, and think the entire sub-sub-culture should be studied at length by some Bohemian Jane Goodall. That a writer who is regarded as cool and funny such as yourself would focus some part of a novel on that world struck me as cool.
And full disclosure: The design is great. It caught my scrolling eye.
More specifically, my understanding of The Funny Man, based on the early reviews in the typical publications and on websites like Amazon and Goodreads, was that it dealt with the journey from comedy clubs to Hollywood, regularity to fame to misfortune. I love this idea. It’s a well-worn path in America. And though comedians who “make it” mostly fare better than your protagonist, it’s still the sort of transformation that usually places them in a strange sort of purgatory. Comedians are renowned for their pettiness and jealousy. As much as they resent laughs for fellow middling comedians, they seem to resent the Jay Lenos of the world more. So for a comedian coming out of this world and landing in Hollywood, how can they be totally comfortable in their own skin?
Reading the plot synopsis gave me the sort of about time this was written feeling, an understanding that I had been waiting for a writer to focus his or her work on this for some time without even knowing this was what I’d wanted. I had really high expectations. (I should say I was familiar with you from your very funny McSweeney’s piece “I am…” cowbell-slash-American flag guy.)
JW: I’m kind of wondering if Louie obviates the need for the novelistic exploration of stand-up comedy, but I too, would like to read that book.
I’m also thinking that it seems as though my intentions and your expectations for the book don’t seem particularly in sync.
I felt ill the moment I saw your name in my email inbox, realizing—for the first time—that authors may actually stumble upon what I’m writing.
KM: As I began reading, I really expected The Funny Man to substantiate or validate some of my own thoughts about the subject. Don’t we usually seek out, book-wise, that which we think might confirm something of ourselves? Or is my use of the royal we completely out of line there? Broadly, I would guess that we have had similar life experiences. We are both American. We are from the Midwest. We are 21st-century people. Deep down, I was expecting, perhaps unfairly, that you would write something that would corroborate my own feelings, make me laugh or think at times because of some subjective truth, and make me think, Wow, were I to write a book about this topic, this is what I would have went for. This is what I aspire to. That seems like a normal, albeit unfair, expectation people have reading fiction.
Expectations are tricky. I would hope for any piece of fiction to be engaging, to be something I can be in conversation with in the margins. To make me consider something else, make me feel lost in another world. Of course, these are all really broad taglines that could have come from that guy I saw on the orange line last night reading George R.R. Martin.
JW: Looking at your bio and your favorite writers, (David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Raymond Carver), who happen to be among my favorites as well, on paper, you’d be my perfect reader, but re-reading your review of The Funny Man, you really let me have it on just about every level. The premise is “implausible,” and “appallingly stupid,” the narrative has no flow, and my writing is “rife with strange usage, grating politics, and a poverty of metaphorical logic.”
Some of the things you’re hardest on are my proudest achievements, most notably the overlapping structure (“no flow”) which wasn’t easy to make work, and also (I thought anyway) ads layers and tension to his story.
In short, ouch! DFW and George Saunders could be accused of implausible premises—a movie that’s so engaging it sucks the viewer into a bottomless void of entertainment that ultimately kills them? Come on! And yet, they get away with it with you, whereas I don’t.
I guess part of my question is based on something I wonder about the chicken/egg nature of criticism, which is a form I generally don’t gravitate towards for all kinds of reasons. Is it a matter of realizing you don’t like the book and then going and looking for the reasons you don’t like it? Or, is it as you go, the individual sins pile up to a tipping point from which the book cannot recover?
KM: I just read a great piece on The A.V. Club about one of my favorite movies, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. The writer posited that the big emotional dustup between Candy and Martin meant more—and was more brave, filmmaking-wise—because it occurred only twenty minutes into the movie. It wasn’t the typical conflict housed between acts two and three, a moment for the audience to be momentarily rueful during a montage of the warring parties looking listless, it was a genuine emotional moment early on. It was a chance for the audience to actually think about how big of an asshole Steve Martin’s character was, all the while thinking they, too, wish they could lay into a shower-curtain-ring salesman once in a while. Narrative placement, in that instance, meant everything.
That applies to my reading of The Funny Man, too. I was lost at an early stage. And you are right to bring up the chicken/egg question because, upon re-skimming, I see that there were plenty of moments in parts two and three to keep me invested, keep me interested, moments that were well written and well constructed; but I was already gone. I was looking for things to disdain. And this is in no way invalidating what I said or my general critique, but I felt very strongly in part one that there was something very displeasing about The Funny Man, and I felt that I needed evidence—and it’s not like I planted it—but I certainly went looking for it.
I felt very strongly in part one that there was something very displeasing about The Funny Man, and I felt that I needed evidence—and it’s not like I planted it—but I certainly went looking for it.
Let’s go blow by blow. Implausible premise: I have a hard time believing that a man can be launched to this stardom by virtue of being able to shove his fist inside his mouth. There’s nothing more random chance than our funny man’s rise to stardom, given how he discovered his “thing” and where it takes him.
JW: I’m not sure I can defend this except in the willing-suspension-of-disbelief sense. I never actually worried about people calling B.S. on this, to tell you the truth. The most direct inspiration was Gallagher, who really is famous for smashing things with a sledgehammer, until he became re-famous for spewing hateful and bigoted garbage. Doing impressions with your fist in your mouth didn’t seem that much more outrageous to me.
KM: You played the Gallagher card. There’s no suitable rebuttal to that.
JW: I also tried to imply that the funny man does have more material, and in the novel, he does 45-minute shows where the “thing” is a few minutes at the end, so it’s not as though he’s a terrible comic. He’s just not special in the Carlin, Pryor, Bruce, Tomlin, Martin sense of things. He’s good, or at least competent, but the “thing” puts him over the top.
KM: Annoying concept: I felt like the implication of a man rising to stardom because of such a “thing” as shoving his fist inside his mouth implied something about America’s entertainment culture: We like stupid shit. And that’s true. We are now days removed from the SHOCKING news of the Kardashian/Humphries divorce, and I’m sure it’s still the number one story on Huffington Post.
Here’s where it really annoyed me: in our YouTube age, with cell phone cameras recording Michael Richards’ racist taunts, I’m doubtful of the idea that people would plunk down money to see a man do this more than once—especially if it’s out there on the internet somewhere.
JW: My defense is that the book is set in a time before the spread of viral video culture. I try to imply this early in the book with certain cultural references, but I never do make it explicit until p. 270 where he talks about another element of chance in his career, that if the Internet were more developed, he would’ve been a flash in the pan. This was a tough balancing act, actually, trying to show it was set in contemporary, but not absolutely current times. Hindsight indicates that this could be easily missed. In writing a book, I think there’s always some things that you need to fudge. You’d like to think it’s going to be perfect, but in my experience, that isn’t a reasonable goal.
KM: That makes sense. So why does the clapping man die? This has always bothered me. More chance? Had he not died, would he have better handled the funny man’s career than his partner? And when the funny man calls, why is the conversation so… straightforward? “He was dying and now he’s dead.”
JW: I think it’s tough for any writer to answer a “why” question, because the answer in the moment of creation is “because it felt like the right thing to do at the time,” but it’s a fair question, so I’ll do my best.
KM: I cringed typing that question. Given that you’ve been a presence in both in literature and the (often needlessly petty) college workshop realm, I’m sure you’ve been witness to reviewers/peers focusing far too much time/space on elements of plot. So, yeah.
JW: How I employ these things and how you responded to them are related, I think, to my narrative perspective strategy.
Spoiler alert for the small handful of people who might still be wanting to read this book.
As I see it, the book is mediated by the funny man while he is in an inherently unreliable state. He is on drugs and drinking, and his psyche has been warped by his life as a famous person. The first-person sections are obviously him telling his “present” story, while the third-person sections are his autobiography, as constructed by himself while in this unreliable state. This isn’t to say that none of this stuff happened, or it was all a dream, because that isn’t the case (except where I think it is the case). It’s just that there’s a layer of doubt over everything and the way he’s telling it. My hope is that this degree of doubt steadily increases over the course of the narrative. The readers that are responding well to the book seem to really groove to this. Those that don’t (and they are a non-minuscule group), seem to be really irritated by the whole thing.
Even though I was wounded when I read the review, I didn’t think it was all that unfair—mostly a case of ships passing in the night.
So, the clapping man dying is the funny man relating something from his past in the way he chooses to relate it. Assuming this man died in the objective reality of the funny man’s existence (and he did), the way it’s rendered in the book is a reflection of the funny man’s attitude towards it years later, at the time of his final unraveling. It has become, to him, this thing that happened, divorced from the way it happened. (Another of my obsessions is the corruption of memory by time.) Right toward the end (p. 276) he says, “Everyone’s got a story and the best ones are those we tell ourselves.” This is his acknowledgement that all stories, particularly our own, are a construction. He’s admitting that he knows that some portion of his own story is probably bullshit, he’s just not sure how much or what stuff. I wanted to simultaneously reinforce and negate the truth of the funny man’s own story. (Oh, does that look like pretentious bullshit as I read it, which just reinforces why writers really shouldn’t talk about their own books, and yet here I am, so desperate for attention, that I’m happily blathering on like an idiot!)
KM: Writers also shouldn’t seek out their reviewers, but here we are. (I did page you, I admit.)
JW: I actually think the narrative perspective also speaks to some of your other criticisms like the “poverty of metaphoric logic.” That metaphoric logic is the funny man’s, and my aim is that it’s reflective of a guy who can’t find a truly suitable metaphor for what happened. He’s lost and searching, and not finding much in the way of answers.
KM: That makes sense. Maybe I had a hard time getting down with such an unabashedly scummy figure.
But let me also say that I think this process reveals a fatal flaw in both my reading process and my reviewing process: I’m impatient. Were I a more judicious reader, I may not have been the Louis Green to your Jonathan Ames. I may have been willing to pat down my gut instinct to dislike what came after these moments.
JW: This process is probably true of all readers, me included. I think it’s impossible not to bring some set of expectations to a book, and most of my own second-guessing about my own book usually rests on worrying about overselling how “funny” it is, because most of the people who seem to like it actually enjoy the darkness. Go figure.
Even though I was wounded when I read the review, I didn’t think it was all that unfair—mostly a case of ships passing in the night, if you will, except for one part:
What Warner doesn’t seem to get is that the best, most potent parodies or farces or commentaries tend to make hay out of actual, plausible, real-life situations. That, or the pendulum has to swing far in the other direction—full, “Idiocracy”-style, farcical takedown. Warner eschews this.
I have to say, the “What Warner doesn’t seem to get…” part stuck in my craw because it took the review to a level that called into question my base competence. I get that a book isn’t going to be universally loved, but I also feel pretty confident that I know a fair bit about how satire/parody/humor act/interact.
KM: Of course. I felt ill the moment I saw your name in my email inbox, realizing—for the first time—that authors may actually stumble upon what I’m writing. (Let alone other people: general folks, authors’ family members, etc.) Yours was the first and only book I really, truly took to task, and maybe the first-time-being-harsh euphoria carried me a little too far.
My reaction was so severe precisely because the best moments in the book were decidedly understated and, I felt, a lot more nuanced. My favorite scene—and perhaps this makes me a romantic—comes when the funny man refuses the come-ons of his co-star. Now, I’m not sure how I’d react if a super-sexy woman approached me with a proposition for sex delivered with such clinical sterility, but I’d imagine it would test my mettle. For the first time in The Funny Man, I found myself rooting for this morally questionable figure; I was aware of his fall from grace (because of your narrative back-and-forth), and knew that he had committed some transgressions, but I really wanted him to be true to his wife. When he declined (in a misguided, middle-school-girl vernacular: “Let’s not and say we did.”), I felt vindicated! But I knew you had me at that moment precisely because, had the funny man slept with her, I would have been as angry with him—albeit still invested—as I was pleased with his decision not to.
I don’t believe I intended to question your overall “base competence.” Upon reflection, the phrase “doesn’t seem to get” has no place in a book review, obviously, because the act of “getting” something implies a more two-way sort of interaction between reader and writer. You didn’t “seem to get” what I hoped you—and your book—would; but that’s really neither here nor there in a book review. How could you “get” my expectations?
But I’m really captivated by the idea of how much thought goes into writing itself, given that it’s such a personal enterprise. Starting with The Funny Man, do you think writing a novel is more about writing for yourself or writing for an audience? I’m not trying to pen you in here with options A, B, C, or D, but do you think the art becomes more personal when it’s about focusing on what you call your own obsessions? A sort of flushing-out of thoughts and concepts and ideas that have been in your melon for a while? And do you ever consider that as a reader reading someone else’s work?
JW: I’m of two minds about this. One is that I think all books should seek to give pleasure to the audience (“pleasure” being open to a vastly wide array of interpretations). I also have some notions of how that state is achieved.
Primarily, these notions rest on two main pillars: Is there something happening in the moment that holds the reader’s attention? And, am I creating a situation where the whole is becoming greater than the sum of its parts each step of the way? That is, I want them both invested in the moment, and anticipating how that moment may lead to the next one, as well as how it relates to what came before. I suppose this betrays a certain interest in plot, but rather than plot, I always think of it as tension. What sorts of questions am I raising that the audience might want answers to?
So yes, I do think about the audience, but it’s almost always before (where I question my intentions) and after (when I survey the results) the actual act of writing. During the writing, very, very little rational or conscious thought is going on. In my experience, this is almost universally true.
Let’s face it, the only way a novel can get written is by focusing on one’s own obsessions because the writer is going to spend more time with their own book than any hypothetical reader. We’re talking years of effort with no potential payoff, so out of necessity it has to be extremely, extremely interesting to the writer.
I wanted to set a challenge for myself where I deliberately presented the funny man as unsympathetic out of the gate, but through the story try to achieve at least empathy, if not sympathy. Thinking commercially, this is sort of an idiotic approach since the conventional wisdom is that audiences want sympathetic characters, but I think it’s relatively easy to create a character for whom we feel sympathy. I wanted a character that we reflexively dismiss as undeserving of empathy (like Kim Kardashian), and see if there’s an avenue to a deeper understanding. Not saying I achieved that, just that it was the goal.
The only job of the writer is to produce a book that’s “gettable.” Not that everyone will get it, mind you, just that it’s possible.
There’s dozens of other personal obsessions in there, how we’re attracted to pop-culture junk, even as we say it’s worthless, the notion of art versus selling out. There’s a whole metafictional deal running through the entire thing about creativity that about three people in the country would get. I put it in anyway. That’s sort of the most fun part of writing a novel, that you get to just pour anything you want to inside the container as you work to see what it can hold and what gets sifted out.
The hope is that what’s interesting to the writer is also interesting to the audience. That said, I’m generally unaware that I’m focusing on my obsessions while I’m writing, but if I’m doing it right they can’t help but be present. The writing itself becomes the process by which I come to some (usually provisional) understanding of the world.
KM: I am having some internal debate about your thoughts on writer’s obsessions. Does that really apply to all genres and authors? It sounds more like a concern for writers trying to find their footing. What about machine-like writers, entrenched mystery authors like John Grisham and James Patterson and Michael Connelly? (I’m omitting Stephen King because I know he’s written extensively about his own writing.) They are factories. And I find it hard to believe that those guys are putting in “years of effort,” since, unlike yourself, there is no “potential payoff” for them, just payoff. Plus, their work is undeniably formulaic; that’s a word with some hefty negative connotation, but I would hope those writers would be the first to admit that their novels follow a tried-and-true formula.
But those guys are also different breed altogether. In fact, their process sounds quite unlike yours. I would imagine their writing involves quite a bit of conscious thought, especially when it comes to the audience. To take this further, however, we’d have to consider for whom Grisham and Patterson and Connelly are writing. And that seems like a quagmire if there ever was one.
I mean, not to slight the fine people who devoured The Last Juror or Sam’s Letter’s to Jennifer, but I don’t imagine they’re buying many books from Soho Press, or that they’re very familiar with or interested in someone like yourself. That is to say, they’re mass-market people. They are looking for the same broad pleasure that all readers are looking for, but they’re not going to find their flavor in a book like The Funny Man. You aren’t doling out their stimulants.
This all sounds like some elitist bullshit, upon re-reading. I’m not trying to look down my nose at people who like mystery novels. I’m really not. Hell, I’m the one who brought those novels and the folks who read them up in the first place.
Now I’m wondering: If you don’t think about the audience in the process of writing, do you ever consider who is in your market, per se? I know this came up in the other stream, re: my tastes overlapping with your idea of your readers, but it’s worth asking in a more direct fashion. What is your conception of a John Warner reader?
JW: Here’s how genuinely clueless I am. Despite my concerns about having an unsympathetic narrator, I sort of assumed that The Funny Man was a mass-market book. While I was writing it, I figured the whole world could potentially find something interesting in it. On some level, I still think it is, or it could be, but this is likely some kind of self-protective delusion that allows one to keep writing regardless of public reception.
KM: To be fair, there’s really no telling which books are going to succeed—for first time authors, at least—and which aren’t. To an extent, you could say it’s on the publishing house: They’ve got to be great at promotion. You did your part. You wrote the book. But Soho isn’t a mass-market press, and I’m sure you think they did everything they could for your book.
I will say this about The Funny Man: There’s something about it that sets it apart from its mass-market counterparts. That being the mere fact that something happens in the book—that’s not true of so many bestsellers today. Stop grinding metaphors into a pulp and develop the goddamn plot.
JW: But my default assumption is that all writers, regardless of genre, are writing the kind of book that’s most interesting for them to write. The thing that the Grishams/Pattersons/Connelleys have in common is that their books frequently hinge on the mechanics of a well-turned plot, and my hunch is that the creation of those plots is every bit as creative and non-rational as what I believe myself to be doing. A captivating genre book is every bit as inspired as the most penetrating literary fiction.
I think it’s fair to say that James Patterson may be a little less particular about the specific words he puts on the page to tell his stories, but I think, in general, the continuum of writers isn’t all that vast. Jhumpa Lahiri and Dan Brown are essentially in the business of separating people from their consciousnesses; they just do it differently. The only difference is that Brown does it by asking us to escape from ourselves while Lahiri wants us to burrow inside ourselves.
Thinking more, I can’t honestly say I have any concept of who a John Warner reader might be. As I watch my Amazon ranking climb toward the millions, it’s entirely probable that they are not legion.
After the initial flush and excitement of the book coming out, I wrote a (frankly) whiny email to a friend of mine who is also a writer about how anti-climactic and frustrating the whole process is, seeing your book released, and the rest of the world really not caring. This is probably why I decided to email you. It’s a deep-seated neediness that I’m sort of loath to admit, but also is the kind of neediness present in my fictional creation, the funny man. Publishing a novel is a dream come true. Now, I apparently have more dreams. I claim that the book is a complete fiction, but that’s obviously not true.
KM: At least you admit it. You could try to do that whole Franzen shunning-fame-while-shamelessly-seeking-it thing that he’s got down.
JW: The writers who truly shun fame are never heard from outside of the release of their books. I, clearly, have no desire to be one of them.
After my friend expressed the requisite sympathy, he reminded me of a truism, which is the only job of the writer is to produce a book that’s “gettable”—not that everyone will get it, mind you, just that it’s possible, and given that there’s enough people who have gotten it—like my agent, my editor, some guy named Pierre on Goodreads, The Picky Girl—he said he figured that there wasn’t much else I could do.
I also reminded myself of something I tell students who come to me for advice, which is that the most successful works are often polarizing, that the last thing you want is a kind of general shrug of approval, the reader equivalent of “it was all right.” I think writers are much better off trying to write something that some people will rave about, while others have to resist the urge to throw it across the room.
Or maybe that’s another way of deluding myself, that no matter the response, good or bad, on my part, it’s a job well done.
You don’t like the book any better now, do you?
KM: Not really, no.