Skin Like Leather

By John Gilstrap

We always tell up-and-comers that they’ve got to have a thick skin if they’re ever going to break into the publishing business. As the rejections pile up, it’s hard not to lose faith in your own abilities. When the news finally turns good, and an agent wants to see the manuscript, and later when an editor decides to buy it, you feel vindicated. Ha-ha and neener-neener, you think. Clearly all those rejecters were wrong.

What clearer affirmation of talent can there be than a publishing contract, right? If you’re not careful, you might start rubbing aloe on that leather-tough skin, thinking that it’s time to shed the bullet-proof coating.

Oh, that it were true.

I won the 2010 award at Thriller Fest for the Worst Review Ever, for an opinion of Nathan’s Run that appeared in an upstate New York newspaper: “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.” That it followed dozens of major market rave reviews from around the world softened the blow to the point that I laughed out loud when I read it at the time. Now I treasure my award, which is a lovely wooden box containing a fossilized dinosaur turd. All in good fun.

As I write this, I am again in the early stages of a new book launch (Hostage Zero, 19 days straight in the Top 30 in Amazon’s Kindle store), blessed with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I’m very proud of the book. Frankly, I think it’s my best work, but then I always think that when a new book comes out.

I almost took out the aloe again. Not so fast.

This is the age of the amateur Internet review, where the opinions of casual readers wield influence equal to that of professional critics. Among many very positive reviews, one fellow calls my book “surprisingly decent.” Another expresses surprise that as a “second tier suspense writer” I have had such a long career. I have been chastised for leading with my left-wing politics, and I’ve been chastised for leading with my right-wing politics. One reviewer chastises me for coming off as stupid because I can’t seem to keep my own politics straight.

Interestingly, several reviewers have accused me in an online forum of writing my own raves, one of them going so far as to praise my ability to change my writing style to accommodate my various fictional identities. (For the record, I’ve never done such a thing.)

God bless them all. Once the book is written and I’ve launched it out to the world, it belongs more to the reader than it does to me. It’s the nature of art that perception trumps intent. A review is a review, after all, and since the major media markets have decided that books are no longer worthy of ink and newsprint, I’m just happy that someone’s paying attention.

The need for thick skin doesn’t end at the impersonal review, however.

Nine times out of ten, people are wonderfully supportive of me and my work. With the exception of certain engineered opportunities—book signings, etc.—I have little desire to be the star of a social setting. I’d much rather discuss current events than the mechanics of writing. Among these friends, the launch of a new book warrants a congratulations and a couple of signed books and that’s about it.

Then there’s the remaining one out of ten who just sort of baffle me. Consider my relatives who ostentatiously don’t read my books (even though I think they do), but ask me to autograph editions for their friends. A day-job colleague of mine goes out of his way to list the stores he’s visited where none of my books are in stock, and another rarely misses a public opportunity to express shock that my books are currently doing as well as they are. What am I supposed to say in response to such things? It seems sometimes that people go out of their way to be hurtful.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that none of the rudeness—whether by acts of omission or commission—is intentionally hurtful. The family stuff is weirder than the collegial stuff, but I’ve decided that artistic success—even when it’s second tier—makes some people feel both empowered and uncomfortable. The public nature of book writing empowers people to criticize, while public success—and the minor celebrity that comes with it—can upset the balance of an insecure relationship.

I’m not talking jealousy here—far from it, in fact. I think it’s more akin to keeping the artist from becoming too big for his britches. I suppose that’s a noble goal, but I do wish it could be accomplished with fewer awkward moments.