A Sense of Agency: A Conversation with Lauren Oyler


Photograph by Carleen Coulter.

The one time I met Lauren Oyler in person was in New York in the spring of 2018. I had been closely following her work as a critic and admired her intelligence and fearlessness. That exuberant night, she sat mostly quietly, with a look of anger, through a long evening at a bar, which ended late, outside a pizza restaurant, over greasy slices. She was the girlfriend of a friend of mine, who was the reason I was there. The next day, I learned that after they had gone home, she had dumped him. All of this made a deep impression on me. Not pretending to be having a good time. Some sort of power she embodied, just sitting there stonily. I have a terrible memory, but I remember that night—and her at the center of it—so vividly.

That spring, it seemed like everyone was talking about her hyperarticulate critiques of Roxane Gay, Greta Gerwig, and Zadie Smith. She was unafraid to use the full force of her critical eye to scrutinize even those artists who were mostly widely praised. Several weeks after we met, she wrote a defense of my novel Motherhood in The Baffler, responding to various prominent American female critics who had negatively reviewed the book. I wrote to thank her, and in the years since, we developed a correspondence and a friendship.

Three years ago, she published her first novel, Fake Accounts, about a young woman who flees to Berlin and interrogates her relationships and herself, while a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends occasionally chimes in with corrections to her self-mythology.Her new book of essays, No Judgment, contains six pieces, all written specifically for the book. She thinks about the history of criticism in the form of star ratings on Goodreads; about gossip, autofiction, and anxiety. I was struck by the pleasure vibrating from these essays; the evident joy she takes, and freedom she feels, in writing and thinking in the essay form. I was eager to ask her certain questions outside the structure of our friendship. She is a critic I admire, with strengths that feel different from my own; in other words, someone to learn from.

INTERVIEWER

I want to begin by asking you generally about the pleasures of writing—when did you discover them?

LAUREN OYLER

The first things I remember writing were journals and daily writing assignments in school, and then there were the private blogs I kept as a teenager. I think I wrote those online just because I preferred to write on the computer as soon as that was available. I was always a good typist and it was the dawn of the social internet, but I kept the blogs locked, or whatever we used to say, so the point was just that I wanted to be able to write fast and emotionally while talking to people on AIM at the same time. I don’t know if I found the pleasures of writing uncomplicated, even at the time—writing was a compensation prize for the various anxieties and miseries I experienced, and I kind of still feel that way. I wanted to be a painter, which I am not naturally talented at, but I always had a natural talent for writing and a unique relationship to language, and for some reason I kept developing it. You’re not supposed to say this—you’re supposed to say, “I am so lucky to have a career, I am no better than anyone else.” I know many very naturally talented people who aren’t ambitious, and I admire and sometimes envy them, but I have been very ambitious since I was fourteen years old. I don’t know why.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe what these pleasures are for you, and how have you cultivated them since you first discovered writing, if that is the right word, cultivated?

OYLER

The pleasures are in problem-solving—particularly in criticism, where the problem is often how to avoid saying all the things you absolutely do not mean and instead to express something that you don’t necessarily know how to articulate at the outset of a piece—and then in making something new, despite the odds. I find formal experimentation almost euphoric when it works out, and of course there’s always the pleasure in finding the right word, and the satisfaction of composing something beautiful and/or interesting, whether it’s a sentence or a paragraph or a transition. But overall the pleasure is often about relief—wanting to write about a particular idea or work and then finally doing it, or wanting to explain something or understand something, and then finally getting there, more or less, through writing.

If cultivate is the right word, it would mean that I wrote all the time, in increasingly professionalized settings, so that having to earn money became less of a problem, and I studied others who do or have done it, even if all of this has often been painful or difficult, and even if at times I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. I’ve also always pushed myself to do things that are uncomfortable for me as a writer, things that I might dread but that I know are good for me. I cannot remember the last time I didn’t cry while writing a magazine piece, for example, but I do them anyway. Almost every boyfriend I’ve ever had has earnestly told me many times that I need to stop doing magazine pieces because they upset me so much, and that I don’t even make that much money from them and I should focus on fiction because that’s what I love to write, and I really appreciate this, but I will not stop writing magazine pieces until I die, or until the industry itself does. I don’t know why. I love magazines. Career-wise, I’ve also learned how to conduct myself with editors. Until recently, when I’ve become more comfortable pushing back, I would take edits on magazine pieces that I profoundly disagreed with—this is usually the source of the upset—and this has meant I’ve always gotten more work, more opportunities to “cultivate” my writing. And until recently, I had to do many different kinds of writing and editing—I copyedited so much—to earn money, which helped me develop my strange relationship to language even more, the high-low, ironic-sincere register that many people are wrong to hate.

INTERVIEWER

Please say more. Why do they hate it and why are they wrong to?

OYLER

I think a lot of people want to be able to easily classify you. So if I’m using the word prelapsarian and the phrase “that sucks” in the same paragraph, or whatever—and saying “or whatever,” in order to create the effect of conversational speech—they don’t know where to place me. Or they say I’m strategically developing a persona, because they think no one could possibly be like this, because they know only one kind of person and they think everyone is exactly like them. Does it matter who I am? I’d argue that, unfortunately, today, yes, it often does.

Of course, there’s a tradition of blending slang with high-flown language in American writing in particular, and I go on and on about David Foster Wallace, but people didn’t like it when he did it either. I’m coming at it from a different angle—I grew up working-class, speaking a fairly specific regional American English, and while my family are very smart, they aren’t “intellectuals”—and I also work with argot from the teen’s and women’s magazines and internet writing that I grew up reading. I think some people don’t realize that I’m doing this on purpose; when I’m writing book criticism, I try to treat everything in a text as intentional, or under the author’s control, even if an effect is obviously the result of laziness, like “or whatever,” and I do wish more critics would do that. You can still write a pan that way—actually, pans that treat an author as fundamentally responsible for her work are the only ones that really stick. I love language and I want to use as much of it as possible, and I refuse to deny that one side or the other of it—as in “high-low”—exists. This is why I love novels like Mating and why I love Nabokov, because they show you so many new ways to use language. I would like my writing to do that for people, if they are willing to see it.

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that most excited me about your book was the clear pleasure you get from thinking in the form of an essay. Many people write essays because that’s the form they’re paid to think in—they’ve been commissioned to write something—but it struck me that the essay might be your ideal form. What is it about the essay form that you like so much, or that makes it so particularly useful for you?

OYLER

As I say in the book, my favorite form, to read and to write, is the novel. But I think that’s why I have more fun writing essays—there’s much less pressure, and I don’t expect so much from them. I don’t have an idea in my mind of how an essay should look or feel, what kind of texture it should have, whereas many of us have strong ideas about what a novel is and should be. You could say I don’t care as much about essays, which is not to say I don’t want them to be “good,” or rigorous, but I don’t care about cleaning up the edges so much, and that means my thinking can be more flexible in that form. There’s something about the novel that is always straining for timelessness, but essays can be more spontaneous and contemporary.

INTERVIEWER

Are there essayists you read when you were growing up who inspired your own work? Or critics in the contemporary world whose work you regularly seek out?

OYLER

I get a lot of permission, as they might say in therapy, from rereading my favorite essayists. I reread in an almost desperate way while writing essays—like, please, please, Ellen Willis, help me—and something that always strikes me when doing this kind of intensive purposeful rereading is how messy the great works of the past are. Elizabeth Hardwick—you know, she often doesn’t totally make sense, and it doesn’t really matter. David Foster Wallace—very repetitive, very tedious, often wrong. Who cares? I want an amazing paragraph, I want a sudden moment of clarity, I want an unusual transition or connection. It’s the trade-off you make for thinking that feels alive, and it’s one I’m happy to make.

You and I have talked about the frustrations of writing for magazines. For a piece of criticism, many magazines want you to have a thesis statement in neon lights, and that is something I’ve been trying to actively avoid doing. I think it’s just really unrealistic—both in terms of the craft of writing and in terms of how unwieldy the world actually is—and often not very fun to read. A good essay will have many arguments in it. The arguments in the essays I write accrue—they’re almost narrative, in that you start in one place and end up somewhere else. With a thesis statement, you have nowhere to go, or you start at the end and go in a circle.

INTERVIEWER

One thing that distressed me in your collection was the sense that someone as obviously intellectual as you are nevertheless does not carry around in her head a library of references and quotes from decades of reading and remembering what she read. It seemed clear that many of your references came from Google Books searches or internet searches. It made me feel the relative shallowness of the contemporary mind that many of us share, compared to the intellectuals of the past who had a world of references inside them. Is this something you feel, or are bothered about in any way?

OYLER

Let’s first please allow that I am thirty-three years old, so I’ve had only about a decade of reading that actually counts. It’s probably true that I read the way a “digital native” reads, which is to say broadly and not as deeply, because of the way our technologies of reading work. But I don’t know if you’re right that many of my references come from, like, bopping around Wikipedia at 2 A.M., which is not something I do. I do not memorize things, no, but I think it’s important to have a penumbra of references that you can use to make interesting moves, particularly in essays. I think it might seem that my references come from googling in part because I’ll often narrativize a somewhat base style of research—I’ll say things like “I was googling around and found this New York Times article about whatever”—in order to represent what life is like now, where you google around. But actually in many cases it may be that I encountered a text many years ago, remembered it vaguely, and then reproduced it with easily fact-checked internet research when it became useful to me. But why is that bad? The Google Book is not any different from the actual book.

And the internet is very useful for starting research—you look up some broad topic, find sources linked at the end of the Wikipedia article, go to those sources, find sources from those sources, and so on. I don’t see anything wrong with the first part as long as you do the second part rigorously. The internet is a tool and it’s with us forever, so we might as well harness its power for good when we can.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder, since not all writers read reviews of their work, what do you hope to learn by reading reviews of your own work?

OYLER

If I will be able to sell my next book, ha ha. I don’t think reviews actually contain this information, but these are what the stakes are for me. I also hope to learn what I hope to learn by reading reviews of anyone’s work, which is, What are the values of the moment? For better or worse, I’m attracted to what “people are talking about,” to the issues of the day, and if I often disagree with what “people” are saying, that’s fine, because I get a lot of ideas that way. The essays on autofiction and vulnerability in the collection are the result of having read both a lot of book reviews and a lot of reviews of my own work.

INTERVIEWER

I once wrote a negative review of a book in my early twenties, and for years I felt terrible about it. I decided that, from then on, I’d only write about books I liked or loved. I think this means I’m not actually a critic—I don’t have the stomach for it. I have recently been enjoying Merve Emre’s podcast, The Critic and Her Publics, in which she conducts interviews with critics before an audience of students and has the critic make a judgment of something on the spot. I thought her interview with Andrea Long Chu was especially compelling—Long Chu talked about how her harsher book reviews come out of “disappointment.” In looking back at some of the reviews that made your name, would you say that the motivating spirit was disappointment or something else?

OYLER

I agree with her that there is definitely an engine of disappointment in my earlier negative pieces. For me it might be a class thing. I taught myself to like what I like, it didn’t come naturally to me, so when I encountered writers who gesture toward the “literary” while also pandering to their idea of “the masses”—“the masses” that I am from—it would make me really mad. Most of the negative reviews I wrote were also assigned to me, so they also probably involved resentment that I was being asked to spend my time this way. I could have been stockpiling references!

INTERVIEWER

I am impressed by your ability to actually criticize, in depth and in public, people who are alive today. I have found it impossible myself. Can you explain what qualities you possess that allow you to do this?

OYLER

Confidence, certainly, but I don’t know where that comes from, and I don’t like to use the word that often because it implies little connection to the convictions that might produce the confidence. I’m confident in my criticism because I am pretty certain of both my interpretations and my stylistic choices by the time I write. A sense of agency? A democratic sensibility, or maybe just a sense of proportion? I don’t think many of the people who call themselves writers actually care about literary form or style or ideas expressed in writing. They care about being called writers. So my attitude about this is, fine, if you want to be a writer, I will treat you like one—I will assess your writing on the level of form and style and idea. I’m as qualified to do this as anyone else, and anyone else is welcome to do it to me. If you’re a serious writer, you should be able to withstand criticism and determine which criticism is legitimate and which criticism is made in bad faith, even if it stings.

INTERVIEWER

I have been teaching this year, and one thing I am noticing is that young people who want to be writers are drawn to writing in genres that my peers, when we were their age, were less likely to have dreamed of writing in—science fiction, romance, fantasy. We all wanted to produce Literature, classics, like the greats—a category my students perhaps rightly deny, or that to them is merely another genre. One of the students theorized that this was because of the weakening power of the gatekeepers, and another said it was because people have shorter attention spans, so a writer who wants to win an audience should put their ideas into a genre that seems easy and that people already love. Do you have any thoughts about this?

OYLER

I think gatekeepers still have power, but they don’t necessarily have as much money as they used to—or at least they say they don’t. They don’t dictate what sells. They chase what sells. So maybe you could say they have less power, inasmuch as there is now a populist swell of data that guides their decisions. And I think that for many people of the younger generations, making money signifies worth in a way that it didn’t for Gen X. Also, for younger generations, popularity signifies money, which signifies worth. This isn’t only because they’re or we’re shallow—it’s because of the deteriorating conditions of life in the U.S. and the UK, where it costs a lot of money to live barely comfortably. People want to have a nice life.

All that said, it may be that it’s also harder to hide from what’s popular now. There is also a widespread conflation of identity, and class, with what one likes, so you’re not supposed to be a snob about culture—you can’t flat-out reject Beyoncé or Marvel movies, or say you only read the greats—because that would mean you’re rich and out of touch, a coastal elite. It must be, too, that these kids like what writing sci-fi and fantasy would have to say about them, but I do not know what desirable qualities writing sci-fi and fantasy would represent …

INTERVIEWER

If you have a biggest fear for the culture—I don’t mean environmental catastrophe, I mean the world of our minds all together—what is it?

OYLER

I don’t know if it’s a biggest fear, but I think everything is really boring right now. I find it hard to muster the energy to write about contemporary culture anymore. There is also a lot of droning competence—work that is pretty good but that lacks a sense of purpose or strangeness, or any reason to actually look at it. Nor does any of this work seem to represent some horrible trend or tendency that it’s nevertheless fruitful to discuss, as bad writers of the very recent past did. Everyone seems to be going through the motions.

INTERVIEWER

I sometimes feel and can’t believe that I have such a good life, and I wonder, do you feel you have a good life?

OYLER

This is a good question. I’m very proud of my life, which is wonderful and which I fear losing or damaging. I’m very, very proud of my relationships and the way I travel. I’m proud of the taste I’ve developed, not just in books but in art and film and music, and that I have found people both in my life and through my work to share it with. I love my writing, which has gotten easier for me in the past couple of years and accomplishes what I want it to accomplish.

I just read your interview with Phyllis Rose in Granta, and you asked her a similar kind of question—whether her great second marriage was “luck.” It makes sense to me that you’d ask these kinds of questions—so much of your career has been about asking what a life should look like. On a political level, everyone deserves a good life that they must work really hard to lose or truly damage. I feel that I have worked, sometimes hard, to get and maintain what good things I have, given the advantages and disadvantages of the circumstances I was born and bred into, and I believe it is my responsibility to make the best and most of my life, precisely because there are billions of people in the world who also deserve to have the things I have. In general, one person’s sacrifice of moderate goodness—or, worse, any self-aggrandizing performance of guilt—does not make the lives of suffering people any better. That said, I’m against the rich, who should have to sacrifice much more, and I’m for radical political statements involving self-sacrifice or self-harm.

But I’m more interested in this question as it relates to the social world. When I say I’m very, very proud of my relationships, I mean that I try to be a loyal and transparent friend, I pay close attention to people and remember what they tell me, I am open and intimate while trying not to burden people with my problems, I apologize when I do something wrong—only when I’m actually sorry, though—and I am pretty much always fun and interesting to be around, possibly to my detriment. If I were a manipulative asshole, I would say I deserved to lose those friends. Like I said, I have a sense of agency.

INTERVIEWER

Finally, what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?

OYLER

Mint chocolate chip.

INTERVIEWER

Me too!

OYLER

If they don’t have it, I get whatever has the most ingredients. I’m a maximalist.

 

Sheila Heti is the author of ten books, including Pure Colour, Motherhood, How Should a Person Be?, and, most recently, Alphabetical Diaries. She is the former interviews editor of The Believer, and has interviewed such writers and artists as Elena Ferrante, Joan Didion, Agnès Varda, and Dave Hickey.



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