I Feel That I Am Being Made Crazy By the Distortion; an interview with Lauren Oyler
“You read the book, and you realize it’s not anything like what all these people said. It’s almost disturbing.”
More and more people are saying it: books are back! (in business, in style, in town…) It’s not a scientific metric, but it’s hard to deny as a sign of the times: the number of celebrity book clubs has gone from one to three. Of course, perhaps it’s not the book itself that’s back, but rather our regard for it; there has been a noticeable uptick in our doting affection towards the sacred object. “READ,” sans object, like “VOTE,” sans candidate, is the clarion call of the culture.
“Not so fast!,” meanwhile, is the clarion call of critic and author Lauren Oyler, whose highly anticipated novel Fake Accounts is forthcoming in February. Oyler implores us (readers, critics, even the writers) to stop pretending things are what they aren’t just because the publicity departments of the Big Four are asking us to. A book can be good entertainment without being meaningful art, and that’s absolutely ok. (A book can also be bad, even though the ad copy says it’s good!) But the elision of the two categories — entertainment and art — across the entire publishing world, is concerning. Oyler argues that not only should industry-adjacent professionals make more of an effort to hold the line between art and entertainment, but that publishers don’t even need to take a financial hit to do it — there is, Oyler insists, an Actually Existing Readership for literature, and if you publish, they will come.
I talked to Lauren about her career as a critic, how she wants readers and critics to engage with books, twitter, and writers who view themselves as role models. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Samuel Jaffe Goldstein:
Can you talk about your path as a writer? Your past writing includes two books with Obama aide Alyssa Mastromonaco and being a contributor to Broadly. What made you want to pursue the art of criticism?
After college I moved to Berlin, where I was just doing any odd job that was available. But my rent was super cheap, which was part of the reason I moved there. I could work on being a writer without having to worry about having a full-time job. I got to know Jessa Crispin, who was running Bookslut at the time, and I blogged for her. After about two years, I moved to New York, and Bookslut published this article about Roxane Gay and Bad Feminist, which went viral. Through the article I got a job at Vice, which was starting a women’s vertical. We had a ton of latitude there, so I got to do a lot of weird criticism and essays. I could cover books more or less freely, and the publishing, literary, and criticism world is so small and so insular that I was able to cover anyone that I wanted and people in the little booksphere would read it. I went to Paris and interviewed Virginie Despentes in her apartment. I wrote a long essay about I Love Dick, which people read. Then, while at Vice, I met Alyssa Mastromonaco because she was the COO, and I was on Vice’s union organizing committee, and she was on the management side. She didn’t particularly like being management, and she knew I didn’t particularly like working at Vice. So she reached out because she needed someone to help her write her book. It was a bestseller, so I got more ghostwriting jobs, and Alyssa and I did another book together. I transitioned to freelancing full time that way, while writing more and more criticism. I wrote an article about Lady Bird for the Baffler, which people also read. To be frank, my trajectory has these lily-pads of semi-viral critical articles, which is sort of how it goes.
You have written a few critical essays that seem to go semi-viral. What is lost and what is gained in that experience?
My experience with it has been extremely positive. I mostly get very nice responses about the substance of the essays. Sometimes people say, “Oh. My. God. These people are saying such mean things about you.” I’ll respond, “I am pretty sure I saw everything everyone said about me, and it’s not that bad. It’s fine.” It’s not that bad! There’s a line of thinking that says critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, and if they don’t like a book, they should spend their time highlighting work they do like, but I think that ignores how the publishing industry works, and how magazines work: they have to cover the “big books,” even if the books aren’t very good. I’m not going to do a long negative piece about a writer nobody has ever heard of, because that’s cruel and doesn’t serve any sort of greater purpose. I don’t have any ethical quandaries about the negative reviews I’ve written—those authors exist as they are going to exist and nothing I say is going to change that. What matters to me, in the case of “hyped” books, is the book’s position in the world as a product, how it’s marketed, and how people receive it based on that marketing versus how they might receive it if it were marketed differently.
When I see publicity campaigns, I’m very affected by them, even though I know how they work! I’ve sat in on publicity for commercial books that I ghostwrote. Now I’m doing publicity for my own book and I understand that you’re basically trying to trick people. What my negative essays try and push against are critics who just say the same thing that everyone else is saying, which is often more or less what publicity tells them. Who knows if they realize they’re doing it, but over time the book they’re talking about becomes quite distorted. If this sounds like I’m ignoring the book itself—well, yes, that’s the problem. Finally, you read the book, and you realize it’s not anything like what all these people said. It’s almost disturbing.
So when I do those negative pieces, I try to make them relevant first for someone who is never going to read the book, and second, for someone who has read the book and feels that the critical discourse around it is leaving out something major. (If readers who liked the book find my criticism interesting, that’s of course great, too.) As for what’s gained, I hope that there’s a sense of clarity for people who care about these things. What’s lost—ideally really great writers would be getting the support and attention that the amateurs tend to get, and we would be debating the subtleties of their work instead of screaming about stuff that is sort of ill-considered or not very deep.
There’s a long tradition of American writers absconding to Europe to get away from the charlatans who make up American literary culture. I know that you have and continue to spend significant amounts of time in Berlin. Do you think that has helped you as a writer?
I remember first moving to New York, after I’d been in Berlin for two years, meeting all these people and realizing, slowly, that most of them are frauds. Others aren’t frauds, but they’ll do things like talk to you frankly about their opinion in private and then go on to express the opposite opinion in public because they think it will help them in some way. It’s a common experience that people have, this sort of adolescent a-ha moment. It is certainly valuable to see people living and writing in other ways. To a certain extent in Europe, you’re more likely to be around people who have been encouraged to read a lot more serious literature and philosophy, and they aren’t just wealthy or upper-class people. Meanwhile, in the United States you can go through an entire private school–to–Ivy League education and still be stupid. There are many very smart Americans, but they aren’t being served by our publishing industry or media or our “literary culture.” I think many people are very alienated by the way things work here—enough people to make a bestseller!—not because it’s inaccessible, but because it’s patronizing. You can find a lot of great reading through weird avenues, but it would be nice if you didn’t have to look very hard.
On the one hand, criticism doesn’t change anything; while on the other, you are not just writing for a check. There is some kind of belief that there will be some kind of effect. What is the effect that you are going for?
I write criticism because I feel that if I am being made crazy by the distorted nature of the publishing industry, then other people are as well. I really believe that many people like serious books and serious engagement with books. There are not a ton of opportunities for them to feel part of a conversation. The fact that you basically have no power as a critic should be liberating—it should make people take more risks, do more experimental things, and be harsher if the book merits harshness. But they don’t, and it’s weird. Because if you do it in a fair, sane way there is no professional consequence, except that some people aren’t going to like you. If you’re nice to everyone in a fake way, lots of people aren’t going to like you either. So you might as well be honest.
Are some people scared of professional consequences?
Why does it seem like critics are scared of writing negative reviews?
There’s this tendency to protect authors, and often it’s a treat-others-as-you’d-want-to-be-treated thing, because many critics have books themselves. Your book is your baby, you worked really hard on it, so you deserve not to have to feel bad about it in any way. I don’t take that view. A writer is asking people to spend several hours with their book, to take what they’re saying seriously. As a critic it’s your responsibility to do that, and to take the reader seriously as well.
Critics also sometimes get this conspiratorial tendency and write as if they’re the only people who can see the true essence of the book. If they can pull out the symbolism, the complex themes, find a connection to Jane Austen or a theorist, I think they feel empowered, intelligent, and in possession of a wide range of references. Even though none of that is actually there, and what you’re looking at is something someone got paid quite a lot of money to make in the hope that it would get turned into a TV show.
Often the book that might be negatively reviewed more or less expresses the correct political views, and the author seems to come from a good place, and critics might think the aesthetic choices that go into expressing those ideas don’t matter enough to justify criticism. But they do matter. And then there’s a certain point where you have to ask, did no one tell the writer this book was bad? Did really no one say anything? Which is also a question of how the sausage gets made. Because they probably did not. It would be sad to be a writer that nobody criticizes, because that means nobody is taking you seriously or engaging with your work, and to a certain extent you’re being used to make money.
Was there something you saw happening in the literary world that drove you towards criticism, that caused you to say this cannot stand?
It’s not some sort of snooty precious intellectual attraction to books as books, believing that all books need to be works of genius. I obviously don’t think that. Political memoirs that may or may not be ghostwritten are legitimate books. They’re products. If that person wants their story on the page, and it’s a good story, then that’s no less a book to me than Proust or whatever. However, in the realm of “literary writing,” we often talk about authors and their books that act as entertainment/story vehicles as if they are Proust. I don’t see a problem with commercial fiction or memoir, or with YA. What I see a problem with is the encroachment of those genres into literary fiction, which sort of needs protecting.
Why does it need protecting?
A lot of people like it! (I hate this kind of rhetoric so I’m not going to say something about how serious literature “helps us understand what it means to be human” or whatever, but I do believe something to that effect. I don’t think commercial literature does that, to be honest.) But the people in the publishing industry increasingly don’t seem to think that’s true. They really rely on some kind of certainty, previous sales or or other metrics that say, “This book is going to do well.” Many people who work in publishing have very good taste, but I think they’re encouraged not to trust it. It’s also a bigger problem than valiant editors can solve. Countries that have robust welfare systems, affordable healthcare, and support for the arts—they have much healthier literary cultures, and the two things are definitely related. If you live somewhere where you can feel comfortable quitting your job and writing your serious novel that may or may not make any money, the publicity frenzy has less power. We have this situation here where you can either get a giant advance, and hope to have the career force that facilitates all sorts of income after that, nice teaching jobs (as opposed to the not nice ones), speaking gigs, film rights, etc., or the money you make writing might cover some of your expenses, and you have to figure out the rest.
Shouldn’t we cut writers some slack because it’s hard?
It depends on what kind of book it is. As a critic your responsibility is to assess what the author is intending to do, whether that’s a good aim, and then if they executed it well. There are two types of bad books. One, your aim is completely stupid and misguided, and you should not have written a book that attempted to do that. Two, and this is more common in my world, you had this nice aspiration that you did not remotely execute. Yes, writing is very hard, and no book really lives up to its aspirations, but once you’re an adult you can’t be writing bad books all over the place. People might read them! It’s not your right to be a writer. It’s not your right to be read. It’s not your right to be a public figure. A just society is one where everyone has a home, food, healthcare, an education, and vacation for four weeks a year. A just society does not mean everybody gets to be a celebrated writer if they want to be. If we consider literature important, we have to critique it rigorously.
In your review of Meg Wolitzer’s Female Persuasion you write about the phrase “what it’s like,” which seems to be specific but in fact sacrifices style and precision in favor of a generalized message. How should writers use their time to not fall into the trap of “widespread misconception”?
The phrase what it’s like to whatever is something we used to use in headlines all the time. It became this way to signal a certain kind of internet writing. Of course describing an experience is a central part of most if not all novels. Where people get tripped up is if they have an argument they want to convey about the experience. If you purport to be describing an experience, how it really is, and you say, “This is how it really is!” And you are glaringly leaving out certain aspects of that experience, you end up seeming like you are trying to convince people. Nobody wants to be convinced.
A lot of writers seem to see themselves as role models, who want to showcase how they do things. You have a problem? Why not try solving it my way? I am very sympathetic to people who have problems, but I don’t think that is the way to talk to them. I feel animated by a fundamental tension that is never going to be resolved—something that I know I’ll never figure out but I have to keep moving toward it in some way. I am very suspicious of a writer who does not feel that way.
Every novel could be called a “what it’s like” novel. How do we decide which ones pass the smell test?
The first step is to not say anything that is blatantly untrue. Then people who don’t have any access to the situation read it and think that’s how it is! I don’t want to adjudicate what personal experience is and is not valid; it’s just important to see clearly. The more detail and ambiguity that you put into your personal experience the more real it feels. A great writer surprises you with how they do it. Using all the tools of the writer’s toolbox. [Read this in an ironic tone.] Choosing the right word is very important. Having a unique voice.
Does someone like Ben Lerner never have to take the risk of writing another character other than themselves?
I don’t think he necessarily needs to. Some great writers—the sort of great European novelist—write the same book over and over again. That’s a fine model. Theoretically there’s enough in a life to last for infinite books.
Or six books.
Knausgaard has written a ton more! But what Ben Lerner, what Knausgaard, or other autofictional authors are doing is just using their personal experience as the route to something else. You use whatever you have to understand something bigger. Ben Lerner isn’t solipsistic, he’s using himself to understand bigger things. If you’re using your own life as material, then you have to see yourself as a character in a (good) novel. Famously it does not go so well for your personal relationships, but if you are lucky it works on the page.
Two recent books, Milkman and Hurricane Season, prove to you that writers can still “add enough of something to tip the scales away from herself” but to me it is no surprise that neither of these writers are American. Are Americans just too brutish to write novels that also focus on all the other factors that make up a character?
These days Americans are very much encouraged to write memoirs. Especially if they write a novel and they take the novel to sell it and the agent says, maybe you should turn this into a memoir. American writers are also very pressured by publicity taglines and by genre. It’s all very bad and it is all driven by greed or Amazon. I don’t know if the American publishing industry such as it is can change very much unless there’s some drastic change to the American political system. It’s totally natural that you would start to think of your work in those terms. You should try and resist that, but it’s very hard. Especially if you need money and you don’t want to do your day job anymore. I say all this stuff but many of the people writing books have family money. They don’t need to be succumbing to the pressures of the market. I thought that was the point of having family money, that you could become a genius artist and you don’t have to pay rent.
Overanalyzing used to be the realm of the critic but now it feels like the practice belongs to the poptimists who love to go on these long winded rationalizations (twitter threads, youtube videos, blog posts) for why you should just let people enjoy things. What are they so afraid of?
I don’t know. I listen to mostly terrible music but I see that it’s terrible and I just don’t brag about it. There’s this drive to make any aspect of your personality and life a part of your public presence and therefore marketable. If you’re a writer, there’s a lot of pressure to do that. If you like the shitty things that everybody is talking about all the time, you feel you have to write about those things. You write about them, but the fact is that stuff is just not that interesting. So then you have to do this elaborate justification, and as you’re writing you start to feel embarrassed because you know it’s wrong. But you can’t stop, you have to keep going, because otherwise it’s super embarrassing. Then you have to drive home the fact that it’s not embarrassing even though you know it’s embarrassing.
The whole let people enjoy things thing is really weird. The people who enjoy things are the majority. They have the power. They have tons of fucking shit to read and watch. Marvel movies get and make all the money. Those are the things that get made and those are the things that will continue to get made. The argument ends up being very patronizing, because if you’re “letting people enjoy things” then you’re assuming they need some kind of allowance.
If it is an economics question. What can a writer do to not fall prey to the insidious marketing machine? What can they do to contribute to a more critical literary culture?
If I am going to send a message to my people [again, ironic tone] then I will say, “If you have even a halfway fair critique of something you are not going to get in trouble for it.” You are not going to scandalize an editor at the New York Times because you said a book that they thought was good was in fact bad. It is their job to be mature about this sort of thing, and if you approach it in a serious way it’s not going to affect you. They might not want to be friends with you, but they probably weren’t going to be friends with you anyway.
All this said, I do feel increasingly that the books being celebrated are more complicated than they used to be! And I feel like we’re on the verge of a good phase in criticism.
What are some books and critics that are being celebrated right now that you enjoy?
It seems like more novels in translation are being published here, which is great. I’m reading Pola Oloixarac’s forthcoming book Mona, which is very fuck you and very funny. Patricia Lockwood’s success is great. As for critics, Jen Szalai, Parul Sehgal, Naomi Fry, Hua Hsu, Peter Schjeldahl, Julian Lucas, Leo Robson, Nora Caplan-Bricker, Kevin Power, Hannah Black. Rosa Lyster is a great critic/essayist. I’ve been liking Sigrid Nunez’s reviews for the NYRB lately, though I like many people who write for them. Ditto Bookforum and the LRB.
Why can’t we just admit that twitter is the platform that people use and enjoy, then move on with the rest of our lives?
I believe that internet addiction is real and that I fully have it, but lots of writers who are not on it would do well to look at it sometimes. Why do people need to pretend that it’s not real? Because they don’t want to contend with an entirely new chaotic system of power. While twitter is not populist, it has many more people. It is worthwhile to see how people act there. It can be very useful to watch people—who know a lot more about certain political issues than you do—argue. You can learn very quickly from a few tweets, and not need to read some essay about why some view seems smart but is in fact very stupid.
People also don’t want to admit that the things they say and do on twitter might have an effect on how they’re perceived in the non-twitter world. If someone says something bad about me on twitter and I see it, I will never like that person, ever. I will never look at their work in a generous light, I will remember that forever. I’m sure everyone remembers things like that. It’s upsetting to have to think that things you tossed off in a moment of pure emotion are now lodged in the minds of strangers.
What’s the big deal? We pretend that it’s separate but we are mediated through social media, can’t we just admit that?
It’s real! If you are spending your time that way, that’s how you're spending your time. The internet is an extremely large environment, which is just as real as your house.
It feels like we have lost our sense of proportion. However, we don’t need to worry about everything, it is okay to let some things go. How do we regain a sense proportion?
This is an internet inflected thing. I don’t know if it has always been this way. On the internet, everything is out of proportion. Things that are very important do not get a ton of play. Whereas things that are totally stupid become very significant. You end up trying to find deep meaning in stupid little things.
It might be best to remember that reading hard books is hard. I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy to read Dostoyevsky or Ulysses. You don’t just sit down and read those books and that’s that. The work you do to understand them generates the meaning. Once you have had that experience, the superficial experience that is produced by entertainment tugging at your heartstrings has much less of a wow factor.
How do you handle the tension between working toward a collective goal (whether that be political or just in the way we talk about books) vs the pitfalls of putting people under our own personal theories?
When I write I am constantly asking myself is this right? Is this right? Is this right? Am I just doing this because I have a bad feeling that I am trying to expel from my body? I always think of it as some kind of scrubbing. Get rid of the received wisdom, the cliches, and everything else you’ve read. What do you actually think? What is the book actually doing? The whole point of literature, man, is that we are all one people and we have a lot in common. We might have radically different views or perspectives but we are mostly the same. If you keep that in mind the other stuff falls into place.
Sam Jaffe Goldstein is a bookseller in Brooklyn. You can find him on twitter at @sgiraffe666.
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