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12 March 2024

Lauren Oyler’s defence mechanisms

Can the master of the hatchet-job place herself beyond criticism?

By Lola Seaton

The American critic Lauren Oyler is fun – very fun – to read. Not just because she is funny, although she is, nor because she is mean, which she can be, though her reputation for viciousness is overstated: her fabled takedown of the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino indulges in mockery, and although this is surely partly why the essay allegedly crashed the London Review of Books’ website, it is not wanton. The fun to be had reading Oyler owes something to her mastery of the internet, as does her popularity. She cut her teeth writing for Vice and her career has been distinguished by “lily-pads of semi-viral critical articles”. A self-described internet addict with a sizeable Twitter/X following, Oyler is fearsomely fluent in digital culture, especially the idioms and humour of social media. She knows how to sound interesting online and this has left its mark on her style. Her prose has the taut, incessant wit of repartee, as though each sentence had to be worthy of a tweet.

The other quality bequeathed, or at least heightened, by social media – where unselfconscious speech, difficult at the best of times, is impossible – is what she describes, in the introduction to her new collection of essays, No Judgement, as “anxious self-awareness”. To be precise: Oyler is not simply obsessively self-aware, which needn’t be particularly entertaining. Rather, she specialises in the performance of self-awareness, and it is her inventive experiments with this that make her prose exhilarating and original.

She is given to addressing her audience, deploying various kinds of arch self-reference, and ploughing through the fourth wall. Consider her new book’s first words: “Well, well, well. The book has started. There’s no turning back.” The joke, of course, lies in the playful misapprehension of the way books work: not only can the reader easily put the book down, but writing, too, is distinguished from speech by the possibility of turning back – of rephrasing and redacting. When Oyler first typed those words, when she revised them, even when she signed off the final proofs, she could turn back. Yet what was originally a pretence has become a reality; the sentences faked it till they made it. It’s a silly joke that brings with it serious metaphysical excitements. As Oyler observes of the “autofictional voice” in No Judgement, it “creates the illusion of a thinner boundary between the author and the reader”.

The new collection, subtitled On Being Critical, is certainly that. Of the six essays (plus an introduction and short epilogue), three are defences of commonly disparaged phenomena – gossip, autofiction, negative book reviews – and one is a critique of something it has become fashionable to celebrate: vulnerability. The other essays – the best – are personal. The first, about living in Berlin, ends, very effectively, on a winsome, “badly sentimental” note; the other, a racing inventory of the miserable symptoms of Oyler’s anxiety (from teeth-grinding to insomnia), is equally effective because it is entirely unsentimental.

The book takes a while to warm up. The opening pair of long essays, on gossip and reviewing, contain potted histories of and Goodreads, the latter including a digression into the origins of star ratings, which feels uncharacteristically formulaic; Oyler’s lively summary of her evidently diligent research didn’t convince me that she was truly interested in 18th-century guidebooks. Yet such moments are scarce. I found myself marvelling at the strenuous task Oyler had set herself: to write a book’s worth of essays – all “brand new and never published before”, as the press release crows – forgoing the discrete deadlines, fees and the imminent sense of a well-defined audience provided by magazines.

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Oyler has spoken of feeling “limited, particularly stylistically” when writing for publications, and relishes “the relative freedom a book” offers. Yet freedom, famously, often doesn’t feel very freeing. Here, it imposes the burden of self-propulsion, and the challenge of imagining and summoning one’s own readership. On a few occasions I wondered if Oyler misjudged hers. In the course of her essay about criticism, she refers to herself as a “snob” for, among other elitist misdemeanours, enjoying movies with subtitles and disliking happy endings. The essay is a defence of difficult art, and of the importance of distinguishing this from “popular forms of entertainment” such as “unimaginably dumb movies”. It’s a worthwhile argument eloquently made, but I suspect Oyler will be for the most part preaching to a choir of snobs. And the word itself, though funny, risks reproducing the cultural populism she is critiquing.

Also less present in the new book, now Oyler is setting her own homework, is the faintly disobedient boundary-pushing – the subtle violations of decorum – which gives much of her writing for magazines its gleam. The author of an autofictional novel, Fake Accounts, Oyler is increasingly a practitioner of what one might call autofictional criticism. Her essays frequently double as personal-romantic quests – there are often boyfriends in the background and allusions to melancholy – and are ingeniously self-reflexive: they partly tell the story of their own making, showing readers under the hood of her assignments in a mildly scandalous way.

Oyler’s “editor” is a recurring minor character. A long dispatch, for Harper’s, from aboard a nine-day “Goop” cruise – Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company, of vagina egg fame – alludes to the genesis of the piece (which is also an ultimately moving reflection on a stressful-sounding love triangle): “Last summer, I got an email from my editor asking, sneakily, among the how are you’s, ‘Have you ever thought about writing on wellness??’” Midway through an essay for Tank magazine about deadlines, Oyler confesses that she is “about three weeks late on this essay. There was a day last week when I told the editor I’d send it the next day, and then I didn’t… Then I didn’t send it ‘this week’, either. As I write I fear the editor has moved on without telling me.”

The technique gives her essays a titillating immediacy and almost illicit candour. If I didn’t enjoy the daring involved, however, part of me might resent it. “OK, that’s enough. I don’t want to write a book review without quotation marks…” Oyler writes, in a piece about WG Sebald for Harper’s, in lieu of a transition between an introduction about travelling to the German writer’s home town and discussing his work. Not only can these blunt gestures seem a little like cheating, but they are short cuts that arguably rely on the rest of us lumbering conformists continuing to take the long way round, persevering with our square openers and bland segues. The fourth wall can only be thrillingly torn down because some laboriously maintain it.

Self-reflexiveness is also a defence, of course, against being boring or predictable or clichéd. Oyler doesn’t simply avoid clichés; she names, shames and makes a show of sidestepping them (“Explaining why would fall into the cliché category, but basically…”, she writes in a typical passage in her Berlin essay). You could say clichés of writing, and the stylised experiences of contemporary life more generally, are Oyler’s material: like writing about a cruise for Harper’s, which David Foster Wallace famously did in the Nineties, or living in Berlin (and writing about living in Berlin).

As a strategy, it works. Clichés identified and ostentatiously averted – or, sometimes, indulged – can become springboards for fresh observations, just as warning readers that an upcoming metaphor may not land allays our complaints. Yet are there drawbacks to such relentlessly well-defended prose? Self-referential banter produces a conspiring sense of immediacy, but flagging artifice also establishes a kind of distance, as if keeping you at arm’s length. In Oyler’s novel especially, which, for all its unremitting cleverness and amusements, left me a little unmoved, I was undecided about some of the jokes, such as when the narrator reveals that she intends to “write a novel [NOT this one]”. It’s funny and audacious but part of what it risks is defiling the novel, contaminating it with a kind of speech that perhaps doesn’t belong there. In a virtuosic passage, the narrator sets up a profile on the dating site OkCupid, composing answers to prompts: “A perfect day (A day you’d feel great about): ‘i’ll know it when i see it’.” It struck me that the compulsive pleasures of these delectably witty responses – I felt like I could read reams of them – were not so different from the pleasures of reading the rest of the novel. Is this pleasure more of an internet pleasure than a literary pleasure? Is Oyler too fun to read?

Oyler’s overt self-awareness – which is of course awareness of us, her readers – makes us self-aware. We are constantly reminded we are an audience, plural. Like followers of a Twitter account, we are glad to be entertained but we rarely feel intimately addressed. In the passage about how the autofictional voice thins the boundary between author and reader, Oyler suggests this “is similar to the effect created by social media”. It’s an intriguing, not altogether convincing analogy, which applies to her autofictional novel – in which the narrator’s Twitter profile picture resembles Oyler’s real-life one – but less so to others. I’m not claiming to have never googled Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti, both of whom Oyler discusses a fair amount in No Judgement, but the illusory access their books provide to their real-life authors is not their primary appeal (Heti’s work especially feels blissfully offline). The interest of autobiographical novels, including Oyler’s own, has much more to do with the vitality and intelligence of the prose. To compare autofiction to social media, where intimacy is decidedly fake and self-scrutiny rampant, is to diminish the kind of intimacy voices in literature can provide. Such intimacy is always in a sense fictional but that doesn’t mean it’s false.

In her infamous essay for the LRB, Oyler mocks Tolentino for boasting: she “enjoys recreational drugs and straightforward books, and has so many friends that she is simply drowning in wedding invitations”; she attended “a ‘rowdy’ music festival with nine people (good for you)”. It sounds like she’s irritated by Tolentino’s obliviousness, but it may be more accurate to say she’s provoked by the chinks in Tolentino’s self-aware armour. After all, gloating – about having friends or doing drugs – is a mixture of self-aware and un-self-aware. It’s self-aware in that you want people to know something flattering about you; it’s un-self-aware in that you can’t see, or don’t care, that people discern this impulse and find it unbecoming. What Tolentino’s case reveals, in Oyler’s court anyway, is that self-awareness, which can never be complete, cannot control or prevent others’ judgement of you.

At the beginning of her Goop cruise essay, Oyler reveals that she’d “spent the summer engaging in polyamory and doing unanticipated quantities of drugs, and everyone agreed I needed to get away from my two boyfriends, who were providing me with an endless supply of suffering and stimulants”. I must admit the riposte “good for you” does come to mind. Yet I suspect Oyler wouldn’t be perturbed by it. In fact arguably she has got there first: her tone, though frank, is slightly inscrutable, the air of boastfulness expertly blended with a trace of self-mockery (“suffering and stimulants”). Besides, she knows that “public writing”, as she observes in the LRB piece, “is always at least a little bit self-interested, demanding, controlling and delusional”. The question is whether the writer can “add enough of something else to tip the scales away from herself”, which Oyler surely does, or it wouldn’t be so fun to read her.

At one point, she accuses Tolentino of “getting in ahead of criticism”. This sounds rather like Oyler’s own strategy: “make the book good enough so people can’t hatchet-job you, right? That’s what everybody is going for, I hope.” To strive to place yourself beyond criticism: it’s a startlingly defensive, and self-conscious, take on literary success. Something about the notion of hatchet-job-proofing makes it sound as though a good book is one to which readers can’t get too close (so they can’t reach you with their hatchets).

Oyler once wisely observed in an interview that, “There’s no shortcut to intimacy, which develops from letting yourself be interpreted over a period of time.” At one point early on in Fake Accounts, the narrator expresses “horror at being read too well”. There are, it would seem, worse fates, and more terrifying prospects, than hatchet jobs.

No Judgement: On Being Critical
Lauren Oyler
Virago, 288pp, £20

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[See also: Jon Fosse and the art of tedium]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul