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Lauren Oyler for Better or Worse

photography CARLEEN COULTER
01 May 2024
Mark Bo Chu recently binge-read Lauren Oyler’s work, No Judgement: On Being Critical. When he finished Oyler's extensive collection of essays, which cover a variety of subjects such as gossip, ex-pat life in Berlin, autobiography, and literary analysis, he found her ability to combine various art forms to be engrossing. Despite Oyler's hate for the internet, she was happy to take a Zoom call from her home in Berlin.

Mark Bo Chu Is your writing becoming more Eurocentric?

Lauren Oyler A lot of my writing is about being an American abroad and the perspective is always self-consciously American. If you’re an educated liberal, it’s the only way to be American now. I’m interested in what Europe means to the broader anglophone audience.

MBC Do you think migration directions will change? Do you think there’ll be more Americans getting out?

LO I don’t. The American attitude is very insular and quite fearful. There’s a huge percentage of people who don’t have a passport. Even cultured people, the bourgeois, and the upper-middle class don’t really travel, if I may make an assumption, like people in our milieu do. There’s an active feeling of: I need to get out and see the world, or maybe it would be better to live somewhere else. In America there’s a fear of acknowledging that maybe it’s better somewhere else. Particularly within working-class Americans, there’s a national pride that’s very defensive. They would never admit they don’t have the best health care in the world, because that would mean admitting they’ve been living worse lives. I have a lot of Australian friends, actually. It seems there’s a kind of Australian who does want to get out, and there’s not that kind of American person. It’s almost expected in Australia, if you’re from a certain class, right? You will go to Europe; you will travel.

MBC The Australia-to-Brooklyn or Australia-to-Berlin path is definitely well-travelled. In Australia, there is probably a larger bulk of people who go overseas. When you grew up in West Virginia, before studying at Yale, did you feel like those around you were not on that tip?

LO I was barely on the tip, to be honest [laughs]. The place I grew up I call an interstate town because it’s on the interstate and it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nobody I knew had gone travelling anywhere. Austerity, rapacious mining practices, and fracking have destroyed West Virginia. What’s happened to it is really sad and horrible. There’s nothing to do.

MBC How was it living in New York?

LO In New York, I can cosplay a New York City girl boss. I run around, go to Film Forum, go to Metrograph, have breakfast, lunch and dinner scheduled, and do whatever I want, but I never liked living there either. So, I don’t really feel like it’s home. You lived in New York, right? I just saw [the Australian writer] Madeline Watts at a party the other night. I said, Oh, you know Mark Chu.

MBC [Laughs.] Ah, yes, I did the same MFA as her. What did she say?

LO She said, Oh, he’s great; he used to come into the bookstore all the time.

MBC I actually lived on Ludlow Street as Metrograph was coming up.

LO Did you like living there?

MBC I did. But I spent quite a lot of time in New Jersey, in Atlantic City. Everything seemed exotic, the landscape, the Greyhounds, the density of people.

LO In West Virginia, the density of people is very low. It’s very far in comparison to New Jersey. The people I grew up with had never been to a real city. New Jersey’s interesting because it’s gritty, kinda trashy, but all those people have been to New York City.

MB Do you feel emotional about West Virginia?

LO No. I sound terrible. [Laughs.]

MBC That’s quite American. I’ve been listening to your essays. From Taylor Swift to the Marvelverse, you dip into many pockets of culture. Do you feel the need to make arguments in the zeitgeist?

LO When I start writing about something, it comes out of an accumulation of examples that I pay attention to. I pay attention to the zeitgeist. Even if I don’t like a lot of it, I want to know what’s going on. That comes from being from West Virginia, going to Yale and having to socially study everything that’s going on.

MBC When you're obsessed with something you don't like, it seems to pique your interest in bigger things.

LO Yeah, you’re like, this is wrong! I don’t really write about Taylor Swift. But it’s difficult to avoid her and if you’re not avoiding her, it’s easy to make a little joke about her. That’s what she’s for: a collective awareness that allows people to discourse about her in this one-sentence way. Similarly, there’s a part in an essay that hinges on a discussion of what Marvel movies represent in culture today, but that essay did not call for a close reading of Marvel movies. Things like the Marvel Universe are supposed to be simple. That’s why everyone likes them. They’re the things in culture that everybody knows. It’s horrible. We hate it. You know what they are, even though you live in Australia. That’s kind of interesting. I think some critics would like to pretend they don’t exist. And I, for better or worse, cannot do that.

MBC You noted Scorsese’s criticism of Marvel Cinema. He was basically like: this stuff’s shit and I couldn’t make it. Would you prefer to live in a world without the Marvel Universe?

LO I often have fantasies of a world without this stuff. It’s not adding anything. People gravitate towards things that cater to the lowest common denominator because, as Scorsese writes, they don’t really know that they have another choice.

MBC Do you have a list of things you’d rather not have around?

LO No, but if you did rapid fire, I could probably say yes or no. A lot of interviews I’ve done have been about the internet and social media. I would have preferred they never existed.

MBC You’ve written famous critical essays about the work of your contemporaries. Would some of those works have been better off in the recycle bin?

LO People of my generation are pressured to produce way too much. When I was coming up, it was easy to publish in digital media. There were so many websites and ways to get your name out there. I was writing these top ten lists for Dazed, then I started writing for my friend Jessa Crispin’s blog, Bookslut, and that’s how I got into writing. I wouldn’t say other people shouldn’t have that opportunity, but I do think that some people with potential seem like they’re phoning it in because they want money, prestige or whatever. Sally Rooney has some skills but when you read her essays, you’re like, why are these novels so bad? There are other writers where I’m like, you just don’t have it. Not everyone agrees with me, but I think I’m right.

MBC Have you ever met someone who knows you feel this way about their work?

LO No. You know, I haven’t written that many takedowns. The last one was four years ago. I did the Jia Tolentino one, then I did a little New York Times review of this Eula Biss book that was quite bad. It wasn’t a horrible takedown, I just said that the book fails on many levels. I will say, there is a particular person who wrote a negative review of my novel Fake Accounts and then tried to write a takedown of No Judgement. Three months after she wrote the negative review of Fake Accounts, she emailed me to gossip about somebody, then sort of said, 'Oh, congratulations about the new book’. It was shocking, two-faced behaviour! I’d never write a negative review of somebody’s work, then contact them and pretend to be nice. That’s the etiquette you should follow. We’re not friends. I’ve written positive reviews about people and we’ve become friends, but after that, you can’t write any more reviews of their work, which is fine, because writing book reviews kind of sucks. I became friends with Sheila Heti because I wrote a review of her book, Motherhood.

MBC Do you keep people around who read your work?

LO I’m mostly friends with other writers. I don’t think I could go out with a man who refused to read my work because it’s an aspect of my personality that I feel is essential. The same would be true if I didn’t read what my boyfriend wrote. I’d feel bad.

MBC Is the day-to-day ‘you’ pretty much the same as the ‘you’ in what we read?

LO I think so. It would be weird to have a different writing persona. I find it jarring when you meet someone and they’re funny and gossipy at a party, then their writing is so serious, and they never tell a joke.

MBC Jarring because it’s secretive?

LO One usually assumes that the writer's persona is aspirational. People are like, my ‘real’ self is the one that’s on the page. My true essence. It says something about how that person wants to come off, which can be interesting. Lately, I’ve become more comfortable taking my anecdotes and thinking of them as material.

MBC Have you ever been in a situation where you tell a friend something, then a few more people turn up and you have to retell the story, but your friend who just heard it has to hear it again? How do you feel when that happens?

LO I feel horrible. I don’t want people to think I’m just regurgitating the same story for the same effect to everybody. But when I go back to the United States, I’ll have my three big stories that I go around telling everybody. It gets boring, but you’re catching up.

MBC So when you tell stories on repeat, edit them and perform them.

LO Tailor them to the audience…

MBC Do you feel insincere?

LO No. I had a traumatic thing happen and everybody was like, that is the craziest story I’ve ever heard, which I found very validating. I kept telling this story compulsively because it was so strange and upsetting that I needed it confirmed by the collective. A lot of my gossiping is related to that. Writing as well. I need you to know this really happened.

MBC How has the internet changed the gossip landscape?  

LO I wish the internet would just go away. I’m not a public figure but lately I’ve been a little bit cautious about saying where I go. They tried to cancel me for being a bad writer, and they failed. On Twitter, so many people would write, ‘I met her once’, or, ‘There were six people having a drink’. I find that disturbing. I would never say that stuff on the internet.

MBC It’s not a fair game?

LO It’s an invasion of privacy. Maybe I take the sanctity of the social space seriously because of the clubbing culture in Berlin. You don’t take pictures, you don’t describe what people are doing and you don’t judge.

MBC When I lived in New York, I was surprised that more people weren’t into house music.

LO There was a sense that it’s gauche and European, even though it came from Detroit. When confronted with Europe's intimidating culture, there is a defensive reaction. And club drugs are really not as common as in Europe or, from what my friends say, Australia. People do cocaine. That isn’t the same. It doesn’t produce the same atmosphere to enjoy dance music.

MBC Young Writers didn’t seem to care about too many different cultural forms.

LO It’s shocking how many critics can’t even speak about one other artform. Especially if you purport to be a critic of the contemporary moment. Obviously, all these things are related. Critics in the mid-century could discourse on music, arthouse European cinema, and literature. For Gen X, there was more interest in general independent culture. The internet has ruined this generation's attention spans.

MBC Do you put stock in the self-presentation of worldliness in that Dimes Square downtown scene?

LO I think it’s so horrible that people all around the world ask questions about them, because what have they done? Like, who are they? It became a thing because people in the art world used to hang out down there and, to an extent, the Red Scare podcast girls. I think all they really had was that little magazine and that play that guy Matt Gasda did, which created the myth, and since then, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything going on. On one level, I was happy there was a scene, but I couldn’t develop enough interest in it as a phenomenon. If there was a body of work, essays, short stories, and short films—that would be one thing, but they weren’t producing anything.

MBC So, if you’re in New York and someone says, lets hang out at, say, Lucien, and there’s a fun vibe, are you able to assess that moment as a critic? Do you think that even though there might be some momentary interest, this is not a historically important moment?

LO [Laughs.] I think so. I think you can recognise who’s around, and be like, is this an important historical gathering or not. A lot of them are scenesters. Though it’s important to have scenesters. One thing that makes me sad is, I used to go to that bar, Clandestino, all the time. It was a great, normal bar, but now you just can’t go there. It’s too annoying.

MBC Everyone wants to be first. But are you saying, even with the scenesters who are first, if they’re not making anything historically significant, then they’re mere scenesters?

LO They’re hangers on. They’re doing it because they want to be a part of something that they can’t be, rather than looking for like-minded individuals. I’m very pro group scenes, cultural moments that are defined by, if not an actual manifesto, then a set of beliefs about how culture should be, what we should be doing, what we have in common, why we are aligning ourselves with each other, and why we are having these interesting drunken conversations at 4 in the morning. A scenester is kind of just going there, hoping that something will get picked up. If you want the former intellectual situation, you have to make it. A scenester is someone who is quite passive.

I moved to Berlin when I was 22 and got really frustrated with the anglophone literary scene. The slogan was, in Berlin, if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere. People would come if they’d failed in New York, Melbourne or London. They’d hang out and do too many drugs and have to go home, or bop around at these terrible poetry readings. I’d go to the poetry readings and be like, I can’t do this anymore.

So I moved back to New York and wanted to do some more serious literary stuff, but within a few years I was like, All these people are frauds, they’re not smart, and I’m glad that I know that; I’m glad that I saw it for myself, otherwise, you’d fantasise or whatever. People would just be droning on and on at these parties, bragging, name-dropping, all this kind of stuff, and I’d be like, Who cares, you guys suck. The social life in New York is so competitive and careerist. I don’t really miss anything in New York.

MBC You seem to have deep confidence.

LO My friends say I have a confidence sandwich. The top layer is superficial, the party persona. It’s entertaining, confident, whatever. The middle layer is roiling insecurities, like normal, neurotic, intense things. The bottom layer is ultimate confidence. I don’t know where it comes from. But it’s good. I hope I’m not obnoxious.

No Judgement: On Being Critical by Lauren Oyler is published by Virago and is out now.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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