I Could Have Been Harsher: Lauren Oyler on Judging and Being Judged

Even those who have been the focus of Lauren Oyler’s criticism have, at times, admitted the usefulness of a “truly scathing” review of their bullshit. Oyler rode the internet’s appetite for a well-argued pan to prominence, publishing criticisms of Roxane Gay, Jia Tolentino, and Greta Gerwig that, with time and distance, could actually have been harsher, she tells Lit Hub. Her latest book of essays, No Judgment, follows Fake Accounts, her 2021 pseudo-metafictional novel about an American living in Berlin and interrogating the ways the online world allows us to elide our True Selves, whatever those are, in a fun way.

No Judgment offers a series of satisfying thought exercises on the mess that is GoodReads, anxiety the pathology versus ambiguity the fact of life, and the existential threat to good criticism (“any publication that puts out criticism is simultaneously tap-dancing for an audience increasingly skeptical of the enterprise”), and composes a good old-fashioned intellectual deboning of author/influencer Brene Brown’s vulnerability gospel. It is a useful book for those galloping nostrils flared through the hyper-digital content storm, wondering where the grass is.

Oyler took a moment out of her day to discuss the critical response to her novel, the state of freelance writing, invocations of “research,” and the moment an agitation enters its metamorphosis into a reasoned opinion.


Janet Manley: You write about how you feel called on to single-handedly ~fix~ the discourse (“right a discursive wrong”). So I’m curious where you feel the critical skills of people who read have broken down. Why does it take us five years to say, A Little Life was brutal for no obvious reason.

Lauren Oyler: I think sometimes you read reviews, and people have all sorts of interesting ways of being wrong. But I do think that there is an awareness which is that basically an author, and a review, to a certain extent, is assuming that everybody is much dumber than they are. All their readers are much dumber than they are.

But I can also say, people have always said this about literary criticism in particular. And you always are able to scrounge enough stuff from history that’s worth sustaining and keeping and admiring. So I hope that when we look back on this time, we think actually, it was a wonderful time for cultural production.

I find also people who want to convince other people are often quite insecure in their opinion.

And you know, there’s the algorithms [to blame] as well. Only a select few people are deluded enough to think that Spotify is good for music and Amazon’s good for books.

JM: Theoretically, if we did have a really well-educated, savvy, sensitive readership, and critics were probably doing their job, the text—your book—would be enough to stand on its own. You make the point in your book, I’ve told you everything you need to know, you’ve got my tweets, my tweets! So, how do you feel about author interviews?

LO: I like them. I find them interesting. I’ve always read them. They’ve been around for a long time. It’s not as if they’re only a response to the globalized media content machine. That said, I think you can talk yourself into a circle a lot of times, particularly if you’re talking about a novel. It’s quite difficult to avoid being asked, What is true and what’s false? And you sometimes have to come up with clever ways to get out of these kinds of questions.

In this era of media it’s much better for an author to give an author interview than it is to be an internet journalist having to publish three articles a day and compete for traffic. Because if you want to do an author interview, you really have to argue with an editor at your website to get them to let you do it because that stuff just doesn’t get a lot of traffic and people in general say, like, Oh, book coverage doesn’t get a lot of traffic unless you have this one viral book review that comes out every two to three months right?

There was this clash for the last several years between the hyper-digitized news cycle where everybody’s competing for clicks and there was this understanding that nobody cared about book stuff. And obviously, it takes years to write a book. It takes a long time for it to be published as well. And so it’s not really suitable for the hyper-contemporary moment that is every single minute online. Things will happen.

And then a week and a half later, you’re like, even though that was a week and a half ago, that seems like four years ago. So strangely, the paradox is that the author interviews that seem to do the best on the internet are old ones that recirculate. Someone will take a screenshot of an old interview with Shirley Hazzard, or Zadie Smith, and it will be like a little pithy quote, and then that goes viral because everybody wants to just read a little pithy thing that’s a screenshot.

JM: Obviously, you’ve had your own viral reviews. But I think you’re a very generous reader in that you really pay close attention. You were known as a critic, and then you published your novel, Fake Accounts. I’m wondering if you felt like you received the same level of generous, engaged criticism that you’ve given other people.

LO: Yeah, absolutely. I got so many reviews because I was a prominent book reviewer, right? So all the book reviewers knew who I was, and all the editors of all the magazines that published book reviews knew who I was, therefore they were definitely going to cover my novel and so I got a wide variety of responses. Some of them were very good and very smart, and taught me a lot about my work—things I agree with, things I don’t agree with. And a lot of them I thought were simpler, a lot of them didn’t seem like they’ve really read the book. And that’s that’s fine. You know, whatever.

It was not like my intention to create a—The critic has written a novel. That novel came out when I was 30 years old. I’m still quite young, I’m 33. So it’s this funny thing where it’s like, actually my peers were Sally Rooney and like Megan Nolan and and Raven Leilani, and these and these people were acting like I was like Susan Sontag crawling out of the grave, like the big critic’s finally written a novel. And I’m like, No, it’s a normal age to publish your first novel.

People think that it’s not attractive to be vying for the reader’s attention.

I could have just decided I’m not going to be a critic anymore. And that wouldn’t be that strange, because also, the reviews that I wrote when I was really young, like when I was 23, 24, I don’t know that I would necessarily want to like put those in contact with the reviews that I was writing like when I was 29, 30, and the ones that I write now, so that’s another effect of the internet. You might have a career in print magazines for a long time, but like it’s not like magazine people can just search you and read your juvenilia.

And again, to be clear, this benefited me, and I sort of like it, You know, I get drunk at parties, and people are like, Oh, what’s your job? And I say “I’m the preeminent, most widely read critic of my generation,” and I have a great time, I love it, but with that party trick comes responsibility. As my mom used to say, she used to criticize people who could dish it out, but couldn’t take it.

JM: There’s an essay in the book about being an expat, and you describe yourself in Berlin, where not knowing the language makes you an idiot if an intellectual. How has that affected your work and your view of America at a distance?

LO: Well, I have long disdained the United States of America. And I grew up in West Virginia, which is a very poor very—not rural, but it’s in the middle-of-nowhere place where the closest international airport is three hours away.

I went to Europe when I was in college, and I was like, this is great, everybody I’m meeting is really well-read and witty and bantering, and they all have healthcare, and it seems strange that they would not have healthcare.

And this is probably one of those abstract questions better suited to a novel, but it’s like, why do some people get attached to certain places and some people not? I was never attached to New York City. I never wanted to live there, and there are lots of logical reasons why that would be the case. But aesthetically, I don’t really care for it. The fact is, I just don’t like it, and I love Berlin.

So I lived [in Berlin] when I was 22 to 24, and then I moved to New York, but I would come back and forth and stay for a few months at a time in Berlin, and I sort of shockingly maintained all my friendships here, and then I moved back two and a half years ago.

And I find there’s two main benefits as a writer which are a distance from the sort of New York literary scene, and also weirdly, a distance from the sort of Twitter world—I know it’s not Twitter anymore. Some of it is just the fact of the time differences: the day here is halfway over or more by the time most people are online and on the internet. I was part of or near media for several years, and that entailed being on Twitter all the time knowing what people on Twitter were talking about.

Then the second thing is you have this sort of foreigners’ perspective on the world, which I do talk about at the end of that Brooklyn essay, which is: everything seems sort of new. And you’re noticing things, and if you pay attention you’ll constantly see strange things.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been a bit too soft in some of these prominently negative, supposedly negative, harsh book reviews…

And it doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived here, [Berlin is] never going to be fully native to me, it’s always gonna seem a bit strange. And I mean that in a completely neutral way. I mean that in a good way, it’s very interesting, and I think that just sort of sharpens your ability to notice all sorts of things in general. And it really benefits you as a writer.

JM: It’s going to be interesting to see what people latch onto out of your book; I suspect the Brené Brown essay. I saw a clip on my Instagram not that long ago, of Brené rocking out on stage with Dave Grohl, and that combination seems to underscore a lot of what you say about how there’s something just so self-satisfying and easy and repellant of criticism about her ideas. And I’m curious, for people who haven’t read it, what you make of that brand of academia, or what she’s calling ~research~?

LO: Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s a scam, she’s a charlatan. It’s not academia, right? But she started talking about her PhD, and talking about her research and her data, in order to bamboozle people who don’t realize that those things mean a lot of different things.

What she’s selling is very common-sense relationship advice. And if you haven’t read it, we’re talking about Brené Brown, who has this very, very popular TED Talk called “The Power of Vulnerability,” which has 63 million views or something. And I wrote this essay which I also called “Power of Vulnerability,” but in a mean way, because I noticed the word vulnerability as a really heartfelt principle that everybody needed to keep in mind: This really beautiful aspect of human nature that we all needed to honor and cherish.

I just noticed people talking about vulnerability a lot. I noticed it a lot in cultural criticism, in book reviews and film reviews, basically any review of anything that I would read someone would mention all the actors’ vulnerability, the vulnerability of the whatever, and it was always taken as a good thing and [I was] also seeing it more and more in this kind of pseudo-scientific therapy discourse that everybody will be very, very familiar with, which flows from relationship advice in in women’s magazines.

It has this high-low range, where everybody is sort of saying, Oh, you need to be vulnerable. You need to be vulnerable, if you don’t know how to be vulnerable, you’ll never be happy—all this kind of stuff. So I wanted to see where that came from. And I did some research and compiled some data, just like Brené Brown, and found it came from this talk, which is very popular.

It just really irritated me. And I will be frank, too, I got a couple of the book reviews of Fake Accounts where the reviewer said, you know, she’s afraid to be vulnerable. And at first my response was like, you would never tell Philip Roth that he needs to be more vulnerable, right, like you would never say that about Thomas Bernhard. You’re only saying that because I’m a woman, and you want me to be crying more. And second of all, the protagonist cries a lot. I’m sorry you weren’t paying attention, anyway. Like, you’re not vulnerable if you’re also making a joke?

So that was an inspiration for this deep dive into the concept, and then it spun out from there. And I hope that I make clear the feminist argument that I’m making which is that vulnerability is one of these sort of quote-unquote feminine values and, quoting a Harvard Business Review article, as feminism has become sort of more mainstream and more of a viable capitalistic proposition… you need to learn to be vulnerable in the workplace for some reason.

And I found this quite pernicious, because you’re a woman and you’re being told, oh, you’re not vulnerable enough, usually by someone who doesn’t know you, so why would I be vulnerable to you? I met you twice, why do I need to expose my deepest traumas to you?

I was just like oh, this is very pernicious, because it’s sort of implying that you need to act more like a stereotypical woman, which is sort of weak, right? The synonym for vulnerable is weak. So you need to be weaker. Why aren’t you? Why are you constantly performing strength? Also there’s a sort of sense that no display of strength could be genuine. It’s all fake because everyone’s secretly crying on the inside all the time. And you know we could talk about like, why does everybody think that everybody’s secretly miserable and crying out on the internet all the time. But that’s beyond the scope of the essay.

JM: With the collection as a whole, No Judgment, the idea is, I’m willing to come in and tackle these things. I was excited to talk to you and to read the book because it feels like there is a wealth of opinions—especially in places like GoodReads, as you talk about—that are either ill-informed or just disingenuous. The greater volume of opinions that a given person has, the more I’m likely to think like they don’t really believe any of it. And then, when I really want opinions out of people that I think are smart, it feels often they’re the ones who are most loath to publicly give their opinion on a thing.

You get the best opinions in private, so it seems interesting to me that there is this sort of divide between those who are too embarrassed to put forth their opinions on taste and be weighing in on these things, and then the opinions you see pushed out there. What do you see as the state of opinion giving and criticism in general?

LO: Well, yeah, I think what you’re saying is basically a function of people who have better opinions spend longer coming up with them. So there’s more work that’s gone into them, they’re not just blabbing. And Renata Adler talks a lot about this issue, which is that the newspaper critic, the daily critic for someone who writes multiple reviews per week I mean, they tend to deteriorate quite rapidly, because they don’t have enough time to think about things, and the hope that you’re gonna improve by just like absorbing so much material is a bit foolish.

In general, you know, I also wouldn’t just give my opinion on anything. Because I am quite confident about my ability to think through certain kinds of problems and think about certain kinds of areas, and can think about a film. I can think about a novel or whatever and I can speak to certain political issues. I wouldn’t talk about every political issue in public just because, you know: I wouldn’t want my ill-informed opinion to shape other people’s: whereas if your primary goal of sharing an opinion is domination, and changing the minds of people just to have the power of of changing minds or because you really believe what you’re saying, even if you’re totally wrong, right, what you’re saying is, therefore you want to convince other people, though I find also people who want to convince other people are often quite insecure in their opinion. So they need the wisdom of the crowd to buoy their confidence. And they couldn’t actually be in a position where they were arguing against the majority because they don’t actually believe what they’re saying.

And I talk about this in this GoodReads essay, which is not just about GoodReads. I think actually a lot of professional critics are terrible, too, they’re just really, really dumb, they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s maddening to have this feeling where you read a review of a movie that you’ve just seen and you’re like, what movie did you watch? And that outrage is also born of a little bit of insecurity because you’re like, am I crazy? Am I going to go back to anxiety like, am I going insane? Did I actually not pay attention to this movie? Did I miss something? And that I find that that experience can be quite alienating.

And the reason I write criticism is is so that I have to think through all these opinions, so that I do have to spend a lot of time on them, so that I do when they come out like I’m very confident, and I don’t really feel like I regret any anything that I’ve ever said, if anything. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been a bit too soft in some of these prominently negative, supposedly negative, harsh book reviews I’ve done and that’s because I think about them a lot.

So what you’re frustrated by is actually a control mechanism for smart people. And I think professional critics tend to be quite vain. And so they’re not gonna say something that might make them look stupid.

JM: That’s funny. One of the things that you work through yourself is how much research to acknowledge or cite. And you talk about how you’re seeing more and more books where they list everything they’ve touched in the cultural whole space, and at some point you’re just they’re just citing being in the online stew, right?

LO: I think they’re ashamed of being a writer. And so you can spread around the effect like I’m barely a writer. I’m more of a reader, and I’m just collecting all these citations. And I’m not an academic. We’re not talking about academics. We’re talking about literary novelists and essayists. Their essays are just like, this person wrote this, and this person wrote this, and it’s supposed to be an essay about, I don’t know, cheating on your husband, but not that much of that person is in it right?

And the things that I like reading the most have a very strong voice, a very particular style. And the author usually has a particular point of view and I also love academics—I’m friends with lots of academics—but I had to remind myself that I don’t need to cite everything like that I know, or that I could possibly know about a topic. And that’s not fun to read.

It’s important, on one hand, to acknowledge people’s contributions that significantly help you and acknowledge you shouldn’t steal people’s argument, but, if I came up with an argument I wasn’t going to cite, “and by the way, like [I talked] to my friend Joe about this. Thanks very much, Joe, for pointing me in the direction of a book that I should have read half of, and then I didn’t really use it, but like it changed my thinking about the—,” right, you know. That’s the kind of citation that we’re talking about. It’s a bit excessive.

And I think it’s because people are ashamed to be writing stuff. And maybe it’s because they don’t actually have anything to say. And maybe it’s because they don’t want to be thought of as claiming to have something to say. Because that’s sort of like saying, you should listen to me. I’m vying for your attention. And if you don’t win that attention, then that’s devastating. And people think that it’s not attractive to be vying for the reader’s attention.

I talk about that in the context of this autofiction essay. This trend arose at sort of the tail end of the autofiction boom of the 2010s, which, to be clear, I’m not saying that’s the only time autofiction was popular. But the last 15 years or so it’s been very popular in the in the Anglophone sphere, and as everybody was really ragging on autofiction, and everybody’s like, don’t fucking write autofiction, like stop it, no, this is worthless, only people in Brooklyn like this naval-gazing crap, this kind of bibliographic style became a trend.

And I argue that those two things are definitely related because the autofiction was ostensibly about this, all about the self and like, who am I? And into the construction of a public persona, and how does that relate to like the true self, if such a thing exists. And by contrast, you know this bibliography trend was saying actually, there is no self, there’s only the sum of your influences. And maybe all those things are, you know, it’s a unique combination. But there’s nothing of you there.

This interview has been condensed and edited lightly for length and clarity.

Janet Manley

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