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No judgement on being critical

Session 9 - Lauren Oyler 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

Lauren Oyler — here to talk about her new essay collection No Judgement: On Being Critical — was introduced by Jeremy with a quote from the Times: “The most significant and widely read critic of her generation.”  That’s quite the status. I asked Lauren – who seemed to spring to instant stardom about a decade ago – how she got to where she is?

She said that when she started out — “I was 24, I was angry, and I was kinda fearless” — it was in the middle of an era when, as she saw it, book reviewing was in a bad, stagnant, boring place. “It had been so taken over by identity politics” that people were adjusting their reviews according to the author’s identity or the politics of the cause they were championing.

She found that dull and frustrating. Her first viral piece was when she wrote a long and excoriating review of Roxane Gay’s book – about which nobody had hitherto said a bad word. An excoriating review of Jia Tolentino’s modish Trick Mirror followed and crashed the LRB website. She quickly got a reputation as “a takedown artist”, she said. And everyone loves to read a takedown because it brings drama. And even all that drama, all this social media sniping, serves a wider good: “It’s literary essays we’re fighting about!” It’s directing a public conversation towards books, and that’s a good. 

That said, Lauren said she was at least as likely to be actuated to write by thinking “this is great” as she is by thinking “this sucks”. And when she does write negatively, it’s not usually because something is bad in itself. It only becomes interesting to her, and worth criticising, when its badness seems to her to chime with, or tell her about, something in the wider culture. She doesn’t see herself as narrowly a “book critic” or even a “cultural critic”: she prefers, just, “writer”. 

A digital native and self-confessed social media addict since she was in her early twenties, Lauren says that the role of criticism has changed – and she gives that a cautious welcome. “Experts” no longer dispense judgment from an elite position of cultural authority – and the pretence of lofty objectivity can be dispensed with. She’s “using myself as a data point”. The reality is, she says, readers “don’t want a genius or an academic” telling them about books: “they want someone relatable”. 

Putting herself into her work – in her essays you’ll read all sorts of asides about her love life, her relationship with her editors, her drink and drug consumption, and what have you – is a very natural way of being. It’s part of an era, among other things, in which all of us are “characters” on social media. But it’s also, on some level, a token of honesty: she’s not pretending to objectivity, but foregrounding where she’s coming from, and what she brings to her work as a critic. 

She recalled being on stage with Sheila Heti (whose writing is even more personal) and Sheila being asked whether she hesitated to be so exposing. She said it was like being a gymnast: if you’re a gymnast you need to wear very tight-fitting clothes and your body will be on display. If you’re not comfortable with that, don’t be a gymnast – and if you’re not comfortable with self-exposure, don’t be a writer. 

  I asked, too, about whether she was as good at “taking it” as she was at “dishing it out”, mentioning for instance a very long and hostile review of No Judgement by Becca Rothfeld (a rough contemporary) in the Washington Post. Rather than wince, Lauren positively perked up. Gossip! Drama! “I knew that was coming. And a full month before, Becca followed my boyfriend’s Instagram account – his private Instagram account. She also dated two of my ex-boyfriends. Really, Becky?” 

Book reviewing, these days, does bleed over into internet beef and gossip – because everyone on social media is a “character”, and hostility that’s endorsed by something that’s published in a prestige media outlet is extra spicy. As far as Lauren is concerned, it’s all part of the game. Does the way in which algorithms surface and promote anger, outrage and conflict just affect how things are consumed – or does it also affect the way writing is produced in the digital age? Definitely the latter, she says. 

And she seems to have a thick skin, though she was somewhat relieved not to have been completely clobbered for denouncing Goodreads in one of the essays in No Judgement as Lauren Hough was when she made the mistake of denouncing the site. “I put my criticism in the middle of a 16,000-word essay,” she pointed out. “Lauren Hough made the mistake of attacking them on Twitter.” Leaving unsaid, perhaps, that some of the more ferocious Goodreads people might not be taking the trouble to read a whole book. 

Lauren offers some respect, too, for artists who can take criticism. She mentions one very well-known writer – she says she won’t name her publicly, at least, until she’s had a few drinks – who had very visibly responded to a savage review of her last book by changing her style in the new one. So a good artist can take what is useful from a negative response and discard the rest of it.

That said, she said, “When someone tells me, ‘You’ve ruined that book, or that author, for me – I used to love them but now I can’t read them without hearing you over my shoulder’, that’s the highest compliment for me. I know I’ve done my job well.”

Three takeaways

  1. Reviewing is always personal

  1. The democratisation of culture is a good, but it’s not enough

  1. Keep an eye on your ex-boyfriends when Becca Rothfeld is on the prowl