"I'm Going to Put This in My Fucking Book" — Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler on her novel Fake Accounts, writing in the age of Twitter, and whether contemporary fiction is “fake and embarrassing”

Photo by Pete Voelker

Charlie Lee
I want to start with a line from Fake Accounts that I found hilarious. The narrator’s boyfriend asks the narrator if she has any sexual fantasies, and she replies that she “wanted to fuck him with a strap-on while he read the novel I was working on.” In addition to this being a very funny line, I also thought it gestured towards something about the book as a whole, which is this sort of antagonistic stance that it takes towards the reader and towards interpretation in general. Is that something you were thinking about?

Lauren Oyler
Yeah, definitely. There are all these meta elements that I wanted to use in the book, and I wanted them all to be sort of jokey, but also kind of serious, so you can't determine how serious the narrator is about the novel. There’s this cliché people fall into where they want to say something like and then this became the book that you're holding in your hands today. And she's very aware of that—I was very aware of that. I wanted to sort of play on it, but not push it too hard or take it too far to the point where it becomes cheesy. I also think there's a tendency in contemporary literature today to want to let the reader have a sort of journey with your book. But I don't want to have a journey with someone else's book! I have enough of my own thoughts. I want to be presented with someone else's work and their thoughts, and then to make a determination on it on my own. I see it much more as an exchange, rather than me presenting you with something and you can take it or not. So yes. It’s obviously also a comment on the sort of aggressive pseudo-feminism that’s quite popular online, this type of man-hating, kitschy, campy, domineering feminism that happens too. This idea that, like, you have to be reading women all the time because of some “read women” campaign—“you better do this.”

Charlie Lee
At the moment, people are probably most familiar with your work either through Twitter or through the criticism that you write, especially about contemporary literature. How do you feel about being on the other side of this and having your own work written about in this way?

Lauren Oyler
I think I feel nervous, in the way that anyone feels nervous. But I also think there’s this sort of superstitious, karma element that I’m feeling. Not necessarily a worry that I’ll get a bad review. It’s more than that. I do have a low opinion of the average critic, and maybe my skepticism will come to fruition in some way. What I think I try to do in my negative reviews—and in my positive reviews—is to read the book very generously and see what the author’s trying to do. And if I think what they’re trying to do is not a good project, that’s one thing. But I just hope that people see what I’m trying to do [with Fake Accounts] and read it in that way. And if they think that it’s a bad project, that’s totally legitimate. I think the book is a lot about reciprocity, and wanting reciprocity and not being able to find it in your social life. So, as far as criticism goes, it’s only fair for me to take it, since I dish it out.

Charlie Lee
That makes sense, especially because in many ways the book itself seems to engage in its own form of literary criticism. There are a number of moments where the narrator comments—sometimes implicitly, but often explicitly—on the state of fiction being written right now. There’s this section where the narrator makes fun of a certain style of novel that’s pretty common at the moment, one that’s written in a very fragmented way. The narrator mocks the things that people often say about these novels—how they accurately represent the fragmented nature of time in modern life, say, or how there is something about the style that reflects contemporary womanhood. After this, for 40 pages or so, the novel becomes a very funny parody of this style of writing. How do you think about the role of the novel in engaging in this sort of criticism?

Lauren Oyler
I think it’s hard for me to avoid that, especially since it’s the thing that I’m interested in. But I also think we're at a point where collective knowledge is this chaotic, omnipresent, force in most people's lives, because it's on the phone and the internet and all that. It’s sort of hopeless to live in this fantasy that a book can sweep you away from your life. Or that it’s not really a book, it’s just a story. Or that it’s a text, it’s not a book.

Charlie Lee
Right—the notion of the book as an escape from reality feels a bit outdated.

Lauren Oyler
Yeah, I think that’s just hopeless. You’re always going to be googling the author, right? You're always going to be thinking about how you acquired the book, like, you might have bought it on Amazon, you might be reading it on your Kindle, you might have gone to any bookstore and made a big sort of political statement about going to that bookstore. So I think all of that is baked into the experience of reading any book now, and I wanted to bring it more to the fore and comment on the interrelated aspects between non-book life and one’s career. Also, to be clear, I’m not totally against fragments, categorically. I just think most people don’t think about why they’re using them. They couldn’t say why they’ve decided to write in fragments except that it’s quite easy and quite fun to write them. And they’re also sort of compulsively readable, because it’s very fun to be able to just flip pages and be like, wow, I’m reading a whole book so fast!

Photo by Pete Voelker

Charlie Lee
Speaking of criticism, were there writers or experiences you feel shaped your work as a critic?

Lauren Oyler
Well, I’m from West Virginia, and I wrote for the teen section of the Charleston Gazette when I was in high school. I wrote reviews—I remember reviewing a John Mayer album, and I remember doing a review of the last Harry Potter book when I was a senior in high school and being really bored by it.

Charlie Lee
It was boring!

Lauren Oyler
Absolutely. I guess I had a reviewing impulse, I always thought that was cool. And then I went to Yale and did English. I’m always struck by how little I knew about criticism and magazines when I was in college. They really just teach you to aspire to write profiles for the New Yorker. I started reading lots of criticism because I started writing this weird top ten column for the magazine Dazed & Confused when I lived in Berlin. And I started reading the LRB all the time, I just loved reading old LRB reviews. So that's really how I learned to do it, and where I got my style, or my approach, I guess. And then I started blogging for my friend Jessa [Crispin], who ran Bookslut. She lived in Berlin, and she'd written a sort of depressed but really good essay about William James and being an exile in Berlin. And I was like, I also am depressed! And we became friends that way. I was always reading what people were doing and learning about how criticism worked. And because I didn't read any of it when I was young, I feel like I came into it and the disconnect between what people were saying about books and how books actually were was made clear to me.

Charlie Lee
In some ways, it feels like the book disarms the temptation readers sometimes have to think about how autobiographical it is, or whether the narrator is the author, or all those sorts of questions. This narrator literally has the same Twitter profile picture as you. The idea of engaging in that sort of speculation seems to be mocked as somewhat shallow or missing the point entirely.

Lauren Oyler
Yeah, I think that I was interested in anticipating a lot of things for the reader. The time that we live in now is so anticipatory, and all punditry is based on predicting what's going to happen. And everybody is sort of dreading things all the time, even though very bad things are happening now. Everybody’s focused on asking, when’s the worst going to happen, when is the world going to end? So I was interested in trying to anticipate the reader. And I think the larger structure, the larger plot, is maybe not necessarily expected. I was interested in trying to create an interplay between this knowing narrator, who is quite pompous and arrogant and thinks she knows everything, and the fact that she then gets totally fooled by this guy who may be quite intelligent, but he also just might be just sort of a jerk and kind of empty. You don't know if he really knows what he's doing, if he believes what he's doing, if he thinks he's quite smart, if he actually is quite smart. You can't really tell. And she just gets totally sideswiped by his stupid, weird thing. So that's what I was thinking about with a narrator who tries to anticipate the reader’s thoughts and says things like, I know what you're thinking, and I’ve already incorporated it into my analysis—it’s revealed that this desire to achieve superiority through knowing is pretty futile. She arrives at this new, still terrible place, but she’s considered everything and has to keep going anyway.

Charlie Lee
The "ex-boyfriends in the audience," whom the narrator often makes little asides to, seem to play into that.

Lauren Oyler
Yes—they’re sort of a mixed bag, right? Somebody said to me something like, all the men in the book seem terrible. And I was like, do they? I think they all seem kind of fine, more or less. Some are more annoying than others, as in life, but I wasn’t interested in doing the misandrist thing. I think she sort of has a loving relationship to the ex-boyfriends.

Fake Accounts, Oyler's debut novel

Charlie Lee
I’m curious what your experience is of going from a place like Twitter to trying to write criticism or anything like that. Personally, I’ve found that it can be a bit stifling—I always have this feeling that no matter what idea I have, 10,000 people have probably already chewed over that idea pretty thoroughly. I would imagine that might also apply to trying to write fiction that engages with current events in any sort of meaningful way, like this book does.

Lauren Oyler
I think in my experience on Twitter I’ve found that element to be quite useful. Because there are writers who are not on it, and then they will publish something that is just really old. They don't understand that so many people have said this on Twitter that it has already been through a cycle of being mocked, and then a reverse backlash cycle where people get mad at the people mocking it. Basically, if you're writing something that attempts to say something new to the Twitter audience, you will inevitably say something new to the non-Twitter audience. But at the same time, I think so many journalists are on Twitter, and so many journalists and also politicians are basically getting their ideas from Twitter now, and you can see how the ideas filter down through this ecosystem. And I think that's really interesting, because sometimes you'll see AOC give a speech or something, and you're like, oh yeah, I know where you got that, that's from Twitter. And then there's this third level of normal social media users who are posting AOC's things and saying how amazing they are. And it becomes this iterative, repetitive cycle that is sort of deadening. But that in itself is kind of interesting, because how does that effect how we relate to each other, or how we get the news? But anyway, back to your question: yes, it was a little bit daunting. But because I'm so addicted to it, and on it all the time, and know it so well, I wasn't terribly worried. And I also tried to keep the story really close to the micro-historical timeframe, so that if anything seems dated, then it's because that historical period already feels dated, rather than what I'm saying feeling dated. I was like, if I comment on the first six months of 2017, then whatever speaks to a longer time period will shine through, and everything else will just seem like an accurate historical detail, basically.

Charlie Lee
It was especially wild to read depictions of events that took place almost exactly four years ago, like the Women’s March, where a big scene takes place. That was four years ago yesterday! Among other things, it was interesting to see that event portrayed so vividly, in a way that I think anyone who lived through 2017 will probably remember pretty viscerally.

Lauren Oyler
Yeah, I really wanted to write that, because I was actually there supposed to be covering it for a magazine, and then they rescinded the assignment and gave it to someone else. I was all pissed off, and I was like, I’m going to put this in my fucking book. But also, I haven’t seen anybody really talk about how intense and overwhelming and sort of scary it was, which, you know, makes sense. But the experience of being in a crowd of people that large—I’ve never been in a crowd of people that large, and conceptually it’s sort of mind-blowing. But I also think it's a good analog, no pun intended, to how social media works. There's all this simultaneous, overwhelming input, and you as a human are not really supposed to be in a situation like that, I don't think.

Charlie Lee
Well, speaking of that experience of social media as something sort of unnatural and overwhelming, one thing that comes up in the novel is not wanting to write a book that mimics being on Twitter. I’m curious about how you approached this: writing something that would sort of mimetically represent digital experience—there’s several scenes where all the drama exists in what the narrator is doing on a phone—without trying to represent that experience at the level of form.

Lauren Oyler
I mean, for one, I just thought that there weren't a lot of new books about the time that we’re living in that were written like the sort of novels I like to read. It’s not like those novels are so old—I’m not a Victorianist, I like 20th century literature almost exclusively. But the pleasures of reading a good paragraph are so rarely found anymore. I don’t want to be too cocky about my ability to pull off a good paragraph, but I did want to try, because I know that there must be people who also miss that, and would like that in some way. I was also thinking about the constant death knell of the novel, the idea that the novel needs to adapt or whatever. And actually, the novel is quite good for this, because you want to register an experience of a continuous time. There’s so much drama to be found on the phone, as you say, and there’s so much on social media that fits with the idea of a classical novel. So the idea that it just doesn’t work seemed to me totally ludicrous. That’s more or less what I was going for.

Charlie Lee
Are there other people writing today that you feel excited about, or whose work feels generative for you?

Lauren Oyler
Yeah, I mean, I think in the book you can see the type of people that I like. I like Ben Lerner, I like Sheila Heti. I like lots of contemporary European authors—Jenny Erpenbeck is great. I’m doing research on all these European autofiction dramas, especially legal dramas, which I think are interesting. I’m trying to be more optimistic about all this. But what’s a bummer to me is how much work is required to research what’s going on in contemporary literature and find something that’s actually going to be good. I’ve been involved in publishing and in literary media for like, ten years, so I have a good sense of the publishers and what each of them does, and I just think it’s depressing what gets a lot of attention and what doesn’t.

Charlie Lee
Well, given this attempt at optimism, do you have a sense of where autofiction might be heading? You’ve written elsewhere that the genre was fun while it lasted but that it was never going to give the reader “a reason to jump out of bed in the morning.”

Lauren Oyler
I mean people are like, ugh, autofiction, and it pisses me off! But I understand it, also, because it is sort of a dead-end. I think reflexivity always works best as a sort of joke, and I think it will always work as a joke. But it can’t be your galaxy-brain take, right? You can’t be like, look, it’s actually me, but is it? That’s not smart, though it is funny. So I don’t know where autofiction is going. I personally wanted very much to do something with it—to take the autofictional narrator and try to move it along a little. You could just say it’s recursive, because I just inserted her into a traditional narrative. I want to read this new Rachel Cusk book, [Second Place,] because I’m interested to see what she’s doing. It’s quite hard to move all of this along, but I also would find it difficult to write a normal, straightforward novel after this. I use [Cusk’s] quote, that regular fiction is “fake and embarrassing,” all the time, because it’s so useful. I know everybody’s quotes about how fiction sucks—Sheila Heti also has one. I do feel that fiction can be fake and embarrassing, but I also find writing essays quite limiting. So we’ll see.


Charlie Lee

is a writer and editor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He co-founded Soft Punk with Jacob in the summer of 2019. He is currently a PhD candidate in English at Cambridge University, working on contemporary poetry.

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