Self-awareness is general in summer 2020, at least according to the people who read books and write about them. A recent crop of essays — by Katy Waldman for The New Yorker, Ryu Spaeth for The New Republic, and Lauren Oyler for Bookforum — have diagnosed an overabundance of self-awareness among writers today, at least the ones who write about comfortable people leading comfortable lives. The problem isn’t the self-awareness itself, exactly; no one thinks we need more books by self-deluding buffoons. The problem is the defensive postures that all the self-awareness seems to produce, among characters and the writers who create them: squirmy half-apologies, self-deprecating irony, piously articulated desires to do better, and, perhaps, an implication that self-awareness is “enough” — that simply acknowledging one’s luck amid the world’s cavalcade of injustice might count as doing something to make it better.
I don’t share all these critics’ assessments of all the books in question, but, broadly speaking, I’d say they’re onto something. And while they’re talking about novels, the conundrum of self-aware privilege and what to do about it is perhaps even more apparent in nonfiction prose. Recent years have seen a glut of personal essays in which, for at least a paragraph or so, writers list “all of [their] structural advantages, and basically argue against [themselves] writing the piece before returning to the piece,” as critic Amanda Hess once observed.
This tendency was on my mind as I read Having and Being Had, the new book by poet and essayist Eula Biss. A book-length essay on life and money, it takes shape in fragments — of history, autobiography, and cultural criticism — through which themes and arguments gradually cohere. Having and Being Had also takes the literature of self-aware privilege to a certain logical extreme: The book is an account of the precise material circumstances that enabled Biss to write it. Yet the spirit is less one of legalistic disclaimer and preemptive self-defense than of genuine scrutiny.
Biss has long been drawn to topics that lend themselves to polemic, which she approaches in a spirit that’s resolutely unpolemical. Her intellect is omnivorous, roving, and humane. 2014’s On Immunity, an unexpected best seller, concerned vaccines and the people who reject them, a subject that led Biss into the contradictions of community — how we threaten but also depend on one another — as a way of understanding health and disease. 2009’s Notes From No Man’s Land, a collection with the subtitle “American Essays,” considered race, family, and history; in the sort-of-titular essay “No Man’s Land,” she used the gentrification of her Chicago neighborhood to discuss white fear and frontier fantasies.
Having and Being Had emerged from a period of newfound prosperity in Biss’s life. “I never had a regular job until now,” she explains. “In my 20s I left job after job, working until I had enough money to write and then writing until I needed money again.” For a while, she was living off $10,000 a year in New York City; she remembers the “hours spent at laundromats, hours at bus stops, hours at free clinics, hours at thrift stores, hours on the phone with the bank or the credit-card company or the phone company over some feel some little charge, some mistake.” Now, in her early 40s, she has a university teaching job in Chicago that pays $73,000 a year, giving her and her husband a total household income of $125,000. Middle-class stability still feels novel. “I was highly aware, in those first years, of my comfort,” she writes. “And I was uncomfortable with that comfort. I knew from past experiences that the discomfort would fade and that my extraordinary new life would become ordinary with time.”
She decides to record such moments of uncomfortable comfort as they arise. Many involve the house that she and her husband have recently bought. For example: “I’ve discovered a brand of paint that I can’t afford. But I could buy it. To afford something like paint, for someone of my class, is to announce your values, most often, not your financial capacity. I can’t admit to valuing paint that costs $110 per gallon. But I find this paint unbearably luminous, and undeniably better than any other paint.” She’s half-seduced but also wary. “My mind is on paint now more often than poetry,” she writes.
The predicament here — the queasy appeal of consumer pleasures to those who want to believe that they know better — is a common one, and one that’s also become somewhat commonplace as a subject. “Feelings about ‘late capitalism’” is, for better or worse, now a burgeoning essay genre. Probably this is not quite a fair complaint to lay at Biss’s door, but probably it accounts for my slack interest in the book’s first section, “Consumption.” Still, even on somewhat familiar terrain, Biss is a more thoughtful guide than most. She proceeds with a calm, attentive curiosity. She makes conversation with strangers; she looks words up in the dictionary. She is earnest, but not relentlessly so.
Her scrutiny ranges from Virginia Woolf’s servants to bicycles to Scooby-Doo, and things grow increasingly interesting when she stops thinking about life as a consumer and begins considering what it means to work — why she does it, and what she hopes to make. “I’ve believed, for most of my life, that work is good,” she writes. This is a belief that, in the past, she says she’s jokingly called her “Protestant ethic.” She now realizes that she’d misunderstood: The Protestant ethic doesn’t mean “work is good”; it means “earning money proves you’re good” (at least, according to the term’s originator, Max Weber). But earning more money hasn’t exactly made Biss feel good — and, in fact, her stable new job has shaken her longstanding faith in work. “I’m afraid to admit, even to myself, that I don’t want to work,” she writes. “Work, in fact, is interfering with my work, and I want to work less so I have more time to work. I need another word.”
The work that’s being interfered with is her writing: It requires time. Before Biss and her husband bought their house, she writes, “the money in our savings account was not money, in my mind, it was time. All those dollars were hours banked, to be spent on writing, not working. It seemed like a waste to spend time on property.” Her circumstances have changed, but she has not lost sight of the principle that structured her 20s, when a job was just a way of buying time — “time being, in the end, all I ever wanted.” That clarity of purpose is what makes Biss refreshing. Midway through the book, she describes sitting on a friend’s back porch, looking out at the tall grass in her yard:
In the August humidity, I feel a rising euphoria. I recognize this as the aura that precedes the work of writing, like the aura that precedes a seizure or a migraine. An idea is hovering before me, spectral and electric. The idea is just slightly out of reach and I will spend hours at my desk before I can grasp it, before I can work it on the page. But it is here now in the weeds, ungardened.
Her commitment to her art is complete and unembarrassable. And as I read it, it occurred to me that perhaps the problem with “self-aware” writing isn’t just the tiresome disclaimers but the failure of nerve. Why read an essay or a novel whose own author seems unconvinced it should exist? Biss may be exhaustively self-aware, but she writes like her writing is work worth doing.