Talking Shit With Lauren Oyler

With the release of her debut novel, the hard-to-please literary critic is now the one up for review.

Photo: Pete Voelker
Photo: Pete Voelker

For once, Lauren Oyler is struggling to find something to be annoyed about. “Nothing was bad on Twitter today,” she groans. It’s November, and Oyler and I are alone in a ‘rage room’ in midtown Manhattan, decked out in masks and helmets, where we have been given 30 minutes to smash ‘one premium electronic item, two smaller electronic items, and ten breakables,’ according to the terms of our waiver. Oyler and I take turns hacking away at a fax machine with a bat until she finally manages to come up with something that is pissing her off. “Oh, here’s something — one of my ex boyfriends is telling everyone that my novel is about him, when it’s very clearly not, and he’s telling everyone I got a million-dollar advance, which I also did not,” she says, bringing a crowbar down over an old-school landline phone with a hard thwack. She says more, but it’s impossible to hear over the noise and our face masks, so I ask her to speak up. “I WAS SAYING I ALSO GET MAD ABOUT PEOPLE MISUSING TERMS IN THEIR BOOK REVIEWS,” she shouts. “LIKE, FUCK YOU FOR SAYING SOMETHING IS AUTOFICTION WHEN IT’S NOT!”

Oyler has developed a reputation in the literary world for publishing the kind of scathing reviews that nobody wants to write anymore but that everyone wants to read. Her favorite subjects are works whose reputations precede them, books that show up on tastefully curated Instagram nightstands as often as they do best-seller lists. She often reviews fiction, though she’ll take on essays, movies, or broader cultural trends when the mood strikes, and her subjects encompass everything from astrology and autofiction to the mores of heterosexual dating. What animates Oyler’s body of work is a preoccupation with the way cultural products are marketed, and how capitalism, the internet — and, sometimes, what passes for feminism — manipulate how we respond to them. Nothing offends her like received wisdom, lazy clichés, or empty moralizing, and while her style isn’t always straightforward, she is direct — even if you finish a review a little unclear on what she really meant, you won’t wonder how she really felt. In the past few years, Oyler’s cultural criticism and commentary has often spilled out of the so-called “pretentious magazines” she writes for (The London Review of Books, Bookforum, The Baffler, The New Yorker) to ignite a much wider conversation — largely because she commits to the page the kind of critiques normally reserved for private group chats. “I remember seeing the byline and thinking ‘oh FUCK,’” reflects Anna Wiener, whose book Uncanny Valley Oyler reviewed — kindly — for the Times last year.

“Books are products,” Oyler tells me. “Many of those we talk about aren’t doing anything except making money, and the thing that’s interesting about them is how they operate in the world, not what they’re commenting on.” But with the release of her debut novel, Fake Accounts, on February 2, Oyler herself will suddenly be the one up for review, reliant on the publishing industry hype machine that she has spent so much of her career railing against. Her plan to avoid feeling icky or hypocritical promoting her own work, she says, was simply “to make the book really good, so it wouldn’t be something that people would read and think, Why am I reading this?”

Oyler was born and raised in Hurricane, West Virginia. In high-school, popularity was an afterthought; she was mostly focused on joining enough clubs and getting good enough grades to get out of her small town and into a top college. She experienced a degree of culture shock when she arrived at Yale on a need-based scholarship. “Being sort of quietly embarrassed by lots of the things that I liked and having to learn very quietly how to act in social situations, probably had a big effect on me,” she says.

She moved to Berlin after graduation, where she still lives part-time, and then back to New York a few years later to write and edit for Vice’s feminist vertical, Broadly. After going head-to-head with Vice management in union-contract negotiations, the company’s then-COO (and a former Obama deputy chief of staff for operations) Alyssa Mastromonaco asked Oyler to ghostwrite her memoir. This led to more ghostwriting gigs for prominent people, including political figures, though she won’t say who because of confidentiality agreements. “I think ghostwriting is interesting because it’s an excuse to ask someone very personal questions,” she says.

Oyler’s first viral book review was a takedown of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist for Bookslut in 2014 (where she says the book evinces the “kind of style that makes you wonder whether literature is dead and we have killed it”). Not all of Oyler’s reviews are negative, but these are the ones that have often made the biggest splashes. In the past few years, she has levied sharp takedowns of Lady Bird and Meg Wolitzer, Sally Rooney and Kristen Roupenian (“Cat Person”), while displaying surprising affection towards Gillian Flynn, Zadie Smith, and Sheila Heti. Last year, her pan of Jia Tolentino’s widely beloved essay collection Trick Mirror got so much traffic that it crashed The London Review of Books’ website. “She doesn’t abide by these rules of who in any particular moment is deemed untouchable. She just doesn’t care,” says writer Jessa Crispin, who edited Oyler at Bookslut.

And why not? She says it hasn’t cost her any friends — or assignments. “I’m not afraid of being disliked by people that I already dislike,” she shrugs. “People being mad at me is not the same as people not hiring me to do more writing.”

Tolentino didn’t respond to my email; Roxane Gay declined to comment as she didn’t have “anything mature to say.” Kristen Roupenian, whose book of short stories Oyler reviewed toughly in 2019, says that she didn’t feel slighted by Oyler’s critique as she did by some others at the time. “I could really tell she read it carefully.”

Writer and critic Emily Gould happens to be an Oyler fan, though she was a little scared to admit it on Main. After reading a galley of Fake Accounts, Gould tweeted “I started @laurenoyler ’s book thinking ‘she is such an enormous bitch in her book reviews, her novel better be unimpeachably great’ and whoops! Sorry, it is!” “I think that she has really, really high standards for everyone, including herself. I’m inspired by it, and I’m also like, This seems exhausting,” says Gould. “It is possible to be too much of a firebrand and that maybe that’s a lesson that everybody has to learn for themselves as they grow older. Then again, maybe Lauren is just so talented that people will be forced to recognize her talent even if they hate her personally.”

“I’m sure one or two people will try to do a hit job, but that’s fine if it’s fair,” says Oyler, when I ask how she thinks her own book will fare. “If you’re somebody that nobody’s criticizing, nobody’s taking you very seriously.”

As we decompress from smashing office supplies on the patio of a nearby Italian restaurant (though we’d both gotten negative COVID tests before meeting, we agreed we’d rather shiver outside than deal with the anxiety of indoor dining), Oyler explains that she’s actually a perfectly nice person, and she wants to make clear that there are lots of things she does like: 80s metafiction and postwar British women writers, the Tatcha rice cleanser (“I hoped that maybe it just smelled really good, but I think it actually really ‘evens everything out’”), Lena Dunham’s recent essay on IVF in Harper’s (“which did the important work of having a rich woman admit, ‘I have been making choices and have been totally delusional while doing so’”), and dancing. Still, most of the Oyler opinions I tease out over the course of the evening exist somewhere on a spectrum from meh to bad. Harvard (“bad”); Israel (“bad”); J.K. Rowling (“transphobic, stupid”); Lucien (“Never been there, heard the food sucks”); Margaret Atwood (“Handmaid’s Tale is great, but I think she’s gone down a stupid path”); podcasts, (“useful in certain situations,” though she is pleased that someone on the Red Scare subreddit called her hot); AOC (“I believe that internet socialism is going the way of feminism and that it’s going to be become not just uncool but permanently tainted by the way people act on the internet.”)

What about feminism? Oyler raises a skeptical eyebrow at me. “Who cares? Seriously, who cares?”

A few months after our meeting, Oyler sends me an email amending that last point, feeling that I might want a little more than “Who cares?” At a slightly longer word count, her view is that while women should be able to get free abortions, feminism has limitations as a framework for understanding the many injustices people suffer on a daily basis and that the movement has been opportunistically hijacked by rich white women who aren’t really suffering much at all. Still, she feels it’s important to reiterate that a great deal of care has gone into her seemingly careless response. “Really, I exist in a very dynamic version of the blasé attitude, which is to say I have thought a lot about this and have come to the conclusions: Who cares and Fine,” she writes.

Then why write a novel? “I think there are certain ideas and topics that are served better by fiction and by not having to make a truth claim about what you’re saying,” she explains. Oyler had always wanted to write fiction, and as she gained prominence as a critic, she says she was always thinking about what her own novel might look like. In particular, after years as a blogger and self-confessed social-media “addict,” she wanted to write a realist novel that attempted “to do all these things that are purportedly quite difficult for novels to do,” such as respond to the news and reflect the social dynamics of the internet in a realistic way. And Fake Accounts, which she started writing around the time of the 2016 election, does feel very of the moment: The protagonist, a writer for a New York–based women’s blog, finds out that the boyfriend she met while on a Berlin pub crawl is secretly a social-media conspiracy theorist. A number of twists and turns then lead her back to Berlin on her own, where she assumes a series of fake personas in order to meet people online.

Most of the book takes place in the narrator’s claustrophobic psyche, which is hyperanalytical, self-conscious, and always aware of being watched. She frequently presents ideas only to undermine or contradict them in the next breath. In the rare instances when she feels emotions, she questions whether they are valid and feels the constant need to justify herself to the reader. “Keep in mind,” the narrator tells us, “that this writing is as much an effort to better understand myself, the person I can’t help but feel is the most important figure in this narrative (if not, apologies, the most intriguing), as it is an effort to enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature, interpret events both world-historical and interpersonal (perhaps at the same time), etc.” The narrator doesn’t seem so sure of — or interested in — anything, aside from the fact that she’s being perceived.

There’s a moment in the book when the protagonist recounts how, as a child, she created a book of cruel ‘private’ observations of a friend and then deliberately left it at the friend’s house for her to find (the gambit was inspired by Harriet the Spy). Later, the narrator’s mom gets a call from the friend’s mom, saying her daughter had read the notebook and was upset; the narrator panics when she realizes what she’s done. “I had ceded my thoughts in exchange for becoming the focus of attention, and now I had less control over who I was to other people.”

Is that an illustrative anecdote to include here? Who knows. Or as Oyler might put it, Who cares? “I think the idea is that you never know if you’re learning something about the author or not, right?” she tells me, before draining her last sip of wine and slipping away into the night, out of the real world and back into the hollow walls of the internet. “I think it seems initially from the narrator’s voice that she’s been quite intimate, and you’re following her thoughts very closely. But in the end, you might walk away from it being like, Oh, I really know nothing about her.”

What Does Lauren Oyler Like?