A couple of years ago, because I write about books, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire for a literary website, and one of the questions I was asked was: “What is the greatest misconception about book critics and criticism?” My answer, basically, was that I didn’t know that most people thought about book critics very much at all. It’s hard to have a misconception, or even a conception, of people about whom you don’t think very much. But, there are exceptions.
Lauren Oyler is one of the few writers whose book criticism has garnered enough attention that people have conceptions about her — and, of course, misconceptions. She’s been called everything from contrarian to “an enormous bitch” for her critical reads of popular books by popular authors. The thing about being contrarian or an enormous bitch, though, especially as a writer, is that, in order to be any of those things, there would need to be a certain amount of bad faith at play, a defined desire to do a takedown without any actual rigor behind it other than an urge to be mean. In fact, the hallmark of Oyler’s criticism is not any innate antagonism, but rather an interest in engaging with an object on its own terms, stripped bare of all the Best Book and Worst Book hyperbole that has flattened literary discourse. The pleasure that comes from reading one of Oyler’s reviews is not only that they don’t feel patronizing or already familiar, but that they — that she — will give you something new to think about. This would seem to be what most readers of book criticism would want, and yet: “I sort of have this kind of optimistic hope that everyone will be like, ‘Spot on! I’m not mad about that at all!’” Oyler explained over Zoom last month. “But, it doesn’t work out like that.”
Oyler’s first novel, Fake Accounts, could be said to be about things not really working out: While snooping through her boyfriend Felix’s phone, the unnamed narrator — who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Oyler; both lived in Berlin, worked at a women’s media company, and have identical Twitter profile photos — discovers that he has an alternate identity as a conspiracy theorist, and a huge following on a secret-to-her Instagram account. Though she’s determined to break up with Felix right after she returns from the Women’s March, she’s prevented from doing that because, well, he dies. So, she does what countless women — in books, anyway — have done at the end of a relationship: quits her job, moves abroad, and via trying on various ill-fitting personas and writing styles, she attempts to, you know, find herself. That doesn’t really work out, either.
“It’s a funny inversion of the, like, woman-goes-traveling-and-reinvents-herself story,” Oyler said. It’s a funny inversion of a lot of different stories, actually; Oyler is as unsparing of those things she finds tedious and facile — fragmented novels, online performances, the glorification of navel-gazing — in her fiction as she is in her criticism, only in Fake Accounts she is able to have a new kind of fun with these critiques, to explore them more deeply by inhabiting and experimenting with them, and to reflect reality by recasting it as a kind of hyper-reality. It’s challenging and discomfiting, at times, not because it’s hard to see yourself reflected in the narrative, but because Oyler wrote a contemporary novel that is reflective of the time, without participating in any of the unspoken, agreed upon ways to reflect this time: There is no undue catastrophizing, no moral posturing, there is just reality, believe it or not.
The question of authenticity is a constant thrum in the background (and sometimes the foreground) in Fake Accounts, as the narrator struggles to determine what about her life and the people in it — and even her understanding of her life and the people in it — is real: “People often say my generation values authenticity. Reluctantly, I will admit to being a member of my generation.” That she is trying to find an answer to this while living in Berlin, where she doesn’t speak the language, and compulsively lies about who she is to everyone she meets, doesn’t help her figure out much of anything.
“When you move to another country and you live somewhere that you don’t speak the language, there’s a certain extent to which you feel like a baby, like a real idiot, all the time,” Oyler said. “You’re just constantly confused and embarrassed and trying to figure out what’s going on in this very real feeling way. I thought that it was important for her to become uncomfortable in that way and see the way she responds to that discomfort by making other people uncomfortable and by being super bizarre. You watch her becoming more and more bizarre as she’s trying to test people and find a real reaction. And in terms of Berlin, specifically — and this is in the book, too — there’s this real idea among certain expats there, that it’s not real and people are just sort of trying it out.”
It’s not the biggest leap to say that there is a great deal of that same energy — let’s call it a “trying things out in order to feel things” energy — coursing through the interactions of people who are Very Online, all of which feel scripted and replicated to a degree, maddening in their churning predictability, and disappointing in the lack of consequences that exist for being boring, derivative, and pandering. It doesn’t make for very good art, nor even for very good social media.
Oyler doesn’t have much patience for either the imitative or pedantic, and it’s these things that she skewers with glee not only in her fiction and criticism, but also in our conversation. “I get the sense that a lot of people see someone doing something and they just copy it and they don’t understand that you can’t just copy something someone’s doing,” she said, calling out fragmentary writing as being “kind of knee-jerk, like, ‘This is how we write now, this is what we’re doing, this is the mode.’” She said, “I don’t like that. I don’t want to do that. And I think what’s nice about a novel is you don’t have to do that, you can really do pretty much anything.”
What she does is engage with the form of a novel in a refreshing, provocative way; Oyler is precise in the way she dissembles so much of modern life (and also so, so funny: a mattress is “as thick as a copy of Infinite Jest”; in Berlin, being “teased for being American seemed so 2004”; the narrator describes herself on a dating profile as “difficult but worth it”), but her approach isn’t sterile or surgical, it’s engaging and affirming, a reminder that the problem with bad art and bad online discourse isn’t that everyone needs to be perfect all the time, or, like, right. Rather, it’s that they need to at least be trying to be anything other than what they’re told, or have told themselves, they have to be. Or, Oyler said, “I’m interested in what happens when everybody sort of accepts that it’s okay to be slightly wrong all the time.”
“There’s this sort of patronizing, educational impulse on social media, but also in real life,” Oyler continued, “and it allows you to act like you’re talking to seventh graders. So, you’re above the seventh graders, but that’s because they’re only in seventh grade.”
Oyler, though, never has and never will write for the people who want to be talked to like children. “I just try not to talk about things I don’t know about,” she said, “and things that you could put on an Instagram card. I try not to do things like that, because I don’t think that’s contributing anything to the world — and people don’t need me to tell them what feminism is.”
“Something I wanted to do with the book was write about a young woman who has a boyfriend and lives in the now and is on the internet, but not write it in this sort of babyish, simple way,” Oyler said. “I wanted to write it in the style and the literary way that I like to read... even as feminism has become totally mainstream, women’s issues are often treated over-simplistically. If you raise the level of what you’re putting in front of people, they will respond. This is all about treating people like they’re really dumb, and I don’t think they are.”
What’s clear is that Oyler thinks about people a lot; their weaknesses, their urges, the things about themselves that they’d most like if no one else ever even saw, let alone thought about. All of her thoughts on these things, and so many others, are reflected in Fake Accounts, then too they are reflected in Oyler’s criticism, in the care she takes with everything she writes. This is the reason why she is one of the few critics about whom so many people have such strong opinions, about whom they think about at all. When I answered that questionnaire years ago, she was one of a handful of critics I cited whose work stood out to me: “I’ll read anything [she’s] written.” Of all the things I’ve said on the internet over the years, that remains one of the things that still feels real.