This formidable Q&A with critic and author Lauren Oyler absolutely lives up to the Twitter hype — over an unsparing discussion of the responsibilities of a critic, the hellsite we love to complain about (“While twitter is not populist, it has many more people. It is worthwhile to see how people act there”), and the American publishing industry’s failings, there are so many highlightable lines that could double as aphorisms to quote forever. Some of my fave parts, ranked from ouch to how do we cc everyone on this:
On her career:
To be frank, my trajectory has these lily-pads of semi-viral critical articles, which is sort of how it goes.
On the literary critic savior complex:
Critics also sometimes get this conspiratorial tendency and write as if they’re the only people who can see the true essence of the book. If they can pull out the symbolism, the complex themes, find a connection to Jane Austen or a theorist, I think they feel empowered, intelligent, and in possession of a wide range of references. Even though none of that is actually there, and what you’re looking at is something someone got paid quite a lot of money to make in the hope that it would get turned into a TV show.
On how American late capitalism uniquely fucks with our literary culture:
Many people who work in publishing have very good taste, but I think they’re encouraged not to trust it. It’s also a bigger problem than valiant editors can solve. Countries that have robust welfare systems, affordable healthcare, and support for the arts—they have much healthier literary cultures, and the two things are definitely related. If you live somewhere where you can feel comfortable quitting your job and writing your serious novel that may or may not make any money, the publicity frenzy has less power. We have this situation here where you can either get a giant advance, and hope to have the career force that facilitates all sorts of income after that, nice teaching jobs (as opposed to the not nice ones), speaking gigs, film rights, etc., or the money you make writing might cover some of your expenses, and you have to figure out the rest.
On the importance of rigorously critiquing even your faves:
There are two types of bad books. One, your aim is completely stupid and misguided, and you should not have written a book that attempted to do that. Two, and this is more common in my world, you had this nice aspiration that you did not remotely execute. Yes, writing is very hard, and no book really lives up to its aspirations, but once you’re an adult you can’t be writing bad books all over the place … A just society is one where everyone has a home, food, healthcare, an education, and vacation for four weeks a year. A just society does not mean everybody gets to be a celebrated writer if they want to be.
Anyway, if you need me, I will be coldly memorizing you had this nice inspiration that you did not remotely execute for the next time I need a quality, full-frontal burn. Jesus! (And if you would like to read more criticism on literary criticism, may this chewy piece from The Nation, The Limits of The Viral Book Review, get you where you need to go).