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Lauren Oyler: “I don’t like to do the vulnerability tap dance”

The star US author's new release 'No Judgement' is a collection of essays exploring gossip, Goodreads – and, of course, Berlin expats.

Photo: Carleen Coulter

Lauren Oyler is one of the US’s most sought-after young authors. The West Virginian first came to prominence by publishing book reviews and essays that were thought-provoking, witty and occasionally ruthless, mostly around topics of contemporary feminism and the internet.

In more recent years, she has established herself as a long-form magazine writer for such august publications as Harper’s and The London Review of Books while also publishing her bestselling debut novel Fake Accounts (2021), a highly ironic take on the online and offline life of a young American who moves to Berlin.

This month sees the release of Oyler’s hotly-anticipated No Judgement, a collection of original essays that take on gossip, Goodreads, autofiction, the cult of vulnerability – and, of course, Berlin expats.

You get to write on almost anything you want nowadays. Are the topics you chose for this collection a reflection of you, in this moment: 2021 to 2023, living in Berlin, debut novel recently published? 

I think so. You don’t want to be like, here’s a bunch of random stuff about my life. But I was writing about topics – like Goodreads and autofiction, two things I have a lot of experience with – where it would be ridiculous to act as if I hadn’t written a novel that was called autofiction and was reviewed on Goodreads. I think it’s a lot about how you present those personal details so that the emphasis is not really on you but rather: what have I learned from this experience that I can pass on, and that relates to these broader questions?

Photo: Carleen Coulter

The essays in your new collection are both critical and personal. How do you understand the role of the first person in a good essay? At the moment, there seems to be quite a lot of American essay-writing that doesn’t get past self-absorption… 

I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I understand the impulse that goes into it. It’s a sort of aspirational self-help impulse, where people just want to brag, or complain, but without doing any work to make it interesting to anybody else. I’m very sensitive about pointlessly using oneself. It can be manipulative, in a way. I think people use it a lot to shield themselves from criticism, saying, “Well, this is very personal to me. So if you criticise this piece of writing, you’re criticising me.” So they couch the personal aspect in obvious, wet, sentimental crap.

I sometimes think people people of our generation don’t believe in free will.

Luckily, though, nobody’s concerned about hurting my feelings (laughs). I do think part of the reason why people do feel free to criticise me personally is that I don’t like to do the vulnerability tap dance, you know? So they think it’s just a persona. Or because the way they’ve been taught to read is through the prism of suffering and sensitivity – but doing that is wrong.

I like asking authors what inspires them to write something. And in the book, you do mention your belief in the value of good criticism and good art. But you also, strikingly often, declare yourself annoyed. Is annoyance your muse?

Yes, I just go on Twitter and wait to get annoyed (laughs). Of course it can produce literature, especially essays. Anger, or annoyance, is a strong emotion. I think people treat it as a less legitimate emotion for a variety of reasons – it’s a male emotion, you know, there’s this sort of tedious pseudo-feminist idea that women are like this and men are like that, and you can’t be like men anymore because it’s bad, and it’s toxic. Whereas women like to get along, and don’t like fighting. But what are they talking about? (laughs) Women love fighting. They’re better at it.

There is a long essay in the book about autofiction, where you talk about how some people assumed your novel was entirely autobiographical. But you also defend the right of the author to make use of material from real life…

Yes, but I also defend the right of the reader to assume that a lot of it really happened. I used Fake Accounts in the essay so I could give people specific examples of where I – as the author – could say that this person or that story actually was real, but I ultimately put it somewhere else. I could explain piece by piece how the recombination in autofiction happens.

And I had a lot of funny anecdotes about my ex-boyfriends’ responses, so I had to stick them in there. I made my novel’s plot the way it was because then everybody would know it didn’t actually happen to me – my boyfriend was never a conspiracy theorist who faked his own death. Sorry, spoiler. So that’s already projecting into a completely different scenario.

No Judgement is out March 7 in the UK (Virago) and March 19 in the US (HarperCollins).

But I think some people responded by saying oh, she’s revealed how noxious she really is, and thinks she’s tricked us by putting it in a novel. There was one reviewer that criticised me by suggesting I had only “inadvertently” revealed something about modern life – about how everybody is surveilled and therefore performing all the time – and I was like, “No, I did it! That’s the whole point!”

This idea of controlling your image runs through No Judgement, especially the gossip essay. You seem to suggest that we should accept that other people will talk about us and we can’t control what gets said…

I just go on Twitter and wait to get annoyed.

Yeah, you can’t control it – or if you want to, then you need to be smart about it. You can’t just complain that people are talking about you. Why don’t you act in a different way? You have agency. I sometimes think people of our generation don’t believe in free will. I believe in like, not 100% free will, obviously, but one is presented with choices all the time. We usually have a lot of space to manoeuvre, but we keep saying, “I had to do this, I had no other choice.”

And if somebody does something bad to you, they say, “You made me do that.” Oh, okay, so everybody has agency except you? People act like it’s not a free country. “How dare you, in a book, infer something from my behaviour?” And I say, well, people go through the world making judgements about others all the time. I know this makes me sound amoral.

But I actually have a strong moral compass – it’s just not the internet’s version of justice, whereby the main principle is that everybody should get to control how they’re seen at all times, and public embarrassment is the worst thing that can happen to a person.

In this day and age, the idea that your feelings are always legitimate has so much power. But in life I have lots of strong feelings, and things I might like to do, but I don’t because it’s not ethical or it’s not advantageous or it hurts and burdens others. You can control your feelings! 

This makes me think of your essay on vulnerability. Can you tease its argument for our readers?

In 2010, the sociologist, motivational speaker and rich person Brené Brown gave a TEDx Talk entitled ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. And ever since then, there’s been a confluence of tech spirituality and mainstream feminism and increasingly queer politics that have come together to encourage everybody to see vulnerability as the first principle of emotional intelligence.

Photo: Carleen Coulter

I like all the stuff that’s clichéd here. Like, I fucking love Berghain, alright? 

So your ability to be vulnerable with people, in both your professional life and your private life, is seen as the number one indicator of your holistic success as a person. I argue that this is incredibly limiting. It’s basically just a piece of common sense advice, which ends up encouraging people to “act like women” – which means, act like a stereotypical woman who is vulnerable and weak and open to harm. It’s gone 360 degrees and become offensive again. 

The title of the book comes from that essay, where you point out what people actually mean when they say “no judgement”.

Yeah! To me, it’s, like, the bitchiest thing you can say. I talk in the essay about how being vulnerable emotionally literally means exposure to harm. And people want that juicy raw material – they don’t want you to stop – so they say, “no judgement”, although they do want to keep judging you.

I’m not saying people should never be vulnerable, but I often found people would tell me, after they’d met me like three times, “Lauren, you need to be more vulnerable.” And I’m like, “You don’t fucking know me. You can’t just demand that of me.”

People just want this product from you, a narrative that will explain everything. And in certain novels, it forestalls criticism, because they’re so traumatic and you kind of assume that these traumatic narratives are autobiographical, so if you criticise the story, then you’re being insensitive. Judgement and vulnerability are at war. But the critics have given up on judgement. 

Let’s talk about Berlin. In your essay, you give this dizzying rendition of all the clichés that get wheeled out when people write about the place. Does the weight of cliché make it harder to write about it?

Well, yes. It’s too much cliché! And maybe it’s vulnerable for me to say (laughs), but I like all the stuff that’s clichéd here. Like, I fucking love Berghain, alright? 

Let’s make this a safe space then. No judgement. What do you love about Berlin?

(laughs) I like the beer! Drinking beer! I like the party vibes. Smoking inside, going to parties, going to nightclubs in my underwear. I’ve got an amazing butt and I’ve got to show it off while I still can.

What else? No judgement.

It’s really easy to have fun here. You walk out the door and you never know what you’re going to get. Oh, and the beautiful buildings. Altbau. I love the cinema. I like that all my friends live in the same neighbourhood except for Ryan Ruby. The public pools. The saunas! Now we’re getting into German culture, but I don’t like that much about German culture. I like, um, bratwurst. 

What can you tell us about your next book?

I’m working on a novel. Often I feel that some of my best work takes, as its premise, something that a lot of people think is annoying. You say I can’t write a novel about the internet, but yes, I can. Or an essay about Berghain. “You can’t write a cruise essay.” Yes, I can. My new novel has a Berlin premise that is ostensibly very annoying. But it’s actually going to be great.