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Lauren Oyler Doesn’t Take Her Work Too Seriously

Photograph by Carleen Coulter

This is an edition of the newsletter Pulling Weeds With Chris Black, in which the columnist weighs in on hot topics in culture. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.

Nothing gets the internet—and our depleted attention spans—going more than a good essay. They give us a glimpse into the writer’s psyche and something to talk about. Known for her meticulous and sometimes scathing book reviews, much-discussed article about going on the Goop Cruise, and her first novel, Fake Accounts, the writer Lauren Oyler has just released a witty essay collection, No Judgements, that hits a nice assortment of conversation-starters: Berlin, autofiction, Goodreads, anxiety, vulnerability, and gossip. Oyler is polarizing, but I chuckled at the part in the book where she describes herself as “a snob, highbrow, elitist.” I spoke to Oyler from my apartment in New York City while she was at The Line Hotel in Los Angeles, making a stop on her book tour. We discussed self-awareness, the idea of persona, Berghain, and authenticity.

GQ: You live in Berlin now, but you’ve been an expat for a while, right?

Lauren Oyler: I moved to Berlin in 2012, but I went back to New York after a couple of years and I’d go back and forth. Now I’m in Berlin forever unless they kick me out. There’s a lot of it that makes sense, and you can make a bunch of political arguments about why I like life there. The hangout, Bohemian lifestyle is possible because everything is so much cheaper and people don’t have jobs, and the values are different. You don’t have to look any particular way. It’s a cosmopolitan city in that it’s very diverse, particularly for Europe, so it’s always exciting to meet people from all over the world. There’s this ineffable, mysterious thing to it. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it and not to New York. I don’t really care about New York.

Look, New York is a shithole, but it’s still, to me, the most important city in the world.

Is it, though? Is it actually the most important city in the world?

What else is there?

Probably Beijing at this point. But I think that some of what’s happening in Berlin now is the result of it slowly, resistantly modernizing. It used to be that you couldn’t find a good meal to save your life and now it is a bit more worldly. Also, it is more expensive so you’re losing a lot of the great, old grungy club stuff.

Do you find it easy to work there because of the pace?

I don’t find it easy to work really at all. I find it quite difficult to work. I’m very much dreading it, but it’s all my internal ambitions for whatever it is I’m doing that are keeping me doing it. But I do feel separate now, away from all the New York media and social media. I think it was easier for me to write this book without really caring as much about how it would be received.

You get this rap for being mean. I think you’re being honest, and there’s always a sense of humor behind it. Do you think most people don’t feel that?

I think humor is an opt-in sort of thing in life, particularly in writing. For a lot of writers, particularly in the last 10 years, there was this idea that if you were making a joke, you didn’t care about the destruction of American society. Like, “Why are you writing book reviews when democracy is collapsing?” The things that I write about aren’t that serious. I’m not doing hardcore war reporting where it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to make a joke.

When you’re making fun of Goodreads, it’s fine.

It’s even true of the more serious things in the book. The Berlin essay is quite earnest in many ways, and the autofiction one is too, but we’re talking about autofiction. It’s a literary form, it should be funny. But if people don’t want to get the joke, they don’t have to, particularly because my sense of humor is so ironic and I’m saying something that can be interpreted two ways. I also think there’s now a resistance to understanding ambiguity in tone. If you’re using irony to represent Goodreads, it’s funny, but maybe actually affects the publishing industry and therefore has a trickle down effect on capital L literature, which I care very much about, so it is kind of serious. If you use irony, you can acknowledge both of those. It’s very economical as a rhetorical strategy because you can say, "Obviously this is stupid, but maybe it’s not." I try to be critical and also make fun of myself and implicate myself in these things.

I think when you’re doing stuff like this, self-awareness is key. I think that can serve as a shield to many detractors. But if you do anything public facing, you do have to be in “character” sometimes, whether that’s bad or good.

I think it’s fun. I would say, if I may use some sort of literary language for a second, I’m working with the idea of persona and using it in my work to critique the idea of the persona. But I find it quite dispiriting when I meet people and they’re like, “Oh, I thought you were going to be really mean. I’m scared of you.”

It happens to me all the time.

Really? Your persona is pretty upbeat.

I’m a normal person. I’m not going to make fun of your shirt when I meet you. That’s insane.

There’s this idea that the persona is fake and your real self must be radically different from the character that you perform, but my feeling is that the character you perform is just a heightened party version. Your persona is still you.

It’s like 20 percent dialed up. It’s not that crazy.

People are afraid you’re trying to trick them, but I just want you to have a good time with my work and enjoy reading it.

I just read the story about the model you meet at Berghain. It’s got drugs, nightlife, possible sex—it’s fun! There are people that feel like reading and fun can’t be coupled and I think that that’s so wrong.

To go back to Berlin, there are things that only nightlife makes possible. I would never meet that guy in any other context and I certainly wouldn’t spend eight hours talking to him about the future of Poland. I could have written a version of that article which would be buttoned up and be a straightforward profile of Maxime as a representative of the new Eastern European refugee in the EU, but people wouldn’t read that and it wouldn’t allow you to get into his brilliant character. You should enjoy him as I have enjoyed him as well.

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I was a bit worried about quote-unquote “writing” about Berghain for a variety of reasons. One is “don’t talk about Fight Club” or whatever. But I feel like Berghain is cashed. It’s not over, I obviously love Berghain, but it’s as famous as it’s going to be and so nothing you say about it can affect its future in any direction. But there’s this response, which is related to the idea of persona, with people saying, “Oh, you went to Berghain and you think that’s so cool?” Well, no. If I were to write about a cooler club that you’d never heard of, you actually wouldn’t say that.

And you write about this on the other side—these global, western, millennial spaces that signify a lot of stuff. I just read your thing about Sweetgreen and Equinox, which are kind of like the bougie, uncool version of Berghain. Everybody knows what those things are, you’re not supposed to say that you enjoy them, but you do. It’s quite hard to write about life today without talking about those very weighty, signifying, iconic things.

They’ve created archetypes. If you frequent these places, you start to see them and think, “Wait, I’m not like that, but am I like that?” When I go to Equinox in SoHo every day, I’m like, these are all these type A Ivy League overachievers and that’s not me, but I like to be around it. Also I’m sober, but I’ve never been to Berghain and I would love to experience it.

You’re welcome to come anytime. I usually go on Sunday and I stay sober for as long as it’s feasible. You get there early because you’ve got to get in before the line, so you’re tired and after about eight hours you’re like, “I’m either going to do some drugs or go home.”

I also want to ask about autofiction. It’s a term people hear all the time, but they might not know what that actually means.

I have this long essay about autofiction in the book, and I wanted to write this for many years because autofiction as a literary form has been much maligned in the media. Literary critics will do a sideswipe and roll their eyes, and it is often vaguely defined. A lot of people don’t think it’s a useful term at all, but I do. Basically it is any work of fiction in which the protagonist, narrator, or main character is perceived to be the author. In the reader’s mind, the main character is the same person as the person whose name is on the cover. In the last 15 years or so, the paradigmatic autofictioneers are Knausgård, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, Teju Cole and lesser figures. The way that they create, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, the effect of the narrator or the protagonist being the same person they are is through a straightforward, almost naturalistic mode of narration, so you feel like you’re basically reading a person’s thoughts. The setup of the novel is often that there’s a writer, the writer has a career that maps onto the author’s career, and they live in the same place that the author lives. It’s not new, there’s many examples of works from the 20th century in particular that would count, including Proust.

Somebody you might’ve heard of.

The reason [autofiction] had this resurgence in the last 15 years is that the persona relationship between the author and the narrator mimics the relationship between the social media user and the “real person.” They’re used to relating to people and texts that they understand are mostly but not fully true. So if there’s a literary form that mimics that social media relationship, it feels familiar and more exciting in the way that social media felt very exciting because it felt like you were accessing something real or authentic.

That’s the way we’re used to experiencing things so we want everything to feel like that.

Rachel Cusk had this interview many years ago, where she was like, “Fiction is fake and embarrassing. I don’t want to sit at my desk and make up little people and make them do stuff.” I think that was a feeling many authors had in the context of this 24-hour media cycle, globalized attention economy thing. I think it connects with the personal essay boom as well.

We need to relate. It can feel more honest. There’s something realistic about it that feels good and easier to digest.

In Fake Accounts I had a lot of fun playing with the feeling of honesty, the feeling of authenticity, the feeling of reality, and taking that assumption and testing whether you could lie in a certain way where people won’t say anything to you. I heard a story about a friend of a friend who got stopped at customs on the way back to Germany and in her bag she had tons of weird drugs. I was told that what she did was just annoyingly explain every single drug to the customs agents until they got so fed up with her that they just let her through. And I think that that’s also what happens online a lot—you’re just like, It’s fine. Just stop.

Originally Appeared on GQ