Combining the Personal with the Critical: An Interview with Alice Bolin




ALICE BOLIN’S NEW COLLECTION of essays, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, does what all great books do, but which is less common in cultural criticism: it turns experience into literature. The experiences Bolin mines are those that stand at the intersection of the lived and the imagined, where her own life bumps up against all the books she’s read, the music she’s listened to, and the TV shows and films she’s watched. She has taken all the inchoate stories, ideas, and memories burbling inside her and refashioned them into a coherent shape — a heady amalgam of personal history, aesthetic commentary, and ethical manifesto. Like any good critic, she has gone beyond casual cultural consumption and watched, listened, and thought more than the rest of us on her chosen topics. 

Bolin’s construction of her experiences occurs through a deconstruction of stories and ideas that we’re all likely familiar with. Over the course of 14 essays, she writes about Los Angeles and the American West, Britney Spears, female friendships, and reality TV, among other things. (She also repeatedly returns to Joan Didion, whose work haunts the book.) Bolin’s analysis is as razor-sharp as her sentences. Take, for example, her assessment of the main male character in Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl: “He is the classic male victim. Even his misogyny is something that was done to him.” She can also be lapidary and evocative: “Los Angeles is a land of iterations, versions of versions, a swimming pool’s endless refractions”; in Los Angeles, she writes, “everything seemed connected, because nothing was.” Amid the atomized sprawl of American cities and American culture, Bolin lays bare the connections lurking beneath the glare and the violence, daring us to accept nothing as it is.

This interview emerged from an exchange of emails I had with the author over the course of two months while she was traveling to promote Dead Girls.

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AARON SHULMAN: Your book is a wonderful example of the hybrid personal essay/critical essay. What was the first piece you read that made you want to experiment with this form, and what are your all-time favorite pieces in this genre?

ALICE BOLIN: As I was writing and revising Dead Girls, I saw that this was more than a work of criticism. It was also the story of my coming of age in this bizarre and hostile culture. I have a number of models for this, the first being of course Didion’s The White Album (1979), which seamlessly melds memoir and journalism.

I also adore Hilton Als’s The Women (1996), a very strange book-length essay about Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, his mother, the Caribbean diaspora in New York, the Black Radical movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and one million other topics. It moves from subject to subject with such dreamy ease, and Als is, as always, brilliant, provocative, and original.

I am also inspired by all of the essays in Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010); “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy” is a particular favorite. She is so playful in her exploration of genre — “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy” is a literary biography, a travelogue, and a detective story — that the forms she dabbles in become sort of a meta-critique. One of my favorite books in the world is The Professor (2010) by Terry Castle, which is truly a memoir in criticism, telling the story of her parents’ divorce, her coming of age in San Diego, and her discovery of her sexuality, alongside essays on Susan Sontag, jazz, the literature of World War I, the paintings of Agnes Martin. The essay I seek to emulate the most is “My Heroin Christmas,” about the jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, which is a profound exploration of the muteness of sociopathy and how our language makes us lovable.

In your book you dance back and forth along the personal essay/critical essay continuum. Where do you feel most comfortable, or does that depend on the subject matter? 

I absolutely feel most comfortable writing criticism. That’s what drove me to write nonfiction in the first place — how in love I was with all of my opinions (lol). I feel the opposite of in love with most of the memories of my past selves, which is probably something I should work on with a therapist. I deal with a lot of the same insecurities so many of my students express about writing nonfiction: that my life isn’t interesting enough to write about, first and foremost. I think it is also incredibly difficult and rare to have perspective and insight about one’s own experiences, to be quite honest. How do you write about a life that you are still actively living? Combining the personal with the critical has been my way of answering some of those questions. Having the distance that comes with an authoritative critical voice helps me to talk about my memories with a kind of ironic detachment. To make my life into a story.

What’s your favorite piece in the book, and why?

My favorite essay in the book is the long one that ends it: “Accomplices.” I had ambitions for that piece years before I started it, knowing that I wanted to have a long essay — “White Album” length — that would serve as a cornerstone and help elevate the collection from “random assortment of essays” to “book.” I got to talk about a lot of my favorite writers in that piece, from Didion to Rachel Kushner to Eileen Myles to Janet Malcolm, and was able to really interrogate the role of white women in crime narratives, not just as “Dead Girls” but also as, you know, accomplices. I was so glad my editor let me really spread out and question or undo some of the assertions I’d made previously in the book.

In several of your essays, there are moments when you sort of open the back of the clock (of the writing process) and let the reader hear the gears grinding. For example, you talk about how, say, the essay isn’t going exactly the way you had planned, or that you’re having trouble getting around to what you originally wanted to say. What made you want to be so honest about the writing process rather than smooth it out and hide the inner workings?

It feels like such a luxury that as a nonfiction writer I get to talk directly to the reader (and to myself) about my hopes for and struggles with the piece I’m writing. I made a lot of breakthroughs in writing the book when I allowed myself to break the fourth wall and level with the reader about what I was trying to do. It is really difficult blending criticism and biography, and I compulsively try to link as many topics as I can in one essay. Especially in a long piece, I find that it’s almost impossible to do that without opening up to the reader about how the essay is or is not going according to plan. Terry Castle does that some in The Professor, allowing the essay to sort of narrate the process of writing itself, which I love.

What do you think your experience of Los Angeles would have been like if you hadn’t had so many literary encounters with the city that shaped your perceptions, longings, et cetera?

I think that might speak to a deeper question, which is what my experience of Los Angeles would have been like if I were a different person, or if I moved there at a different time of my life. I moved there as a twentysomething who had never lived in a major city and had never traveled, who was well read but mostly bewildered by life, and very morose and romantic. The only way I knew to make a life in the city was to read about it, which was not ideal but did sort of work. I think all the time about what it would be like to live there now. I would be much less lonely, less passive, but my experience would probably also be more limited in some ways — being broke and bored, I went on adventures I would never undertake now.

I have to ask: why did you leave Los Angeles, where have you been since leaving, and how has your experience there influenced the way you live in other places?

I think the end of the book leads a lot of people to think I left California abruptly, but I really didn’t. I left for a summer and then came back, since I was still teaching at Idyllwild Arts Academy. Eventually I left because my boyfriend got into grad school at Harvard, so we moved to Massachusetts; then I got a job at the University of Memphis, so we both live in Tennessee now. I missed California so intensely when we went to Boston, for the weather and the hippies and the good food and the casual/laid-back/whatever vibe. My identification with the Western United States really deepened in L.A., since it was another side of the West but still in keeping with what I knew about it. But, really, the way L.A. changed me is that I learned that everything can go wrong and still be okay. It made me sort of a Zen pessimist.

Out of curiosity, have you have seen the first season of Riverdale, which is the rare “Dead Boy” plot? If so, what did you think of it? Also, what are recent cultural texts that you think do a good job treating themes of violence against/murder of women, and what makes them successful?

I haven’t seen Riverdale, but everyone is telling me I have to watch it because it is a Dead Boy show! I’m really intrigued by Killing Eve as a Dead Man show, where the victims are often representations of corrupt power, the very people who would be the perps on a Dead Girl show. That program complicates an essentialist gender-flip story by making the female characters, whom we initially root for, either selfish and deluded or amoral and psycho. I’m hesitant with questions like this, since I think stories don’t always come down to good or bad, feminist or not — a story can have problematic elements and still be complicated and subversive (Twin Peaks would probably be the perfect example), and a story can get brownie points for representation and still be regressive. I adore Gillian Flynn, and I think especially her first and second books, Sharp Objects (2006) and Dark Places (2009), address how gendered violence intersects with the problems of a disappearing American middle class in ways that are both subtle and monstrous.

Are you not tempted to write a Dead Girl novel in which you subvert all the tropes you dissect? 

I’m not that tempted, no. I’m honestly mostly incredibly bored by them. But I am tempted to write a novel that plays with the detective-story mood. Some of my favorite novels have the tension of a mystery but without a traditional detective-novel structure, in the vein of Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, and Muriel Spark. Those writers were very interested in the social place of women, female pariahs, sexuality as pathology, and if there is an absolute morality — all questions that to my mind are more interesting and ambiguous than those so often raised by a story in which the primary female character is already dead. I think my work on Dead Girls helped me see the possibilities in fiction of exploring some of the aesthetic interests I address in my criticism — since the medium is the message, so often critics are mimics, invoking the mood of the works we’re critiquing.

Your book seems to have had no trouble finding an audience. Did you expect that it would speak so well to the cultural moment? What specifically are you hearing from your readers about their experience of the book?

It’s insanely weird how much attention it’s gotten, especially given the received wisdom that essay collections don’t sell, especially ones that are focused so much on literature. That said, I have always had a weird confidence in this project and sort of believed people would get it — the response to my initial Dead Girl show essay was so positive that I knew I had hit on something. One wild thing is the diversity of people reading the book: over the past 24 hours, I’ve heard from a professor of American Studies and a 15-year-old girl. I think an essay collection can be like a cipher: people who are interested in detective stories will think it’s about that, people who are interested in witchcraft and girlhood will think it’s about that, people who are interested in messy pop stars and reality TV will think it’s about that. There’s something for everyone!

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Aaron Shulman has written for the New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War(Ecco Books, 2019).


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