SEAN HOOKS: I’d like to start by asking about your nonfiction, Lauren, which I find engrossing largely because of its contrarian spirit. You’ve written about “the moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction” in a way that reminds me of Nabokov’s disdain for “political novels and the literature of social intent.” For my two bits, few young writers today embrace real dissent and freethinking nonconformity. “Most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security,” as Christopher Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian. What do you think about the contrarian in 2020–’21?
LAUREN OYLER: Well, I wouldn’t go as far as Nabokov, who, in the same interview, also said he had never been drunk in his life. I try not to say anything wrong, which helps with many other writerly aims. The idea is not to throw a bunch of antagonistic opinions at the wall and hope some of them stick. Lately people seem to think very categorically and don’t stop for a second to consider that maybe they could express their “contrarian” opinions without also sounding ridiculous or hateful. (There’s a difference between being funny and sounding ridiculous.) The writer’s job is to find language that expresses complex, multifaceted ideas, and often what separates contrarians from skeptics or critics or whatever is just good writing. If people don’t want to hear what you have to say, being hyperbolic and ridiculous doesn’t help your cause; it always clouds whatever good point you may be making.
But that’s not the question. The contemporary contrarian has more opportunities to find an audience, of course, but with that comes the threat of becoming too attached — or chained — to your own persona. Which is the opposite of freethinking nonconformity. I’m always fascinated by people who seem to be doing things only for attention, whose instincts for self-preservation have been overtaken by their instincts for self-promotion, and I think that happens a lot with real contrarians, as opposed to those with merely a “contrarian spirit.” At the same time, there’s a ton of stupid stuff floating around to feel inspired by if you’re the kind of writer who is spurred to action by hatred.
Personas (and Bergman’s film Persona) figure heavily in your debut novel, Fake Accounts, and though I choose to be a person with no social media presence, I nonetheless browse the tweets of writers, artists, and intellectuals I respect. I tend to see one’s social media self as an economic persona, like when a server puts on their uniform and their fake smile to fetch people food and drink for an eight-hour shift. Apropos comparison?
I don’t think so, to be honest. I think many people on social media use work as an excuse to be there, but while their social media personas may be doing work in the background at all times, and they do generate capital for someone else, and you may benefit or harm your career through your behavior online, what you’re doing there isn’t work. (Or, sorry, labor.) [Everyone gets mad at me.] It’s something else. What I hope the book expresses is that the personas we assume online aren’t so different from those we assume offline and that there is no hard boundary between our persona and our not-persona.
The philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes: “We owe the cultural achievements of humanity to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible.” But we appear to be living in what Nicholas Carr calls “the shallows,” a technology-addicted status quo, as feared and predicted by Heidegger and Kierkegaard, where the proliferation of the internet/smartphone has damaged our capacity for focused thought and dehumanized us. How does one create a serious work of art without becoming subsumed in the swamps of hyperattention, multitasking, and ephemerality?
People have been quoting Simone Weil on attention a lot lately, which suggests that they’d like to believe that anything they do to get away from the computer is somehow spiritual. Whatever works. The thing about attention is that it must be practiced. You can improve at it, which is heartening, but you also don’t really get to graduate and start paying less attention as time goes on. I think a lot of social media addiction probably comes from a fear of or resistance to having blank time, time that you have to choose how to fill, that you feel pressured to make the most of in some way. You squander it so that you never have to try to make the most of it. (This pressure can be “because capitalism,” of course, but a desire to make the most of life isn’t necessarily all about capital.) (To be clear, I’m not throwing stones — I’m speaking from experience!) Making a serious work of art requires a real belief in the value of art and an understanding of why you want to make it and whether what you want to make contributes to whatever you think the value is. That was always true, but maybe it’s slightly more true now, since you could just as easily spend most of your time on Twitter.
Much of contemporary US “literature” appears bent on idealism and a commitment to “social justice” (all the way down to what is published and reviewed) but so many of our best American writers — be it of highbrow canonical lit like Cormac McCarthy, well-made genre fiction like Dennis Lehane, provocative nonfiction like Joan Didion, or the very best TV fiction like David Chase and David Simon — privilege the real over the ideal. Do you see the modern literary realm as becoming more hostile toward dealing with the world “as it really is” and concentrated instead now on a utopianist “as it should ideally be”?
I do think many contemporary writers, both fiction writers and critics, are resistant to dealing with the world as it really is. Which suggests to me that they actually don’t understand what they’re writing about very well, because the world as it really is makes a clear case for idealistic visions and progressive politics. You don’t have to misrepresent or oversimplify things in order to have “good politics.” I don’t think it’s my role as a critic or a fiction writer to be a political operative, which is to say that I don’t care about spinning stuff so that it can be turned into a slogan that supports causes I believe in. I also think that tends to backfire, because oversimplification is always kind of obvious, and it makes people mistrust you. (Sort of similar to what I said about contrarianism being self-defeating.) “Sexism is bad — look at what sexism does!” is a valiant argument, but you don’t need a novel to say that. That’s not what a novel is best suited to saying.
I noticed in Fake Accounts a willingness to break with orthodoxy, to poke fun at other writers’ stylistic shortcuts, to call out the absurdity of the present via pithy takedowns of various shibboleths and institutions. Your protagonist is also an inveterate liar, and at one point manufactures a career as an architect (like George Costanza). This tickled me, and the novel’s overall not-so-nice-ness and embracing of unlikability reminded me of the maxim associated with Larry David’s days at Seinfeld: “No hugs, no learning.” Any thoughts on Seinfeld and/or Curb Your Enthusiasm as comedic influences?
I wouldn’t have noticed that myself, but I grew up with Seinfeld on in the background, so I’m sure there’s a passive influence at work! The undercurrent of aggression in baffling, absurd social situations in Fake Accounts also seems Larry David–esque. And I definitely didn’t want any learning or personal growth. Maybe you could say the protagonist has had a negative epiphany by the end.
Fake Accounts riffs on social media, identity politics, and millennials, alongside larger interrogations of class, gender, romantic relationships, and the ineffability of reality. These aspects can be umbrella’d under the label “the novel of ideas.” There are also “well-observed details” about pancakes, disobedient dogs, blonde mustaches, hipster tampons, people who kiss with their eyes open, and rathskellers in Berlin; let’s call these elements of “literary fiction.” A third category, “the way-we-live-now novel,” is applicable as well, while others would argue that it’s first and foremost a sardonic book aiming for wit and sarcasm. I, for one, was reminded of the sense of acerbic ennui instantiated in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. An alternate title for your book could easily be The Dategoer. Percy was quite proudly a philosophical novelist. Is that a mantle you would relish or reject?
I would relish that, thank you.
A trio of quick-hitters, let’s call it a rat-a-tat sorbet of levity to conclude this Q-and-A.
All-time favorite book jacket.
OMG — I don’t know! I have this one on display in this weird Victorian cabinet we have:
In general I go for more loopy midcentury-looking things. And visual puns.
An underrated 19th-century novel.
I haven’t read enough of the rated ones! I’m a 20th-century girl unfortunately.
The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye? (No substitutions allowed, be they “woke,” wiseacre, or otherwise.)
My instinct is to say The Great Gatsby, but I wonder if that’s aspirational.
Sean Hooks is a writer living in Los Angeles.