Liming has been crossing between academic and mainstream venues for the past decade, publishing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books, as well as scholarly journals. She’s also published two other books, What a Library Means to a Woman: Edith Wharton and the Will to Collect Books (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), and Office (Bloomsbury, 2020). She currently teaches creative writing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. We spoke over Zoom on March 10, 2023.
JEFFREY J. WILLIAMS: Your new book, Hanging Out, has been getting a good bit of attention, including a profile in The New York Times Style section. It’s a kind of manifesto for socializing and also an argument against the speed-up imperative of capitalism. Can you sketch out your argument?
SHEILA LIMING: My argument starts in observations about time and the way it has been basically stolen from places in our lives and reappropriated to other things. I’m thinking about the expansion of the workday, and working activities in general, so that it’s almost impossible to extricate ourselves from them. Then it turns into an argument about what to do when we’re able to reclaim our time for ourselves.
One of the concerns I have is with the growing trend towards social isolation. We end up giving in to labor more often than not when we’re by ourselves, even when we are engaging in activities that are meant to bring greater “wellness” to us, or “self-care,” as employers like to call it. What we’re actually doing is trying to make ourselves more fit for our return to work and [trying to be] better laborers, which, as in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” is a cyclical trap.
In the meantime, while we’re continuously working on ourselves in isolation, we’re ignoring each other. We’re ignoring the people who exist in our community, the people who exist in our democracy, the people whom we have to cultivate attention and care for, because if we don’t, then those structures will fail. Democracy is based on hypothetical care for strangers; if we can’t cultivate that, it’s really hard to keep the whole machinery running.
Obviously, your thinking was influenced by the moment of COVID-19, which intensified the sense of isolation for many people. Is Hanging Out a “COVID book”?
I think the trend was building long before COVID came along. But COVID ramped up certain social practices that we were already starting to rely on, to our own detriment. Then it made those social practices normal and part of our daily lives.
One observation I make in the book is that, prior to COVID, we were still living in a world where the working assumption was that relationships begin in person and then are extended on the internet. With COVID, we entered a world where relationships begin on the internet and sometimes are only ever there. I’m thinking in terms of dating, where we have moved a generation away from something that was supposed to begin in person and then sometimes took place over the internet or text message, whereas now most romantic partnerships and sexual relationships begin online, facilitated by an app.
I’m also thinking in terms of workplace relationships. Collegial relationships extend towards worker solidarity, but if your relationships with your fellow workers primarily take place online, it’s difficult to fight for better working conditions in your workplace.
One of the things I talk about in the book is that hanging out on the internet is subject to curation and control. We have the ability to select the people we’re talking to, select the spaces we’re doing that in. And the second that things get uncomfortable, we tend to exit those spaces. That is not true of hanging out in person, a lot of which is built around the experience of discomfort and the ability to get through and navigate the experience in order to end up somewhere else.
I feel like the behaviors that we develop from hanging out online end up filtering into in-person experiences. Suddenly, we can’t stand being in a room with somebody who doesn’t share our point of view, or we can’t stand having a conversation we don’t like.
In one chapter, you recount being in a bar and having a disagreement with a friend but getting through it.
[When] hanging out, conflict can come up and doesn’t have to be the end of a conversation; you can work through it and end up somewhere else, and it’s okay. That’s not something we see on the internet; usually everybody flees and goes where people are going to agree with them.
One criticism, at least from the academic side, is that the book verges on self-help.
I can see how it would come across that way if somebody just looks at the chapter headings or the conclusion. I will say that, as opposed to books grouped under self-help or wellness or self-care—all terms that I can’t stand—I’m arguing in favor of activity and work, not relaxation. One of the things I’m telling people is to put work into relationships with each other. That actually takes a lot of effort: it takes maintenance; it takes difficulty; it takes awkwardness. I’m not telling everybody to chill out and relax; I’m telling them to take time away from a certain kind of work and work towards something more useful and functional.
I’m not giving a recipe for how an individual person can flourish by themselves because the self is not the point. The point is the commons. The argument is directed towards how we can build a better and healthier society with each other—not necessarily through what makes us comfortable or what makes us more successful but through things that we might have to suffer through in order to make this common situation that we inhabit together a little healthier.
The book is about the idea of social musculature and [developing] practices that underpin our participation in the commons—which is our democracy, right?
You also have academic training and have published on 19th-century American literature, but you move between academic and more mainstream venues. How would you characterize the kind of criticism that you do?
The [term] that people tend to assign to it is “public criticism.” I don’t really buy the distinction—as opposed to “private criticism”? But it’s a label that gets attached to the kind of criticism [done by] people who, like me, were trained in academic environments and then have transferred some of that training into more public-facing arenas—magazines, journals, websites, whatever. As a person who comes from a cultural studies background, I think that criticism has always served a public function, at least when it’s done well. So it’s not a perfect phrase, but I guess it’s the phrase I would use.
Although sometimes “public” can simply mean that it’s in a mainstream magazine and doesn’t necessarily have any particular political value.
That’s true. For me, criticism itself is designed to function as a means for achieving social change, which we can also call revolution, and that is definitely what I’m arguing for in Hanging Out. I’m arguing for social change; I’m arguing that we’ve adopted practices that we have to rethink because they’re going to prove disastrous to us in the long run if we don’t change them.
Do you feel a split between the two poles, academic and mainstream?
In some ways, there are two different sides of my persona as a critic: a scholar and academic critic and also a nonfiction writer who is writing from the vantage point of criticism for the sake of public audiences. But I have actively worked against the compulsion towards specialization in my writing, even in my academic work.
One advantage of expertise or specialization is that it gives you some added insight; otherwise, I fear the rejection of specialization becomes anti-professional or anti-knowledge.
Agreed. Specialization is particularly useful for education and training, and you can think of it as an intellectual apprenticeship as you enter into academic conversations. It serves the need to position yourself within a certain sphere of discourse. Like the Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein They Say/I Say move, you have to find the “they” and figure out what those people are saying in order to launch your own opinion or scholarship or findings.
What is lost as well as gained in doing this kind of writing? One gain is that it might speak to wider audiences. But is there something lost?
Part of what’s lost is there being a built-in community to support what you’re doing. For my first book, What a Library Means to a Woman, I was indebted to the Edith Wharton Society and to the people in that sphere of criticism and scholarship. Those were primarily the people that I was talking to—I was attending conferences with them, I was on panels at things like the American Literary Association, and they started me on that journey.
After What a Library Means to a Woman, you published Office, which looks at that quintessential cultural space. What turned your attention to the office?
I’m interested in dying species of things and the ebbs and flows of culture. Offices were once indispensable to our culture and to how we lived our lives, and now they are on the point of decline. In the Wharton book, I was thinking about the decline of libraries in general and also the decline of physical books and personal collections that exist in homes.
The idea of the office came out of a conversation I was having with my dad and some friends of the family. We go on this annual hiking trip in the Cascade Mountains, and we were sitting around one night, after our day’s hike, and I realized that three members of the crew were on the cusp of retirement, including my dad. They were all talking about how weird it would be to stop going to the office that they had occupied, some of them for decades. It made me think about labor and identity and how we feel about the spaces in which we end up doing our work.
Office is in the Object Lessons series, which does short crossover books. Did you find doing it different from a more academic book?
I think part of what accounts for the length of academic monographs is the idea that you have to imagine responses to your work, and you have to head them off at the pass. That takes up a lot of room, and you know that if you don’t do it, the first complaint is going to be, “Well, she didn’t talk about x, and her study is missing y.” Because the Object Lessons series is more popular-facing, I felt like I could focus on my case studies without worrying about taking care of all the critics and that side of the conversation, for better or worse.
What do you think is the task of the critic now?
I think the task of the critic is to pay attention and, in our landscape of media ecology, show us what’s worth paying attention to. I think the opposite of criticism is inattention. What happens if you don’t have criticism, if you don’t have robust structures for it, if you have people who are either unwilling or unable [to pay attention to things] or don’t have the luxury of [doing so]?
Sheila Liming is an associate professor at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, where she teaches classes on literature, media, and writing. She is the author of three books, What a Library Means to a Woman: Edith Wharton and the Will to Collect Books (2020), Office (2020), and Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time (2023), and the editor of a new edition of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (Norton, 2022).
Jeffrey J. Williams has published more than 80 long-form interviews with critics, writers, historians, philosophers, and editors, appearing in Minnesota Review, symplokē, Studies in the Novel, and elsewhere. He has written on the form in “Criticism Live” (Biography, 2018) and “The Rise of the Critical Interview” (New Literary History, 2019), and his book, How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, & the University, includes profiles drawing on various interviews.