“Twitter Can Be Terrifying”: A WhatsApp Conversation Between Joanna Walsh and Lauren Elkin




THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION between Joanna Walsh, the author of Break.up (2018), and Lauren Elkin, the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (2017), took place on WhatsApp in May 2018, and all spelling and other mistakes have been preserved.

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[15:08, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Nearly back. Harriet just reminded me today is my US publication date. I’d forgotten. Today I get published by semiotext(e)!

[15:08, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: Hooray!

[15:08, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: Mazel tov!

[15:21, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: just got back… might make a coffee… wonder if there’s any ice for it. terrible tin whistle player outside Shakespeare & co but I can’t bear not to have the windows open. Would you prefer to do this on Whatsapp or email. This feels far better to me, but no good if you can’t type easily on it.

[15:22, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: Whatsapp is fine but I’ll hook it up to my computer

[15:25, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: ok cool, will wait for it

[15:29, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I did it!

[15:29, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: That was easy

[15:29, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: woohoo!

[15:29, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: last time I tried it didn’t work and I got discouraged

[15:29, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: should I keep bidding on this kaftan?

[15:30, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: actually it’s got better. there didn’t use to be a laptop version, but I used some intermediary app

[15:30, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: yes, I tried on the top in that colour!

[15:30, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I mean that model, but just the top

[15:30, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: ok I’ll keep at it 🙂

[15:31, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Isabel marant stuff can go for way beyond the original price I’ve found

[15:31, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: really! I’m v new at this

[15:31, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: you don’t do ebay?

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: not really

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I’ve done it forever.

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: it’s exciting!

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: is this in our conversation? if so, are you an early adapter or a late adapter, digitally?

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: how do you know you’re bidding on the real thing and not a knock-off?

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: it can be in the conversation

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: early adapter of what?

[15:32, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: online stuff

[15:33, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: not kaftans

[15:33, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: early adapter of, like, email and chat (1994, America Online, handle = Belle78) but apparently late adapter of WhatApp desktop + ebay. you?

[15:34, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: why Belle?

[15:34, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: Beauty and the Beast!

[15:34, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: thought so!

[15:34, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: the bookish disney princess

[15:34, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I was 15 🙂

[15:35, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: well, I adapt early-ish but selectively. I never did facebook, and I don’t do instagram. I basically do word things that are person-to-person oriented: all sorts of instant message, plus twitter.

[15:35, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: that’s interesting given you have a background in visual art

[15:36, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I like Instagram — it’s a very snark-free zone

[15:36, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: FB is another kettle of fish

[15:36, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: most online visual stuff is photographic, and I’m a very bad photographer (hence the photos ratés in Break.up).

[15:37, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: so many bad photographers on IG! I think there’s a subversive subset of IG users who are put off by the overly stylized pictures of, I dunno, macarons and hipster interiors, who like a little texture, a little aesthetic failure

[15:38, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: not that I don’t subscribe to the people peddling photos of macarons — I do!

[15:38, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I just like to be snarky off-screen about them

[15:38, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: whereas Twitter it feels like people just jump in & snark at you

[15:38, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I delete fully half my tweets before posting

[15:38, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I find photos very difficult to deal with sometimes, especially instagram. I’m easily fooled that what you see on instagram is how people are living, even if I know it’s just the good bits.

[15:38, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: out of fear

[15:39, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: there is something aspirational about it to be sure

[15:39, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: (IG I mean)

[15:42, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Yes, Twitter can be terrifying. I also feel overwhelmed by creating any kind of balanced ‘self’ you (I, I mean) can feel ok with on there. The requirement (or maybe it’s an internalised expectation) to self-promote as a writer is bizarre. I know I’m not saying anything original here…

[15:43, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: It’s the virtue-signalling in the guise of sensitive engagement that really gets me — it’s all a form of self-promotion but it pretends to something deeper

[15:50, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I tend to think clicktivism (if we’re going to call it that) can have value, but it can be a long road between clicking and doing something. Maybe creating a culture in which certain things can and can’t be said is useful (tho there’s nothing inherently moral about that: we can create cultures in which unhelpful or untrue things can or can’t be said). I wonder whether, in order to be/do something, someone has to say it a lot first. I’m not sure whether this is always the case or whether sometimes saying can take the place of doing…

[15:50, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: (tin whistle guy’s playing ‘la cucaracha now’!)

[15:53, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: the internet is a good place for that — saying something so often it becomes part of who you are, or who you think you are. but there’s also so much anxiety behind that — maybe because there are so many voices fighting to be heard, to self-actualize. the one upmanship you see on twitter reminds me of those weird people who feel like they have to be the first to comment on a blog post or something — the ones who comment only “first!” they have nothing in particular to say, they just want to be seen saying it

[15:53, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I wish I were at shakespeare & co listening to a whistle guy play la cucaracha!

[15:53, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: though I guess if I were it would be weird for us to be having this conversation on whatsapp

[15:54, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I am looking at a giant cruiseship docked outside our building on the mersey

[15:54, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: the “viking sun”

[15:54, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: there are a lot of cruiseships lately — sometimes we google them to see where they’re going

[15:54, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: (mostly it’s just the belfast-birkenhead ferries)

[15:56, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I was just thinking about online vs bodies & how they can/cannot coincide in order to do stuff. Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Theory of Performative Assembly is good on this I think. You should look at Cliona Harmey’s ‘Dublin Ships’ — I’ve been writing a bit about it for a thing on Irish digital art… http://www.dublinships.ie/

[15:56, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Nothing goes down the Seine any more except bateaux mouches!

[15:57, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: ah I have that book — bought it when working on my mavis gallant chapter in flâneuse, when writing sort of critically on mass movements like May ‘68. obviously did not get around to reading it but sometimes I look at it and imagine one day having the free time to pick it up…

[15:57, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: looking at dublin ships now

[15:58, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: that’s cool! I will share with B later

[15:58, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: we have a view all the way up and down the docks — from the working ones down to the albert docks which is just bars and restaurants and the Tate now

[16:04, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: One thing that’s been cut down around the Seine is the traffic. We were picnicking with N on Tuesday evening in a place that used to be a sliproad down to a tunnel. She complained there were too many people.

[16:05, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: are cities just mostly performative spaces now? (‘constructed question’)

[16:05, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: lol

[16:05, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: it’s so nice that they pedestrianized those roads by the seine

[16:06, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I can’t remember where but somewhere (panegyric?) guy debord complains about when the built those highways, turning the quays of the seine into a place where the car is king, and not the pedestrian

[16:06, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I can remember trying to get down there I dunno 10 years ago

[16:06, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: what part of the quay were you picnicking on?

[16:06, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: there are some parts that are overrun with people now, it’s crazy — like a different city

[16:06, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: where did all the people come from!

[16:07, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: right bank by Ile de la cite I think

[16:07, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: where were they picnicking before!

[16:07, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: N kept picking different places and wasn’t satisfied with any of them

[16:07, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: anyway to answer your question: have cities ever not been performative spaces? or I guess I can only really talk about paris since that’s the only city whose history I know much about

[16:08, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: paris is all about performance — that’s why the chairs in the cafés face out to the street

[16:08, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: being in Manchester recently you see all these warehouses and factories that are now apartments and restaurants… cities like that were once industrial centres.

[16:09, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: which is why Le Corbusier wanted people to live in suburbs linked by flyovers…

[16:09, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: ugh him

[16:09, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: total gender segregation as so many women (at the time) were doing family work

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: also debord, somewhere — people living in machines for living turn, themselves, into machines!

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: it’s as bizarre a concept as anything Perec dreamt up for his segmented Paris

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: but perec was just making trouble

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: le corbu actually wanted to build that shit

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: …in which you could eat in one arrondissement, have sex in another (Perec)

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: the Perec version would have been more fun

[16:10, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I rarely eat in the same arrondissement I have sex in

[16:11, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: l’hygeine!

[16:11, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: exactly 🙂

[16:11, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: A lot of Corbusier style arrangements were built in the mid c20 tho

[16:11, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: suburbs etc

[16:12, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: it’s based on a denial that what women mostly worked at then was actually work

[16:12, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: they were well-intended. the mixed-use ones anyway. didn’t you grow up in a garden city north of london or have I got that wrong?

[16:12, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: it was a new town

[16:12, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: the garden cities were the posher prewar versions 🙂

[16:12, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: ah right

[16:13, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I grew up in an american suburb and hated it — you couldn’t walk anywhere. I felt so trapped

[16:13, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: my town was built mostly for Londoners whose homes had been destroyed in WWII… As an attempt not to recreate some of the London slums that had been bombed.

[16:13, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: you could walk there but — where to?

[16:14, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: the american suburbs were built to leave the gritty inner cities to minorities, so the white people could live out their edenic fantasies (black families were routinely denied mortgages and weren’t allowed to rent in lots of places)

[16:14, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: just a really shoddy business all around, the suburbs

[16:15, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I’m not convinced that the people shopping at target in my home town aren’t performing as much as anyone on the streets of paris

[16:15, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: it’s just that they’re wrapped up in their individualistic bubbles and don’t realize it

[16:16, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I like performance in cities (or Target/Primark)… the way people dress up for each other. When that’s absent, life is bleak…

[16:17, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: (he’s playing ‘the wild rover’ now)

[16:18, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I agree — I guess the distinction I’m making is that the people in target aren’t even aware of other people to actively perform for them — they’d totally deny it if you mentioned it to them and think you were accusing them of being “fake”

[16:19, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: not the teenage girls 🙂

[16:19, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I think in paris because there are so many social codes the distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity is moot — there’s just observation of the codes or not

[16:19, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Something about women and especially girls that some men can’t stand is that they’re ok with being ‘fake’

[16:20, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: (yay we just said the same thing!)

[16:20, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I think especially the teenage girls! when I think back to that age we would have claimed that whatever we were doing was because we wanted to

[16:20, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: we wouldn’t have recognized it as being coded

[16:20, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: lol

[16:21, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: awareness of and assent to social code v total denial that there is a code, belief in personal preference without recognizing how that’s shaped socially

[16:21, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: or economically

[16:22, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: like that great scene in the devil wears prada (the movie) where the anna wintour character eviscerates anne hathaway’s character for not realizing that the precise blue of her high street sweater was chosen for her by the people in the room she’s standing in, who she thinks she’s above

[16:23, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: ha, that’s like audrey hepburn in funny face: “clothes for the woman who isn’t interested in clothes”

[16:24, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: haha right!

[16:24, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: that’s the Carmel Snow character speaking: what’s the actress/singer’s name?

[16:24, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I want to write an essay on style as an approach to creativity

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I can’t tell from the imdb page, don’t remember what that character was called

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: what would you say?

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: because it’s so despised. I wrote one already, but it’s about Nietzsche & Derrida (& Hepburn) but I want to write more/differently.

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: style in fashion or in writing?

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: or both?

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: what kind of approach is it?

[16:25, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: despised by whom?

[16:27, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Both. I think I want to write something about style and desire. I’ve never had such strong and illicit-feeling desires to read something as I had in my teens and twenties to read fashion magazines. As I grew up I had a strong impression they were looked down on as trivial, and also as things that would keep you within that ‘feminine’ environment in which there seemed to be little choice. Except between dresses. Nevertheless I had a strong desire to see these things on the page. Not only the photos, but what Barthes calls ‘written clothing’

[16:29, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I’m guessing the critique of them as trivial wasn’t a feminist one?

[16:30, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: (if I get too far from my cell phone does this thing not work?)

[16:33, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: (yup)

[16:34, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Not at all! And my attitude wasn’t particularly feminist either, though I would have wished it to have been — if I’d known how. So much of my teenage ‘feminism’ was focused on me personally getting to leave the environment that seemed bound to restrict me in the name of gender. In rejecting ‘femininity’ I closed myself off from a lot.

[16:34, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: Everything to do with being ‘female’ terrified me. And why shouldn’t it have?

[16:36, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I’m still interested in the stigma against fashion magazines and the way that prompted your desire to see the clothes on the page — in what way were they “trivial” and what do you mean they kept you in a feminine environment?

[16:37, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I understand the wanting to see things on the page. I’m obsessed with pictures of pregnant women right now. mostly because I no longer know how to dress myself and want to know how other women have managed.

[16:37, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I guess it’s the old saw that you can’t be interested in books and lipstick, that a woman can’t be ‘brainy’ and ‘beautiful’.

[16:38, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: As a woman I still have no idea how I look. When I was in the hammam yesterday I still looked at women (I do this a lot less than I used to) and tried to see: “is my body like this one? Or like this one?”. I genuinely have very little sense of what I look like.

[16:39, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: when I was a teenager there was a lot of pressure to be both — could be an american thing?

[16:39, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: yeah

[16:39, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: same — photos, mirrors are no help

[16:40, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I’m not sure any woman ‘knows’ what she looks like. I can remember being pre-this — maybe under the age of 9 or so.I could see my body and didn’t have to constantly evaluate it as being somewhere along a scale with a very narrow acceptable parameter.

[16:42, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: yes exactly! maybe this is an american thing too but it took a long time before I could walk into a room and not size up where I was with regard to the other women in the room — bigger or smaller. it’s embarrassing to admit but I think a lot of girls do it.

[16:43, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: this was a double double standard of course: you were really expected to be a beautiful girls who doesn’t care about the way she looks.

[16:43, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: now, of course, it’s how big is my bump, how big is her bump, should my bump be smaller, is it big enough

[16:43, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I’m pleased I do this less now. But it was never about wanting to judge others, just anxiety that I might be somehow ‘wrong’

[16:44, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: at the same time though it’s such a massive relief to be able to just be a body instead of forever trying to be a smaller body

[16:44, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: It’s funny our having this conversation as ostensibly we’re both very ‘acceptable’ looking: white, femme, slim…

[16:45, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: ostensibly! but that doesn’t mean we’re free from the pressure of or haven’t internalized extremely exacting social standards of beauty

[16:47, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I dunno, white, femme, slim women are still in thrall, in sometimes dangerous ways, to the beauty myth

[16:48, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: it’s the caryatid thing we’ve both talked/written about: women who look decorative, but are holding up the building that’s crushing them.

[16:49, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: et merde! £102 GBP! 

[16:50, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: yes exactly

[16:50, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I never bid on isabel marant on ebay!

[16:50, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I’m learning it’s a fool’s errand!

[16:50, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: can’t spend more than 100 euros on this kaftan, mama’s gotta save her cash for those biodegradable diapers

[16:51, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: there are still 2 days left on this thing, maybe i’ll hang back and see what happens

[16:52, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I’ve sometimes bought unexpectedly cheap things tho, it depends what names people have heard of (words again)

[16:54, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: I’m going to visit Merci in search of a kaftan when I get back

[16:55, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: I was there the other day but I didn’t look at the prices…

[16:56, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: were we going to talk about travel. We’re both currently talking about shopping/living between countries.

[16:57, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: ah yes of course

[16:57, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: you said something interesting recently in an email

[16:57, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: something like you’re forever moving from one place to another but you suspect that you like it — and that I do too

[16:57, 5/11/2018] Lauren Elkin: am I getting that right?

[16:59, 5/11/2018] Joanna Walsh: yes — also about deliberately exhausting ourselves with travel. I think that’s something I do. Perhaps it’s an extension of the pressure to be busy. But I also like never landing, not being quite a citizen of any place, though of course I am, and my citizenship is currently being radically narrowed through Brexit — and all of our borders are closing down. I mean yours too.

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Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (FSG, 2018). She lives (mostly) in Paris.

Joanna Walsh is the author of seven books. The latest, Break.up, was published by Semiotext(e) in 2018.


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