Star Struck

No Judgment: Essays By Lauren Oyler. NEW YORK: HARPERONE. 288 PAGES. $29

The cover of No Judgment: Essays

“LITERARY CRITICS do fulfill a very important role, but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism,” Simon Leys once wrote. “One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading.” This was a line my mind kept drifting to as I plodded through Lauren Oyler’s debut essay collection, No Judgment. The book was originally to be called Who Cares, and perhaps that title should have been retained. Who cares, really, about any of this? Gawker, the firing of Ben Mora, a TED Talk from 2010, Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of Tár, an Instagram ad for a meditation app Oyler once saw, bad Goodreads reviews she once got, the fact that customers leave negative Google reviews for her friend Laurel’s “successful bagel shop and café attached to an English-language bookstore in Berlin” and thereby “project a particular logic of capitalism onto their relationship with . . . Laurel that lends the consumer dictatorial power”? When writing Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly said he aspired to write a book that would last for ten years. Much like Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts, with its Women’s March plot, long meditations on social media trolls, and thirty-nine-page parody of Jenny Offill, No Judgment is already dated, even before its release. 

It’s not that all of Oyler’s subjects are uninteresting. The ethics of gossip and of autofiction, how our culture has come (at least in theory) to value “vulnerability” and to dread “anxiety,” the purpose of professional criticism, even the expat community in Berlin (perhaps this last is a tad precious)—these could be starting points that lead to terrific essays. But Oyler is contemptuous of disagreement, quickly bores of research, and rigidly attempts to control the reader’s responses. As a result, the writing is cramped, brittle. Oyler clearly wishes to be a person who says brilliant things—the Renata Adler of looking at your phone a lot—but she lacks the curiosity that would permit her to do so.

Oyler owes her present notoriety to “takedowns” of a series of prominent women—Roxane Gay, Greta Gerwig, Sally Rooney, Jia Tolentino. These pieces broke little intellectual ground but were full of fun one-liners like “The essays in Bad Feminist exhibit the kind of style that makes you wonder whether literature is dead and we have killed it,” and “I get the sense that [Jia Tolentino] must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one.” 

It turns out that No Judgment displays many of the flaws Oyler once so forcefully identified in others. To begin with, it is often hard to tell what she is trying to say. The book is littered with meaning-averse statements—“It was not a good look, as we said a few years ago but don’t really say now”—and punctuated by banal truisms: “Until the revolution that would be our relief comes, we must ‘do the work’ to get better ourselves, as the internet phrase goes. It’s palliative, but it’s what we have.” In her essay on autofiction, she writes:

There’s a certain nihilism, or at least literalism, in expressing too much excitement about the claim that objectivity is impossible and truth a fiction. It’s nice in theory, but in practice, it is the writer’s responsibility at least to try. Actually, it’s everyone’s responsibility to try. By trying you can get surprisingly close.

No explanation how. 

Reflecting on gossip, she rehashes that Golden Rule well known to first graders: “I’ve come to believe the best unfollowable advice we are given about gossip is not about gossip specifically, but about our relationship to other people in general: do unto them as you would have them do unto you.” Vague passages are made blurrier by indulgent, under-explained shower thoughts: “The on-again, off-again relationship between gossip and fiction is on again”; “We want life to be like a novel, and actually, it often is”; “An opinion is objectively subjective. It can’t be wrong, but it can also never be right.” Elsewhere, she resorts to bizarre metaphors in lieu of arguments: “A Goodreads review is Monopoly money in a game you’re betting $50 on.” If you are unhappy about your representation in someone’s autofiction, you will “start looking for small business loans” to “set up shop” in “whatever space opens between their interpretation and yours.” Writing about Berlin as an American is like getting your bicycle stuck in a tram track because you’re “thinking nonstop about maneuvering at a strong enough angle to avoid getting stuck” but then you lurch too abruptly—that is, you say something dumb. Sometimes, the writing just collapses into gibberish: “I can’t remember my mother ever telling me that if I couldn’t say anything nice, not to say anything at all, which is the kind of lesson you teach a child in order to shield her from the overwhelmingly complicated truth. Same goes with ‘You can’t subtract a negative number,’ which has always bothered me. Of course you can. Sometimes, you must.”

Lauren Oyler is tired, y’all, as we said a few years ago but don’t really say now. Why did people think the narrator of Fake Accounts was her? Why did her ex-boyfriends think they were mimicked in the novel’s chorus of ex-boyfriends? Why, when she set out to write the definitive essay on autofiction, expanding on the 2,500-word footnote her editor so unjustly insisted she cut out of her novel, did all these people have the audacity to suggest she do research? Autofiction, she states, has “a history so long and international it’s tiresome even to mention: look, say critics with perspective, at the I-novels of early twentieth-century Japan, at what Russian formalists said about genre, at gay literature of the 1980s and 1990s, at anything happening in France in the past 120 years.” That is a joke, of course (it always is), but the message is clear: can’t she just talk about herself?

“Hysterical critics are self-centered,” Oyler wrote in her Tolentino takedown, “not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round.” Only a few years later, the same critic turned an essay about the Goop cruise into an extended comment on her throuple. And now, despite her full-throated dismissal of “confessional” writing (“a simple form of writing”) in her personal essay on anxiety (“My Anxiety”), practically all topics addressed in No Judgment lead back to Oyler. Her essay on gossip defends her right to speculate that her friends are gay; her essay on autofiction defends her right to write about her boyfriends (and kiss other men while dating them); her essay on literary criticism defends her right to be hailed as one of the millennial generation’s greatest writers. Her essay on Berlin explains why it’s admirable she has bad German after eleven years in the country, why she isn’t contributing to gentrification, and why she loves taking Ecstasy (all the more perplexing because she once lampooned Tolentino for writing about her enjoyment of the drug). If we forget Oyler’s fondness for Ecstasy in the next hundred pages, “My Anxiety” reminds us of it. “My Anxiety” also reminds us that the author is “visibly fit.” 

Of course, Oyler doesn’t want to be a writer of personal essays; she wants to be an erudite critic of the old school. But again and again, she drifts toward personal recriminations and eschews any sustained discussion of literature. In her essay on autofiction, Oyler, who elsewhere identifies her taste as “highbrow,” seems to like novels by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Norman Rush. When it comes to books written before 1990, she’s on shakier ground, making some unbelievably clunky arguments premised on Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert being practitioners of autofiction; in her commentary about the latter, Oyler concludes that writing about intimate secrets “is not nothing, ethically speaking.” (OK?) She dwells far too long on spats with ex-boyfriends and friends, dismissing everyone’s concerns with disdain. You’re worried that if I write a novel featuring a character with your name, some readers might think the character is based on you? Well, guess what—you’re showing up in my next novel. 

If Oyler seems to lack nuance when dealing with “real life,” she’s even more blinkered when it comes to interpreting other people’s writing. At one point, she quotes Janet Malcolm: “As everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not ‘own’ the facts of our lives at all.” For Oyler, this solves the issue: there is nothing wrong with writing based on one’s own life, and no one should ever get mad at her (as mentioned, she’ll make sure to skewer anyone who does get mad in a future work). She seems not to see any complexity in Malcolm’s line, which is from a biography of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In case you need a refresher, Plath committed suicide after Hughes’s adultery, Hughes destroyed her unpublished poems about him, and Hughes later published poems about her in his most acclaimed work, Birthday Letters. In any case, spoiler, Oyler’s conclusion on the whole issue of borrowing stories from one’s own life is: “It just has to be interesting.” 

Oyler claims she is well read, even a “snob,” but great swaths of No Judgment rely on the thinnest of online research. “Vulnerability has come to be seen as a first principle of living,” Oyler concludes from a single search for the term on the New Yorker’s website. Having decided to write about the concept, she shares, “I was hoping for some surprising etymology, specifically involving a relationship to ‘vulva,’ that would, in its obviousness, lead me to my argument.” When a Google search reveals to Oyler that the terms are not related, she undertakes “research”—these are her words—into “historicizing” vulnerability and subsequently “discovers” that professor-cum-corporate-consultant Brené Brown’s 2010 TED Talk on the subject is “accepted as the source of the concept’s contemporary popularity.” Typically, “historicizing” a concept entails finding a “source” more than fourteen years old; Oyler’s argument here is as impressive as “historicizing” contemporary discourse on “threats to democracy” with a Vox explainer from 2016. Even were she not quite to begin with Saint Paul’s “strength in weakness,” Oyler might at least have discussed Freud’s concept of “original helplessness”; instead, she drops the Freud quote that comes up when you Google “Freud vulnerability” but fails even to mention the relevant theory. And rather than asserting, without even this minimal evidence, that Brown was “repackaging” Freud, Oyler might have actually researched any of the pit stops between Vienna and the TED stage. In the ’60s, D. W. Winnicott developed his theory of the “vulnerable self,” a “true self” around which people erected the defensive “false self.” In the ’70s, John Bowlby developed attachment theory, which urged “avoidants” to become as comfortable with vulnerability as “secures” and has since metastasized into an unbelievably widespread pop psychology. In the ’80s, transpersonal psychologists like John Wenwood preached that vulnerability was “the essence of human nature and of consciousness” and that “getting in touch with our more basic human tenderness and vulnerability can be a source of real power.” In the ’90s, Carol Gilligan’s “feminist care ethics,” with its embrace of vulnerability and interdependence, came to the fore—certainly influencing Brown as she completed her social work PhD. And while Oyler includes one of Sheryl Sandberg’s many ridiculous utterances, she seems not to know that Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, and Gayatri Spivak have all recently called for what Spivak termed a “radical acceptance of vulnerability.” But Oyler, highbrow shock jock, has no interest in changing her mind: she pitches “vulnerability” as its dumbest possible version, belaboring tumblr argot like “radical softness” rather than engaging potentially challenging arguments. So the only history Oyler is concerned with begins in 2010, with Brown in a jean jacket on that purple-lit stage. How could Oyler have known about that other stuff, anyway? Brown’s talk is the only subject discussed under “Emotional” on the Wikipedia page “Vulnerability.” 

In her essay on Goodreads, Oyler offers a brief account of the history behind rating books out of five stars, all of which is—you guessed it—available on the Wikipedia page for “Star (classification),” which comes up when you Google “history behind rating books out of five stars.” First, Oyler discusses Regency Englishwoman Mariana Starke’s exclamation-point-filled guidebook to the Continent (and a quote from The Charterhouse of Parma mocking it, conveniently referenced on Ms. Starke’s Wikipedia page). Then, she makes a brief foray into the Michelin star (apparently less “whimsical” than exclamation points). And finally, she visits the Best American Short Stories series and its editor Edward O’Brien’s asterisks indicating “permanence.” Oyler includes extensive quotes from totally forgotten American satirist Oliver Herford’s nearly unreadable review trashing O’Brien’s selections for the 1921 BASS (a review conveniently referenced on the “Star (classification)” Wikipedia page). Oyler also quotes Dorothy Parker (no surprise there) panning the selections for the 1927 edition as “wholly conventional.” But while Oyler gleefully adopts Herford and Parker’s disdain for O’Brien’s “mediocre” curation, she never mentions what O’Brien in fact chose to include. The 1921 story Herford decried for lacking a plot (“gets nowhere”) was Sherwood Anderson’s innovative “Brothers,” and for all her venom, even Parker admitted that, in 1927, O’Brien published a “superb” Hemingway story, “The Killers,” and another that was among Anderson’s “best.” O’Brien would also publish John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner—who have, at the very least, proved “permanent,” as has the BASS itself. Eager to claim her seat at the Algonquin Round Table, Oyler seems not to have found the time to even look up the books’ tables of contents.

But what, beyond this inventory, is the point of “My Perfect Opinions,” the essay at the thematic core of this collection? It’s not immediately clear. At the beginning of the essay, Oyler announces:

What I am going to argue is that while I can’t really assess whether criticism is deteriorating per se, as it has always been said to be deteriorating, criticism is certainly threatened, despite an undeniable flourishing of nuanced criticism appearing in publications new and old in recent years.

“Can’t really assess”? You don’t say. Perhaps the problem is that it’s hard to squeeze meaning from a sentence that is pitched somewhere between “certainly threatened” and “undeniable flourishing.” But meaning isn’t really the point here. Rather, Oyler has two (contradictory) goals: first, to defend her own scathing reviews of others (by torturing the obviously silly phrase “no judgment”), and second, to discredit the widespread dislike of her book by Goodreads users. The canny reader may recall the negative reviews of Oyler’s novel in places like The Nation, Harper’s, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books. But Oyler avoids mention of these, making it easier for her to draw a distinction between two sets of people: “professionals” like herself and those contemptible, lowbrow “Goodreads users.” 

To shore up this point, Oyler insists on her erudition:

The line about how Goodreads is for readers, not for writers, has always irritated me. Am I not a reader? I wonder, staring at my books. I know, in my heart, that I am not. My problem is not just that I am a writer; it’s also the kind of writer I am. A snob, highbrow, elitist, I find the concept of plot oppressive, value style over voice, and enjoy an unfamiliar vocabulary word. At the movies, I prefer subtitles; at the museum, I can probably identify a decent percentage of the permanent collection by sight. Unless you count DJ sets, which I don’t, the last live music I saw was at the opera; the last theater, an adaptation of Kafka’s novel Amerika. I hate theater, but I try to go anyway. I like television, but I have not watched a series to completion in years. I feel shame about difficult classics I haven’t yet read and pride about those I have. There are few things more satisfying to me than recommending to someone a book or film they’ve never heard of. I despise a happy ending; a happy ending says, to me, absolutely nothing about life except that humans have a near-universal desire for a happy ending that is basically unfulfillable if you have any critical thinking skills at all. I learned these values at the Ivy League university I attended as an undergraduate; while not everything was spelled out quite so bluntly there, my education introduced me to the resources that I used to develop these tastes and beliefs, the books and magazines and paths of inquiry. I could make use of my dormant Goodreads account to log my reading and tussle with the reviewers there, but I don’t want to. I have an outlet, several outlets, to discuss my reading, for pay, for now. I am a professional, and I am in danger.

Having been a teaching assistant in the department Oyler is so proud to have matriculated at, I am familiar with the less-than-Herculean intellectual labors needed to get an English degree from Yale. But I digress. Beyond the literal meaninglessness of the claim to “value style over voice,” the sophomoric airs of saying one “enjoys an unfamiliar vocabulary word,” the absurdity of claiming to be able to “identify a decent percentage of the permanent collection” “at the museum” “by sight” (the Met has almost two million items in its permanent collection), the half-hearted allusion to “opera,” the boast about seeing an adaptation of a Kafka novel—beyond this arch guilelessness, this churlish, half-ironic catalogue of her accomplishments, there is something greater here: the way Oyler conceives of her own claim to cultural elitism as a series of adolescent signifiers flung on with the pride of a Goth teenager donning her first Hot Topic belt. “I despise a happy ending”? If she’s so highbrow, I advise her to try out the ending of War and Peace.

Of course, Oyler makes little reference to this or any other of the “classics” she claims to love. By this point in the book—nearly eighty pages in—she has not discussed a single work of literature. Nor will she do so in the remainder of this essay. Instead, she sticks to criticizing Taylor Swift and Marvel movies, with the implicit message that those 9,894 unwashed plebeians who gave Fake Accounts a Goodreads rating of 2.86 stars are no different from the cultural wreckers who have foisted the superhero movies upon us, corn-fed Swifties from the heartland thumbing through Oyler’s novel between Colleen Hoovers. Marvel movies are stupid? I am much chagrined to only now be so informed!

The point is: Goodreads users wanted her book to have a “plot,” and Lauren Oyler wants us to know that she’s more sophisticated than that—that she “finds the concept of plot oppressive.” They thought it was “annoying” she called Australians “antipodeans.” This means they don’t like “big words.”

Oyler has every right to use as many “big words” as she wants, but she needs to have something to say. For all the passion behind her meta cri du coeur, Oyler’s conclusion is the exceedingly limp “I think ‘Why I’m Right’ should be the subtext of any piece of critical writing, balancing as it does subjectivity with objectivity.” Criticism is subjective, but critics think they’re right? Mind blown. “I would like to say that dedicating any time or energy to criticism comes from a belief in the importance of art,” she continues. “I fear making this claim would be a bit too valiant for me, so I will cite some other people doing so.” From here, she proceeds to quote Martin Scorsese making fun of Marvel movies, an episode familiar to anyone who had a Twitter account in 2019. If Oyler were serious about drawing on the history of American criticism, she might have mentioned that Dwight MacDonald, sixty years ago, articulated the points about mass culture she here attempts to make, most specifically why it is a “nonhuman,” infantilizing “article for mass consumption” rather than art. Instead, after a slew of nervous references to “privilege,” “classism,” and “elitism” (“constantly contradicting herself and referring to her shortcomings,” as she once said of Misses Gay and Tolentino, “getting in ahead of criticism, PR-style”), she merely ends with: “People who work all day are tired and just want to relax in front of unimaginably dumb movies. They’re not wrong to do so, but still: I’m right.”

No Judgment is an Empress Wears No Clothes moment even more embarrassing than that occasioned by Oyler’s novel. One wonders why her reviews, those diatribes against such easy targets, ever made such a splash. Perhaps the problem was that during the Trump presidency, literature really was a little bit too self-righteous, so people were thrilled to have a politically acceptable opportunity to call bad books bad. In the context of that “Great Awokening,” people were understandably eager to read Oyler’s screeds against the “moral obviousness” of contemporary fiction—the cruder, the better. 

But what, beyond the thrill of the tweetable insult, is the point of reading Oyler? “I don’t really know why I write criticism,” she admits. The primary reason seems to be “a feeling that I need to right some discursive wrong being committed by my colleagues when they praise bad books or misunderstand good ones.” But criticism can’t simply be about bickering among critics. In this collection, Oyler not once but twice deploys the old saw that “Writing is often nothing but revenge,” and her writing indeed seems aimed at little more than scoring points against her rivals, real or imagined. The resulting collection reads like a juvenile burn book, totally uninterested in the world outside her group chat.

Since Montaigne, the best essays have been, as the French word suggests, trials, attempts. They entail the writer struggling toward greater knowledge through sustained research, painful introspection, and provocative inquiry. And they allow the reader to walk away with a freeing sense of the possibilities of life, the sensation that one can think more deeply and more bravely—that there is more outside one’s experience than one has thought, and perhaps more within it, too. These essays, by contrast, are incapable of—indeed, hostile to the notion of—ushering readers, or Oyler herself, into new territory, or new thought. The pieces in No Judgment are airless, involuted exercises in typing by a person who’s spent too much time thinking about petty infighting and too little time thinking about anything else.

Ann Manov is a writer living in New York.