Lauren Oyler is the kind of literary critic who makes thin-skinned writers think twice about putting their thoughts onto the page. She once questioned if New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino had ever met someone who wasn’t pretty (yikes!) and asserted that the best-selling novel American Dirt could have “perhaps used a little more self-doubt” (…fair). With bylines in the London Review of Books, New York Times, The Baffler, and more, Oyler often reflects on online phenomena like the popular rise of astrology and the destabilizing effect of social media on our collective mental health. More than one of her pieces of criticism have gone viral, a feat for the genre in its own right, but all the more extraordinary for their lack of sensationalism. Though her critique is often sharp-edged, it does not sacrifice nuance.
Now, she’s turned efforts to her own novel, Fake Accounts, which distills much of her critical musings into a timely premise, with a protagonist who feels like someone you follow on Twitter—an Internet writer who lives in New York City. The unnamed narrator discovers that her boyfriend of several years has been hiding a second life as a popular online conspiracy theorist on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, but as she roves the sea of pink pussy hats at the 2017 Women’s March that same weekend, her boyfriend dies in a freak accident before she can confront him. Left in a social media-hazed mania, the narrator flees to Berlin, embarking on a truly deranged online dating spree and other expat follies.
The book mirrors details from Oyler’s own life—a writer, often for the internet, who lives part-time in Berlin—and parodies the contemporary literary trends she often critiques, like autofiction and the fragmented structure popularized by Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, to explore the tension and lack of distinction between our real and online personas. If, like much of the population, you are addicted to social media, the book resonates in a very specific way.
ELLE.com talks with the author about how she deals with her inner critical voice, her lukewarm feelings about social media detoxes, and how she found empowerment in blurring the lines of her online persona through fiction.
I first heard about your book after seeing a tweet from Emily Gould that calls you an “enormous bitch” but then praises the novel as “unimpeachably great.” How do you unpack a comment like that?
Ha! I don’t think Emily meant that being a bitch is a bad thing necessarily. We’re so used to seeing more or less positive criticism or only tepidly questioning criticism, but not a ton of harsh book criticism, so I seem like more of a bitch than I think I am. But I mean, that’s totally what I was going for—make the book good enough so people can’t hatchet-job you, right? That’s what everybody is going for, I hope.
I imagine that task was really challenging as someone who reviews books. How were you able to shut off those critical voices and write?
I think a lot of people are probably feeling pressure from hypothetical critics now. Social media puts everybody in this position where you’re constantly imagining how something is going to be taken the wrong way, or the least generous reading of something that could possibly be made. How likely is it that someone will make it? There’s an aspect of the novel where the narrator is constantly anticipating the reader’s thoughts, and she is trying to justify her thinking or how she’s behaving. So I think that’s a broader issue and not just related to the fact that I’m a “bitch.” [Laughs]
AKA critic! Reading your criticism, I have been struck by the level of authority you assume—as a writer, I always struggle with “what’s my right” to say any of this. I’m curious where that comes from for you.
I think it does come in part from growing up in a place where people were not quite interested in the same things I was. I grew up in Hurricane, West Virginia, a small town between Charleston and Huntington, and I was not a total misfit, but I wasn’t encouraged the way I might have been if I had gone to a nice private school in New York City. I had to learn to trust my process of thinking through objections and criticism and shoring up all sides—because I do feel, and maybe some people would disagree, that I think quite a lot about things before I say them, and that’s part of where the sense of confidence comes from. But I do have social media-inflicted paranoia.
You’ve written a lot about social media as a critic—what made you want to approach the topic from a literary standpoint?
There’s this idea that floats around periodically that the realist novel is not equipped to respond to the pace and technology of the day, and you can’t put the Internet in a novel and have it still be literary because the Internet is inherently tacky and ephemeral and nothing on it matters and everyone on it is kind of stupid. We have this idea about literary fiction, that it has to be very elevated and concerned with the greatest issues of human life, but I think the compulsion to be sort of ephemeral and the willingness to be stupid in public without thinking much about it is a very human impulse. I was interested in this idea of the realist novel and the quote-unquote “traditional novel” that is supposed to be inimical to the Internet and social media.
What was your writing process like?
When I started thinking about writing this novel, the voice didn’t come to me immediately. I was really struggling with it. And then I wrote a version of the first paragraph, which has this much more cynical, slightly complicated tone with an inherent ironic quality that is really appealing to me, and then went from there.
One thing I thought about a lot is the possibility that people will read the book autobiographically in some way and take something about me from the protagonist. I started to feel very empowered by that, building up this fake persona that was still definitely connected to my real self.
That sounds absolutely terrifying to me.
I think it’s personally empowering because I don’t think I care if someone thinks a certain detail or one of the things the protagonist says is attributable to me. It may be attributable to me, or it may not be, and keeping both possibilities alive throughout the text is something I was concerned with. I think what is compelling about experiencing art and also making it is that it allows you to create your own agency. You can, within the confines of the work, do more or less whatever you want. I think it’s very important for people to have at least one sphere of life where you can sort of control how it works.
I have listened to and read a lot of interviews with authors who get frustrated with the notion that some part of their novel is autobiographical, and they have a point, but I also think the process of writing a novel is one in which you are pulling all sorts of things from your life. You only have what’s in your mind, what you can imagine or experience. Now, increasingly, we live in a time where we just know a lot about each other, and what I try to show in the book is that the construction of online persona versus the construction of a quote-unquote “real persona” is a very fluid process. You can’t point to any one thing and say that’s real and that’s fake. There are definitely things that are straightforward lies, but there are lots of ways to fudge things without lying and, in some way, you’re being more truthful by not being completely honest, which is the nature of fiction traditionally—that it’s saying something true by saying something false.
As a literary critic, how do you hope your book is received?
First of all, I know this is a trick question, but I hope it’s not just seen as a commentary on social media, because I think that discussion of social media even now can be siloed, like, “Oh, that’s what’s happening on the Internet. That’s an Internet writer.” I would ideally not be considered a quote-unquote, “Internet writer.” I would be considered a writer, one of whose themes is the internet.
Has your relationship to social media changed since the pandemic?
I’ve got to say no, but that’s because I didn’t have a job before, so I was always on the computer at my house and I continued to be on the computer at my house. I’m kind of disappointed that I haven’t had an awakening that allows me to get off it for good. I did take a five-month break last year, and that was sort of nice, but it didn’t change me as much as I hoped. I obviously get quite a lot out of social media—my career definitely has a lot to do with having been on Twitter for ten years—and I think it’s very fascinating just to watch people and see what they do on it and how they respond and interpret things. It’s an amazing opportunity to watch this many people just behave.
What books or authors do you think people should read more of?
As far as contemporary authors go, I think Miriam Toews deserves much more attention. I loved Patrick deWitt’s novel French Exit, which didn’t get very much attention when it came out (and looking it up just now, I had no idea it was made into a movie). More people can always be told about The Last Samurai and Helen DeWitt (no relation to Patrick, I think). Joan Silber, Percival Everett. I think it’s safe to say that most authors in translation who aren’t extremely famous deserve more attention; it’s hard to go wrong with translated books in the U.S. because so few authors get translated, and the ones who do are usually some of the most renowned authors in their own countries. Which is a problem, because in the U.S. we have no idea what’s going on with contemporary literary culture in other countries, but it’s a useful way to narrow your search. Daša Drndić, Jenny Erpenbeck, Alina Bronsky (I liked The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine). Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy, are being reissued by FSG in January, and I wrote about them and loved them. I still think about the book Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, who has a few other books out here, too.
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