The slick Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler’s No Judgment is the kind of book that comes with certain quality assurances that read like wine-tasting notes. The essays contained therein will “bring to mind” the oaky aromas of Sontag, the citrusy tang of Kael, and the sharp chocolate hints of Terry Castle. And like real tasting notes, the promised sensations may or may not actually be there. But why question the vintage? Oyler does share the traits of her elders: graceful and rigorous in style, erudite and illuminating in substance, and dramatically savage when the moment calls for it (which, at least in this volume, is not as often as her “swashbuckling” reputation suggests). With the ability to extract fresh insights like no other of her generation, evidently, no topic — Gossip! Travel! Anxiety! Vulnerability! — is too rote.

No Judgment: Essays; By Lauren Oyler; HarperOne
288 pp., $28.99

Oyler, for her part, is aware of this, at least to the extent that it puts her in a bind. It places her within a tradition, one where self-doubt is built in. “Critics like me are perennially regretting the deterioration of criticism,” she writes, “before noting that critics have long regretted the deterioration of criticism.” But what if that tradition is not simply in doubt or even deteriorating? What if it’s declining at a sharper incline and and more intense velocity? What if it is superfluous? 

This dilemma is illustrated by the way Oyler sets about explaining the choice of title — helpfully, as on its own it has at least two other meanings. “This book is called No Judgment because the phrase has become a discursive shield” against the tensions that arise between “thought and feeling, reason and impulse.” It always follows “awkward conversations that you know your interlocutor might not like. We use it to preface advice a friend won’t want to take, to soften an unflattering observation, to ease our way into a difficult conversation.” In our daily post-Seinfeld existence, it is the white flag of self-consciousness, of “worrying about what other people think.” But for the critic, it has a greater existential implication. What is the value of criticism in a culture where the audience already knows what it wants?

“I don’t really know why I write criticism,” our noted critic writes. “It’s probably a bit too much about the illusion of justice for me, really.” Justice, along with its bratty sibling revenge, preoccupies Oyler enough in these essays for the two to constitute unifying themes, and she says as much. There is no shortage of people in the book seeking the one and taking the other. One author revenges another by gaming Goodreads’s algorithm to become a top-rated reviewer. An entirely different author reads an ungenerous review of her book on the same site and stalks its writer, causing other Goodreads users to get revenge against the author. Women in media use gossip to seek justice for the misbehavior of their male counterparts. Celebrities use vulnerability to evade various forms of justice, like failure — and criticism. But the fact that these happen is less compelling than what makes them possible and why they’re hard to contain or satisfy. Revenge and justice only get us so far compared to their respective synonyms: power and authority.

Author Lauren Oyler. (WMFA via Getty Images)

Critical authority may have always been illusory, but encased in stable pre-digital institutions, it was a compelling and enviable one. Rebellions against it certainly seemed just, but that justice was flimsy in a digital era where power, in the “might makes right” sense of the word, was more operable, not to mention fluid. If gossip empowers #MeToo to clean institutions of corruption, real or perceived, it empowers QAnon to undermine institutions altogether. The chaos has reached behind the walls as well. Oyler notes that the New York Times could hire a public editor to check reporter bias while overrelying on anonymous sources at the peak of the Trump era, “requiring readers to trust editors and reporters to make a set of judgments about the legitimacy of their sources, the way one might trust a well-connected friend to relay the tale of a disintegrating high-powered couple.” But power grabs can be met with actual authority. The maker of the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet could not control who saw it, including people on the list, who sued her. Gawker overplays its hand and gets sued themselves, into oblivion. Forum posters get tried for insurrection.

What this means for critics is that the most empowered in this anarchy are they who click. Any critic fond of his or her survival would do well to follow their lead, validating their prejudices and boosting engagement. “Because of web traffic metrics and the simple validation that comes from being able to very approximately quantify readers through social media response, a professional critic’s greatest achievement … is to publish a review a lot of people read, which is much more likely if you’re talking about Taylor Swift.” And if you’re not a “poptimist,” you are railing against poptimism with a fury somewhere between that of a Lutheran thesis and a mass shooter manifesto.

(Illustration by Tatiana Lozano / Washington Examiner; Getty Images)

Oyler is not one for manifestos, but she will occasionally rise to assert a principle. Sometimes she is right: “For my money, there are few things more fulfilling than encountering a difficult text, film, or work of art and then spending some time thinking about it, discussing it, and uncovering the meaning of it.” Sometimes she is dead wrong: “I hate books and films that aren’t realistic, that don’t reflect the nuanced realities of the real world, which I believe to be truly infinitely fascinating.” Often, however, her prose gives way to the very self-consciousness behind her title. She does not deploy “no judgment” but has mastered the millennial dramatic aside — “This is also not new. (Nothing is!)” — and one-line shrug paragraph — “Just kidding. Sort of.” I never liked this kind of rhetorical second-guessing, even when I sympathized with it. In addition to being disingenuous about the writer’s humility and presumptuous about the reader’s ignorance, it produces a discordant rhythm, of thoughts being piled upon and obscured by counterthoughts.

As to how the kind of substantial criticism Oyler represents might survive this chaos, she offers some tantalizing demonstrations. Her essay on living in Berlin has a light, absurd humor reminiscent of Charles Lamb as she negotiates being an American “hegemon” in cities where globalization melts them “like overpriced candles threatening to vanish and leave behind only the stylish containers they came in.” Her essay on autofiction offers little novelty in the decades worth of ethical quandaries over using reality for fictional purposes. At the same time, it is formless, meandering, and refuses to end, having an almost sly resemblance to autofiction itself. One can dream, anyway.

In Oyler’s effort to confront cultural tensions, whether between reason and feeling, authority and power, or reader and critic, she may have happened upon a new one. While at the outset, she prizes stronger judgment against “worrying what other people think,” it is more difficult to overcome in practice. It may, at times, be beneficial to go against conventional wisdom. That, presumably, is where judgment comes most in handy. Yet not worrying as a matter of principle risks falling into fatalism. What good is judgment when you’re beyond being judged? The consciousness of being judged, and the impulse to judge in retaliation, is the core of anxiety; it is also the seed of our moral life. 

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Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey. His Twitter handle is @cr_morgan.

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