‘No Judgment’ with Lauren Oyler

The writer’s newest collection of essays reminds us that cultural critics are people too

Minutes before meeting her on Zoom for the first time, it occurs to me that I am slightly terrified of Lauren Oyler. This is largely what makes her writing and persona so alluring: she’s an outspoken writer and blunt critic who’s garnered a reputation for penning the kind of unforgiving reviews often regarded as career suicide in the literary world. Reading her writing gives the same thrill as overhearing particularly damning shit-talk at a party. Her takedown review of Jia Tolentino’s beloved Trick Mirror made my pulse race. Naturally, she knows her reputation as a snarky—if not occasionally bratty—scold. In her new book of essays, No Judgment, she’ll also tell you she’s “a snob, highbrow, and an elitist.” “I find the concept of plot oppressive, value style over voice, and enjoy an unfamiliar vocabulary,” says Oyler. During our meeting, I tell her that the passage made me smile maniacally, which she reveals was her intention. “A lot of people will refuse to get the joke. That’s their problem because it’s funny, right?”

At some point, one has to wonder, what does Lauren Oyler emphatically enjoy? Well, she loved Sebastian Silva’s Rotting in The Sun, which, she says, “seems like it’s going to be annoying, but it’s incredibly smart and layered and entertaining, and everyone in it is a star.” She’s a Yorgos Lanthimos fan but was “profoundly disappointed in Poor Things, not that I expected it to be good; the disappointment has been ongoing.” For a novel she’s working on, she’s been watching German films and has been enjoying the director Pia Frankenberg. For book recommendations: “I’m having one of the best reading experiences of my life with Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories from 1986—another Berlin story, partially, and every page is just amazing.”

Oyler now resides in Berlin. She speaks to me from her apartment over Zoom, where a bookshelf expectedly lines the wall behind her. Berlin provides a backdrop for much of her work; her new collection of essays includes an essay titled Why Do You Live Here? which serves as a love letter to the city and an examination of expat culture. I tell Lauren her essay made me want to relocate to Berlin, which seems to move her for a moment. “I love Berlin, so I pay attention more when I’m here. I just walk around and look at things, partially because I’m a foreigner. It’s never going to feel like home to me. It will never be familiar, even if I live here.” She extolls the pace of the city, where hanging out and wasting time comes naturally. “For a writer, anything that makes you more curious is great. I think having free time to pursue random things is useful because it makes you think about the world in a different way. It gives you literal material.”

“Oyler’s illuminating examinations—not just of literature but of liberalism, internet speak, and wellness culture—go beyond snide commentary, containing kernels of wisdom beneath the sarcastic façade.”

Criticism, by nature, invites more criticism. I sometimes suspect that Oyler can dish it out but can’t take it. In the intro of her collection, she proclaims that revenge is one of her preoccupations. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Oyler protests being called a “poor little squirrel in a national magazine” after a scathing  review of her collection from The Guardian. I’m sympathetic to her irritation in the same way I bristle at some of her more pointed critiques: she insinuated that Roxanne Gay’s writing style killed literature in 2014, and accused Tolentino of never encountering “ugly women” in the London Review of Books. In that same review of Trick Mirror, Oyler chastises Tolentino for writing about attending a music festival only to later write about partying in Berlin with her DJ friends in her most recent essay collection. (Hypocritical? Ironic? Sure.) This is partly what makes No Judgment so enticing: her notorious career as a critic has made being an essayist something of a tightrope walk. Surely, there are those clamoring to give her a taste of her own medicine.

Oyler’s illuminating examinations—not just of literature but of liberalism, internet speak, and wellness culture—go beyond snide commentary, containing kernels of wisdom beneath the sarcastic façade. In her (brutal) Bookforum review of How To Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson, she concludes, “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return.” For Harper’s Magazine, she wrote about the Gwenyth Palthrow-sponsored Goop cruise with wit and delightful contempt—and paired a more acerbic commentary with careful consideration of the wellness industry’s insidious co-opting of feminism and the things we buy to avoid ourselves. Along the way, Lauren was also sending drunk voice memos and texting with her two boyfriends, all while facing a book deadline, which she documents with deadpan humor. (She’ll also have you know that she’s on very good terms with her ex-boyfriends. After all, she dated them for a reason). It’s the kind of startlingly funny writing that one might not expect from a book critic known for her cynicism.

In 2021, Oyler released her first work of fiction, Fake Accounts, where an unnamed narrator and ex-blogger discovers that her boyfriend is hawking antisemitic conspiracy theories on Instagram. In The New York Times, Paul Sehgal’s review of the book notes, “You recognize that voice immediately—it’s a voice shaped by the internet: ironic, inexplicably defensive, ‘funny.’” Oyler remarks on the recent phenomenon of referencing our online lives in literary works, which was frowned upon until recently. “When I was writing Fake Accounts, the line used to be ‘You can’t put social media in novels. It dates it.’ Now, I think people are reckoning with the fact that this is our reality. There’s that sort of denial [initially]. People didn’t want it to be true.”

In No Judgment, Oyler delivers all the sharp cultural observations she is known for, offering complex contemplations on gossip, Goodreads, and even her own anxiety. Unsurprisingly, she also has a compelling take on the film Tár. (I imagine Oyler sees herself in the protagonist: a Berlin-based edge-lord who is both feared and misunderstood.) In an essay about rumors, Lauren discusses how whisper campaigns became a catalyst for the #MeToo movement, as “proponents often drew on feminist and socialist thinking to claim that gossip was a mode of resistance for the marginalized.” She also examines our cultural obsession with vulnerability, attributing its source to a girl-bossy TED Talk, which encourages us to weaponize emotional transparency in the corporate world. She writes: “I have never before felt compelled to watch a TED Talk because I had always figured they were stupid, and I reasoned that any culture-shifting idea they might promote would reliably make its way to annoy me in due course.” Luckily for us, they have.

Lauren is aware that this is all laughable: her exasperated objections to well-intentioned YouTube videos, Marvel movies, and her takedown of a blonde movie star-turned-vitamin mogul’s luxury cruise. To her, serious cultural criticism and absurdist comedy are one in the same. “I think it’s about seeing the inherent humor in the world. I think some people just don’t pay attention to things. So much of life is inherently funny and absurd,” She explains. “If it’s not funny, then it’s not serious. If you can’t make a joke about something, you missed the point. The risk in terms of perception is, ‘She’s very funny. Therefore, she’s not serious.” One of the many Infinite Jest-like footnotes in No Judgment reads: “I’m kidding.”

“It would be an oversimplification to attribute Oyler’s success to her trademark sardonic, self-conscious voice since replicated many times over in cultural criticism.”

The caricature of a snobbish, opera-watching, Ivy-league-educated cultural critic is one that Oyler enjoys teasing out in No Judgment. She writes, “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.” Will people find this obnoxious? Sure. Who cares? “In this book, I had a lot more fun and was freer. It was the first time that I’ve ever written something with intention. This is the first time I’ve ever actively said, I’m going to write something. It’s going to make everybody really mad,” she explains. Oyler’s willingness to mock her reputation partly comes from her modest upbringing, which might seem at odds with her elite proclivities. “I grew up working class; my family is downwardly mobile. I think because of my background—I grew up in West Virginia—it’s clear to me how I exist in this rarified world.”

This is part of the false dichotomy of our culture, she argues in an essay about Goodreads. We have been conditioned to believe that complex and challenging works of literature and art are relegated to a small, entitled class with privilege and a moneyed education. “It’s a nefarious logic that associates high culture and the upper classes and low culture and the other classes. It’s quite offensive,” she says. “You can have a better culture in your life. It’s free. You don’t need to be born into it.”

I ask her if she views our collective irreverence—and even disdain—to being challenged by art as a recent phenomenon. “I think it’s human nature to not be comfortable not understanding something,” she explains. “Some people think, If I don’t understand it immediately, that must mean something bad about me. So, they would rather avoid that uncomfortable emotional stance, which is totally understandable.”

It would be an oversimplification to attribute Oyler’s success to her trademark sardonic, self-conscious voice since replicated many times over in cultural criticism. (I had once written a particularly vicious review, and my friend teasingly suggested that I was speaking in “Lauren Oyler voice.”) Her essays push past Twitter-era apathetic irony and often incorporate influences from David Foster Wallace and Sigrid Nunez. “One book that is like a model for what I was thinking about is Against Everything: Essays by Mark Greif,” she says. “I would just read a lot of my favorite essays like that. That’s usually what I do if I have to write a magazine piece. I read a bunch of stuff to remember what an essay is.”

Towards the end of our call, Oyler and I land on the topic of anxiety, which has almost become a cliché on the internet, as people are doling out anecdotes of poor mental health. She tells me that in a culture inundated with therapy-speak and mental health advice, she wondered if anxiety was now considered a normal part of the human condition. “Anxiety is an interesting condition because it’s eating itself all the time. It’s constantly churning implications: the next layer, the next layer, next layer,” she says. The tone of this essay is more fevered and frantic than the others, often including digressions that elucidate some of Oyler’s chronic disquieted thought patterns. “You start getting so many recommendations that you’re like, This is completely meaningless. I wanted to see if writing about it could process all of the meaningless bullshit that everybody says about anxiety and see where I ended up.”

Is there any cure for these spiraling, wild, often brilliant thoughts that torment Oyler? She’s heard all of our recommendations. “Like, do you think I’m stupid?” she says with an amused laugh. “I read all the same internet that you read. Exercise? I know. CBT? It’s unclear if it works. I exercise so much, like what do you think? They’re like, ‘You should maybe drink less.’ I’m like, Yeah, probably! I should drink less, but I never considered that!

After finishing No Judgment, I encountered a viral clip of comedian Tina Fey on Bowen Yang’s podcast Las Culturistas where Fey tells Yang that he’s too famous to criticize films publically. “Authenticity is dangerous and expensive!” she yells, eliciting a knowing shriek from the podcast hosts. It’s an entertaining and cheeky sermon, one that ingeniously articulates a terrifying truth in our culture: having an opinion is a liability. Being a critic is a lonely business. This clip made me think of Oyler, who has impressively chosen to opt out of this paradigm presented by Tina Fey: shut up or face your undoing. Her work feels dangerous in the most marvelous way. Oyler is uncompromising and embodies authenticity, laughing along the way.