Review: Lauren Oyler's Fake Accounts

there's nothing in the Millennial experience worth writing about tbh

A couple years ago Helen Lewis published a piece on the status of women novelists that, to me, came frustratingly close to a novel understanding of a growing gender imbalance before skittering off into well-worn complaints about looks. Yes, it’s true as Lewis says that women writers are judged on their appearance in a way that men simply aren’t, and that sucks. But when Lewis references “an asymmetric value system where men do, and women are,” it speaks to a problem that is now more complicated and harder to detect than women writers being judged for their looks. I have no idea what Lauren Oyler looks like, I’m happy to say, despite reading a half-dozen professional reviews of her debut novel Fake Accounts. But I am aware that Oyler is receiving a certain treatment in the literary media that provides formulaically good press up front in exchange for a maddeningly superficial understanding of the book itself, one which allows them to anoint Oyler as “one to keep an eye on” even as it ensures that she will inevitably be dragged into a kind of literary backlash cycle we also reserve for young women. Male novelists face dangers in being overhyped too, but no one’s backlash is prosecuted as lustily as a young woman writer once known as precocious.

Oyler’s book is not very good, I’m afraid, but it’s written in the idiom of the contemporary internet and is about “the Millennial experience” so it’s receiving the kind of desultory positive reviews we give to young women writers who look like the future, which in the long run turn out to be a burdensome type of white elephant. You call young women’s books “promising” rather than good and commend their talent (their immense talent, their palpable talent, their untamed talent) rather than their writing. Then three years later people are wondering where all that promise went, which makes them out to be undeserving frauds rather than just, you know, young writers who were still figuring it out when they wrote their first books. It’s the same old story of how everything a woman does gets refracted through a prism of gender politics that prevents her from just doing what she does in an uncluttered fashion, as Lewis suggested. Dude books just get reviewed; they might get panned upfront but if so it’s “you’ll get ‘em next time.” Young women writers labor under additional burdens thanks to a literary media that would rather discover them than nurture them.

This is just to say that consistent honesty is better than fairweather flattery. If Oyler’s next book isn’t perceived to be good all those people who gave her obligatory praise will turn on her savagely and confidently assert that it was all a mirage. Which will be dishonest (you sure seemed to want to drink out of that imaginary oasis before) and uncharitable. Oyler has some real gifts as a writer. Unfortunately she has little idea what those gifts are and there is apparently no one in her life willing to tell her.

While I was reading Fake Accounts I often couldn’t help but think of Oyler’s bizarre, frequently asyntactic review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. Appearing in the august London Review of Books, that review read like someone had Benjamin Buttoned their way through an education in writing and arrived at a place where they could construct some elaborately engineered sentences of real craftsmanship but was unclear on the whole concept of subject and object. That mangled grammar is, I suspect, a tactical choice: if you write in an artificially high register, as Oyler does in her essayistic writing, and you throw enough arch and elliptical sentences out there, chances are a lot of people who secretly don’t trust their own reading comprehension will get to something they don’t understand, chuckle, and say “ah yes, quite.”

What’s frustrating is that Oyler’s review was held up as the takedown of Trick Mirror, a book that everyone was afraid to review honestly because Tolentino is literally the most popular writer in media. Tolentino’s book is indeed embarrassing, but it’s embarrassing because of its breathtaking lack of ambition, a monument to the kind of writer for whom writing has become a distraction from the work of looking like a writer. (You guys, remember Fyre Fest? That was crazy.) Tolentino’s undeniable talent only makes that book more frustrating. She could have written anything; she is so perceptive and, on the rare occasions when she’s not being cool, deeply empathetic. But she wrote a strikingly formulaic essay collection that I just can’t believe she had her heart in. (Find me passion, in that book. Find me any.) Then Oyler showed up to reveal that the emperor had no clothes and proceeded to leave a pile of half-sentences strewn around like she was holding a garage sale by emptying out her notebooks. I genuinely don’t know if Oyler’s negative feelings towards Trick Mirror are similar to my own disappointment because I genuinely don’t know what that review is saying.

For example

Yet the spotty acceptance of feminism has created a loophole for women in certain spheres, like media and publishing: claiming to have hurdled sexist obstacles where there were only other kinds of obstacle, we are able to take advantage of a feminist overcorrection. This is consistent with the trick-mirror-like quality of mainstream political and cultural discourse more broadly. The important question lying behind many possibly intractable issues is whether people are serious – whether their stated beliefs are authentic, or merely devised to achieve a certain self-presentation or outcome.

What is the “trick-mirror-like-quality” that is being referenced here? Obviously we must do the thing where we utilize the title of the book in the body of the review, lest someone give us only a “B” in Cleverness. But what is that phrase meant to refer to that both writer and reader mutually understand? It’s being compared to the loophole through which women claim that that they have hurdled sexist obstacles when they have only hurdled the (exquisitely specific and meaningful) “other kinds of obstacle,” which, um, alright. People represent themselves as being concerned with a given political cause out of righteous moral reasons, but they’re actually motivated by personal gain, OK, I’m on board. This is a very real, very common thing these days. So, if I’m following, people are insincere in their political expression, this is a trick-mirror like condition, and an example of it is that women claim that they have surmounted sexist barriers when really the barriers were of some other entirely mysterious form. When I read this one way, it’s so banal it doesn’t deserve to be written; read another way, it’s so intellectually garbled and needlessly complex that it should be illegal to write it.

She continues

Campaign polls, social media, ‘progressive’ politicians, ‘populist’ politicians, journalists invoking ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’, quack doctors invoking science, your Facebook friends invoking quack doctors, skincare, astrology: clearly, not everything is what it seems, but it’s hard to tell what it actually is.

… what?

This is nonsense. It fails in the most basic requirements of any communication, which is mutual understanding. I suppose this reads a little better if you put that final “it” into italics in your head, but still… what? In linguistics they call it coindexing, assigning a pronoun to its referent term. In less formal vocabulary we might call it making sure your reader knows what the fuck you’re talking about. The second “it” seemingly refers back to the first “it” in “what it seems,” but that “it” in turn refers to “not everything,” which obliquely references the list of stuff that precedes it. I think. I’m sorry but, just… no. No no no. This one should have stayed in drafts. Whatever you were attempting, you have failed. Who the fuck edited this? Iris Murdoch said that coherence was not always the goal. I agree. But there’s a deliberate and careful application of non-coherence and there’s the kind of artless incoherence that stems from a combination of trying to write above your weight and having editors who are too impressed with your burgeoning literary celebrity to tell you no. Were I Oyler I would legitimately, genuinely be angry at the LRB that they let this review escape in this form. It’s editorial malpractice.

Also, remember, we’re still talking about the political commitments that we represent as sincere but which are actually self-interested. Tell me: how does any of the shit in that list fit into that category? Campaign polls are… insincerely woke? What? I don’t know what kind of Facebook friends Oyler has (just kidding, I guarantee you she’s too cool to have Facebook) but when mine talk about skincare or astrology or homeopathy, I assure you, they are achingly sincere. This is just awful, awful writing, and the cause is someone who’s too busy trying to impress to write sensibly. The fact that this review seems to have been well received, I say again, is either a function of people not getting it and being afraid of seeming not to get it or, even bleaker, of not wanting to publicly insult a rising Cool Girl. And there’s more to come in that review, if you’d care to experience what aphasia feels like. Tolentino, ever desperate to look cool herself, praised the review, apparently unconcerned that it objectively does not make sense.

By the way the title of Oyler’s review is “Ha ha! Ha ha!,” to which she has lent gravitas through reference to Helen DeWitt. DeWitt is a master but sadly this association has not obscured the fact that this is an almost impossibly annoying name for an essay about anything. Again, the editors behind this piece did her no favors.

(There are spoilers in the follow paragraph.)

In any event, Oyler’s book is about an extremely online overeducated Millennial trying to navigate the dawning of Trump’s America by being an insufferable dickhead on the internet like everybody else. (I don’t know that Oyler would use these terms.) But our narrator discovers that her boyfriend is a leader in the online conspiracy world, rubbing shoulders with the alt-right and trading in what would today be referred to as misinformation, which obviously upsets our conventionally progressive Brooklynite protagonist. She then proceeds to start creating fake accounts herself. This is actually a really cool setup for a novel that meaningfully intersects with the contemporary world, so of course Oyler sprints away from that premise as fast as she possibly can by killing off the boyfriend immediately. Thus unencumbered by the dramatic setup that I have to assume was how she sold the novel in the first place, she is free to spend almost 300 pages ruminating on various contemporary issues, and by “contemporary” I mean “things that were relevant and cool when she was writing this like three years ago.” (This lack of timeliness is a congenital problem with these “write like the internet” books and to me a disqualifying one.)

I don’t mind stream of consciousness, if what the person is thinking is meaningful, interesting, or revealing of what our internal lives are really like. But Oyler’s protagonist, whether she intends this or not, resembles nothing more than an irony-laden, stale-joke-telling, politically incomprehensible narcissist like everyone you follow on social media. I can get that for free. The publisher’s copy refers to “seductive confidence and subversive wit,” which is accurate except that our narrator is not seductive, confident, subversive, or witty. She’s sad, sometimes, in a way I find genuinely sympathetic, and I want more, but we never get to spend time in that place of sympathy. She’s always off to the races with another take. I don’t mean to be mean, but in 2021 I would rather take a nailgun to my temple than to read an exaggeratedly cynical, Weird Twitter-mediated take on pink-pussy-hat feminism. If it sounds like I’m saying that reading this book is unpleasant, that’s only because Oyler is self-consciously trying to mimic internet culture and internet culture is worthless and mutually demeaning.

Why are we in Berlin? Who the fuck knows! Have another tweet you paid $22.99 for.

I get it: Oyler is making a point about self-obsession in the internet era by modeling it with her narrator and (she thinks) the reader understands this all to be a wise exercise in self-deprecation. But whatever her intentions the actual experience of all of this is so utterly unpleasant that whatever larger cultural point is being made gets lost. In this, it very much reminds me of Kerry Howley’s 2014 novel Thrown, about a writer who becomes entranced by the world of mixed martial arts and catalogs it in ever-intensifying detail, falling deeper and deeper into raptures about how these Men are truly Men and they transcend the mundane contemporary world and they put their bodies on the line and other “I’m not like the other MFAs!” bullshit. (Perhaps Oyler could have used a little more MFA, Howley a little less.)

There too Howley is deliberately blurring the line between the narrator and the author, and in each case I have to assume (having met neither Oyler nor Howley) that the actual human being is not remotely as insufferable as the character they are meant to resemble. I get it, but I don’t like it. I get that making yourself unattractive in your writing provokes a certain kind of respect but I feel it would be sensible to give us a better sense of why we should endure it. I have a high tolerance for unlikable characters but I need to feel that I’m made to dislike them for a reason other than cheap seriousness. I hate to gender things again but I think the intentionally-obnoxious-writer-stand-in-protagonist trope is the sort of thing women writers might do self-defensively out of the entirely justified fear that their characters will be dismissed as shallow or unserious otherwise.

Oyler is frequently compared to Patricia Lockwood, which is a really effective case study in our immensely stupid dedication to facile comparison between people who share the same identity category. You see, they are both white women who write about the internet, so they must be the same. Only they’re not the same, not remotely. I don’t personally vibe with Lockwood’s work, but her diction is totally different from (and significantly more effective than) Oyler’s. Lockwood’s prose is about the steady application of minute observations, expressed with a formalism that is so disarming it doesn’t seem formal at all; Oyler’s (in fiction) is about the accumulation of deadpan narration that flattens everything to the point of rote meaninglessness. This is surely a stylistic choice; that doesn’t make it a good choice. The fundamental distinction, from my perspective, is that Lockwood’s approach creates a kind of authorial integrity through its dedication to the importance of every word, every sentence. Oyler’s style feels like she could have written half as much or three times more for any given point, as the shuffling quality has the deadening effect I guess she was going for. Is Lockwood a more talented writer than Oyler? I have no idea. That isn’t the question.

(For the record the response to Priest Daddy was hardly free of sexism but did allow Lockwood’s work to speak for itself in a way Oyler’s has not been allowed to.)

This is what I hate about online literary culture. You would not know that Lauren Oyler is a talented writer who could stand to attend a writer’s workshop, that Jia Tolentino is a gifted writer whose immense potential is being sucked out of her like a vampire by (I’m guessing) a talent agent who would rather she spend less time writing and more time doing TV hits, and that Patricia Lockwood is a writer who applies her great talents carefully to portraying a culture that I personally feel is not worth writing about and doesn’t deserve her. On Twitter all three are just Online Lady Writers who write about being Online Ladies, and the type of bespectacled white men with shitty beards who will rush to their defense after I publish this review are the ones who want them to stay that way.

There is a strange quality to Fake Accounts: it is the quality of a novel that didn’t want to be written. On every page I find myself shaking my head thinking “when she wrote this she would have rather been doing literally anything else.” I have no idea if this is true but my guess is that Oyler did not have a burning desire to tell this story but instead got a book deal she didn’t expect, likely through both sincere appreciation for her many virtues and market calculations about the potential profits of another Millennial writer who talks the way the kids talk on Twitter. (In Lewis’s piece she praises Sally Rooney for “captur[ing] the idiom of a generation fluent in the grammar of WhatsApp,” without bothering to ask if this is worth capturing.) And then Oyler realized she had to write a book. This is a completely irresponsible thing to say, but I just don’t think she liked writing this book and to be honest I doubt she likes the book she wrote itself. She is so reflexively disdainful of her own project on every page that the only conclusion I can take away from this is that she never wanted to write it and is scared of having to stand by it and so lets the reader know she never took it at all seriously. I don’t know man. It’s a bummer.

I’m told the book has done well sales-wise, so there’s a chance that she can now turn her attention to a more serious subject that she actually wants to write about, take longer writing it while enjoying the skills of a more judicious and assertive editor, and produce something longer, deeper, less contemporary, and far less self-defensive. There’s also a chance that the success of Fake Accounts compels her to spend the rest of her career in a defensive crouch of irony and disdain, producing book after book about the sad, aging, congenitally unserious demographic that she belongs to. (That we belong to.) And I’m sure that career would be a great financial success.

There are things I like a lot about Oyler. There are moments in the book that are legitimately funny. She says some things about online life I have not heard before, or at least not relayed that well. She generally attempts an affectless and narcotized style, common to a lot of contemporary literary fiction, but I quite prefer it when the narrator betrays a little emotion, which isn’t that often. The seeming plotlessness of the book is a common complaint in the (overall very positive) reviews I’ve seen, but I think she pulls it off. Fake Accounts is one of those tantalizing and immensely frustrating books that keeps suggesting a substantially better book that we almost got. Oyler genuinely is talented. And part of what I find so frustrating about her review of Trick Mirror is that there are flashes of a really immensely perceptive writer in there. But that stuff is drowned out by sentences that are so unnecessarily overconstructed that even she is not really willing to own up to them, which is why so much of her writing is written with a disdainful smirk. And the pleasures of her fiction style are no match for her absolute dedication to treating it all as a bad joke, the inability to commit to trying anything out of fear of being seen failing to do it, which is the shackles of our shared generation. I guess she did capture the Millennial experience.

Have I cursed Oyler by talking about her promise and talent instead of her writing, as I complained about upfront? I suppose I have. But that’s only because there’s something here worth saving from overwriting and the self-conscious rejection of seriousness. I want to leave you with a touch of Oyler’s great potential. Read this, where she discusses being inspired by Harriet the Spy to get a notebook and keep her darkest thoughts in it, only to accidentally-on purpose leave it behind for a friend to find.

When I saw this as a child, I didn't take away the lessons intended, which were that lying or omitting the truth is sometimes necessary to maintain friendships, and that if you're going to keep a private notebook you should be careful about where you leave it. Instead, I began to fantasize about undergoing Harriet's dramatic ordeal myself. The idea that everyone I knew might care about my private thoughts was appealing, as was the possibility of people knowing my negative internal monologue without my having to tell them. When the class became obsessed with making Harriet miserable, all I could see was that they were obsessed….

A day later, I went over to Kayla's house with my notebook ostentatiously guarded at my chest. "This is my private notebook," I told her. "I got it yesterday. You can't look at it." She asked what I wrote in it. "None of your business," I said. After we spent some time on her swing set, I left the notebook in the yard and went home. Soon after, my mother received a call from Kayla's mother, saying that Kayla had read my abandoned private notebook and was crying. I can't remember if I was punished – it's possible I wasn't – but I do remember panicking as soon as I realized that what I'd done would have consequences beyond being sent to my room. I had ceded my thoughts in exchange for becoming the focus of attention, and now I had less control over who I was to other people. Kayla and her mother would forever see me a certain way – a careless little bitch who didn't know what she was talking about. But a careless little bitch who didn't know what she was talking about is not as bad as what I actually was: someone who would rather other people think of her as a careless little bitch who didn't know what she was talking about than not think of her at all.

I think that’s lovely and artful, a testament to craft. It captures her generational moment better than all the endless waves to internet culture and captures her personality better than all the jokes. I wish more of the book was like that. It makes me think of Joan Didion’s own contemplation of the trouble with notebooks:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself…. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

It’s in the loss of the embrace of privacy between these passages and these decades, I think, that Oyler’s protagonist suffers, and perhaps Oyler suffers, and that is the generational change that she could have written a novel about. Harriet’s mistake was a mistake; Oyler’s narrator’s is ultimately a self-defensive gesture, just like her novel. At its best Fake Accounts is about a woman who’s of that different breed Didion describes but who feels compelled by culture and technology to give away her secrets. I suspect Oyler is of that type, too. I wish she let us see that person a little more often.