Below, writers Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and Catherine Lacey (Nobody Is Ever Missing) discuss their respective books, the value in emotional writing, and the emerging trend of memoir-novels. This interview was conducted via email over several months from several locations.
Catherine Lacey: I've been thinking a lot about how narcissism is perceived on the page. When a reader or critic (and what's the difference, any more?) thinks a book is "narcissistic" a fistful of anger tends to accompany it. It offends a reader, is taken as a sort of affront. Since reading your essay "In Defense of Saccharin(e)," which beautifully breaks down the reasoning behind the complaint of something being sentimental, I've been trying to better understand the narcissism complaint.
What place does the perception of narcissism have in literature, art and criticism? Do you have a rubric for how to decide whether a work of art is a work of narcissism? And if it is such a work, does that affect your interest or disinterest in the work? Are you seeing any patterns in who calls what narcissistic?
Leslie Jamison: It’s eerie and wonderful to me that you brought up the question of narcissism, because it’s something I think about in relation to my own work (ha! I think about it in relation to myself), and the “fistful of anger” that often accompanies the charge of narcissism, as you point out so insightfully. The accusation always seems (implicitly or explicitly) like some version of: Why is your life so interesting, anyway? Why do you think it’s so much more interesting than everyone else’s? Which is a funny way to think about things -- as if writing about your own life is necessarily implying either. Perhaps it’s just the life to which you happen to have the best access. I do think gender plays a role in what gets called narcissistic. As in: women are more subject to the charge.
CL: I totally agree. It's so emeshed into the culture and so important to keep bringing up relentlessly until (god-willing) we don't need to as much.
LJ: Check out Katherine Angel’s great piece at the Los Angeles Review of Books, especially for its discussion of the angry critical reaction to Rachel Cusk’s autobiographical writing -- that it somehow reveals too much, and not enough.
CL: I love this essay, especially that she ends it with a call for self-scrutiny. I am not alone in having the impulse to write something off as narcissistic when its really my own lack of patience or distraction in that moment that causes me to write it off. I'm slower to use that word on anything written.
LJ: I think there can also be a sense that narcissism is indicative of aesthetic laziness, in either fiction or nonfiction -- writing about the self because one is too lazy or unwilling to venture further into imagination or research or journalism.
CL: And yet writing about the self can be one of the most profoundly difficult subjects. It's like trying to make a bed while you're still in it. There you are, a big lump in the middle.
LJ: Yes! What a great metaphor. It will no doubt make me sleepy when I write my next personal essay. But also because it acknowledges that self-documentation involves labor, not just regurgitation of personhood. Have you read Chris Kraus’s memoir-novel I Love Dick?
CL: Indeed. I've forced a few friends to borrow it. All good reports. I love that it's making a comeback lately.
LJ: I find myself mentioning it nearly every day. So I guess this is my daily quotient. She’s got this great moment of indignation where she takes issue with a critic who sees an “artist’s startling photos of her naked cancer-ridden body as ‘a deeply thrilling venture into narcissism.’” Kraus is pointing out that self-exposure isn’t necessarily narcissistic (even if it’s being somehow offered as a kind of praise). I think this gets back to the idea of the self as something deployed in service of inquiry -- rather than self-exposure as some plea for attention or sympathy or praise.
CL: Absolutely. So maybe the line that gets crossed from self-exposure to narcissism is wanting validation from the viewer? How exactly would that sort of desire come across in the work? I feel like this is one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it things, but I think there might be tip offs as well. It seems to me that no one wants to believe that art is always a form of self-exposure. The idea that Real Art is delivered from the divine seems to have grossly out-stayed its welcome.
LJ: I think the capital-letter Real Art origins myth -- inspiration, divinity, fever dream -- also owes something to the sense of drudgery that attaches to intentionality and steady labor: I just worked on this until it was done is less romantic than: I had these crazy hallucinatory out-of-body visions that gave birth to this story/essay/epistolary treasure hunt, whatever. Also, again, the taboo of narcissism -- wanting to believe that something came from outside the self, that those external origins somehow elevate it. (It brings to mind the tradition of automatic writing, transcribing what the spirits say.) I like what Charlie D’Ambrosio says in this interview I did with him at the New Yorker, where he talks about selfhood getting expressed where we don’t expect it, or where it’s not on the surface:
“It’s a little spooky to realize how porous the personality is in writing, porous or just plain incontinent, leaking out everywhere, so that things get revealed even when -- or especially when -- you haven’t given them much conscious thought. It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to indulge in a goopy confessional mode to write a personal essay -- you’re more mysterious than you know, more naked than you imagine, and whether you intend it or not you’re going to be exposed.”
CL: D'Ambrosio's is right on about how the most personal aspects of the self are the parts that seeps in unconsciously. There is this filmmaker, Desiree Ahkavan, who has made work about characters that are also bisexual Iranian-American women, which seems really specific, but I really enjoyed and related to the way she talked about it on the excellent podcast "Death, Sex & Money":
"... The minute you put pen to paper and write down a story it becomes a story and with each draft it takes a leap away from the truth of my life and it’s no longer this thing that’s happened to me, but this story I’m using to illustrate a larger point."
She also talks about how when you're in the creation mode you have to set aside insecurities and “blindly chase [your] taste” in order to get the work done. I think it's this sense of confidence that a writer must have on a page that gets classified sometimes as narcissism. Depending on the mood the reader is in, you might feel like, “Well who the hell are you to tell me this story?” (Meanwhile the reader is the one who picked up the book and invited the writer in.)
And when it comes to that “Real Art” creation myth, I have to acknowledge that there's some truth to that myth as well. Some aspects of a story or essay will arrive in a flash. Maybe those are the most personal elements, maybe not. Because there is really no way to de-mystify the creation process, though I do think it's a good idea to un-sentimentalize it.
LJ: You're right to acknowledge that there's some truth to the inspiration myth. As with some many things, the ubiquity of a sentimental version can make us forget the more ragged truthful one behind it. I can truthfully say I'll never give up on the story of a bunch of vets living on houseboats that I wrote between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. when I was 22; it felt delivered like that. Other things have too. And I'm glad you've brought up sentimentality a couple times, too, because it feels like something you're wrestling with in your novel. One of the things I really respected and dug about your book was its refusal of an overly simple vision of emotion: Elyria is often questioning her feelings -- or noting their absence -- rather than experiencing them in a straightforward way. At one point she is “almost having a real feeling”; elsewhere she is “trying to find a feeling” about the sister she has lost. How did you think about disconnection -- that kind of emotional self-alienation -- as you wrote Elyria’s character?
CL: I think (and really, writing it was sort of a long-ago blur at this point) that the concept of emotional disconnection grew out of the image and narrative of a woman who has run away from her life. A lot of her alienation grew out of her voice and after a while it sort of snowballed.
LJ: She is drawn to people or moments that make her feel “more human” to herself -- was this a struggle you were writing consciously, this struggle to experience emotion and feel human? Was that conflict part of your conception from the outset or just something that emerged?
CL: I guess it sort of emerged? It's weird what happens when you write a book because I think that phrase or idea, that someone can make you feel more human to yourself, I think that idea grew out of me trying to explain to myself why I chose to spend time with certain people over other people. I have a very close friend -- a “best friend” even -- who has persisted in my life through all sorts of strains and I have other people in my life that I loved very much but, for tiny reasons or no reason at all, have drifted away. We all have these sorts of people in our lives. Why? How do we chose who populates our lives? Or do we really chose? I think I can really love someone once I can see and understand how they are flawed.
This might be a loaded question, but one that is still connected to sentimentality and narcissism, but in what way or ways do you think The Empathy Exams might be flawed? To be fair, I'll answer first about Nobody. I think it's often painful and Elyria's voice could sometimes push a reader away. This tension is necessary for the book to function in the way it needed to, but you could see it as a flaw or the cost of admission.
LJ: Great question. It’s been interesting to hear many of the ways the book has gotten slammed—and it’s definitely gotten slammed: how it reeks of privilege, is saturated with self-pity; dwells in its overblown woundedness. I think I’m most genuinely interested in the tension embedded in “resonating” with an experience -- when is that resonance productive, and when does it become solipsistic? I think about relating my personal experiences to other peoples’ in terms of communion, but I realize that it can often read as self-absorption instead -- everything comes back to the perspective point of me, myself, what I’ve lived. I wouldn’t say I see that as a flaw so much as I respect the critiques people raise, I think they create conversations worth having. I love that notion that a book might have a “cost of admission” -- what the reader suffers or puts up with in order to endure a book -- and I’m curious to hear a bit more about how that tension (a reader potentially being pushed away by Elyria’s voice) is part of how Nobody functions -- or how you want it to function.
CL: Actually, when I say flaw I guess I mean limit. There really is a way to complain about anything. I think anyone who makes anything that gets reviewed should remember that forever.
You know that moment when you see a bowl of chocolates and pick one up and put it in your mouth only to discover it's an olive? It could be the world's most delicious olive and it will still taste hideous because your expectations were elsewhere. People who have that sort of experience with a book or film or album or artwork tend to be the ones who are offended by that book/film/album/artwork. Some of my favorite things have something sort of repellant in them. An aggressively sour pickle or music that's discordant and off-beat. I think the voice in Nobody is that kind of thing, though I didn't plan it that way. I think when I started writing it, she was more comic and self-aware but that fell away as Elyria became herself.
LJ: Also: what do you think about the connection between sentimentality and narcissism? I don’t have this one totally thought-out yet, I’m just thinking aloud and feel there’s some kind of interesting webbing between those two concepts.
CL: It seems very human and private to be, at times, sentimental about yourself or your history. Everyone needs a least a shred of self-esteem and a decent handful of fond memories to make it though life without imploding. Narcissism could be self-sentimentality turned malignant, and a narcissist voice in a story or essay asks the reader to be as sentimental about the author as the author is. Which brings me back to my problem of how do we know when something has crossed the line from self-exposure (which is somewhat necessary is writing, exposing one's thought patterns or imagination) into that dreaded territory of narcissism.
LJ: I often find that a sense of narcissism emerges from too much certainty in the voice -- when we hear a narrator giving an account of himself (herself) whose grooves already feel deeply etched; when we sense we’re getting the soundbite. But it comes back to this notion of being “you’re more mysterious than you know” -- that personal writing often feels less narcissistic when it’s genuinely inhabiting a posture of uncertainty and questioning; when it’s excavating rather than reiterating or insisting -- and yes, perhaps demanding something from the reader: some kind of validation or sympathy or sentimental attachment. I do think that the critiques of narcissism and sentimentality are linked because they are both critiques of excess -- often critiques of excess emotion, or a critique of the (assumed) insistence that one’s emotions are interesting, or matter. I’m always tempted to say: your emotions are always interesting. They always matter. But I’ve bored people late into the night carrying that torch.
CL: If a reader doesn't think emotions are interesting, then there are plenty of math problems they could spend their lives reading instead.