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No Judgment: Essays


No Judgment: Essays

It's a bit of a daunting prospect to embark on reviewing Lauren Oyler's collection of essays, NO JUDGMENT. For one thing, as the title suggests (more on that later), her book --- following her debut novel, FAKE ACCOUNTS --- explores, in large part, the very project of contemporary literary criticism. For another, now that I've read her essay "My Perfect Opinions" included in the volume, I know for a fact that she reads reviews of her work. And she's judging those as well.

"Those who enjoy [Oyler's] self-confidently ironic tone and unapologetic approach to criticism will find much to delight in here."

Oyler, who is at least as well known for her series of devastating takedowns of other critics and creatives as she is for her fiction, takes the idea of "judgment" as her jumping-off point. As she points out, the phrase "no judgment" implies anything but, and Oyler has no shortage of opinions on everything from Todd Field's 2022 film, Tár ("I hate books and films that aren't realistic, that don't reflect the nuances of the real world, which I believe to be truly infinitely fascinating"), to TED talks ("It seems impossible that I'd never watched one") to popular culture like the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("the emotional experience they produce is so intense that it distracts from stilted dialogue, bizarre plotting, a clichéd message.") And, don't forget, theater ("I hate theater, but I try to go anyway").

In case you haven't picked up on it by now, Oyler seems fond of the one-line pronouncement, a format that might work exceedingly well on social media but eventually can start to grow tiresome in the context of a book-length collection of six essays. Throughout, Oyler clearly feels compelled to distinguish herself from other, less discerning consumers of culture. This contrast is drawn in especially high relief in "My Perfect Opinions," in which she bemoans the outsized influence that Goodreads reviewers have not only on other readers' preferences, but also on the very trajectory of the publishing industry.

And it's true that she's clearly smart, savvy and in tune with contemporary debates about, for example, the definition and purpose of autofiction. In what seems to be a barely cloaked takedown of its own, she thanks her editor for cutting a 2,500-word footnote about autofiction from FAKE ACCOUNTS so that she could, in turn, expand it into the essay that appears as "I Am the One Who Is Sitting Here, for Hours and Hours and Hours" in NO JUDGMENT.

But readers who are drawn to the essay form because it conveys a search for meaning, an attempt to trace unusual and surprising connections, or even a fundamental curiosity about the world might find themselves coming away from these essays a bit cold or, at the very least, lukewarm. They tend toward the discursive, to the point that some readers might reach the end of a piece, perhaps having chuckled a time or two, perhaps having underlined one or more of those cutting one-liners, but still scratching their heads somewhat about what the essay as a whole was driving at.

However, it's fair to say that few readers are going to walk away from NO JUDGMENT without at least forming strong opinions of their own about Oyler's style. Those who enjoy her self-confidently ironic tone and unapologetic approach to criticism will find much to delight in here. And the rest? Well, there's always Goodreads.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 13, 2024

No Judgment: Essays
by Lauren Oyler