Book review of No Judgment by Lauren Oyler

Books

With bylines in publications that include the London Review of Books, Harper’s and The New Yorker, Lauren Oyler has established herself as a cultural critic whose fresh, and often contrarian, assessments are well worth reading. Her first nonfiction book, No Judgment, comprises eight previously unpublished essays that will please Oyler’s admirers and serve as an excellent introduction to her preoccupations and literary style for those unfamiliar with her work.

Whether she’s writing a personal essay, journalism or criticism, Oyler brings to the task evidence of wide reading, thoughtful engagement and vigorous prose. All of those qualities, along with her willingness to confront conventional wisdom, are manifested in “The Power of Vulnerability,” an essay in which she registers her protest against the “tyranny of vulnerability in emotional life” sparked by bestselling author Brené Brown’s wildly popular 2010 TED Talk. The sources that inform Oyler’s blistering critique include Sigmund Freud, the Aeneid and the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” among others.

Oyler demonstrates her facility for literary criticism in a lengthy essay discussing autofiction, a subject that’s of interest to her in view of some of the responses to her 2021 novel, Fake Accounts, whose protagonist’s life bears a certain resemblance to her own. When asked, she jokingly tells questioners, the work is 72% autobiographical. As she considers the works of contemporaries like Sally Rooney, Karl Ove Knausgård and Sheila Heti, Oyler deftly navigates the sometimes blurred boundary between fiction and nonfiction and the challenges facing those writing both.

The collection’s revealing personal essays include “Why Do You Live Here?”, a lively account of her decision to settle in Berlin in 2021, and “My Anxiety,” Oyler’s exploration of her struggles to cope with everything from bruxism (teeth grinding) to insomnia. Her journalistic explorations of gossip and of online reviews, especially those on Goodreads, are both enlightening and provocative.

Oyler is a writer who will have readers nodding in agreement on one page and shaking their heads vigorously on the next. Whatever the reaction at a given moment, one can rest assured that her writing is never dull.

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