Review: Timmah Ballon Sally Olds

The Reproachable Essay

Early on in Sally Olds’ debut essay collection I’m immersed in a familiar world:

It was a Friday night and I was drunk outside a nightclub in Melbourne called Hugs and Kisses, sometime in early 2018. I wondered aloud about the building – a two storey red brick warehouse that looked industrial, or pre-gentrification industrial, given that ‘industrial’ usually refers to post-industrial buildings retrofitted with industrial chic (open spaces, washed concrete, bare bulbs).

At a 2019 Writing and Concepts talk with Kōtare (fka DJ Sezzo) Olds echoed Jia Tolentino’s call for an end to navel-gazing essays: ‘the personal essay boom is over.’ And the opening essay to People Who Lunch, ‘The Buffalo Club’, exemplifies this. It teeters around the closure of Hugs and Kisses but moves into a much more unusual and compelling zone, avoiding the self-absorption that often drives essays about gentrification and the loss of independent cultural spaces. I finish the book quickly and am left slightly uncomfortable, but irreversibly moved.

I can’t stop thinking about People Who Lunch. The book interrupts my sleep and I desperately want to discuss it with everybody. I loved it even as I was aware of the ways that it frustrated me. There is a freshness to Olds’ writing, a purpose to her manifestos. As the collection consumed my thoughts, I realised that I enjoyed the bits that I didn’t like and that to oscillate between strongly agreeing and wildly disagreeing with the themes and positions taken in the essays was a pleasure in itself. This is an essayist willing to carry her flaws and contradictions but not in the mode of the self-destructive narrator, unable to find or maintain employment, relationships or anything that resembles adulthood. Instead, People Who Lunch is distinguished by its refusal to adopt a voice that excruciatingly critiques itself or its own privilege/whiteness and so on, to the point where it’s hard to understand why the writer wrote the piece in the first place or how we are expected to engage with it.

Olds doesn’t apologise for her views on work, labour, relationships and the future of the essay itself. What she does is present them as arguments with which we can either agree or disagree. In ‘For Discussion and Resolution’ she tenderly describes the breakdown of a polyamorous relationship while continuing to argue for a post-monogamous world. She writes:

What I call post-work polyamory is a relationship form premised on and committed to anti-capitalism. It is, or would be, a romantic, caring, and/or sexual relationship between any number of people working against privatising and unequally distributing care, resources, property, love, sex, intimacy and work within a couple or other closed unit. It would be a form against the nuclear family as an atomised site of consumption and production. It does not see the couple form as inherently bad, but as the symptom of mononormativity: a state in which everything in society is calibrated for the monogamous pair. Its post-work ambitions are exactly what they sound like. Post-work polyamory does not just want to redistribute power but, where possible, abolish the need to work within exploited waged (and unwaged) relations in order to survive.

Olds argues for such a future drawing from theory and traces of her own lived experience; if this is something a reader should expect from essay writing it is also increasingly rare in the era of the hybrid essay which over leans towards the personal. In this oversaturated landscape the distinction between clickbait opinion pieces, Instagram stories and literary memoirs can be hazy. Within this style of essay, the writer predicts and addresses any criticism that could be made of them through an undulating admission of their faults, complicity and privilege. As Olds explains:

In her review of Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, writer Ellena Savage finds that the text pre-emptively shapes itself in response to anticipated criticism: ‘What can I say about The Recovering that Jamison hasn’t already predicted I might say? … its self-knowledge … not only anticipates a diagnosis but outperforms that diagnostic expert.‘

Olds instead asks writers to consider how they use the first person in the essay form. For a collection that critiques capitalism, romantic relationships, labour and leisure in the hope of finding other possibilities that alleviate the state of precarity that we find ourselves in, this might easily have been a work of self-absorbed pity, yet another personal account of feeling lost and bitter within settler capitalist heteronormativity by a non-Indigenous writer. Eda Gunaydin’s recent essay collection Root and Branch traverses similar themes with exceptional skill, albeit with a consciously personal voice; as she writes, ‘trauma, sex and anti-capitalism. Are we ever thinking about anything but these things?’ And this being true, I approached People Who Lunch tentatively, eager to read an essay collection that confronts the issues that obsess us but equally fatigued by personal stories of artists/writers juggling the gig economy, gentrification, the end of monogamy and finding or losing ourselves in the digital age. Olds presents a group of essays that cleverly dissect the themes and issues that we are always thinking about and offers alternatives. And she achieves this in ways that are dazzling – and a little questionable, which I think is her intention.

In the pivotal essay near the end of the collection, ‘The Beautiful Piece’ Olds unpacks the hybrid essay, the form which is characterised as ‘irreproachable’ by the New York critic/poet/artist Felix Bernstein in his 2016 essay The Irreproachable Essay. She begins by reflecting on a former Melbourne magazine that published online reviews that appeared to follow a distinct formula. She identified three components to these reviews:

A [theory]

B [analysis of the book]

C [personal experience]

Over time Olds observes that the pattern shifts from a moderate inclusion of Cs in the formula such as:

A, A, B, C, B, B, B, B, A/B, A, A, B, B, A/B/C

To something more like ‘CX8 BX12’. I laughed and cried when I read this, feeling oddly reaffirmed and quickly decided to avoid the use of C as much as possible in this review, aware of how C-heavy my last review for this publication was. And this isn’t to suggest that Olds herself is explicitly against the use of C; the historical origins of the essay and what distinguishes it from fiction and other forms of non-fiction like reportage and academia is the C. The C appears in her other essays but with a restraint that I envied. She understands that an essay is a personal form but is resolutely uninspired by the popularity of the hybrid formula that relies too heavily on C, as she laments:

At readings – in dark panelled pubs, bowls clubs, gentrified bars, white cube galleries, beer-humid function rooms – these forms are on high rotation: long personal essays intellectualising Carly Rae Jepson, lyric essay on museums and the fragment, child birth memoir plus Cixous. The formula holds in little and big magazines, bestsellers and art-imprint obscurities alike: goshawk plus grief, a text on mania unfolding in fragments knitting together film and literary criticism, ‘a seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism and journalistic reportage’ (blurb for Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, 2018).

Olds both extends and takes issue with Bernstein’s dismissal of this hybridisation – but I found myself agreeing with aspects of this characterisation of the hybrid essay, quoted by Olds in her essay:

Hybridity allows the writer to correct the perceived deficiencies of one discipline or form with another discipline or form. The tessellation of form functions alongside content – ‘deferential footnotes, astute self-criticism, personal sentiment, poetic language and academic theory’ – to pre-empt criticism of its elitism, or its complicity within the institution, or its success in the literary market in order to ‘create an integrity that is beyond reproach’.

He pinpoints a literary moment that is difficult to engage with, least of all to critique. A non-fiction echo-chamber that constantly exposes its own deficiencies, apologises for its class/educational privilege by referring to TikTok videos etc, inserts disclaimers about living on stolen land and ultimately leaves audiences unsure of what the author’s arguments or thoughts actually are – other than that they are traumatised, overworked, depressed and horrified by the climate catastrophe while aware of their complicity with it all. I agreed with Bernstein’s observation that too much self-aware criticism, too much effort to appear down to earth or at times even working class adjacent, feels self-serving and artificial.

But Olds is also quick to highlight that Bernstein’s criticism of the hybrid essay can also be directed to his own work, in that he assumes a position of superiority that places him above the form:

Of course, Bernstein does reproach the irreproachable essay, meaning that it’s not exactly irreproachable, not to mention that by critiquing its imperviousness to critique he a) positions himself as above the irreproachable essay, that is above being irreproachable, which b) positions him as flawed and implicated, the same manoeuvre he lampoons in the essay that vie for imperviousness himself, and c) that being the first to name and denounce it is a shortcut to disciplinary authority.

Yet the disciplinary authority that Olds identifies as a problem with Bernstein’s critique is a charge that might be levelled at her. Even as I agreed with many of her criticisms, I felt that I could easily dismiss her in the way she dismisses Bernstein, while continuing to leverage some of his arguments. Olds’ descriptions of beer-infused darkened rooms evoke the places where I’ve also watched writers divulge everything from PTSD, racist Tinder dates, settler guilt, and so on, all wrapped up in academic theory and Netflix binging habits. It is a style that has begun to feel awkward and suffocating, partially because I am aware of how much of my own essay writing fits the formula. The criticisms put forward by Olds and Bernstein enabled me to review my own work with a new sense of dread that I knew I had been carrying for a while but couldn’t quite name.

But there is something missing in their critique. Olds points to the precarity we live in as what pushes writers into this mode of writing about their lives. But for a book critical of capitalism and seeking new ways of thinking about work and labour it is remiss not to address the sheer exhaustion that writing about the personal causes. Not to mention that writing in emotionally extractive ways is also something that the industry demands, most especially of marginalised writers. As Jumaana Abdu recently described inA Manifesto for the ‘Diverse’ Writer her career was stifled by the industry’s expectation to divulge details of her personal background rather than nurturing her creative talents. ‘I would rather die unpublished,’ she explains after feedback from the industry which placed her in a diverse writer’s group, and suggested she give up on fiction and write about her community. As she begrudges:

Why on earth was I was being asked to explain what it feels like to witness violent xenophobia? Every Muslim woman in the world already knows how it feels. 

Her manifesto illustrates the emotional fatigue caused by persistent requests to reveal personal experiences. Olds and Bernstein both make valid points but they also seem to assume that the writer enjoys this work, that we desperately want to reveal personal histories. Some of us might – but not all of us do, as Abdu agonisingly articulates.

In a recent interview, Carmen Maria Machado shared her views with Ottessa Moshfegh on the merits of writing memoir/personal essays versus fiction. Machado’s In The Dream House is an extraordinary work to which I return regularly. It is the type of personal writing that is remarkable for its theoretical richness, honesty and playful style and structure – even when, as Olds observes, personal writing can feel insular and repetitive. It’s non-fiction that is inspiring, and reminds me that this is something that I want to keep doing; I zealously anticipate whatever non-fiction Machado writes next. Except it seems that she isn’t planning on writing non-fiction anymore:

OM: But I’m curious, with your work: you write personal nonfiction and fiction. How do you move between the two?

CMM: I wouldn’t actually say that I write personal nonfiction. I wrote a single book of nonfiction and I have no intention of writing another.

OM: Why not?

CMM: Oh, because it was terrible. I would much rather write fiction.

Further on she explains her decision a little more:

Fiction does provide a little bit of a protective sheath. Before I wrote the memoir, there was a bunch of short stories in my first book and elsewhere that were about abusive lesbian relationships or being in thrall to a particular woman. With the memoir I didn’t have that level of remove, I had to be right in it. And it did make writing it very difficult because I was just struggling psychologically to get to the other side of it.

And while no more non-fiction from Machado is devastating news, her reasons are urgent and valid. As their conversation continues Moshfegh echoes these concerns in a manner that expresses my discomfort with writing saturated with Cs. She explains:

People seem occasionally very upset by how I talk about food and weight. And I’m surprised that nobody has caught on to the fact that I have suffered from an eating disorder. And I’m expressing that, which has consumed me to the point of making me extremely ill. I couldn’t not write about it. It pervaded everything. And so, it showed up in my books. And you know, that’s one thing that I don’t write nonfiction about because I’ve already spent so much time dealing with it. I don’t want to give it any more power.

There is a strong argument against this if we consider writing as a form of justice, an immediate and successful example of this being Veronica Gorrie’s award-winning Black and Blue. But there are certain things I can’t write about anymore. Because instead of catharsis, feeling seen or revealing an urgent injustice, these topics leave me tired, exposed and powerless. As Moshfegh articulates, to write about these things in non-fiction is consuming, even as I continue to admire writers who can do it or find the balance. Machado and Mosfegh’s conversation confirmed my growing discomfort with essay writing but they also revealed gaps in the analyses put forward by Olds and Bernstein.

In essays like ‘The Buffalo Club’, ‘A Manifesto for Post-Work Polyamory’ and ‘For Discussion and Resolution’, Olds demonstrates a measured ability to investigate issues both expansive and personal such as the future of work and labour, polyamory and gentrification without heavily relying on C. Personal experience is blended into the argument which is backed by research, rather than being relied on to land a point. I admired these essays greatly but when I read ‘The Beautiful Piece’ in particular, I was also disappointed that there wasn’t a greater acknowledgment of the psychological distress that personal writing causes.  

Tell-all’, an essay by Eda Gunaydin in Root and Branch, complements Olds’ critique of the personal essay. It interrogates the personal, confessional or what has started to feel like the overshare in essay writing and culture at large. And while Olds’ arguments often felt more persuasive, it was reassuring to read an essay by a contemporary that critiqued personal writing and made it clear why it is so difficult to avoid. As Gunaydin proclaims:

Confessional writing is prized yes, but it is also demanded, and this demand for ever more unfiltered work creeps into all spheres of publishing, to the point that the honesty of the work increasingly supersedes other artistic concerns.

Her statement painfully reflects the experiences I’ve had, and many other writers too, of being forced into the personal, asked by editors to provide lived experience to support the work even if we are asking or pushing for far more creative styles of expression. The demand for the personal always trumps the desire to bring the writing into other literary modes or artistic devices, most likely a reflection of the marketability of memoirs. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that some of the most exciting personal essays recently published are Gunaydin’s ‘Tell-all’ and Abdu’s ‘A Manifesto for the “Diverse” Writer’ which cleverly exist within a personal mode in order to critique it. Both writers suggest in these pieces that the essay is not over – but they demand that we consider the emotional costs. It is exciting to see a book that is also aware of this pressure, and refuses the expectation to rely on the C, hailing from a newcomer to the publishing scene Upswell. It sends a hopeful signal if a small press is willing to take a risk on an essay collection that doesn’t entirely draw from the writer’s personal experiences or identity. But as Gunaydin concludes in ‘Tell-all’,within a singularly confessing society, being a confessing individual is not so singular. It is the price of entry: I pay in order to exist.’ And I’m left wondering if People who Lunch is just an exception to the rule rather than a sign that the rule can be broken.

Works Cited

Jumaana Abdu, ‘A manifesto for the “diverse” writer, Kill Your Darlings:2022.

Felix Bernstein, ‘The Irreproachable Essay – On The Amazon Discourse Of Hybrid Literature’, Text Zur Kunst: 2016.

Alex Clark, ‘“My ‘sad girl’ fans concern me”: Ottessa Moshfegh in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado’, The Guardian: 2022.

Sally Olds and Kōtare (fka DJ Sezzo), Club Theory, Writing and Concepts: 2019.

Eda Gunaydin, ‘Tell-all’ in Root and Branch: Essays on Inheritance. NewSouth: 2022.