This is the twelfth and final installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
Lauren Michele Jackson approaches her writing projects as journeys she hopes will be fun to go on. The expansiveness of her subjects is evidence enough. As multifarious as they are compelling, each essay is united by her interest in what she calls the “aesthetics of so-called black affects.” Often, Jackson takes cultural phenomena you’ve heard countless hot takes on, like The Bachelor, or Bridgerton, or even the “anti-racist reading list,” and offers readers new ways of understanding them. It’s no surprise, then, that she garnered similar praise for her first book, White Negroes (which itself landed on countless “must-read” and “notable” lists in 2019).
Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University and a contributing writer at the New Yorker. We talked over Zoom earlier this month about why having fun while writing matters and what it means to “make an assertive claim about what is there.”
Jessica Swoboda: What do you see as your role as a critic?
Lauren Michele Jackson: I want to go on a journey, and I want to sustain my attention on something I think is cool or interesting for a duration of time and then do something neat, at best inventive, with what I’ve encountered. I don’t think there’s an innate truth that needs to or is going to be reached. I keep thinking of an interview with Percival Everett in the Paris Review, where he says that the purpose of philosophy and theory and literary criticism is to have fun with it. I want to embrace that. And I can’t account for what kind of encounter someone will have with what I write in turn. All I can do is have a good time telling readers about what I see in a work and hope that it’s interesting enough for them to listen.
JS: Is telling someone what you see the purpose of criticism?
LMJ: I do think the purpose of criticism is to make an assertive claim for what is there. When Toni Morrison speaks of the “Africanist presence” in Willa Cather, or Richard Dyer on “romanticism” in disco, these observations operate inquisitively yet still, as the idiom goes, “stake a claim.” There’s also an openness that can be difficult to appreciate when you first approach a reading that’s so wonderfully persuasive. Yet there’s room for doubt precisely because the reading is beautifully sure and demonstrative and fresh, which is maybe not the same thing as brand-spanking new.
JS: I’m used to talking to academics who focus on one genre, period or theoretical framework and who are usually suspicious of those with expansive interests. Yet here you are, showing both depth and breadth. Why do you write about such a wide array of subjects?
LMJ: I can also see this question being asked as the reverse: How do you narrow the scope of a vision? Because there’s something about writing for the internet that lubricates the impulse to cannibalize everything about yourself—your identity, your interests—for this greater enterprise of essay writing. And there was a period of time when I was still figuring this out, and I would wake up in the morning and think, “Okay, what kind of anecdote can I enlarge into something relevant enough for an editor to let me write 1800 to 2200 words about it?” And that’s a very uninteresting and dispiriting place to write from.
When you’re working in the mode of the scholar, there’s always too much that you want to do or too much that you want to write about. Say you’re someone who works on Henry James and the real meat of your interest is The Ambassadors. Well, you always have the rest of his novels to work with, then his contemporaries, then maybe also two nations’ worth of literature to work with, then the historical period, and so on. That’s a really boring example, but one that can be applied to other things. For instance, I’m broadly interested in the aesthetics of so-called black affects, and I have my primary objects through which I want to make certain kinds of observations. But that doesn’t mean these are the only kinds of objects on offer. There’s always another view available to me.
I’ll also say that I’m a person who, like other people, watches TV and movies. I read books. I’m on the internet. I go outside. I run. I have friends who aren’t academics. I’m a normal person. And so by virtue of being a person who consumes mass media, there’s never not going to be something that pricks my mind or encourages a greater attention or concentration. I think it was Andrea Long Chu who said that part of the privilege of the critic is to be a sort of dilettante. And I like and believe that. But then I also have this fear of being the kind of person who tries to brand their capability of applying certain limited close reading methods to wherever the wind blows. I want to keep rein on that impulse.
JS: You’re an assistant professor of English at Northwestern, you’re a contributing writer at the New Yorker and you write essays on everything: Alice Walker, the 1619 Project, The Sims, strength training, the Kardashians, Beyoncé, animation. I could go on. How do you balance these different roles?
LMJ: I do aggressively document my time in Google Calendar. And when I actually look back, I realize that I’ve only been able to get a draft of something done because I’ve given myself these huge blocks of times for weeks at a time when I was only working on this one thing. My colleagues and editors might say something else about my time-management skills.
Freelance was very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants sort of thing when I was in grad school. Nothing about what I was doing was premeditated, besides the obvious goal of getting a tenure-track position at the end of it. So, at one point, I was writing a ton of things for the internet, but I was also completely neglecting my dissertation, which is to say that I wasn’t doing both things well. I eventually realized that if I wanted to write a dissertation, the freelancing had to take a pause and recede a little bit. I expect this ebb and flow will continue.
I certainly didn’t start freelancing for online publications because I thought that was going to be a viable alternative to the tenure track. Nor would I ever tell anyone to do so for that reason. I did it because it fun, and because I have a certain set of skills that can be applied to different genres of writing and situations that are pleasing to me and hopefully others. And that was a revelation.
One of the lessons I’m relearning now is that though I like to think of myself as a jack-of-all-trades who can multitask, in terms of actually getting the work done, you really do have to concentrate on one thing and one mode of writing at time. It is really difficult to switch between registers. But I like feeling that there’s a lot of work waiting for me or things for me to write about and to write about it in different ways. For now, I’m happy to be juggling a variety of projects even at the expense of common sense.
JS: What do you take to be a big difference between academic writing and freelance writing?
LMJ: There’s something energizing about a due date that feels within sight. There’s also something about being part of a duo—whether it’s me and my editor or me and this larger apparatus I’m contributing to. Being a scholar is relatively solitary, and you can have an idea today that you can put to the side tomorrow, which is very freeing. But you could also have an idea that you care about that gets forgotten in the rough and tumble, or that doesn’t really work.
So maybe the word I’m thinking about is “accountability,” which is to say that if I start working on an idea with an editor at a magazine and then drop off the face of the earth, I’m going to get an email or text message from that person that reads, “Hey, how’s this going?” or “Do you want to have a call about this?” I don’t want to presume these kinds of relationships are exclusive to freelance writing, but once you move from being a grad student to faculty, there’s no longer a dissertation director asking, “Is that chapter done yet?”
JS: I want to ask about invoking the “I” in your writing. Tobi Haslett said during his interview, “Writing about yourself is a very particular thing that I haven’t made the effort to get good at, so I don’t do it. For one thing, I just don’t think my life has been that interesting. I guess I also hope that my perspective is being articulated strongly enough through my particular stylistic and compositional choices. Part of me feels like I’m disclosing enough on the level of form, or I ought to be.” How do you respond to that perspective?
LMJ: I don’t shy away from the pronoun, but I do have a perhaps juvenile hostility to incorporating anything like autobiography in my criticism. Increased latitude allows me to include fewer and fewer personal bits. I can de-emphasize that “I” as much as possible in my writing until it evaporates as serving as anything but a mere critic offering a mere perspective. There is this really insidious assumption applied conspicuously to some writers and not others that the greatest evidence a person can have is their own story. But my expertise is my expertise. My expertise is not experience. If I deliver a bad reading of a novel, it probably might disclose something about what knowledge I’ve been able to proceed through life in ignorance of, which further discloses something about my race, my gender, my age and class, which is a different and maybe usefully convoluted means of attributing that bad reading, or a good one, than simply how I am read along those lines in a given environment.
JS: What do you find to be some of the most exciting things going on in criticism today?
LMJ: I can never go without shouting out my fave Jane Hu, who is truly the smartest person and best writer ever. Tobi Haslett. Blair McClendon. Namwali Serpell. Sorry, I’m really just naming people I like! I recently finished Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson, a book brimming with oddities of what criticism can do. I’m also newly obsessed with the film scholar my boyfriend Jorge put me onto named Eugenie Brinkema. Brinkema hive is really activating, I think. What all these people have in common is the way they surprise me with their writing, which is emblematic of the expansiveness of their thinking, their approach and their style. I think having style is underrated. Or maybe that’s a silly thing to say. But what Lake Micah does with clauses for instance is labyrinthian in a way that a lot of writers are either afraid to do or not permitted to do in a contemporary magazine-writing environment that’s so obsessed with clarity, clarity, clarity.
JS: “Style” is something several interviewees have discussed. Are there specifics that come to mind when you say you love someone’s prose? Or is it more about the affective response you have while reading their writing?
LMJ: One thing about Brinkema is that her analyses are very cheeky, which is actually extremely hard to do and rare to come by. She strikes just the right balance of having a go at the field while also feeding the vacuum that’s been created. Cheekiness isn’t a cover for not doing the homework.
JS: I taught Passing this past spring and assigned the film adaptation alongside your review of it in 4Columns. My students all gravitated to this line: “That lack of mystery becomes too significant in the end, but I hope at least some portion of the audience will let themselves wonder.” They brought up this line for two reasons: one, they didn’t like the lack of ambiguity at the end of the movie, and two, they asked whether in writing we should let our audiences wonder. What would you have responded to them?
LMJ: People are going to wonder either way. There are cycles that happen online when a piece goes out and gets some sort of response. And then you see writers vigorously defending their own pieces, and understandably so. There are some truly wild readings happening out there. People see what they want to see in a piece. But I also think that’s simply one of the hazards of writing and one of the things that has to be known by anyone who is going to write for anywhere beyond a personal diary. And even those are discovered and published all the time! You have very limited control for how your own work is going to be interpreted.
JS: Is there anything you want to see more of in criticism?
LMJ: Besides jobs? I would like to see more people enabled financially to do the work that they want to do and should get to do. Because there’s good work and good thought and creative approaches all over the place. That’s not something I’m pessimistic about—writers’ capacity for thought—or maybe today’s just a good day. But I do get down on the survival of the work.
JS: In the piece “How Do We Live with Our Elders?”—which, I know you wrote six years ago, so I’m sorry to be bringing it up—you said, “Initiation is the literature review. Literally for some, more symbolically for most. The literature review is an easy place to call home. There are names and places and terminology. And theory. Theory’s kinda awful and oddly, the people who love theory the most tend to be the ones who should be reading all the other stuff. But the great thing about theory is the opportunity to repair.” Does this still hold true for you? If so, why do you think that people who love reading theory are the people who should be reading other things? And how does theory provide us with the opportunity to repair?
LMJ: That’s hilarious. I don’t actually believe that anymore, and think it’s great that I don’t. I now have the opposite view. If I wrote that six years ago, that means I was in the thicket of my program. You can feel the angst rolling off that. I want to argue with my younger self because theory is awesome. It’s the opportunity to have a thought and try something out. And, you know, maybe it won’t work, maybe it will. Maybe it’s applicable in certain situations over others. But maybe it will spark other sorts of ideas that prove into something more interesting and lasting. I would tell that version of me that her sense of what qualified as “theory” was much more limited than what theory in fact is and can be. Theory isn’t exclusively the usual suspects, but the usual suspects aren’t as dry as rumor has it.
The thing about theory is that you can go on this journey with somebody and at the end decide that you disagree with them, and that’s fine. Nobody died. It’s okay. I’m not teaching heart surgery here. We’re trying things out with words, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but the enjoyment is in the trying.