“At some point, you have to set down the past. At some point, you have to accept that everyone was doing their best. At some point, you have to gather yourself up, and go onward into your life.” — Olivia Laing

It’s her birthday today.

Laing is one of the most exciting writers to come along in a long LONG time. Every generation needs someone who plays by her own rules, who brings her unique perspective, interrogates/meditates on art in a voice that speaks to where we are, but also where we’ve come from, where we might be going. Susan Sontag. Or Ellen Willis. Dorothy Parker. I choose women because they are often “labeled” as speaking only to women, because the default is considered to be masculine. It is assumed men speak to everyone, and it is assumed women speak to women. This attitude requires constant combat. If I can read Clive James and thrill to his observations, not feeling at all “left out” because he is a man – if I can read David Foster Wallace or Lester Bangs or whatever – people who write from a male point of view – and still feel these writers have so much to say to me personally – then the obverse should be true. No arguments against this are valid.

More on Laing after the jump.


Laing is a very learned woman, but she is not an academic. I am alienated from academic writing, mainly because I don’t understand it. I will cop to that. I don’t know the lingo. I am also alienated from – and resist – criticism that looks at art through one particular ideological lens, or “school of thought” or whatever. I read many writers who approach every subject through one lens, and they do good and important work. But I respond more to writing that is a little less rigid – where life doesn’t fit into a predetermined narrative. I love writing that’s like: Here is what I am thinking about now, here are the thoughts and obsessions I can’t seem to shake, so let me go deeper into it. Laing is that kind of guide. What is personal to her is, of course, her own life, but also the writers/artists/activists she loves: they play crucial parts in her biography. She makes no distinction between the two. I so get this. My discovery of Oliver! – the movie – when I was 10 – led me down such a path of exploration that it IS my autobiography. I can’t separate out the two things.

Laing is in a continuum with writers like William Hazlitt, Coleridge, Keats, the Romantics, those massively-educated writers, who took an enormous interest in the world around them – scientific, theological, artistic, personal – and wrote it all out in their cultural-commentary. She’s also in the tradition, though, of what used to be called “The Humanities”, encompassing the overall-scope of art history, how different eras build on each other, accumulating like layers of sediment. My friend Beth and I were recently talking about how grateful we were for our Humanities teacher in high school. I did not go on into academia. Most of my history-knowledge started in high school, to be built on later. So something like the Humanities – focusing on sculpture, architecture, dress, poetry, etc., through the ages, was a great starting point. Beth said, “Listen, I know about the different Greek columns only because of Humanities in high school.” I rattled off like a robit, “Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric.” Of course what is happening Now is fascinating, but understanding where it all comes from, all the different traditions and “schools” and trends surging around … and when you have even a little bit of knowledge about all this somehow … history stops seeming like history. It starts to feel like all eras happen simultaneously, and the artists you love throughout history, walk beside you, whisper in your ear, they still have things to tell us. This, for me, is how Laing’s writing feels.

She emerged not too long ago and I immediately gravitated towards her perspective, recognizing something in it I have tried to do myself, writing that is not personal-only, but that doesn’t exclude the personal (the way so much theory-based writing does. Sometimes I read theory-based writing and wonder … “where are YOU in all of this?”). Laing includes herself. Two of her books are hybrid-formats: they are travelogue, they are memoir, they are cultural criticism, they are philosophical meditations on different themes, themes which interest her intellectually but also have urgent connections to what she is experiencing at that moment.

So to get specific:

Her first book was To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface , where she took a walking “tour”, in the Romantic tradition, of the River Ouse. She is drawn to water. This is the river where Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and Laing uses Woolf as her guiding star. Woolf was obsessed by water, water imagery (of course) dominates Woolf’s writing. As Laing walks, she writes about Woolf, she writes about the Ouse – its history – she writes about cultural aspects, she writes about geology, she writes about the history of man’s attempt to control water. She includes interviews with scientists, with historians, etc. The book is narrow in execution but VAST in scope. She does not attempt to be distant or “objective.” It is Laing walking along in the sunshine, it is Laing wading down to the shores looking into the water, imagining Woolf’s final moments.

Her next book was The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking my “way in.” It’s the first Laing I read. She takes a train trip across the United States, describing the landscape outside the train window, taking us through the steps of her journey. The journey has a point: she is interested in the connections between alcoholism and writing, and wonders why so many writers – 6 American writers in particular – are alcoholics. She wonders how the alcoholism “shows up” in their writing. She travels to these writers’ home towns, to where they lived and worked, seeking answers. But she also digs into their work as well, seeking answers there. Much of this has an urgent personal component – as it always does with her. Her childhood involved alcoholism – her mother’s girlfriend was a violent impulsive alcoholic – and it was very traumatic as a child. It left wounds. She wants to know about alcoholism – what IS it. She interviews doctors and addiction specialists. Meanwhile, though, we also get to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver. Brilliant book.

So far, for me, her best book is her third, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. (I say this having still not read her novel or her current book). To the River was obsessed with rivers. Trip to Echo Springs was obsessed with alcohol and literature. Lonely City was obsessed with urban loneliness. A book about loneliness? About about loneliness in the city? There have been scholarly studies probably, and perhaps academic social-studies examinations of this subject – but it has mostly been explored in art, and now Laing has given us a book on a little-discussed subject. Why so little discussed? Because people see loneliness as shameful. The lonely feel ashamed, and those who are not lonely think there’s something shameful ABOUT loneliness. Believe me. I know. Laing, as always, uses her own life as a launch pad. She went through a breakup which really destabilized her: she ached, she longed, she hurt. At the same time, she was in New York City, and felt like an exile – the city was so lonely-making, and yet so filled with people trying to connect – or NOT. So she then chooses artists who represent the lonely city, who take as their main subject “the lonely city” – Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz … I was not familiar with Darger or Wojnarowicz – and was so grateful to be brought into their artistic world. (There’s a new documentary out about Wojnarowicz!) Laing has been asked why didn’t include more women (in this and in Echo Springs. Eyeroll. See my above comment about why there is no reason men can’t respond to art made by women – the same applies to Laing. If we are now more accepting of the fluidity of gender, then women loving art made by men, seeing themselves in art made by men, finding art made by men compelling and challenging and fascinating – should be a no-brainer. Men, you’re not off the hook. The reverse applies, and etc. ad nauseum.) GOD, I not only love this book but am glad it exists. There’s nothing else like it.

Speaking of using something as a launch-pad into something else, I used Lonely City as my launch-pad and organizing principle for my piece about Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was… VERY proud of that piece, and how it has taken on a life of its own (see my post from yesterday about Tom Noonan!) The producer of What Happened Was…, Scott Macaulay, reached out to me on Twitter after that piece launched, thanking me for it, as well as telling me how much I liked my inclusion of Laing’s clarifying bracing thoughts on loneliness. Very gratifying.

Laing’s work was one of the inspirations for my column. I wanted to point out intersections and connections between film and literature, film and painting … so much writing about film is circular – how different films inspire each other – and I do that too. Very important! But I have so many other interests and I have always tried to loop that knowledge in wherever I think it appropriate or illuminating. Laing was a guiding star of the column so it was great to pay tribute to her specifically in that piece.

Laing’s current book is called Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, and I’ve been waiting for it to come out in paperback (May 4). The title alone! This is a compilation of her essays on artists – David Bowie, Basquiat, Sally Rooney, Georgia O’Keeffe – and her thoughts on how artists can help us navigate our own time, our time of “emergency”. Cannot wait to read.

I have not read Laing’s novel Crudo, which sounds fascinating: the narrator is “Kathy”, an obvious “riff” on feminist artist/provocateur Kathy Acker. Laing did a wonderful interview with The Paris Review about the novel and about the inspiration of Acker.

Last year came Everybody: A Book about Freedom, with meditations on Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, Andrew Dworkin, Nina Simone … and this year is a book on … gardening? Utopias? It’s not out yet so I don’t know. Needless to say, I am excited for it.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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8 Responses to “At some point, you have to set down the past. At some point, you have to accept that everyone was doing their best. At some point, you have to gather yourself up, and go onward into your life.” — Olivia Laing

  1. Thank you for the recommendation, Sheila. City was already on my shelves, so I pulled it down for later this month. From what you describe here, I think that you may like Eula Biss.


    Unrelated: The last live theater I experienced was the site-specific remount of An Iliad featuring Timothy Edward Kane (the matinee on March 8 in the Oriental Institute). I’m not certain, but I think it was the penultimate performance before the shutdowns. How many times I have reflected that if that were, in fact, my last live theater experience, what great good fortune that it was that play, in that space, with that actor. As part of their re-envisioned season, Court Theatre recently made a streaming version available, as well as a talkback event with the director, the dramaturg, and The Poet himself.

    I thought of you when listening to TEK’s contributions to the talkback.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – hello! How wonderful to hear from you! For some reason I wasn’t aware of your new site – I’m not sure how I missed it. very good to be able to be back in touch.

      Have we discussed this before? Tim is married to one of my dearest friends. Kate Fry. We may have already discussed this, so forgive me if this is well-trod ground! I am so sorry I did not get to see his Iliad but I have heard so much incredible stuff about it. I will check to see if it’s still streaming.

      I will check out Eula Biss – for whatever reason she was not on my radar but she sounds amazing.

      • Melissa says:

        Yes! That’s what makes me think of you.

        In the talkback, Charlie Newell mentions productions in which Kate Fry and Timothy Edward Kane appeared together, but I’ve never had the privilege. It must have been electric. (Two of my favorite KF performances were The Belle of Amherst and Tess in Marjorie Prime. To me, it seems that it’s not just world-class talent but also *fierce* intelligence that undergirds the choices she makes on-stage. Does that make sense?)

        Glad to have connected with you here. Wishing you health, peace, and happiness, Sheila.

        • sheila says:

          The same to you!!

          // To me, it seems that it’s not just world-class talent but also *fierce* intelligence that undergirds the choices she makes on-stage. Does that make sense? //

          absolutely!! also she’s so humble it drives her friends crazy. It really is “just a job” in a way, to her. But when you see her live – she is so lit up, so FILLED with all of the things you mention – it’s a supernova. Her Eliza Doolittle was almost a radical re-thinking of the role – I saw it twice and it was overwhelming.

          Best to you! I have been perusing your book piles – so many titles Ive never even heard of, and that’s always exciting.

    • sheila says:

      and enjoy Lonely City – it’s such a beautiful book, so wide-ranging in all of her references and influences. I love that. deep instead of narrow.

  2. Clary says:

    “It starts to feel like all eras happen simultaneously, and the artists you love throughout history, walk beside you, whisper in your ear, they still have things to tell us.”
    How beautifully put.

    Thank you for letting me know about Olivia Laing, she sounds like she could be a favorite of mine. Also, Henry Darger!!!

  3. mutecypher says:

    I recently finished The Trip to Echo Spring. What a wonderful writer! Laing’s open-heartedness and her acceptance of the reasons that alcoholics drink made such an engaging book. The relationship between Hemingway, Fitzgerald and alcohol was the most fascinating to me. I’m completely unfamiliar with John Berryman, so I’ll need to read his stuff. And I’m really only familiar with Carver from Altman’s Short Cuts.

    I loved how Laing teased the threads of Tennessee Williams long-held desire to be wrapped in canvas and buried at sea, how she found that in letters and the plays. She really ruminates on what she reads and imagines the circumstances of creation. That was the thing that most drew me in to her writing, to see what a thoughtful person like her would imagine going on, what would motivate her subjects. All while avoiding the reductive “it’s just autobiographical” interpretations of plot, topic, and attitude.

    I’ll definitely read more from her.

    • sheila says:

      I’m so glad you read it and loved it! she really is special.

      For me, John Cheever was the real revelation. I read The Swimmer, but not much else. Based on Laing’s book I went out and bought his collected works (short stories only) and did a deep dive. It was SUCH a wonderful discovery – and she is so right on about him. Alcohol is a character in every story except it’s never named or acknowledged – but everyone is drinking. Always. and half the things that happen would never have happened without people being wasted (this is true of The Swimmer as well!)

      IMO Lonely City is even better -but I love both!

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