Mary Gaitskill is a novelist, essayist, and short-story writer celebrated by readers and critics (this one included) for her uncompromising acuity and clear-eyed vivisection of our mottled human nature. Now she is something else, too: a blogger. In June, Gaitskill, who is sixty-seven, began writing a column on Substack called “Out of It.” Gaitskill has long kept her distance from social media; no one was more astonished to find her dipping a toe into the waters of the Web than she was herself. “A surprised hello!” was how she greeted the readers of her first post.
In practically no time, though, Gaitskill found her online rhythm. In “Out of It,” she has considered literary topics like the difficulties of writing political fiction and the “intimate consciousness” that creates a writer’s style. She’s written about current events and social trends—incels, the Amber Heard–Johnny Depp trial, the meanness of people, the destabilizing effects of life on the Internet—and has posted videos that bring her joy. This is freeform Gaitskill, riffing, thinking out loud, liberated from the comparative formality of the printed word. She’s having fun. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Gaitskill over Zoom. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You just dropped a new post on me, mere minutes ago!
I’ve been nightmarishly prolific.
Well, I just think, Who has time to read this shit? When friends of mine say, “I haven’t been reading your Substack,” I’m, like, “That’s fine. I wouldn’t read it.” I couldn’t deal with that much stuff in my mailbox. So if people just dip in and out, I think that’s fantastic.
People have also said, “You’re writing so much. Did you write some of these ahead of time?” And I actually did write the first few ahead of time, because I wanted to be sure they were good. But a lot of it was really off the cuff. Like the thing about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. I didn’t intend to do that. The memory of the therapist telling me, “People are just horrible, and the sooner you realize that, the happier you’re going to be.” I just repeated that to somebody, and she was, like, “You should put that on your Substack,” and I was, like, Yeah!
It seems like questionable advice at best, coming from a therapist.
Oh, I think it’s great advice.
I think it’s among the best advice I’ve ever had from a therapist. I haven’t been able to follow it. But there was a certain whimsy to it. It wasn’t like he was saying [harsh voice], “People are shit, and the more deeply you accept that, the better off you’re going to be.” It was, like [whimsical voice], “People are horrible and stupid, and they’re mean. And the sooner you can accept that, the more you can really start to enjoy yourself.” You see the difference?
Yes. It actually reminds me of something that you wrote in your first post. You were summarizing your work, which I think is a really hard thing for any writer to do. And you said that your work has “a blunt but morally ambiguous (read: realistic) point of view, with emphasis on the strange and granular emotional nature of human experience”—which, to me, sounds a lot like what this therapist is saying. As soon as you embrace a realistic view of humans, you can engage more fully with them.
Yeah, I don’t know. What you just read of my definition of my work was the best I could do.
I think it’s pretty good.
I do think it’s morally ambiguous, usually. And I do focus on the fine-grained emotional experience of people’s lives. That’s certainly realistic. Realism really can encompass so many things. There’s hardly anything that isn’t realistic that a human being can come up with.
But, going back, why do you think the advice from the therapist wasn’t good?
Well, now that you’ve explained it, I hear it how you hear it. But there seemed something almost dismissive about other people that might alienate you from them instead of connect you with them—which, to me, is one thing that therapy is supposed to equip you to do.
Dismissive of what?
I think he was taking other people very seriously. He was saying they were a force to be reckoned with and it’s not going to be on your terms, necessarily.
It occurs to me that “other people” are really at the heart of what you’re doing right now. I know you were nervous about writing publicly in this way, which makes sense, because writing for the Internet is really different from writing first for yourself, then for an editor, and then for an audience who is not going to be actively responding to you at the bottom of the text. Can you tell me a little bit about why you were ambivalent about this project, what persuaded you to do it, and how it’s been?
Well, I was ambivalent because I’m uncomfortable relating to large numbers of people. I’ve been kind of wary of it. I didn’t want to tweet, although I thought about it when Twitter first appeared, because I could see how powerful and engaging it was. But I was just, like, What do I have to say to that many people that fast? And I could just picture myself tweeting something incredibly stupid, or drunken, or you know. . . .
I think the strange thing about Internet communication is that people don’t—it’s almost unreal. They forget what they say. It’s almost like they’re talking to themselves: you’re sitting in a room and there’s no one in front of you. Like when you write a book, it’s not as direct, the communication. You’re telling a story that you know people can read, or you’re laying out an argument that you know people will read, but it’s not just talking off the top of your head. And there’s something about that off-the-cuffness. You’re revealing your psyche. Unless you’re very clever, you’re revealing your psyche to vast numbers of people [snaps] like that.
And I just didn’t like that. The combination of the distance and intimacy was very disturbing to me. But, at the same time, here’s this huge thing that’s very important in people’s lives and I’m not having anything to do with it. It just felt odd. I was uncomfortable with that, too.
So, when this came along, it seemed like an interesting way to be part of that without having to expose myself so fast. At first, I didn’t let people comment, because it’s hard for me not to respond to people. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t go on Twitter. I thought, If I say something and fifty people answer me, I’m going to go crazy, either trying to answer them all or trying to ignore them all. I finally decided to do the comments, and I’ve gotten some really interesting ones. Horrible comments don’t really come in much. The most hostile one was somebody who was very, very angry about a grammatical mistake I made.
What was the mistake?
Instead of saying “Lillian and I talk about it,” I said, “me and Lillian.” And her head exploded. She was just so upset. There was some back-and-forth about it, even.
Did you participate in the back-and-forth?
Well, I replied, “Oh for goodness’ sake!!!!” I said that, to me, this is a conversational form. I don’t watch my grammar the way I would if I was publishing a formal essay. And she pounced on that and chewed on it.
It’s interesting that that created more controversy than you writing about incels, for instance.
She probably didn’t read that. She probably just realized this was a horrible blog and she wanted nothing to do with it!
Anyway, I realized that this could be a place where I could communicate in a less formal way because I’ve been kind of stymied by events in the last few years.
Political events, you mean?
Yes. Political events, social events. They’ve been so crazy that I haven’t really known what to say. Like, for example, incels. I wouldn’t have tried to write a formal essay on them, because I don’t really know much about them. If I’m going to write an article about incels for *The New Yorker *or any place else, really, I’m going to feel like I have to have more knowledge. I’m going to have to go find their sites, which I tried. I couldn’t locate any incel sites.
A lot have been blocked.
Or they fix it. They change the sites, they change the way you can get to them so it’s hard to find. So, if I was wanting to make this a more formal essay, I would have felt the need to interview some, or at least look at the sites. And to write something on Substack I did not feel I had to have that kind of formal knowledge.
I thought I was helped by having access to this woman Naama Kates [the creator of the podcast “Incel”] and being able to interview her. Because she’s somebody who does have a lot of knowledge of this group of people.
You wanted to think out loud about the topic, or to learn your own thoughts about it by expressing them in writing.
Yes, because I think a lot of people are kind of in that place. They don’t really know what they think about this. I’m not anti-media. I hope you realize that. I’m part of the media, in a way.
But in media, sometimes—and I don’t just mean mainstream or left or right, I mean media, generally—it’s necessary to define things rather quickly. They tend to define groups, whether it’s incels or trans people or anybody, in a way that can be pretty limited. And I think most people, on some level, are wondering, Is this really what these people are like? Are they really all crazy people who want to kill women, or is it something else? Or trans people. Are they all people who are going to, you know, scream at you if you say the wrong pronoun? I don’t think so.
So I think people want to have a more exploratory, and, frankly, uncertain way of looking at these subjects because they’re so confusing.
What drew you to the subject of incels in particular? It allows you to go to a place that, as a reader, I think you go to a lot, which is the question of sympathy: Who deserves it? What does it mean to give sympathy? What that looks like in writing can be different than in life.
There’s a number of reasons. I think that the idea of this whole group of people that everybody thinks it’s O.K. to mock—right away, that arouses sympathy. I mean, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be twenty-five years old and feel like no one’s ever going to want to have sex with you. That is awful. I don’t blame them for being mad. I don’t think they should be acting it out; I’m sure there have always been people in this situation. But it just seems massive now. Why?
And then another reason, which is more personal, is that I have an almost overattentiveness or responsiveness toward people who are considered losers. And, frankly—I can say this because my parents aren’t alive—it’s because of my family. I think they perceived themselves that way. And were that way, actually. They could not fit into society. They did not know how to behave. They desperately tried. They could pass. They could seem normal. And I think there’s a lot more people like that than is acknowledged.
But because of experiencing it very early in life, and very intimately, and finding it extremely confusing, if I see anything that looks like that, I just start vibrating. Which is, in a way, good, but in a way bad, because it can make me sympathetic to people who may actually be really bad. Even if I think they should be locked up or put to death. I’m not sure I think the death penalty is always inappropriate. If I heard that Derek Chauvin was killed in prison the way he killed George Floyd, honestly, I’d think he deserved it. I realize it’s not my place to say who deserves that—
But that’s how you’d feel.
Yeah. He’s somebody who would be very difficult for me to feel sympathy with. But there are people who’ve done things that are as bad who I would have sympathy for. I’ve known people who act horrible. And, when people do that, it’s because that’s what they learned. They really think this is how they need to be to get through life. It’s a terrible mistake, but it’s a complicated thing.
Acting horrible is an adaptive strategy, to some degree.
Yeah. Like, Donald Trump is not somebody I have sympathy for. But, probably from a very young age, behaving the way he does worked. It got him what he wanted, it made women go out with him. He’s a particularly heinous example, but I think, on a much smaller scale, untold numbers of people do that.
So, it’s hard for me to put that aside. And I think fiction, for me, is a place where you can not only explore but expose that, show that, live it in a way that you otherwise would not. Humbert Humbert is a guy that absolutely deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life. But I like to read an empathic portrayal of him, because it leads you into a deep understanding of not only that kind of person but all people, I think.
Is there a character of yours who similarly seems repulsive, or morally repellent, but whom you were able to inhabit with sympathy or compassion?
That bad? No. I don’t think I’ve ever written . . . can you think of anybody?
I don’t think I’ve ever written anybody that loathsome. I think child rape—
It’s definitely at the heavy end of the scale.
Yeah. I’ve certainly written about a lot of unpleasant people. Like the guy in “This is Pleasure.”
I was thinking about “This is Pleasure” in connection to the idea of bad behavior as an adaptive strategy that “works” in a person’s favor. The story involves Quin, a male book editor who’s accused of sexual harassment by multiple younger women whom he’s known and worked with for years. To the reader, his behavior seems icky and violative. But he claims that these women enjoyed it, and flirted back, until the culture suddenly shifted. During MeToo, strategies like Quin’s stopped working because the rules changed. And they changed so swiftly, and so publicly, that everybody was left spinning. Is that what you were trying to address?
Yeah, that’s part of it. For that guy—and I think for most people who have strategies like this—when I say “work,” I don’t just mean it helped them get what they want. It seemed to make people like them. It seemed to be a quality that got them affection and love. So, yeah, that’s very confusing when it’s suddenly revealed that actually a lot of people hate you.
I’m thinking about something you wrote, in a 1994 Harper’s essay, about rules: about the rules of society, and how you felt from an early age that you knew what those rules were, especially around something like sex. You don’t have sex until you’re married, because that’s the rule. And you decided that those rules were dumb and that you were going to dispose of them.
But what comes in to replace the rules? One thing that’s interesting to me about incels is that they feel imprisoned by rules about what is and isn’t attractive but they’ve created the most rigid set of social rules possible: here’s how you should look, here’s how women should look, here’s what your body-mass index should be, here’s how you approach someone. It’s fascinating to me that rules replace rules.
Yeah. I just said to my husband today—we’re having an experience with a person who’s behaving strangely in our neighborhood—and I said to him, “This is why conformity has come about. Society needs to protect itself from the weird!”
And I think part of why the MeToo thing happened is what you were going back to. For people of my generation, the rules were very clear. You could break them, and people broke them all the time. But it was clear what they were, especially for women.
And then suddenly it was, like, Fuck this shit. A portion of society decided that, no, this doesn’t work for us. We want freedom. Except there were always unspoken rules, and a lot of that was if you were a certain kind of person, you were supposed to be really free sexually. And you were a dud if you weren’t.
You’re talking about your own youth. The sixties and seventies.
Yeah. Someone at a reading recently asked me, “Was there slut-shaming then?” And I was like, “Well, it depended on who you hung out with.” People I hung out with, no. They might secretly think it, but nobody would have even said that word. Whereas, in other groups, I’m sure that still existed. And then in the nineties, that sort of super-sexualized, super-“free” environment became mainstream, but still with a lot of unacknowledged prejudice against women or certain kinds of sexuality.
And I think, for young people now, it’s become kind of repulsive to see people so floridly acting out. Like when Donald Trump said “grab them by the pussy,” I felt like the reason so many people accepted it is because in that milieu he was in, in the nineties, people did behave that way. And it wasn’t judged as fiercely as it would be now. And so I think the MeToo thing was just a kind of an outraged “No! Stop! This is not O.K. with me.” It was an attempt to create boundaries. I think it was something that many people, especially women, were feeling.
And I’m speaking as somebody who’s more comfortable with that kind of fluidity—or was, anyway. When I was in my thirties and forties, I was not so uncomfortable. I didn’t like people grabbing me on the street or being really rude, but I felt like I could defend myself against it.
Like Margot, the female narrator in “This is Pleasure,” who puts out her hand, when Quin tries to touch her between her legs, and says, “NO!”
Yeah. I remember somebody doing something—he was just getting too close or something, and I grabbed one of his pierced earrings and just pulled. Meaning: I will pull this thing out of your ear if you keep doing this. He backed off very quickly.
But I understand. Not everybody wants to even have to negotiate that terrain. I’m getting a little far afield from your question. What was it?
Well, it’s leading me back to something I wanted to ask you about your Harper’s essay about rules.
But, wait, before we go further, I do remember where I was going.
O.K. Go ahead.
About incels and their crazy rules. That I can understand, in a weird way. It’s not as extreme, but I remember, in the nineties, that there was this explosion of attention to fashion models. Fashion models had always been around, people had always thought they were beautiful. But in the nineties it just became this thing. It was the ultimate that any female person could want to be. More than being an actress, more than being a singer. And it was kind of destabilizing.
I suddenly became critical of my own appearance in a way that I’d never been. I began to be obsessed with it, to look at people and at myself in terms of, This is what’s beautiful, this isn’t. My legs are not long enough. My face is wrong, my lips aren’t big enough. Even though I thought it was sort of crazy, I began to be part of it. I think it’s a strange kind of adaptive thing—that, if you feel like something is so big and overwhelming that you cannot fight it, you join it.
And I feel that that’s what incels are doing. They’re somehow thinking that this is how they’re going to survive in this world, by completely going over to the other side. It’s the wrong idea, but I get it. It took me years to stop doing that.
How did you stop?
I think I just got sick of it. It happened when I was living in Marin County and spending a lot of time by myself. I didn’t see that many people on a day-to-day basis. I was socially pretty isolated.
And when I moved into San Francisco and started spending more time around actual people, it just demonstrated that people didn’t give a shit about that. I mean, they may admire beauty, but it was a much different way of being than this awful thing I was ingesting on MTV.
The real world versus the simulacrum of the real world.
I want to go back to your family. You were saying that they never fit in. Can you describe the way in which that was the case?
It’s hard to describe, actually, except that there was always this incredible awkwardness. They had very few friends. The few times they would invite the neighbors over, I could see this strange inability to talk in a normal way. I remember once—I actually put this in a novel—my father really loved music, and he put on some music for men he was friendly with at work. He got drunk very quickly and put on opera and was almost ranting at them about the greatness of this music. And he meant it in a friendly way. It wasn’t at all angry, but he was almost yelling at them, and they were just, like, “Uh-huh. Yeah. Interesting.” I remember so clearly, because it was one of the first times that I really could see the difference between him and other people, and I just found it puzzling.
Where were you in the family order?
I was the first child.
Did that put you in the role of having to interpret the parents for your siblings?
No, I wouldn’t say that. We all understood each other in some basic ways, but I think when I was teen-ager I became aware that there was a real gap between the world of my family and the world outside the family. They tried to say what they thought you were supposed to say. They really wanted to fit in.
Again, it’s this idea of the simulacrum, what you have to say to appear a certain way when you can’t be that way.
It’s interesting that you say you can speak more frankly about this now that they’re gone. Has your writing changed as a result of that? Have you been able to admit them into your writing differently?
Not at this point. My mother died just in 2017. They would say I was never considerate with my writing!
I’m thinking of this in part because of your recent book “The Devil’s Treasure,” in which you revisited your novels and collaged pieces of them together with a work of memoir that deals, among other things, with your family. What was it like to revisit your novels?
It was strange. I hadn’t reread them for years. And the feeling I got from them, actually, was that, if I read them as a stranger, I would think, This person doesn’t know anything about human society.
That’s what you thought from rereading them?
I was horrified! I thought, This person seems to know absolutely nothing about human society, but she’s throwing everything she has at it, stylistically, to hide this terrible fact! That’s what I felt. It was really unnerving.
Was it because you thought that you weren’t capturing the way people are? What was not accurate about society?
Isn’t it obvious to you? I mean, you’ve read them.
What you’re saying is blowing my mind!
Because my reaction to your books is not to say that this person doesn’t understand society. I know that, for you, the idea of the individual is paramount: how an individual behaves and reacts within the confines of society. You’ve written about this explicitly, and you’ve written about it on Substack. Did you not feel that that was something you had done?
Well, particularly, like in “Two Girls” [“Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” Gaitskill’s first novel, from 1991], the way I have people talking—I think some of the dialogue is pretty real. But in other cases I just don’t feel it’s representative. It’s not that, word by word, it’s inaccurate or unbelievable, but there’s such a strange artificiality about it.
And I think I can get away with it in that book, because it’s through the point of view of a person who likes to make things very theatrical, and who forms her way of thinking quite baroquely. But I do think it’s compensating. There’s this lack of energetic ease between characters that isn’t realistic. When people are with each other, they’re not like that.
I do think of “Two Girls” as your most stylized book. It has that heightened theatrical quality. One of the characters wants a larger-than-life experience, while the reality of her life is—
Smaller than life.
Yeah. It’s interesting to contrast that book with one like “The Mare.” That novel is about a Dominican girl from Brooklyn, Velvet, who forms a close relationship with a white couple who live in upstate New York. The novel is told from multiple points of view, all written in the first person. You’re trying to capture a lot of different voices.
Yes. I think a lot of people might say that’s more of a failure. But I think I captured Velvet’s voice pretty well, actually. At least, her speaking voice is different from her internal voice. I do think that very young people know much more than they can say, and so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have her have a very wide-ranging and abstract point of view in her own mind.
But I think the portrayals of her in her home and her neighborhood were a little stilted by my point of view.
In “The Devil’s Treasure,” you write about feeling concerned—especially with the character of Velvet’s mother, Silvia—that you weren’t going to get the voice right. Silvia is a Dominican woman who doesn’t speak English. You say that you were “afraid of suddenly exploiting hardship that I could understand in my head, and then foolishly defining that hardship in a way that real people, if they read it, might find weirdly unrecognizable.”
Is that what you’re talking about now? Do you consider it not to be a success?
Well, what I was talking about was being able to adequately render the flavor of life on the ground where she lived. What you’re talking about is a little deeper.
I don’t know! It’s definitely something that I was concerned about even when I was writing it, because the reality of the deprivation that Velvet would be experiencing was far deeper than I put in the book. It was almost like I was trying to counter reality, or challenge reality, with that book. You know the phrase that I quoted from Nabokov: “the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists?”
I wanted to portray the reality of that in a person like Velvet, or even in her mother. That it’s there, even in such deprived circumstances. I mean, they don’t live in the most horrible circumstances imaginable, but they’re very deprived, and very scorned. But it was there, still. It’s this real beauty and love, the lovely and lovable.
I wanted to convey that, and I felt I had a way to do that that another person wouldn’t. So, to me, that was worth the risk of doing the other thing—like, falling short of understanding the forces against the lovely and lovable world, because I would use the wrong language. And I think I did fall short. But I still think some of it comes through.
I want to argue with you. It’s funny to be talking to the author and wanting to defend the book against the author.
If I read it ten years from now, I might feel something different. But right now that’s how I feel.
It’s interesting what you’re talking about, softening the characters’ reality a little. I wonder if that’s partly because Velvet and her brother are based on real kids, a brother and a sister, whom you loved and fostered, which is also something that you’ve written about. Was it on their behalf that you softened reality?
Yes. And it’s also because I know them still that I feel like it’s inadequate. I’m more in touch with her than with him. I still don’t know what she thinks of the book.
Do you think she read it?
I think she’s probably looked at it. When it was published I gave her and her brother copies and I asked her later if she read it. She said, “I started to, and I felt too many things, too many feelings, and I stopped.
I think parts of it would really irritate her and parts of it she might be moved by.
Did you worry that you might alienate her by basing some of the character on her?
Yes, although I didn’t think it would. I told her I was doing it. I thought she might be more bothered by the way the mother was portrayed.
This is a subject that’s come up a lot in contemporary fiction. I’m thinking in part of the French writer Emmanuel Carrère. I don’t know if you followed that case, but his ex-wife, in their divorce agreement, said that he could no longer write about her without her permission. And, when he tried to include her in his latest book, the text had to be changed.
But you really defend your right to write characters based on people you know. You say that it’s your story, too. Where, for you, are the boundaries between what you’re allowed to take and what you shouldn’t touch?
I do have some. If a person feels that even a handful of people are going to know that it’s them, and that they’re going to be harshly judged in a way that might affect their personal life, that’s something I would really hesitate to use. Part of me thinks even that should be usable because it’s art, and art is more important than anything. But another part of me is going, Argh! Really, is it worth it to inflict that kind of pain on another person?
By the way, people have written things about me that I was very upset about, even though most people wouldn’t know it was me.
Did you confront the writer in that case?
Oh, yeah. I did!
And what happened?
He apologized. He thought it was actually very sympathetic. I think most people think that when they write those things.
I think so, too.
If I can identify it as something that I would find painful, that’s when I feel like I should keep my hands off, even though I’m slavering like a beast to do it.
Did you follow that whole thing with the kidney-donation story?
I did. That was so weird.
That’s something that I could see you writing about on Substack.
Let’s refresh our memory on that. There was someone who was posting things on Facebook . . .
Yes. Two people who knew each other in the context of a writing group. And one felt very strongly that she wanted to donate a kidney and was vocal about it.
And she did donate, didn’t she?
She did. She posted quite a lot about it, and then this person who knew her, and who had access to the Facebook posts, based a humiliating character in a story on her. And there was an enormous amount of to-do around this, including lawsuits. What was fascinating to me, though, was that the writer first said that she hadn’t closely based the character on the donor, even though it was so obvious that she had. My feeling was: you can steal it, but you have to accept the consequences.
Was it fiction she wrote? It was fiction, right?
But people knew.
Yeah, people could easily identify the inspiration.
At the start of it, I was more sympathetic to the writer, because I could just see how irresistible it was. But then I read things that she had said about the kidney person that were so malicious, and I began to lose my sympathy for her. I mean, it was a weird thing because neither of them looked good. The kidney donor did seem very annoying. But the writer was not at all careful enough about hiding the person’s identity. It just seemed that there were multiple places where she could have protected the subject more, and that she didn’t bother because she didn’t care, and it began to seem like she wanted her to be an object of ridicule. And that’s when I kind of went, Unh-unh. She did actually do something wrong.
It goes back to your beast comparison. You’re slavering over the details, and you can take them, but you have to accept the risks.
I mean, didn’t she actually quote from her at a certain point?
She quoted from Facebook posts. I followed a similar trajectory to the one you’re describing, in terms of sympathy.
I mean, that’s just bizarrely lazy. Yes, they were great quotes. But I’m sure she could have come up with something better herself.
But it’s hard. Again, this is part of the problem with social media. You can just see it all hanging out there. In a way that’s good, that people can see this and things get exposed. But, on the other hand, it just makes you feel gross when you read it.
It brings me back to something that you wrote about on Substack, which is the idea of embodiment, and how being disembodied creates different sets of reality. You talked about it in terms of social media, but also in terms of fiction. I really like your example of telling writing students to create a character who’s looking out the window. Situate them in a world.
For much of my writing life, that is where I would draw a sense of inspiration. I don’t do it as much anymore, because I’m not that different from how other people are with their phones.
I was just thinking about the idea of responsibility toward other people, and how being embodied or disembodied changes our sense of it.
My husband was actually saying something a few days ago about how, without relating in an embodied way, you have no empathy. Because we all have bodies, and that’s the heart of empathy, that we recognize each other as these creatures with bodies that can be hurt even if we’re very strong.
And I think there’s really something to that. I think that people probably type things on Twitter that, if they were thinking in a more considered way, they wouldn’t mean at all.
That’s definitely the case.
I mean, it’s not that I’m against the Internet. Without the Internet, the pandemic would have been a lot worse. Because of Zoom and things, you can at least see images of people and hear their voices. It made everything better. But it does come with a price.
You were saying before that you didn’t want to expose your psyche on Twitter. The other thing that Twitter does is change how your psyche works. There are genre clichés that everyone gets stuck in. There’s a way of expressing outrage, a way of expressing skepticism. These are almost literary clichés, but they enter your mind when you use just about any social-media platform.
Having a Twitter mob come after you is a lot better than having people marching down the street with a pitchfork, coming to your house, setting your lawn on fire. I’d much prefer a Twitter mob to that. But, yeah, this kind of disembodied rage is really disturbing because you don’t know how seriously to take it.
You wrote about that with the case of Amber Heard. You were really affected by going on YouTube and stumbling upon all these videos made by her detractors.
It began to make me sick. I was, like, Who is this person? Why has she suddenly become this target for all this crazy hate? I think there are a lot of reasons that happened, but, still, it was just so disgusting.
You wrote that you don’t think anyone deserves that kind of public shaming.
We’ve been talking about sympathy. What you’re describing with the mob is the utter absence of sympathy, a moral judgment that refuses compassion. I’m wondering if you distinguish between sympathy and pity, and what you think of pity as a quality, both morally and in fiction.
People have asked me this because I used “pity” a lot in “Veronica” [Gaitskill’s 2005 novel] in a non-pejorative way, and people really have an aversion to the concept of pity. I don’t, but it depends. I think of pity as something more raw and powerful than sympathy.
It can be really odious when somebody sees you as an object of pity because they don’t think you can do anything. And that’s the only feeling they have about you—a creature to be pitied. I don’t think anyone would like that.
But, to me, it’s more of a visceral feeling. It doesn’t automatically come with contempt. I’ve pitied people without it having a negative connotation. War victims. That child in Syria whose home was bombed. He was in a state of shock. “Sympathy” isn’t the right word for what one might feel for him.
I see what you’re saying, and I also see why people would resist it, in a way. Because the case you’re describing emphasizes a quality of pity that sympathy doesn’t have, which is a power differential. You’re safe and not subject to war, and so extending sympathy to someone who is in that situation feels inadequate. Pity may be the feeling of the strong for the weak.
It doesn’t feel that way for me. It feels more horrible than that. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m sitting here going, I’m safe and he’s not. It’s just—that can happen to anybody.
It’s unlikely to happen to us, but not impossible. I mean, if a massive hurricane or something hit us, it wouldn’t be as bad, but we could find ourselves in a place like that. I don’t feel powerful when I look at that situation. Maybe I secretly do and I don’t acknowledge it. I’m not sure. I just know I don’t feel good.
Going back to Substack, do you have any plans to stop writing, or will you just keep going for now and see how you feel?
I’m not sure yet. Something that has been a little nerve-racking about it—and maybe why I ultimately can’t keep doing it—is that, because the response is so quick, it’s kind of jangling. I sometimes wake up thinking about it. You’re aware of all the psychic attention on you. It’s exciting, in a way, but it’s disturbing.
That’s what I mean about social media changing the psyche. It does.
People have said things like “How could Ta-Nehisi Coates have walked away from his million-plus Twitter followers?” I can definitely see why he would. It’s just crazy to have all these people in your force field.
But I definitely have some posts planned. I’m writing about a Chekhov story either next week or the week after.
Which story? Can you tell?
“Gusev.” It’s one of my favorite stories. I love it. ♦