"I Feel Very Uncomfortable When People Call Me A Writer"
A Conversation with Merve Emre
This interview has been in the works since April, when I messaged Dr. Merve Emre — professor of literature at Oxford, critic for The New Yorker, and judge for the 2022 International Booker Prize — while I was in labor.
I wasn’t supposed to be in labor. My induction was scheduled for the next day and, as I sent the message, I remained in deep denial about the fact that I would not get that one last decent night of sleep in my own bed. I have a fond feeling in my heart for that soon-to-be mother of four and the Hail Mary pass that she threw with a kind of desperate hopefulness and a stubborn insistence that some future, more exhausted version of herself would be able to catch it. She sent the message not in spite of the fact that she was in labor but because of it. She needed to know that there would be something on the other side, that she would still exist on the other side.
Of course, looking back at the messages Merve and I exchanged between April and December, it’s hard to believe that either of us continued to exist outside of our children. Lots of “single parenting this week, can we reschedule?” and “sorry, in pediatric ER.” And yet, somehow, we did continue to exist. Well, mostly Merve did. She is a self-proclaimed “machine,” publishing the gorgeous The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway and regularly churning out criticism on literature old and new as a contributing writer for The New Yorker while working on multiple other writing projects. Not to mention her full time teaching job. To make matters even worse, she exercises and she’s also a generous and hilarious conversationalist. Read on for Merve’s thoughts on pleasure in literary criticism, talking Greek mythology with her kids, and having one friend.
Do you say no to anything? Because you are a full-time professor, you've written or co-written four books, and you're working on three more – did I get that right? – and you’re a contributing writer for the New Yorker-
I'm also judging the Booker this year.
And you're judging the Booker. So do you ever say no? And also, give me a reason why I shouldn't feel very bad about myself. Because normally I like to say things like ‘Oh, it's okay, when you have kids, there’s only so much you can do,’ but it seems like you can do everything. So please explain.
If you want to feel a little worse, I also go to the gym.
I do. Today I’m quarantining with four kids so I want to feel as bad as I can possibly feel. So, how?
Gosh, how? I almost never say no to things, which is not good. I should be better at saying no to things.
Should you though? Because it does seem like it's working out. And I like all the things that you're doing and I would like you to keep doing them.
I like the things that I'm doing too. So that's genuinely what the problem is for me, that I like doing lots and lots and lots of different kinds of things. And I like feeling my brain working in all of these different ways. I really love teaching, I love writing in these different kinds of modes, I love reading, and I like all the different kinds of people that these activities bring me into contact with. In fact, I'd say the thing I like most is thinking with other people. And part of the reason I say yes to everything is because it lets me think with new groups of people, which is part of what keeps my life exciting. So I started out by saying I should be better about saying no to things, and practically speaking, that's probably true. But for all of the reasons I just listed, I'm never going to do it. I think it's a combination of having help and extreme emotional repression.
Well, my husband does more than his fair share of childcare and housework. I never cook, and I never clean. And you would not want me to do either of those things.
And then you also have outside help for that as well?
Right. Yes. And I have babysitters that pick the kids up from after school and stay with them for a couple of hours until one of us comes home from work. So I have extra help in that form, in the form of having babysitters and then my husband does at least 50%, if not more, of childcare and housework. So that's one way.
You get very full working days.
Yes. I get full working days. But I also do not watch television, I do not listen to podcasts. I have like one friend who I talk to on the phone. Something has to go, and I think what has gone for me – and I would say probably more broadly, what's gone for us – is the kind of social life that we had prior to having children. That was always going to go, and in some ways actually the pandemic has made that feel like less of a sacrifice because everyone else has had to make the same sacrifice too. So we do not feel like there's anything that we are missing out on anymore. But I think that was a hard pill to swallow for the first three years, and then COVID happened. I think for me at least what had to go was other forms of leisure time, cultural consumption and 95% of my friends. I mean, it's great. I really like the one I have left.
It would be bad if the one you had left was someone you didn't like.
Oh, it would be horrible. Unless it was a proper nemesis, then it would be interesting. It’s good to have a friend you like.
It’s good to have a friend that you like. I feel like that's the main takeaway so far.
Oh! The emotional repression! I should talk about that. I have almost zero capacity to take care of myself. I really have a very, very hard time knowing or realizing when I am overburdened or stressed out. I cannot identify what that feeling is, or what it means to experience it.
You're like one of those people who don't feel pain – you would be getting burnt, but you wouldn't be able to feel it.
Until my whole arm was on fire. Like, ‘Oh my god, I'm in agonizing amounts of pain. How did this happen?’ ‘Oh, yeah, your arm has been slowly turning on a spit of fire over and over for the past two hours and you just weren't paying attention to it.’ I'm not saying it's healthy and I'm not saying I'm role model.
But you save time on self-care because you don't realize that you need to be cared for by yourself.
Oh, I do no self-care. I'm not against it on principle, I just can't bring myself to do it, there's some blockage there.
It’s interesting because I think, in a lot of ways, work is my self-care. Compared to childcare, I think of work as vacation. When I get to sit in front of my computer and just write, that is my enjoyment.
Because it can feel like a vacation.
Yeah, I don't know if that counts as self-care, but I think it is for me.
I was thinking about like getting a mani-pedi, or a facial.
Sure, all those things sound nice.
I'll do a mask. I do a mask every Saturday morning. So there's one thing. I have 15 minutes of self-care every Saturday morning, where I put on a nice sheet mask and walk around the house scaring my children.
On the topic of work, you're an academic, a professor and also a public critic. Did you always plan to write more publicly? I want to talk about the relationship between those two things, because it's fascinating to me.
I did not go to graduate school planning to write publicly. I didn't go to graduate school with any sort of program at all for what I was going to do. I started writing for non-academic audiences when I was in graduate school. And I liked it, in part because I was making money doing it. And in fact, I started doing it and I started working as an editor in order to make enough money to buy private health care that would cover me in order to have my first child.
I guess we should have reviewed the timeline because that’s something I enjoy doing. You had your first child when you were still a student?
No, I wasn't technically a student, I was one year out of graduate school so I was pregnant when I was still a student but then I had him six months after I filed my dissertation. I was on fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences up in Cambridge in Massachusetts and I had him in January of my fellowship year. It was frightening because when I accepted the fellowship, it didn't come with health insurance, first of all, so I had to purchase my health insurance privately. And there was absolutely nothing about maternity leave in the documents. The fellowship also had a fairly strict clause that you had to be in the office every single day.
Is that usual for those kinds of fellowships? I thought they were usually more flexible.
Well, it turns out that nobody actually enforced it. And there was actually another woman who had a young child who was commuting between Cambridge and Philadelphia and was almost never there. And nobody was going to tell her, ‘You have to be here when your family is in Philadelphia.’ But of course, when you accept these jobs, there are employers who could very well tell you that, given that there are absolutely no written provisions for maternity leave or parental leave.
So was that a hard decision to- is that too personal? Did you make the decision to become pregnant at that point?
So I had this fellowship, and then I had a job lined up after it. I was taking the fellowship first and then I was going to start my first job, which was at McGill in Montreal. And I thought, well, I think it would be better to have a baby before starting a new job. Because I don't want to have a newborn in the same year that I'm trying to figure out how a whole new system works. And not just a whole new university, but also a whole new country. So I thought, we'll have our first child while I'm on this fellowship. And so I started working as a freelance editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books at that point, because I would get paid $150 for every piece that I edited. And if I did four pieces a month, then I could cover my health care. It was really a very, very pragmatic issue for me, and I never thought of myself as a writer, and I still feel very embarrassed by that term. Not for other people, it's fine for other people, but I feel very uncomfortable when people call me a writer. I shy away from it for reasons I don't fully understand, and some of my friends are quite angry with me for doing so but I still can't quite feel at home in it. And I always thought that I would be mostly an academic and maybe do some editing work on the side and write the occasional article. Then, the more people started asking me to write things, and the more I started doing it, the more I felt like there was actually a benefit to bringing the kinds of skills I had spent years developing in graduate school to an audience that could be compelled to want more from public criticism than ‘this book is good,’ or ‘this book is bad.’ I believe that people have a greater appetite for instruction, and interpretation and the performance of appreciation than the kind of cardboard cutout figure of the average reader. So the more I wrote and the more I felt like people were responding to something in the work that was a strange amalgamation of the academic and the non-academic, the more I thought, ‘Well, perhaps this is a kind of niche I can occupy.’
A lot of your writing, or most of your writing, actually, straddles that line between the kind of literary work that goes on in the classroom, let's say, and in academic circles, and the kind that happens elsewhere. How do you think of your audience? When you think about whom you're writing for, what kind of person do you think of?
I don’t think I have a person in mind, I suppose it's a combination of people. I often think of my mother, who is a very, very intelligent, non-professionalized reader. I think of my students who want some combination of the experiential pleasure of reading with the sense that they are learning something, that they are being introduced to a new kind of knowledge. And I think about academics and critics from earlier periods too, because I have a great love for the critics of the '70s and the '80s, this time before literary scholarship, the kind that goes on within institutions of higher education, became incredibly preoccupied with its own technical language. I'm working on a piece of right now for The New Yorker for the centenary of James Joyce's Ulysses. One of the things I've been doing is going back and reading a lot of criticism from the '60s, '70s and '80s. And it's been startling to me to see how joyful that criticism is. It doesn't sacrifice anything by way of knowledge-
Right, it isn’t any less rigorous.
No. It's every bit as intelligent and perceptive and interpretively sound as anything else. But there's a current of pleasure that runs through it. And I find myself really drawn to that. And I keep wondering, what would it look like to be able to produce criticism like that today? From a certain point of view, from a point of view that's firmly lodged within the institution of the academy, I think it would look de-professionalized or unprofessional. But I find myself caring less and less about that as time goes on. And perhaps that's just a luxury that I have now but I'm not sure what the point is of doing this particular job if there isn't a sense of pleasure that is gained from it.
In The Ferrante Letters, and even your edition of Mrs. Dalloway, you have personal anecdotes- and I should say, Mrs. Dalloway is just gorgeous. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it's also a wonderful companion to the novel, in that sense, obviously, academic, but there are personal anecdotes throughout. I love that your husband drew the maps. Can you talk about that intersection of the critical and the personal, both in terms of that project specifically and just in general?
It's funny, because I don't actually think of myself as being personal at all. I think in The Ferrante Letters, I'm the least personal of the three other authors.
Right. I guess I'm thinking of the project as a whole.
Yeah. No. I totally understand. It's an interesting question for me, and it's a difficult question for me as well. I think whatever the reason is that I don't feel at home in the designation writer. I don't feel particularly at home in the personal either, which is maybe just a way of saying I don't feel at home in myself. Which probably links back to the emotional repression again. I think that one of the things that is interesting for me is that, it's very difficult to do away with the personal entirely. So the question becomes, how do you mobilize it? How do you channel it? I think some people channel it through that very direct confessional first person, a first person that makes you keenly aware of the fact that there is a single speaking subject, who is narrating something about themselves to you. And then I think there's the way that someone like Woolf channels it, or the way that someone like Hardwick channels it. Which is to say that they are not confessional, they do not speak of their own lives, but there is a kind of idiosyncrasy to their style. And there is a willingness to rise from a specific observation about whatever it is that they're talking about to a general one that could encompass their life in it. So I'm thinking about how, in Seduction and Betrayal, there are these wonderful moments where Elizabeth Hardwick is talking about Ibsen's women. And she's saying something about Nora in one sentence and in the next sentence there will be this almost imperceptible shift from Nora to “the wife.” And that broadening of the category to “the wife” very quietly ushers Elizabeth Hardwick herself into that essay, in a sentence that is putatively about Ibsen and about Ibsen's women. But it makes room for her to smuggle a little bit of herself into it. So I like all these different strategies for figuring out how to signal that there's a persona there without being personal about it necessarily.
And not only does it open up to allow Hardwick in there, but it opens up for the reader as well. But I'm thinking of, for example, you talk about your crush in- was it middle school?
Oh, yes, my middle school crush, it's fine.
And how you read Mrs. Dalloway, the notes you exchanged. I've always loved those moments in criticism where all of a sudden the clouds part, and you're like, ‘Oh, this is a person who is a reader, who's had a personal experience with this text.’ And then it allows me as a reader to be a person reading the text in a different way. I find that so pleasurable, and I'm wondering if you've thought about that. Why include that in the edition? And is it different than being personal, what you think of as being confessional?
I wasn't trying to be evasive. I think the reason I'm confused is because, and this isn't because your question is confusing, it's just as I'm trying to think through my own logic, there's a sense for me that when the personal takes that form- so me as a 10 year old, or 11 year old, exchanging these letters about what I'm reading with a boy that I have these amorphous feelings for, I feel very detached from that version of myself, in part because it was so long ago but in part because I've put it through the wringer of my own critical concepts and it's come out on the other end a character.
Right, it’s a text.
Yeah. It's a text. It's not a person anymore, it's a character that I've created and that character bears the same resemblance to me that a novelist’s protagonist might bear to her. Which is to say, it's not one of identity, it's a combination of concepts and styles.
I definitely hear that distinction.
But maybe it's a distinction without a difference. I don't know, I'm not sure. Again, maybe my allergy to the personal is related to my allergy to the term writer, which is that, I can neither believe that I'm a writer, nor can I quite believe I'm a person, which is what allows me to keep working the way that I do, because I'm a machine.
Right, a necessary self-deception.
If you want to be a machine who doesn't feel pain and doesn't need to sleep or eat, then it might be good to do away with your own person.
That might be the only thing keeping this going, in which case, we must perpetuate it all together.
Maybe I should take a vacation.
Speaking of vacations, or their opposite, how do you read so much? Do you just spend a good portion of your day reading?
We started this conversation with me asking how you do this. And you have the time because you have a partner who does more than his fair share, you have babysitters. But are you working all of those hours?
I'm working all the time. During the weekday, I read every night, from when the kids go to bed until about midnight, or one in the morning. We alternate, putting them to bed at night so if I'm the one putting them to bed – they share a room right now, they sleep in these bunk beds, there's a big couch in that room – I will go sit on the couch and read on my iPad in the dark while they are going to bed. So I actually probably start reading around like 8:30 at night until midnight or one. You've probably had this experience too but over the past two years, my boys have gotten to a place where they go off and play with each other for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. And so on a weekend, we're all home, I can get one hour chunks of reading in just around the house, maybe three or four times a day. And the other thing that's nice is that I think you can train slash persuade children to share your interests. We’ve been reading to them from the very, very, very beginning. And now that my older one can read fairly proficiently, one of the things he really likes to do is just sit next to me and we read quietly.
It's the best.
It's the best. It’s such a joy. And we can do that for a really long time together. And I think he and I are both waiting for his younger brother to get there. It also makes talking to them so much more fun. So my older one- I think, maybe last year, or a year and a half ago, I bought a kid's version of the Odyssey. And he wasn't interested when I bought it. But he picked it up off the shelf maybe a month ago and wanted me to read it to him. I read it and he was very, very, very into the idea of gods and goddesses and these epic heroes, and fate, and free will, and coming home when you've been away for a long time. And so I just bought him these amazing graphic novels by this artist named Gareth Hinds, that are of the Iliad and the Odyssey. And last week, we went through in like three days, this 250-page graphic novel of the Iliad. And we just started today the graphic novel of the Odyssey. But he wants to talk about who's the goddess of love, and who's the goddess of war, and who's Ajax, and whose Achilles, and which one is Agamemnon, and how did the Trojan Horse work. And these kinds of conversations are so lovely for me, I love having them with him. And I think this is what I didn't expect. You're a little bit ahead of me with your older ones, I'm guessing, but I didn't expect that there would come a point where they would share your interests and you would actually want to hang out with them, and talk to them about these things. And that you would not feel like it was pulling you away from anything that you would rather be doing. You would not feel like it was demanding something of you that you didn't want to give, and you would feel a kind of lovely separateness. Because in those early years, you're so colonized by them.
Yeah, and having both of those things at once is really interesting, too. Because there's such a contrast. Speaking of the children, you wrote your portions of The Ferrante Letters when you were pregnant for the first time and in one letter you wondered whether the new rhythms of parenting might teach you to write differently. Do you find that that's been the case? Has parenting changed you in that way?
I'm sure the answer is yes but to explain how- I'm sure this is an unappealing point to make for many reasons, but I'm going to make it anyway, which is that, I think being a parent has changed me entirely. I think it is completely undone and reconstituted my sense of self. And so of course, I must be a different kind of writer, although to explain how I'm a different kind of writer as a parent would also be to have to explain how I'm a different kind of person. You and I don't have enough time for that.
That would be confessional.
No! It's not even that it would be too personal, I think I would probably do it in a depersonalized kind of way. But I don't know how I would explain that without actually narrating the last five years.
No, we definitely don't have that kind of time.
Yeah. There's no way to really distill it for me. On some really basic level, I think that it has made me much more patient, and much more sympathetic, and much more forgiving. And I say that as a matter of interpersonal relations but some of that has probably seeped into the way that I approach writing criticism too.
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Really could relate to everything in this interview, thank you for sharing! Very well put together and an enjoyable, inspiring read.