Mary Gaitskill is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer celebrated by readers and critics alike (this one included) for her uncompromising acumen and lucid vivisection of our mottled human nature. Now she is also something else: a blogger. In June, Gaitskill, who is sixty-seven, began writing a column on Substack titled “Out of It.” Gaitskill has long kept her distance from social media; no one was more surprised than herself to see her dip a toe in the waters of the Web. “A surprised hello! This is how she greeted the readers of her first post.
In no time, however, Gaitskill found his groove online. In “Out of It,” she tackled literary topics like the difficulties of writing political fiction and the “inner consciousness” that creates a writer’s style. She wrote about current events and social trends – incels, the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp lawsuit, the meanness of people, the destabilizing effects of life on the internet – and posted videos that made her happy. It’s free-form Gaitskill, riffing, thinking aloud, freed from the relative formality of the printed word. She is having fun. A few weeks ago I spoke with Gaitskill on Zoom. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You just left a new message about me just a few minutes ago!
I was incredibly prolific.
Well, I just think, who has time to read this shit? When friends of mine say, “I haven’t read your substack,” I’m like, “That’s good. I wouldn’t read it. I couldn’t manage so many things in my mailbox. So if people just come and go, I think that’s fantastic.
People have also said, “You write so much. Did you write any of them in advance? And I actually wrote the first ones ahead of time, because I wanted to make sure they were good. But a lot of it was really improvised. Like the thing with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. I had no intention of doing this. The memory of the therapist telling me, “People are just awful, and the sooner you realize that, the happier you’ll be.” I just repeated that to someone, and she was like, “You should put that on your sub-stack,” and I said, Yeah!
This seems like questionable advice at best, coming from a therapist.
Oh, I think that’s good advice.
I think this is some of the best advice I’ve ever received from a therapist. I failed to follow him. But there was a certain fantasy. It wasn’t like he was saying [harsh voice], “People are shit, and the deeper you accept that, the better off you’ll be.” It was like [whimsical voice], “People are horrible and stupid, and they are mean. And the sooner you can accept that, the more fun you can really start having. Do you see the difference ?
Yes. This actually reminds me of something you wrote in your first post. You were summarizing your work, which I think is a very difficult thing for any writer to do. And you said your work had “a brutal but morally ambiguous (read: realist) point of view, emphasizing the weird and granular emotional nature of human experience” – which, to me, sounds a lot like what this therapist says. Once you take a realistic view of humans, you can engage with them more fully.
Yeah, I don’t know. What you just read from my definition of my job was the best I could do.
I think that’s pretty good.
I think it’s morally ambiguous, generally. And I focus on the fine emotional experience of people’s lives. It is certainly realistic. Realism can truly encompass so many things. There is hardly anything unrealistic that a human being can invent.
But, coming back, why do you think the therapist’s advice was not good?
Well, now that you’ve explained it, I mean it the way you mean it. But he seemed almost dismissive of other people who might pull you away from them instead of connecting with them – which to me is something therapy is supposed to allow you to do.
Disdainful of what?
The other people.
I think he took other people very seriously. He said they were a force to be reckoned with and it wouldn’t necessarily be on your terms.
It occurs to me that “others” are really at the heart of what you are 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 a publisher, then for an audience who is not going to actively respond to you. below the text. Can you tell me a bit about why you were ambivalent about this project, what persuaded you to do it and how it went?
Well, I was ambivalent because I’m uncomfortable around a lot of people. I’m a little suspicious 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 so many fasting people? And I could just imagine myself tweeting something incredibly stupid, or drunk, or you know. . . .
I think the weird 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’re writing a book, it’s not that direct, the communication. You’re telling a story that you know people can read, or you’re making a point that you know people will read, but it’s not just about talking off the top of your head. And there is something about this improvisation. You reveal your psyche. Unless you are very smart, you reveal your psyche to a lot of people [snaps] like that.
And I didn’t like that. The combination of distance and intimacy troubled me greatly. But, at the same time, there is this huge thing that is very important in people’s lives and I have nothing to do with it. It was just weird. I was uncomfortable with that too.
So when it happened, it seemed like an interesting way to be a part of it without having to expose myself so quickly. 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 haven’t been 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 reviews, and I got some very interesting ones. Horrible comments don’t really happen that much. The most hostile was someone who was very, very angry because of a grammar mistake I made.