2017 was Samantha Irby’s breakout year. Among her accomplishments, she released a national bestseller, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life; she began developing a TV series based on her prior book, Meaty; she started an advice column on Shondaland; and her book was listed as one of Janet Maslin’s top picks of 2017. Typical to Irby, she shared the latter news on Facebook with the caption “LOL FAKE NEWS.”
I learned of the Gospel of Irby through this post on her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, and I strongly suggest, before you read the rest of this interview, that you go and read the post and then come back here. Unless you already understand what you’re getting into.
I’d never read anything to compare to this post in terms of sheer voice. If American humor writing is supposed to model itself after Mark Twain, Irby breaks the model and keeps swinging until the model is in shards in the dumpster. In her work, hyperbole is absurd, a love of language and detail shimmers under the acrobatic run-ons, and the whole sense of the project is unstudied, rather than carefully crafted. I could tell, from following her social media and other evidence, that she was a reader, and I wanted to hear her extraordinary voice ragging solely on books.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I’m usually not vocal about my visceral hatred for a book because when I read something, especially something other people say they loved, my default response is usually “Maybe I just don’t understand it…?” Because that’s often the case. I’m not what you would call, hmm, a sophisticated reader? I don’t enjoy subtlety and nuance. Just hit me over the head with it already. I would rather read a series of diary entries of what a fictional character eats for breakfast every day than try to parse meaning from a bunch of word salad. I grew up reading mysteries and horror and YA romance novels, and I’m still probably most comfortable within those genres.
What genres make you UNcomfortable, then?
- PURPLE PROSE
- certain types of historical fiction
- anything that can be described as “prose poetry”
I like short sentences that make sense and I hate keeping a dictionary next to me while I’m reading for pleasure; I hate old-timey books, especially when they take place on boats or in England; poetry is fine but I hate the feeling that when I’m reading novels written in verse that I’m getting the pacing or the phrasing wrong and then I just cannot let go of it. I become obsessed with what I might be getting wrong.
This is why I can’t read rhyming poetry. I feel like I’m standing on a street corner watching vigilantly for red cars instead of enjoying what’s being said.
It’s almost the same thing that happens to me when I read something that has places or proper names in other languages; it took me five years to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I couldn’t loosen up and get over whether or not my brain was pronouncing all those names the right way. Okay, it didn’t take five years, but it felt like it. To this day I don’t know whether or not the way I decided to read the name Mikael is correct. I’d read the Harry Potter series in its entirety before I ever heard anyone say Hermione aloud and even though no one knew I’d been saying “her-mee-own” in my mind I nearly died of embarrassment on the spot. The short answer, obviously, is that I am simple.
Same. Really. I just had a conversation the other night about not knowing how to pronounce “havoc” until I was like 15 because I refused to ask anyone how to pronounce it. But anyway, books. Why don’t you like what you don’t like?
I’m not sure that I’m the best person to diagnose myself, but I can tell you that a combination of escapism and intellectual laziness probably defines my reading patterns better than anything else. I don’t want to work hard or, gasp!, be challenged while reading a book. I want something I can get absorbed in and characters I can identify with, and usually the cost-benefit analysis of books that make you work for it isn’t worth the trouble you have to go to.
I completely understand this point of view. I have a friend who only reads hard stuff, so it all balances out. My status as an omnireader means that I want to switch back and forth between fun stuff and hard stuff.
I mean, that’s why I write butt jokes and extended death memes, because you can turn your brain off and have a few laughs and then get back to whatever it is you were supposed to be doing. I also feel weird when I feel like a book isn’t really for me, you know? I make a lot of self-deprecating jokes about my intelligence but I only have a few semesters of college under my belt and I definitely did not develop an appreciation for snooty capital-L Literature at the crumbling community college I took math classes in at night after work ten years ago.
It drives me crazy that there’s a huge divide between capital-L Literature and books that are enjoyable to read. Sometimes I wish it was just all in the same box, a box labeled BOOKS TO TRY.
Eventually I’m gonna just give up completely and while away the rest of my days reading cozy mysteries on the couch in front of a continuous loop of Law and Order SVU episodes. I’m tired of trying to figure out the plot or the lesson or the symbolism. Gimme a nosy old lady and her talented army of cat sleuths.
Sometimes I suspect, as a writer, you choose to be funny instead of thoughtful (you’re clearly capable of the latter). As you’ve said, “LIFE IS TRASH,” and funny is more useful in a world like this one.
It really is important to me that my work be useful to the reader in some way, and the way that feels most natural to me is making them laugh. And if we can all feel something or learn something about ourselves along the way, that’s cool, but mostly I just want to take your mind off how terrible things are for even a few minutes. If laughing at my pain is what works then by all means let’s do it.
Do you think not liking certain kinds of Literature has made you dislike other stuff?
I hated The Vegetarian, but so far it hasn’t tainted my love for either body horror or magical realism. (Does it qualify as either of those? Why did you think I was smart enough to do this?!) I’m tempted to look it up but I feel like if I do one glimpse of the cover and my revulsion will come surging up from where I buried it and murder me from the inside.
That’s a strong reaction.
It was a creepy book. I didn’t understand anything that was happening or why, and the plot wasn’t as propulsive as I’d like. I know it won a bunch of awards and people love it and I’m totally willing to concede that my tiny brain is the problem, but man, it was just not my kind of party.
Do you think knowing what you dislike has altered anything about your writing?
I’m lucky because all the writing I hate is writing I don’t really do. If anything, reading other creative nonfiction makes me feel like I should quit writing altogether because nothing I write could ever be as good as anything anyone else does. If I ever do make an attempt at fiction you better believe there will be no hidden meanings in it.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas.
Okay, bear with me here because I feel like I’m going to contradict some things I said earlier and I can already hear your eyes beginning to roll, but it’s written in this quirky style (I know, I hate that word, but it’s the only appropriate one I can come up with on my own) that manages to be both compelling and not irritating. And it’s dystopian, but not so far-fetched that it doesn’t feel real. I was just on a panel and I recommended it to the audience. I loved it a lot.
Ooooooh, a panel. Now who’s the fancypants?
Let me clarify: I contributed to an anthology and spent my own money to go back to Chicago and read an excerpt of my essay for free in front of a room full of people who spent the entirety of the evening tagging me on Instagram in the most unflattering photos I have ever seen of myself. After that I went to a bar and bought a round of drinks for my friends to thank them for leaving their bras on to come listen to me talk at night past their bedtimes, then I went to a hotel I overpaid for that had a broken elevator and a bathroom the size of a laundry hamper. A hotel I checked out of early because there was construction happening that made it impossible to sleep, then I drove my own car back to Michigan in a torrential downpour while listening to that Dirty John podcast. Whatever fancy is? My pants ain’t it.
I love you and your pants. Do you keep books or give them away?
If I love them I keep them. Especially if they look interesting or impressive on the shelf. If I like them and I won’t miss them (or if I want someone I admire to know what good taste in books I have) I’ll give them away to my friends. I know myself and what I like pretty well, so I don’t usually end up with books I loathe unless someone gives one to me. Between skimming the book flap and the first couple paragraphs while in the bookstore I get a pretty good idea of whether or not a book is going to disagree with me, so it’s rare that I settle down with something I bought for myself and feel like I got hoodwinked.
Selling books just feels gross. Like, seriously, keep that fifty cents for this 30 lb. bag of first editions, I’ll just go see if the library wants them.
I see your point, but my local bookstore gives me store credit when I sell my books, so I buy more books and then read them and bring them back, and so on until I’m out of money.
That’s dope and I don’t mean gross like “ew why would you do that” I mean gross like “how can I take money for this book I left on the back of the toilet for three weeks.” Get that store credit, girl. I just made a pact that I am not going to buy any more books until I read the dozens and dozens stacked on my shelves. I spend way too much money on books. One, because I love them, and two, you gotta support people, but every single day I’m staring at thousands of dollars of things I’m just letting collect dust and I gotta be a better person than that. So my goal is to read all my books and give away all the ones I don’t absolutely love before I’m allowed to buy anything new. This is gonna be a tough year (or three) for me!
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room? Which one, and why?
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I wanted to love it, I really did. I swear I did. I mean, I bought it in hardcover and everything. The year it came out Barack Obama said it was his favorite novel of the year and I was like “Oh okay, yes dad please tell me what to read I want to like the things you like.” And I’m pretty sure it won a bunch of awards (I’m not Googling it) so what else do you need, right? Guaranteed to be amazing! And, like I said before, I’m 100% ready to believe that I lack the intellectual heft to enjoy it, but I kept reading it and reading it and READING IT waiting for it to blow me away and not only did it not, it just felt like pages of nonsense words about unlikeable people that didn’t really move very fast.
I feel horrified even writing this because I feel like I’m letting my favorite president down, but if this is the way he has to find out that I’m stupid, then so be it, I guess.
If Barack Obama reads Entropy, I’ll be flattered but worried.
I don’t even want him to know I exist! I would die a thousand deaths if I heard he knew about my diarrhea.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
Right now I am reading Turtles All the Way Down by John Green and I’m only a third of the way through but I think I love it. At least I don’t hate it. I can usually feel the hatred burning up my eyeballs ten pages in.