All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.
When Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, came out in 2020, more than a handful of the rave reviews mentioned his atypical career path. Formerly enrolled in a graduate biochemistry program, he had changed course to focus on writing full-time, attending the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The book, ultimately shortlisted for the Booker Prize, looked back at the STEM side of academia through the eyes of Wallace, a gay Black biochem student from rural Alabama who must decide if he wants to finish his PhD at an overwhelmingly white Midwestern university, and what his fraught relationships there might signify.
Like many readers, I was struck not just by the scientific precision of Taylor’s prose — the settings, action and characters are startlingly vivid in comparison to much of contemporary literature — but how he brings that exactness to bear on the inarticulable. Thoughts, emotions, the atmosphere of a room or the secret hanging over it, all of these are crystallized in a way that might seem effortless. But Taylor works hard and tirelessly to get it right. He followed Real Life with an impressive story collection, Filthy Animals, in 2021, meanwhile becoming a reliably thorough and satisfying critic. His popular Substack newsletter, Sweater Weather, is perhaps the finest example of his knack for outlining the elusive, or capturing a “vibe,” a word you’ll encounter often in his writing there.
With Sweater Weather, Taylor gives free rein to a voice that has also earned him a loyal following on Twitter, connecting the dots between literature, art, TV, movies and music of disparate eras, not to mention internet trends, while wrangling with issues of morality, class, race, queerness, work and human expression itself. They’re critical essays, but Taylor’s open-hearted form of address and unpredictable leaps give them the texture of a fresh new genre. Ultimately, they ask some big questions raised in his fiction: What is worthwhile, and how are we to recognize it?
During a recent conversation, I asked Taylor how these immersive reflections sit alongside the rest of his quickly expanding oeuvre, what he makes of the enthusiasm for his writing, where he learned to describe abstract paintings and whether close analysis makes us smarter.
First, I’d like to take a wide angle and ask you about the very premise of this “Internet Boyfriends” series. How do you typically respond when someone online tells you they’re a huge fan, or openly raves about you, your work and your commentary?
To be frank, I find it very surreal. I’m usually so focused on vibing and trying to enjoy myself and do my own thing that I lose sight of the fact that there are people noticing me and my work. I was chronically unnoticed, you could say, for most of my life. So any attention at all is a little bewildering. But I try to let it be a positive. I thank them. I tell them it’s very generous — because it is, to say something kind about someone you don’t really know — and I just try to go back to vibing.
In terms of Sweater Weather, what were your first ambitions for it, and have they changed?
The very first ambition I had for it was just as a kind of personal blog. I didn’t consider myself an essayist with real thoughts about things. And I was happy to do that — just writing feelings down. But at the start of 2021, I was recovering from a hellish 2020 and trying to get back to reading and writing. I was reading all of these books of literary criticism and having thoughts about how those texts were intersecting with contemporary life. So I started writing about the resonances I saw, and trying to write discursive literary essays about contemporary culture and aesthetics.
The newsletter really comes out of trying to pursue what interests me. I don’t put a lot of pressure on it. How it comes out is how it comes out. Ultimately, I’m just chasing my own ideas down and trying to have some fun in the process. I’d say that the tone of the newsletter has certainly shifted from being quite so feelings-oriented, and I can’t say I’m too upset about that. It’s nice to feel like I’m on more solid ground than just emotions.
In one sense, I understand the newsletter to be talking about craft — how art accomplishes something interesting, or fails (if sometimes in an interesting way). Is it sort of an architectural investigation?
I’m very interested in art, but also in the ways that we talk about and engage art. In some sense, a lot of the newsletter is engaged in a meta-commentary on the nature of contemporary art and our conceptions of that art. I’m interested in not just the art itself, but the frameworks we bring to the art, and where these frameworks come from. I think an example of the kind of thing we’re talking about here is a piece I wrote about how aesthetics operate on convergent social media platforms — essentially, all vibes must converge. And another essay I wrote about failures of representation-first ethics in art.
But the essay that really sums all this up is that one on jeans in church culture — essentially this idea that nothing is really good anymore. Basically, the only interesting framework left to us is whether or not the vibes align.
Is your writing in this space an extension of the same concerns you have in your fiction? If not, how does your writing and focus differ across the two channels?
I do think my fiction — especially my more recent fiction — dramatizes a lot of the concerns in my essays: the complications of Black subjectivity, the difficulties of trying to create work within a society that has no means of acknowledging your sentience, the difficulties of art under capitalism and racism, etc. I think also my fiction and my essays both kind of delight in making fun of socialists, skewering the social caricature of the left that’s emerged over the last decade or so.
But I think they diverge in that my fiction is ultimately less interested in divining answers. My fiction dwells in real ambiguity and ambivalence. The essays I write tend to be more… not solution-oriented, but there is a desire, a hunger for answers to life’s imponderables that I think my fiction eschews. So at bottom, my fiction is less consoling than my essays. Though, I do think that the resolution one finds in my essays is ultimately a false resolution. Like, there are no actual answers to life. There are no actual solutions. But in an essay, if you hold long enough on an image, it accrues a sensation that feels like a revelation or answer.
In that way, my essays are mirages where my stories feel like ugly reflections of how it really is in the world.
To my mind, Sweater Weather feeds an appetite for discursive thinking that you don’t see elsewhere. Connecting phenomena like West Elm Caleb with Jane Austen, for example, or Wordle gameplay with the Catholic/Protestant schism. Is this sort of connective tissue missing in ordinary internet life?
I don’t know if it’s missing. One of my favorite genres of tweet is when someone combines two unlike things. I feel like that’s why I loved coming to the internet as a younger person, and also why memes have such a peculiar effect on us. The collage and the admixture are native idioms to digital spaces. It’s why we laugh when a new meme format comes around. That is collage at its finest. What I’m trying to do in the newsletter, sometimes, is bring that same spirit and energy to writing about literature and culture. I think that’s why people enjoy the newsletter — because it takes from different domains and finds resonance and connection and makes the kinds of arguments that Trilling or Frye or Fiedler or whoever made decades ago, but in an idiom that’s contemporary.
I’m not saying I’m anybody’s Lionel Trilling. But I do think that’s what people enjoy in my writing. A sense of serious ideas approached with lightness and in a context they can understand. Or even enjoy or take part in.
You’ve written beautifully about fairly abstract art and your experience of it. What’s the secret to rendering that kind of visual in words?
Reading mid-century poets and mid-century art critics. There was such a direct, descriptive acuity to the writing of the mid-century. These gorgeous, concrete little words used with the utmost care to render great feeling. Whenever I write about art, I return to that aesthetic feeling. I feel that the mid-century writers had such a robust visual vocabulary that wasn’t about describing every little thing with all of these wild, out-there words. It’s almost Anglo-Saxon, that visual vocabulary of those poets. In some sense, capturing the visual in text requires a reduction of vocabulary. Think small. Think rudimentary. Think basic. I try to describe everything I can in such small, ordinary words. It gets you pretty far.
Do you ever think about people reading you to feel smarter? Because that’s always a feeling I get from reading both your fiction and essays. Emotionally smarter, too!
BIG IF TRUE. I’m amazed that people read me at all, let alone to feel smarter. I’m shocked that people read my work. And shocked that I get to publish anything at all. But I love talking about ideas with people. So that’s been a real delightful thing to come out of all of this. Getting to chop it up and talk about ideas and about art and get into arguments about the things that matter to me. And then laugh and get a coffee after. I always wanted a life of ideas. And I feel like the luckiest person in the world, because that’s what I get to have. So I’m honored you read me.
You’ve written book reviews elsewhere, as well as book forewords — plus, there are more of your own books on the way. Is it like juggling, or do you think of it as a seamless oeuvre? What’s the true constant in your writing?
I think of it as a body of work. I have a very long view of things. When I work on a story, I’m working on a book. When I work on a book, I’m working on a cycle of books. When I work on a cycle of books, I’m creating a body of work. And when I’m creating a body of work, I’m making a life for myself. To me then, everything I do exists in a constellation of other works. So I don’t do a lot of throwaway writing. Everything has its place, its function. If something doesn’t serve me or doesn’t serve the work, then I just don’t do it. Life is very short. People in my family die young. I will probably die young. So I don’t have a lot of time to fuck around and find myself. But I’ve always been very goal-oriented.
If there’s a constant in my work, it must be that I’m interested in how we as people can exist in relation to other people and the world around us and ourselves even. Can we ever really know others? And what of cruelty — how can we love with the knowledge that others possess the power to destroy us? Those are the questions that run through my work. The absolute human need to love and be loved, to know and be known, and the terror of that.
I know you listen to some of the classical and romantic pianists, so I want to ask a question paraphrased from the musician Chilly Gonzales: Who in the pantheon can you absolutely not stand, and why?
This is going to be apocryphal. But I don’t enjoy Mozart that much. I don’t hate him, but every time one of his pieces comes on Spotify shuffle, I hit skip. I used to have this aversion to Ravel as well, but I just had to find the right Ravel. So maybe I just have to find the right Mozart. Obviously, the fault is with me.
But yeah, if Mozart comes on at the function, I’m hitting skip. Every time.
Lastly, what advice would you give any creative who finds themselves becoming popular online?
My advice is to enjoy it for what it is. But also, it’s fake. What matters is your work. And ultimately, popularity has no loyalty. It has no master. The same people who applaud you today are going to put your head in the guillotine tomorrow. And in some ways, the more popular you are, the steeper the price you will pay once you slip. And you will slip. Everyone does.