“Once in a while a writer comes along who has an omnivorous appetite for description and the bric-a-brac of knowledge —
who is at ease in the imaginative as well as the critical realm….”
That’s Daphne Merkin describing literary great John Updike in a 2009 essay, but the line could just as easily describe the critic herself. The New York-based Merkin, a contributor to Elle and a former staff writer for The New Yorker, is as brilliant waxing on about the heady stuff (Virginia Woolf and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim) as she is about pedicures on Yom Kippur and the pros of girdles. You can see the full breadth of her wit, talent and writerly nimbleness in The Fame Lunches, a newly released collection of her essays (including that Updike tribute) from Farrar Straus Giroux. Film, pop culture, fashion, literature and braces — nothing escapes her crosshairs.
Because I love reading collections of essays myself, and this was something that had been on my mind to do for a long time. I’ve written enough to fill five books of essays, so it took a lot of time to organize and sort out what I wanted to include in this one.
And the decision to revolve the theme around wounded icons?
I’m interested in the condition of woundedness, whether in iconic figures, ordinary people or writers, and the fascination with fame and celebrity — not that fame and celebrity are the same thing. Fame used to be about an accomplishment while celebrity, as it was defined by Daniel J. Boorstin, is famous for being famous; they’re different things. What’s behind the image always interests me in every subject.
Favorite essays in the book?
Everyone wants to believe — whether it’s true or not — that there’s a type of piece that only he or she could have written. So, of all the essays, I would say, “Against Lip Gloss, or New Notes on Camp,” where I take the issue of lip gloss and make it a way of looking at the world. That piece excited me when I was writing it because I felt I could bring in my reading, my noticing of the contemporary scene…. I also like “The Yom Kippur Pedicure” because that deals with my age-old wranglings with Jewishness and presentation of self vs. the inner self — including the spiritual inner self, which is hard to find. I’ve also always loved the essay on Marilyn Monroe [“Platinum Pain”].
And the most challenging to write?
The Mike Tyson one [“The Peaceful Pugilist”]. Because to try and capture what he’s about without selling him short, to take on the difficult parts of him in a non-monstrous context.… This was an effort to see him on a different level. The money piece [“Our Money, Ourselves”] was also very hard to write. For all our openness, money remains a fairly closed subject. I mean, we all talk about it, we’re fascinated by it, covet it and are envious of it. We live in a city — and a country — that’s divided by haves and have-nots more than ever before, but to try and talk openly about it, especially about privilege, is hard to do.
What was the response like when you first wrote “Our Money, Ourselves” in 1999?
I got a lot of letters. I have to say, of all the pieces in the book, I’m amazed I ever published this one because my parents were alive at the time, and I was open about them and their strange attitude to money. In some ways, I think it was daring to write it that way, not to cover up my own background. As I say in the piece, you can more easily get someone to admit she slept with her father than to say she’s supported by him.
You started out as a book and movie critic. When did you begin turning the lens on yourself?
I wrote a very autobiographical, candid novel when I was 30 called Enchantment and, for many people, it read like a memoir. So I started pretty early. I began as a critic in my early twenties but turned fairly quickly to examining closer to home.
Was the novel really the turning point?
I think I always wrote with a certain refracted lens on. There’s a certain way in which I do and don’t identify with my journalistic subjects. There are two different sides of me, to be honest: the more journalistic side and then the personal journalism. I like going back and forth.
What are you working on now?
I just did a very long essay on Clare Boothe Luce for Bookforum. It’s about ambition and women; it’s not me as the leading-off point. Then on Monday, I’m off to Sweden to write about mattresses. I’m actually going to work in a factory on a mattress. I think one of the things that has literally kept me in the universe is a pretty large curiosity. There’s very little I am not curious about… one of those things being sports.
I cannot rev myself up. Although I could probably write about tennis. But sports is one of my few non-fascinations.
If you could update any of the essays to account for the time that’s passed…
I made the decision not to update them — except for the one on Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish writer, where I said she died. I didn’t do, for example, a postscript on Michael Jackson; I thought the piece didn’t prefigure his death. But one writer I’d like to write more on is John Updike, who, I think, is undervalued. And I probably have more to say on the meaning of fashion today. And I could always write more on money — our way of demonizing and fetishizing money at the same time.
He was a great reviewer and a very good art critic. He had enormous range and openness — and, unlike me, he also wrote well about baseball. I was re-reading The Maples Stories and thinking how, in some way, he’s passed into decline and that doesn’t seem right. You know, fashion’s also in fiction, and writing.
Who are the authors who have influenced you the most?
Updike. Lytton Strachey. V.S. Pritchett, a very, very good critic whose writing I loved. Virginia Woolf is always, for me, a big go-to figure. The kind of bam-wham American male journalism — you know, Hunter S. Thompson — never spoke to me. Although Norman Mailer is an interesting model for some writing.
What’s on your nightstand now?
I’m reading, as usual, too much. One thing I’m reading, somewhat resistantly, is My Struggle, by this Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård — I think there are six volumes. I’m also reading a new book on The Great Gatsby, by Maureen Corrigan, called So We Read On.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what’s one book you’d want with you?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, which I’ve read many, many times. I find it absolutely brilliant on the subject of mothering, written by a woman who wasn’t a mother herself, and on the subject of the erosions of time.
Best writing advice ever received?
Diana Trilling, who was a critic, didn’t think you could write for more than three hours at a time — which I use and abuse, if you know what I mean. If I have trouble sitting at my desk, I think, OK, put in three hours, but then the three hours are up and I think, OK, time to go… window shopping.
Advice for those facing writer’s block?
This is probably too draconian, but just stay seated. Try to push through. I think all writing requires a certain working against the urge to get up. Although now you could stay seated at your desk and shop for five hours.
What’s next for you?
A memoir, which is partly about living with depression, for sometime in 2015 or 2016. And a novel, which I’ve worked on for years. I’ve written about a third. It’s about an obsessional relationship between a man and a woman. These kinds of things have always fascinated me, you know, women who sort of go nuts for love…