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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Ottessa Moshfegh: On dark stories and boring art

Courtesy Creative Commons

Content warning: This story contains references to homophobic, derogatory language. 

Opinion editors are not responsible for agreeing or disagreeing with their writers but rather elevate each individual’s specific voice.

Novelist Ottessa Moshfegh faces criticism for using derogatory language in her novels and creating characters with detestable ideologies. She responds by shaming assessments of art as something that must make the reader “good”––something that must moralize the reader. 

“Art is getting boring,” said Moshfegh. “Because everybody’s afraid to say what they think.”  

After the success of the movie adaptation of her novel “Eileen,” Moshfegh’s other works, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and “Death in Her Hands,” are expected to be adapted as well. With such celebrity, Moshfegh’s work seems to have a hold on the movie industry as well as the literary world. 

But today, realist fiction writers like Moshfegh are accused of framing the modern day as unnecessarily gray; in reality, it’s a light gray, and we need to stop being so pessimistic. Nonetheless, her celebrity implies some resonance in readers and watchers, regardless—or in direct regards—of this amoral art style.

In her first published work, “McGlue” (2014), Moshfegh writes historically inaccurate historical fiction. In the 144-page novella, “f-slur”––a word evolved from being a bundle of wood into a slur—is in every other paragraph, even though the book takes place a century before the term starts to be used insultingly.

People are afraid to create morally bad characters and to use bad words in their fiction for fear of being morally analogized to those characters. But Moshfegh? She forces her readers to do bad things, to be bad people. 

“I think about the visceral response, the intellectual response, the emotional response,” she said of her readers. “But I don’t think about it in that big-picture, social-media whatever way. I can’t. Or else … I mean I think that’s why a lot of art is getting boring; because everybody’s afraid to say what they think.” 

Moshfegh demeans writing with a political lens, or with a vision of what the moral reader may disagree with. Art today, and fiction especially, gets watered down by lukewarm, ethical expectations into being an agent to aid the reader’s sense of goodness. 

Writing fiction about good people does not make you a good person, and vice versa. Using the books you read as a form of subscribing to a certain morality, as a political act instead of a consumption of art—it ignores the grander purposes of fiction. Writing fiction is an artistic practice, it isn’t viable as a source of politics: We should abolish incarceration in the U.S. because Atticus Finch talks pretty and would think it’s a good idea.

But that’s not to say that Moshfegh is deprecating or nihilist. She simply holds a mirror to how things are—ugly, beautiful, hopeless, hopeful—and comments on our wants: our deepest, sometimes darkest, wants. 

In “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” she writes, “The speed of time varied, fast or slow, depending on the depth of my sleep. My favorite days were the ones that barely registered.” 

This novel’s narrator is extremely pessimistic—terribly realistic. She lives in Manhattan, is unemployed but has enough money from her dead parents that she is able to live lavishly without working. She can do whatever she wants. So she decides she wants to sleep. For a year. It’s a pretty convincing desire.

Today, everyone is tired. Everyone is unhappy with the way things are, one way or another. Moshfegh doesn’t shy away from that unhappiness, but she also doesn’t dwell on it. Her characters are not hollow, they are just real, and in that way, imperfect and oftentimes bad. But that doesn’t make her a bad writer, and it doesn’t make her readers bad either.

In fiction, telling the truth is hard—impossible, even. But Moshfegh does it, and the effect is a broadening of literature as art, not as a pledge of political allegiance. If we want to understand each other, we have to treat fiction like a mosaic of what it’s honestly like to be people. 

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