Honesty, Self-Indulgence, “selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee”

“i like reading things other people might describe as ‘self-indulgent,’” Megan Boyle writes half-way through her selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee. “what other people define as ‘self-indulgence’ just seems like honesty to me.” A lot of the time I’d be inclined to agree with her. Plenty of my favorite writers—Ariana Reines, Kendra Grant Malone, Tao Lin—tend toward the kind of confessional honesty that often draws of accusations of self-indulgence.

In the case of selected unpublished blog posts …, though, I’m not so sure. If there’s one thing this book demonstrates, it’s that what makes those writers great isn’t honesty in and of itself. It’s how that honesty reveals powerful, singular personalities, and how their sometimes relentless misery is leavened with wit, aesthetic daring, formal skill—all the subtle little hints of artfulness that say, “Yes, we know you’re reading this, and we care enough to keep you entertained.”

Not that Megan Boyle lacks those kinds of resources. She’s already demonstrated that she can match Tao Lin when it comes to weird, darkly whimsical charisma, and she even shows it occasionally in this book, with charmingly offhand observations like, “if i drop a toothpick i'm pretty sure it will remain where it fell for three days // not sure what happens after that.” That’s enough for a good tweet, and as Spencer Madsen has proven, if you have enough good tweets you can actually make a really good book out of them.

But that’s only if you’re willing to take the tweet—quick, sociable, ingratiating—as your literary model. Instead, Boyle’s model is the more ruminative, less interactive blog post; and not even that, but the unpublished blog post—unmotivated, unfinished, finally unread, the loneliest and least other-oriented internet artifact you can imagine. At times, that extreme inwardness feels genuinely tragic—this is the diary of someone who’s crushed by loneliness but who can’t help “consciously avoiding social interactions.” At other times there are engaging flickers of connection, or at least affecting failures to connect, in particular one scene involving the author and her mother’s differing valuations of Dave Eggers. But for the most part, the book duplicates too literally the tedium and alienation that it depicts, accumulating unvarnished lists of embarrassing personal minutiae as if anything unpleasant were inherently also interesting.

Maybe it’s to Boyle’s credit that she’s pursuing something more private, more in-depth, and arguably truer than the crafted depressive personas of a Madsen or a Lin, but in the end she’s just subtracted the craft and left the depression. That, I want to say, is more honest only in the most reductive sense, in the way that going to the supermarket in your dirty sweats might be “more honest” than pulling on a decent pair of pants first. In art, a minimum of craft isn’t necessarily dissimulation, it’s just courtesy—or better, reciprocation, the gesture through which an author acknowledges her audience as equals. That, to me, is the real difference between honesty and self-indulgence, and confusing the two sets selected unpublished blog posts… off in a well-intentioned, sympathetic, but finally unsatisfying direction.