Olivia Laing

Born:
  • Buckinghamshire, UK

Biography

Olivia Laing was born in 1977 and grew up in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire. She spent her childhood moving around the South of England and took up a place to study English at Sussex University but dropped out to become a road protester and briefly live feral in the Sussex countryside. In 2003, Laing obtained a BSc Hons degree in herbal medicine and practiced for several years as a medical herbalist before becoming a journalist.

Between 2007 and 2009 Laing was Deputy Books Editor at the Observer. She writes regularly for the Guardian on art and literature, and is a columnist for Frieze. She has received Yaddo and Macdowell fellowships, the Eccles British Library Writer’s Award, an Authors’ Foundation Travelling Scholarship, and two research awards from Arts Council UK.

Her first book, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, was published in 2011. Walking the length of the Ouse, the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941, Laing reflects upon Woolf’s life and work and, more generally, upon the relationship between history and place, and the difficulties of biography. The book was highly acclaimed and was listed as a Book of the Year in the Evening Standard, Independent and Financial Times, as well making the shortlist for the Ondaatje Prize and Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

Her second book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, was released in 2013 and garnered many vocal fans including Nick Cave and Hilary Mantel, who described it ‘as one of the best books I’ve read about the creative uses of adversity.’ Travelling across America, Laing explores the difficult relationship between creativity and alcoholism. It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Gordon Burn Prize and was a Book of the Year in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Observer, Metro, Times, Economist, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement.

Her third book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, was aided by research Laing undertook as recipient of the 2014 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award and was published in 2016. It concentrates on urban loneliness, again using a cast of artists to open up and explore the subject. Examining her own experience of solitude during a period living in New York, Laing considers how the culturally stigmatised condition of loneliness provides new insights into the work of numerous artists for whom the creative act became a means of exploring solitude and forging companionship. It was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, Goodreads Choice Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and was named a Book of the Year in many publications including the Guardian, Observer, Telegraph, Times Literary Supplement and Irish Times. 

In 2018 Laing will publish her first novel, Crudo, a genre-defying roman-à-clef about the summer of 2017, a time of personal change and political crisis. Written in real time, the novel is also an homage to Kathy Acker, who serves as its narrator. Laing’s next non-fiction book will be Everybody, a study of embodiment in the contemporary age, in which she turns her gaze toward a range of figures including Francis Bacon and Nina Simone.

Critical perspective

Olivia Laing’s writing is hard to categorise. Within the span of a few pages she can assume the voice of the biographer, the memoirist and the literary essayist, and critics have often compared her to a non-fiction tradition that includes the psycho-geographic works of W.G. Sebald and the essays of Joan Didion, writers whose hybrid prose is as reflective as it is analytical. The iconic opening sentence of Didion’s ‘The White Album’ – ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ – feels particularly apt, for the interrelations between life and art, and questions about how creativity might blossom in adverse conditions, offering lifelines to readers and creators alike, are amongst the recurring concerns of Laing’s writing. Similarly apt is Laing’s focus upon the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, the collective and individual ways of making sense of the world that emerge differently from the various discourses socially or culturally available to us. Having lived in the Sussex countryside and practiced as a medical herbalist prior to her career as a writer, Laing often interweaves environmental or scientific narratives with literary ones, placing side by side, for example, the topographical layout of the Ouse with its textual representations, the physiological implications of alcohol abuse with its poetic ones.

This said, Laing’s three books to date nonetheless bear a literary and artistic focus, and her field could be broadly defined as the twentieth-century Anglo-American tradition. The diverse array of cultural figures who feature and crop up in her work range from the canonical to the renegade, from Virginia Woolf to Valerie Solanas, and in the unfolding of her non-fiction narratives numerous other sources emerge including films, songs or YouTube videos. Laing describes her own method with an emphasis upon reading widely and incorporating ‘different art forms’, exploring beyond the merely ‘voguish’ and so expanding the ‘field you have to work on’ (The Writer, 9 August 2017). The form of canon-making that her books thus perform is experiential and various, curated according to personal experience rather than the proprieties of historical or chronological continuity. What makes these books striking, in this regard, are the unexpected connections and correspondences Laing lights upon. Her third and most compelling book to date, The Lonely City (2016), is a rich example of this, its cast of seemingly disconnected figures brought together by a shared inclination toward, or interest in, the meanings and consequences of isolation. How many works of art history have carved a through-line like this one, travelling from Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’ to Zoe Leonard’s elegiac 1997 installation ‘Strange Fruit (for David)’?

This unique ‘field’ of Laing’s work thus emerges from the personal field work that it involves. Whilst her books periodically narrate moments of shelter in archives or galleries their research methods are avowedly peripatetic, whether that means following the spectre of Virginia Woolf along the length of the River Ouse in To the River (2011) or travelling the breadth of the US by train in The Trip to Echo Spring (2013). In this sense Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) seems a natural predecessor, sharing this emphasis upon discoveries made in the course of the writer’s own journey, her own walks lending a reflective proximity to her subjects and thus making literal work of the metaphor which describes the task of the biographer-critic as one of ‘retracing footsteps’. Laing’s books are frequently structured around these journeys – the first two begin with maps of her routes – and this creates space for candid passages of first-person rumination that are not digressive but crucial to the books’ compositional principle. We learn fragments about her life in the course of her narration, about her previous relationships or her childhood exposure to alcoholism, and these recollections are consonant with the mode of reading and thinking these books defend. ‘The interrelation of life and art makes certain sensibilities deeply uneasy’, she writes in Echo Spring, ‘perhaps from a desire to see art as separate from the contaminating muck of personal concerns.’ Laing’s books are resolute in their belief that these are not separable things – we do not create or consume artworks in an impersonal vacuum but bring to these experiences the weight and breadth of personal experience. It is our own lives, not just libraries, that can open our eyes and ears anew, as she writes of Andy Warhol in The Lonely City, ‘an artist I’d always dismissed until I became lonely myself.’

Often implicit in these autobiographical moments, too, is Laing’s background in protest, for as the feminist adage goes, the personal is the political. Loneliness is more or less a concern in Laing’s work from the beginning, from Virginia Woolf in a room of her own to Tennessee Williams hitting the bottle as a lonesome gay man, and in each case it emerges less as a mere affect than a condition arising from social factors. This insight finds crystallisation in The Lonely City, where Laing’s own feelings of solitude illuminate these political dimensions, raising the issues of erasure and exclusion which inform her chapters on the socially isolated painter Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz’s impassioned artistic response to the AIDS crisis, the illness that would eventually kill him. Her accounts of these subjects are ever-attuned to their status as working-class outcasts, as women, or as queer or non-conforming individuals, and suggest that crucial to the legacy of their works are the ways they can keep us company in times of political crisis. Open about her own feelings of queerness, Laing writes that reading Wojnarowicz’s diaries was like ‘coming up for air after being a long time underwater’, a feeling of at last being seen by accessing ‘someone else’s commitment to discovering and admitting their desires.’

Laing’s forthcoming works, in response to the contemporary moment, look set to build upon these political commitments. As she writes at the end of The Lonely City, there is a ‘gentrification’ not only of ‘cities’ but of ‘the emotions too’, and amidst the ‘glossiness of late capitalism’ and the chaos of the current political order it becomes increasingly vital for culture to gaze head-on at the ways human beings are estranged from one another. As the subject matter of her next two books suggests, Laing will continue her unique interrogations of the intersections between the artistic, the personal and the political that have already established her status as a major presence in contemporary non-fiction.