Hanya Yanagihara Is Eccentric and Self-Indulgent. So What?

Perhaps it’s time to embrace our most unhinged habits in the service of art.

Hanya Yanagihara Is Eccentric and Self-Indulgent. So What?
Photo:Nicholas Hunt (Getty Images)

Hanya Yanagihara, beloved and be-hated author of A Little Life and editor of T, the New York Times’ style supplement, was profiled by the New Yorker this past weekend on the eve of the release of her new novel.

To Paradise has already received more than its fair share of both love and hate in the press. And Yanagihara’s recent New Yorker profile, much like that incendiary Jeremy Strong profile, highlights Yanagihara’s eccentric work habits and how they contribute to her stellar output.

We learned a lot of weird things about Yanagihara from this profile: She has one neighborhood restaurant, called Omen. She has a favorite table at Omen. She doesn’t have people over for dinner, because she hates crumbs. She refers to her apartment as her “pod,” which features oddities like “a Shōwa-era sculpture of a penis and testicles which, at first glance, looks like a camel.” She uses the penis-camel as a ring caddy. She is said to own over 10,000 books. She skipped a college orgy because she didn’t want to help with cleanup. She does not believe in marriage. She drew portraits of cadavers at age 10. Her bed is a “tester bed” from the 1810s, which she also slept on as a child. She told writer D.T. Max that “if there wasn’t something vulgar in a house the décor was a failure.”

Yanagihara’s work habits are similarly puzzling: She took 18 years to write her first novel, The People in the Trees, then famously wrote the approximately million-page long A Little Life in 18 months. She works her magazine job during the day, then writes for “long stretches” at night, without breaks. A Little Life has seven chapters composed of three sections, each subsection of which contains 18,000 words.

In a world where young artists are told to adhere to guidelines, such as reaching 10k Instagram followers before seeking representation from a literary agent, there’s something refreshing about the likes of Hanya Yanagihara and Jeremy Strong, two artists who have forged their success by “committing to the bit” and airing their strange artistic compulsions.

I’m not saying that we should all sleep in child-sized beds or write epic novels in less than two years, but it’s clear that embracing eccentricities instead of hewing to the norm can produce something monumental, if not necessarily universally beloved. Perhaps it’s time to embrace our most unhinged habits in the service of art.

Max described Yanagihara’s work as “proudly baroque,” which is undoubtedly out of style, but Yanagihara doesn’t seem to care. And why should she? When the current style is defined as much by the whims of the popular on TikTok and Twitter as it is by any uniform idea of good taste, why chase it to the ends of the earth? In the world of books, things move slower than they do online — writing a book that’s “in style” now is going to result in a book that comes out five years after that style was popular. What’s the point?

To Paradise has already received a slew of reviews, both positive and negative. In a heavily tweeted, 4,300 word Harper’s takedown, Rebecca Panovka stated, among a bevy of other criticisms, that “if the antidote to dangerous ideas is didactic storytelling, I have to wonder (apparently with Yanagihara) whether the cure is worse than the disease.” In contrast, Edmund White compared the novel to War and Peace, calling it “a mature masterpiece.”

Is it possible that the polarity of criticisms is also a reaction to Yanagihara’s success amidst her isolation from writerly culture? (She claims to be friends with no other writers.)

I attended a Yanagihara event at the Neue House in 2016 to promote A Little Life. I remember her saying, when someone asked if it was realistic to have all the characters be so successful: “Why not? My friends and I are this successful.” I loved this, I talk about it all the time, but I can see how this attitude would alienate as many people in the literary world as it would enthrall. Is this refusal to downplay her own success as much to blame for her haters as the messier elements of her work? To Paradise’s reception may be as much a delayed reaction to Yanagihara’s confusing public persona as the book itself.

Since the mid-aughts, there has been a revival of loving the ‘normal’ celebrity — isn’t Jennifer Lawrence ALWAYS falling down the stairs SO relatable? (I don’t know anyone who falls down the stairs that often, but I digress.) Relatability has become the preferred mode of acceptable worship, while oddness is seen as foreign, alien, and, perhaps most of all, suspect.

Regardess, Yanagihara doesn’t seem to give a shit. “I’m not on Twitter, which is, as I understand it, where the majority of these conversations tend to get slugged out,” she told the Guardian, and, well, good for her? How much time do we waste fighting about celebrities on Twitter, when we could be building our own mind palaces?

In an interview for the Believer in 2017, Yanagihara responded to a question about placing A Little Life in opposition to the prevailing cultural cache of ‘cool’: To be too obviously, unapologetically emotional is to risk being considered foolish, or at the very least not serious. … I wanted to write something big, something excessive: something extravagant and self-indulgent and large of emotion and feeling…ignoring the parameters of good taste.”

And what is eccentricity and excess if not the opposite of cool? Goodbye to good taste, hello to being an art monster.

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