ask a sane person

Naomi Fry’s High-Low Cultural Criticism Mirrors the Moment

By
Illustrations by Ruben Baghdasaryan

Published August 25, 2020

There is a lot of smart culture writing around these days, but rarely does it achieve a Naomi Fry level of wit and insight. Fry can take either a big cultural moment or the slightest ephemeral scrap from the pop stratosphere (Ben Affleck’s back tattoo, for example), turn it inside out, upside down, look deep into its microscopic fibers, and draw frightening and often funny conclusions about the world around us today. As a staff writer for The New Yorker, she covers books, art, and film, but also the expansion of the celebrity whirlpool, the Weinstein trial, and pretty much anything to do with the Bravo television landscape. Thanks to Fry’s wise point of view, they find their proper place.

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INTERVIEW: Where are you and how long have you been isolating? 

NAOMI FRY: Right now I’m in Maine, where me and my family got an Airbnb apartment for the week. It’s a huge relief to be able to get out of the city even just for a little bit, and I’m thankful for it. We’ve been in our place in Brooklyn since mid-March, when quarantine started. 

INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society? 

FRY: Many have said this, so it’s certainly not an original observation, but I think it really is the case that the pandemic has revealed things about the way America works that a lot of people already knew and were experiencing every day, but that others have had the ability and the privilege to ignore: the enormous divisions class- and race-wise, the dearth of a social safety net, the lack of foresight and preparedness with which to address oncoming crises, the brutality of law enforcement, the sorry state of health care… In short, the overriding tapdancing-on-the-deck-of-the-Titanic mentality with which this country is run, and the trust that private capital and the free market will save us from sinking, when clearly they will not. 

INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic altered about your view of society? Are there any reasons for hope?

FRY: I want to be cautious about making huge pronouncements about how things are different than what I initially thought, since it seems we’re just at the beginning of a long process of potential transformation, and who knows where things will end up going. I’m not a seer (unfortunately). I guess I’m able to say right now that things are mostly worse than I allowed myself to think, likely because of fear and privilege, but also maybe a little bit better, in the sense that at least now some issues have been brought out into the open, and that is (hopefully) the first step to beginning a process of reckoning and change. One thing that did make me feel optimistic were the protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder. The specific conditions that the pandemic created seemed to allow for people to come out and express their outrage in a way that felt unlike business as usual. (Also, speaking of hope, this just in: as I’m writing this, news has come out that Steve Bannon has been arrested for allegedly defrauding donors in an online fundraising scheme to build a fake border wall with Mexico. That is both hopeful as well as funny!)

INTERVIEW: What is the worst-case scenario for the future? 

FRY: Trump gets reelected and the downward spiral of America continues. Alternately, Biden gets elected, but Democrats remain satisfied with business as usual, squandering the opportunity to make real change in terms of racial and economic equality, healthcare, and the environment.

INTERVIEW: What has been your daily routine during this time? 

FRY: Basically, the whole notion of a routine under the current conditions is kind of a canard, but generally speaking, it goes like this: after making sure my 9-year-old child is fed and somehow occupied, even if it’s on a screen, I roll from my bed to the sofa, often still in my pajamas, where I try to get my writing done throughout the day. That activity is interspersed with excessive use of social media and texting and DMing with friends, as well as nervous stomach rumblings—“I’m not doing enough, I need to work faster, the world is going to hell,” etc. etc. Along the way, me or my husband try to make sure everybody eats and takes a shower. Every couple of days we’ve tried to leave the house to do something, which has been easier lately, since bookstores and playgrounds have reopened. It’s not the most glamorous summer I’ve had, but it could be so much worse and I know it.

INTERVIEW: Describe the current state of your hair? 

FRY: I actually got my hair cut and highlighted about a month ago, once hair salons reopened—a thrill!—so it’s not that bad. Some days it takes me a few hours to get around to brushing it, though. 

INTERVIEW: On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your level of panic about the current state of the world? 

FRY: I repress a lot, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get anything done; I’m also somewhat medicated. I’d say that my level of panic depends on the day. Some days it’s 5, some days it’s 7.

INTERVIEW: How can America work to ensure more equality and justice on a day-to-day level?

FRY: The first—huge—step towards achieving more equality and justice in this country, racially and class-wise, would be taxing billionaires and diverting funds from law enforcement toward free quality education, from preschool to graduate school, and socialized health care for all. It’s barbaric that people can’t rely on their country for basic care for their bodies and minds, and it ends up being bad for everyone, even for those who think they benefit from it. 

INTERVIEW: How do you personally channel your anger? Do you find anger to be a useful emotion? 

FRY: I toggle between being angry and pretending I’m above being angry, and it depends on the day which of these impulses takes the lead. It’s likely not the healthiest or evolved thing in the world, but sometimes my anger, when it’s petty and ego-driven, has led me to achieve things just to show people that I can, so in that sense it has been “useful,” though I know that’s not sustainable as an ongoing strategy and will probably give me an ulcer, or worse. In less petty contexts, anger can obviously be quite useful. Where would any protest movements be without anger, where it can be channeled into action?

INTERVIEW: Which young leaders of the moment inspire you?

FRY: A predictable answer but AOC and also Cardi B. 

INTERVIEW: What’s the next step after protests in the streets? Where does the righteous rage go?

FRY: I’ve been thinking about this. When the protests were ongoing in the city I went to several, but I also know that I’m not a natural activist. I’m a writer. I think that rage needs to be channeled into the work of government, on the local and national levels. Protests are incredibly important, and giving money to people on the ground or people who need help is also incredibly important, and I’ve been doing that as far as my resources allow. But we also can’t depend on people to solve every problem through individual initiative. Change needs to be structural. That is what government is for, if it’s working properly.    

INTERVIEW: What thinker have you taken comfort in of late and why? 

FRY: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who is an academic and newly my colleague at The New Yorker, is crucial for thinking about how to move forward in the moment we’re in, in terms of race and class equality. But I also find that it’s helpful to me to read stuff across different periods and genres, even if it doesn’t specifically talk about the issues we’re facing at this exact moment. I’ve been reading Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, from 1991, about the birth of punk, which shows an era that though different from our own, had its own problems as well as possibilities. History is long, and reading around it can give some perspective.

INTERVIEW: If 2020 were a song, which song would it be?

FRY: I can definitely say 2020 would not be a Steely Dan song, which is likely why I’ve been listening to them so much lately. 

INTERVIEW: Where did we go wrong? Like, what was the exact moment?

FRY: I’m originally from Israel. I arrived in the States in the early 2000s, when I was in my 20s, to go to grad school. But before that, I spent time here, off and on, as a child, because of my dad’s job. The first time we came to America, in 1980, when I was 4, at the dawn of the Reagan presidency, I became immediately and completely enamored of this country. Such glut! So many TV channels, McDonald’s, malls, sexy soap-opera blondes—the seduction and drama of consumerism snared me totally and hasn’t completely let me go. Even though I was only a child, I think that what called to me then was the same thing that called, at the time, to the rest of the country. But this American Dream promise of the Reagan ’80s—potentially endless wealth and comfort achieved through unfettered individualism—came at the price of the chipping away of a social safety net, and this has continued nearly unabated since, and has led us to the brink of disaster that we’re experiencing now. 

INTERVIEW: What’s one skill we should all learn while in quarantine?

FRY: I don’t know which skill we should all learn, but one thing that I personally did was buy a hook-rug kit at Michael’s, and I’ve been working on a small rug with a picture of a tabby cat while watching TV at night. I’m not done yet, but you can already tell it’s a cat, which I’m excited about. 

INTERVIEW: What prevents you from giving up hope in the human race? 

FRY: Reading or watching or listening to something that is truly good always feels like a balm. The other day I was driving and randomly listening to early David Bowie, and I thought to myself, “Isn’t it lucky that we live in a world where people can make art like this? And we can listen to it and talk about it and write about it?” And music isn’t even my “medium,” per se, but I find that just finding things that are meaningful to you, that you relate to, that you have a history with, that you can engage with other people on, is a very hopeful thing. 

INTERVIEW: Who should be the next president of the United States? 

FRY: I mean, even though he was far from my first choice, I hope against hope it’s going to be Biden.