“The easiest way to imagine the baseline feeling is having just finished a third coffee when someone texts: ‘we need to talk’ and then doesn’t call for hours,” is how Olivia Sudjic so perfectly describes anxiety in Exposure.
Comparison culture and FOMO are the norm these days. A lot of us are more on edge than ever, and “having anxiety” has become normalised to the point that we’re talking about it unashamedly, everywhere, a lot.
I’m part of the pack who’ve had that sense of hypervigilance humming in the background their whole lives. As an adult, I’ve days where I can’t face leaving the house; as a child I worried about gulping because my dad once joked that if I did it too much I’d swallow my tongue, and I believed him. Before discovering Exposure, I was pretty sure I didn’t need another book about anxiety, but then this isn’t just another far-reaching essay about the insular experience of mental illness. Sudjic recounts her experience following her first novel’s publication and the unease that came with it, connecting the dots between mental fragility and the practice of writing, especially of that done by women. Female writers, she argues, are always more scrutinised; there’s a tendency to see their work – fictional or not – as trivial and self-serving, solely on the basis of sex. It’s true: Elena Ferrante’s identity is constantly probed and, to draw from more recent literary happenings, Sally Rooney’s capability as a ‘good’ writer is questioned. You’d never see the same happening to Ben Lerner. The overarching feeling emanating from the world of publishing critique is that male authors aren’t ever vacuous, and that they don’t ever navel gaze.
Writing, regardless of topic, is always intimate to some degree, so putting it out into the world can feel like giving up a part of yourself. Alone in a writer’s residency in Brussels, Sudjic feels “full of nihilism and rising panic” and fears the outside world, but concedes that her neuroticism “seems essential not just for living but for creativity.” It’s a sentiment that help you glide through the book, which is as much a love letter to being creative as it is a musing on mental health. Sudjic’s smart observations on the anxieties surrounding writing are both refreshing and relatable. I guess I’ll come back to this one next time I’m having an existential crisis about writing a ‘personal’ blog post.