Olivia Laing at Manchester Literature Festival

Feature by Joshua Potts | 02 Nov 2016
  • Olivia Laing

An evening with Olivia Laing at Manchester Literature Festival offered insight into the writer's experience of – and coming-to-terms with – loneliness.

There’s a peculiar feeling that many of us might experience, but few actually have the determination (or desire) to talk about it. Loneliness has that effect on people – it makes us ashamed, inferior, like a sluggish fun-house depiction of a normal person.

In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing, having come away from a solitary existence in New York for several years, has tried to surmise her own dealings with loneliness, the avenue of dark that can slip into the soul when we’re trying to sleep in a single bed, in a foreign place, with no one to rely on.

The Lonely City is an intensely personal tour through the lessons isolation can teach us. Laing admits she is drawn to “the painful component” of things that society deems to be wrong or twisted. During her conversation at Manchester Literature Festival, she points to demands of the perfect citizen as the source of our detachment from the world, suggesting that to be lonely is to be out of fashion, an emotional leper. There’s a richness to her midnight musing on “the green aquariums of the peep shows” in Manhattan, and how the dispossessed are segregated, like the mad, in one neighbourhood or another.

By giving a warts and all account of her loneliness, Laing is able to describe how a cultured mind can be relieved from itself. She talks about Warhol, Edward Hopper and numerous queer artists, the latter of whom made her come to terms with her own feelings. Although the book is open-ended, leaving no catch-all solution to being alone, it’s tempting to wonder what a non-artist might make of this. The intelligent loner, it seems, reaps all the rewards from such a life. Should the rest of us just give up? Laing only offers herself up for analysis, so the answer isn’t too forthcoming.

Olivia Laing spoke at Manchester Literature Festival on 12 Oct