Imposing the Life on the System: A Conversation with Eula Biss


In her latest book, Having and Being Had (Riverhead Books, September 2020) Eula Biss creates a diorama of what capitalism looks like in a privileged, middle-class life. Comprised of short pieces, Having and Being Had delights because of Biss’s frankness, which might be mistaken as crassness for just a moment—she has done something considered taboo by talking about money and class. Having and Being Had examines her life in a two-income household following the purchase of her first home and the birth of her son.

In positioning herself as a novice, Biss draws readers through her growing understanding of capitalism and the thorny places where class, value, and race intersect by meditating on the quotidian. She writes about picking out paint colors, sitting on Restoration Hardware tomes that come in the mail, riding her bike, furniture shopping with her husband, buying a museum membership, and playing Monopoly with her son.

Biss, who is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, richly peoples Having and Being Had with friends, neighbors, and family, bringing into conversation scholars, theorists, economists, and writers ranging from Emily Dickinson to the late David Graeber. She challenges the reader’s ideas of words once thought familiar—leisure, service, investment—and tests the tensions between work, art, and money.

Much like On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014), Having and Being Had is an ideal read for this political and cultural moment. I corresponded with Eula Biss via email about writing and work.


The Rumpus: You’ve divided the book into four sections—consumption, work, investment, and accounting—all of which you discuss throughout the book, not just within these sections, often parsing the words’ etymologies and observing them in practice in your own life. There are also words you return to as the title of the pieces: primarily “art,” “work,” and “capitalism.” How did you settle on these words as the organizing principles of the book?

Eula Biss: One of the problems or questions that this book emerged from was how to do my work as an artist within capitalism, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself circling back to those terms repeatedly. All three are primary elements in my life, and they make an interesting trio because their interactions are full of contradictions—art is and is not work, work makes art possible and impossible, capitalism rewards work and not art, though art might be more rewarding than work, etc. I kept circling back to these concepts and redefining my terms in part to test those contradictions, to see where the fallacies were, to upend my own assumptions, and to better understand this three-way interaction that is so integral to my life.

Organizing the titled works in this book was mind-boggling for exactly the reason you mention—most of the themes and questions of the book are taken up throughout and threaded through. In my mind, each of the titled works was directly connected with threads to a dozen other works, so organizing it was like untangling a net. Those four section headings were originally notes to myself—I gathered together works that seemed to belong together, then found the common thread, which became the section heading, and then arranged the works so that there was a progression of ideas. In the overall organization, I was thinking of a fugue, or the way a fugue was once described to me by a musician—a piece of music in which variations on a musical idea are introduced one by one, so that the music becomes increasingly layered and complex, and then the variations drop out one by one. It’s symmetrical and mathematically intricate and I’m entirely unable to hear all this in music, but I can see something like it in certain books, like David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel.

Rumpus: There are certain features of everyday life you focus on—chores, furniture, employment, bikes—that become launching points for your observations and synthesis of others’ observations on class, capitalism, work, and more. Why these objects? Were there others that didn’t fit as well?

Biss: Every object I dwell on in this book, and every moment of lived experience, was brought to the page to serve as a metaphor, as a tool for thought, as a way to understand something beyond that object or that moment. This is true even of relatively minor objects in the book—holiday turkeys, bicycles, kudzu—they all stand for aspects of our experience within this economy, from the experience of excess, to the experience of liberation, to the experience of strangulation. Decontextualizing these things, setting them off in stripped-down prose, and making the book virtually plotless was my way of inviting the reader to see these things as symbols and to read for metaphor. I don’t think this book is particularly revealing when read literally—most of the insights are implied or suggested and can only be accessed with some interpretive work. That’s the reader’s work! My work was to ensure that every moment had something to offer metaphorically, to ensure that the reader’s interpretive work would pay off, so to speak.

My reading in history and anthropology and economics helped me locate and understand the metaphors that my everyday life offered, so I brought some of those readings to the page, in miniature, to make the book’s metaphors more available to the reader. As I wrote, I was always asking myself what a moment or object or exchange between people meant, what it had to offer beyond its mere existence. If the moment had no symbolic value, if it wasn’t a microcosm in which larger concepts were scaled down and made visible to the naked eye, then, yes, it didn’t belong in the book and had to be cut. I cut nearly as much material from this book as remains on the page—really I wrote two books, and I threw away the one that wasn’t rich with meaning. As a reader, I’m most excited by books in which an invisible plan seems to be unfolding, books that reward attentive reading, so that’s the kind of book I wanted to write.

Rumpus: Reading Having and Being Had feels like reading a journey of your curiosity to understand capitalism better, but also to understand your own feelings about it and lived experience in it. What was it like to manifest that curiosity here?

Biss: Recording my own struggle to understand something that felt too big to understand made me vulnerable on the page. I was always afraid of falling short, of getting it wrong. And that vulnerability, that feeling of true grappling, of having my own confusions and misapprehensions exposed, made me especially disinclined to condescend to my reader. When I first began reading about economics I was often frustrated because the tone was so remote, the terminology was so specialized, and certain ideas were always treated as givens. You can come away from some of those texts with the impression that there are pre-ordained laws to economics and that we must all conform our lives to these laws. But really, as Thomas Piketty and Binyamin Appelbaum and Mariana Mazzucato argue, all in their different ways, economic systems are made by people for people. That’s why I wanted to write from a lived life, and to use that life as the lens through which I looked at the economic system. Instead of imposing the system on the life, I wanted to impose the life on the system.

Rumpus: I found the brevity of each piece compelling, these small digestible bits that I could read one or two of when I had the time. This brevity seems like such an essential aspect of the book because of how it caters to short attention spans that are increasingly becoming a part of our culture, arguably in large part because of capitalism. Was this part of your intent in structuring the book in this way?

Biss: Well, no—I had no intention of catering to short attention spans, but brevity is definitely an essential aspect of the book. Much of my work went into crafting that brevity, whittling away at a moment or a series of thoughts or an observation until all that was left was the most revealing details. This work was counter to one of the tenants of capitalism—maximum efficiency. Rather than writing the maximum words in the minimum amount of time, I spent a lot of time trying to write the minimum possible words. It was maddeningly slow work—sometimes writing three pages required me to read four books, which took months.

But as maddening as this was, I also found something beautiful and redemptive in the slowness of the work, the total lack of efficiency. It was meditative, prayerful work, like the Shaker furniture I wrote about—it was work that asked me to imagine that I had all the time in the world, though I didn’t. The brevity required better craftsmanship than looser, longer writing would have required of me. And the brevity was also what allowed me to look at my subject from so many different angles, to assemble a multifaceted exploration. That exploration would have been more limited if I had allowed each titled work to be longer. This might sound like a contradiction, but I had to keep each titled work brief because it was doing so much. In that way, I guess the book does assume that the reader has very little time, and that the most must be made of that time.

Rumpus: The whole book is rich with sources. The “Notes” and “Works” sections feel just as much a part of the book as the body of the text. Does that strike you as true? How would you describe your approach to working with sources?

Biss: The books and songs and videos and television shows that appear throughout this book are only occasionally serving as sources of information. More often they are articulating a question or a provocation or a revelation. Sometimes I’m sampling from these sources, replaying a brief cut, repeating the word “precarity” or the phrase “that ain’t working.” Sometimes my sources serve as avatars, allowing me to think through another white woman writer, Emily Dickinson or Virginia Woolf or Joan Didion. And sometimes they are interlocutors more than avatars. This book was written directly from experience, and my experience of reading and interacting with art is all over the page.

So yes, the “Notes” and “Works” and “People” sections are carefully considered parts of the book. Claudia Rankine’s notes for Don’t Let Me Be Lonely inspired me to write extensive notes sections for my last several books. But I was uncertain about how much to say in the notes for this book, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to provide the context and background that I ultimately decided to provide. I didn’t want to mediate the reader’s experience of the book too much. One of the challenges of this book was bringing my own awareness to the page without belaboring it. And one of the hazards of this book, for me as the author, is that it hides its own work. The prose itself and the movement of ideas is intended to feel unlabored, easy. I don’t foreground the ways in which this book was difficult and painful for me.

Following rules of my own making, I don’t say, “Hey, I’m working really hard here.” Nor do I apologize, nor do I self-flagellate or self-exonerate. What I do is make fun of myself, lightly. One of the jokes of this book, which like all the other jokes might be a joke on me, is that the book itself is a commodity that resists consumption. It’s an easy read that is difficult to digest. This is going to be particularly true for a reader who has enough in common with me to see themselves reflected back unflatteringly. To read this book the way I intend it to be read is to be a little destroyed, consumed in return. It’s food that bites back!

Rumpus: You weave the late David Graeber’s article “Consumption” from Current Anthropology and reference his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory periodically throughout Having and Being Had. Graeber recently passed—actually, the day after your book’s publication—which struck me. Reflecting back in the wake of his death on the way you integrate Graeber’s work into your own examination of capitalism, are you left with any new thoughts or feelings on Graeber’s work?

Biss: Graeber’s death was such a loss, and I’m still grieving that loss, but I’m comforted by his work, which will continue to produce new thinking for me endlessly. Lately I’ve been thinking about his observation that we as a society seem to have “profound moral confusion” around debt. I think this is true in other areas as well. Americans have profound moral confusion around money in general. We think of it as both unquestionably desirable and inevitably corrupting. It’s all good and all bad all at once! We simultaneously celebrate and vilify people who have money, and we simultaneously punish and romanticize people who don’t have money. The middle class evades all this, when it can, by hiding in between, by pretending to be neither/nor. There’s a pervasive “nothing to see here” attitude among the middle class, especially when it comes to critiques of inequality. That’s the attitude I was writing against in this book. I was refusing to regard middle class life as normative, and refusing to treat my own life as ordinary and blameless. This book was an exercise in looking, made from and for a class that doesn’t like to look at itself and certainly doesn’t like to see itself.

Rumpus: Capitalism is a clear factor in your exploration there in On Immunity, and I found it eerie in places where your descriptions of the H1N1 pandemic so closely mirror our present. One quote that feels particularly apt: ”Attitudes toward the state easily translate into attitudes toward vaccination, in part because the body is such a ready metaphor for the nation. The state has a head, of course, and the government has arms, with which it can overreach its power.” Have your experiences in this pandemic and political climate shaped your conception of the intersection of vaccine and government?

Biss: Well, it’s increasingly obvious that untrustworthy governments are a public health hazard. But that was already observable when I wrote On Immunity, almost ten years ago. Worldwide, polio remained endemic then in places where governments were particularly unstable and unreliable. That is why I think all the emphasis on individual decision making around vaccination is ultimately unproductive. We’re distracting ourselves from huge, systemic problems by pointing fingers at individual parents and treating resistance to vaccination as a problem of belief and denial. It is that, but it’s also something bigger, which is a failure of governance and of social structures. Our public narrative around vaccination is a version of our public narrative around inequality, too. A lot of sport goes into pointing fingers at other people’s individual spending or consumption or excesses—we can fool ourselves into thinking that bad choices or even bad manners are the problem, not bad policy.

Rumpus: One of the scariest things for some writers is writing about the thing they spend most of their time doing: working the jobs that supply them with the money they need to live. Though you don’t name your university, you give specific anecdotes. What was it like to write about your place of employment like this?

Biss: Uh, not fun. Very nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I didn’t plan to write about my work life, though I knew that my experiences at work and my questions about what I wanted out of work were driving my exploration of work and money in this book. I thought I could keep those experiences under the hood and just let them be the engine that drove the car. Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor without mentioning that she had cancer, so I thought I might be able to do something like that. And actually, most of what I was going through at work didn’t make it to the page, or was cut away. But I kept a few moments that were infused with the kind of quiet sexism that characterized my work life outside of the classroom at that time. There’s a lot about class and gender in this book, and about the interplay between class and gender. In thinking about the Marxist understanding of the middle class as both dominating and dominated, I played with the idea that being a white woman was a sort of middle position socially, a position in which I was both dominating and dominated. I was also thinking about how my class expectations made my lack of autonomy and decision-making power at work particularly frustrating. My husband, who works the same job and is from a lower class background, does not have those expectations—he does not expect to have a meaningful voice in his workplace. I expect more and, as a woman, I often get less.

This book culminates in a final scene on my fortieth birthday where I was standing in a hole of my own making. What happened next was outside the narrative time of the book—I sold this book so that I could afford to go down to part-time at my teaching job, which involved undoing over a decade of promotions. As a woman with professional ambitions, I found this excruciating. But the work of writing this book invited me to rethink my own ambitions. I doubled down on being disempowered in the workplace and took myself out of the game, largely. My decision to demote myself wasn’t exactly a happy ending or a feminist triumph, and it could look like failure from a certain angle, but it made my life better. And part of my mid-life arrival, past forty, has been accepting that succeeding on my own terms may look like failure on someone else’s terms.


Photograph of Eula Biss courtesy of Eula Biss.

Sarah Appleton Pine is a regular blogger for Ploughshares. She has work published in Electric Lit, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA from Western Washington University and currently works at Cranbrook Kingswood School. You can find her on Twitter @sarahkapples. More from this author →