In late September, the filmmaker and music video director Zia Anger performed a beguiling original piece, My First Film, at the Metrograph cinema in downtown Manhattan. From a spot in the audience, Anger projected her laptop to the theater screen, whisking together clips from her Instagram story, moments from her debut feature Gray, digital ephemera related to its making, and assorted home videos; the “scenes” are connected through her live annotation in an expanding and contracting TextEdit window. The result is a piercingly frank meditation on her creative process, personal life, and the complex machinations of the film industry. In the process, Anger collapses the walls between artist and audience, between film and event, between object and subject.
I left the performance rattled and inspired in equal measure, feeling as though I’d gotten a clandestine peek into someone’s brain and glimpsed new ways of approaching life as a person with modest artistic ambitions. Days later, I received in the mail a copy of Horror Stories, the Liz Phair memoir that isn’t quite a memoir. It felt eerily in conversation with My First Film: two women, working in different mediums and having arrived at different points in their careers, carefully folding candor into their reflections on modern creative life, elucidating links between experiences where others might see none.
Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody described Anger’s show as “unsparing about her own moral compromises and human failings in the course of making Gray, about their grave consequences and their effect on her and on her approach to her work from then on.” The same could be said about Horror Stories’ warts-and-all excavation of a musician’s life. In an era of sanitized celebrity oversharing designed as sales pitch or narrative corrective, Phair’s memoir is neither linear nor entirely flattering. The book is a collection of 17 essays, ranging in length and style, that examine fear, shame, and humiliation, among other things. Phair connects the dots between mundane memories, personal stories, and philosophies that, when collated, paint a fuller picture of her as a person and an artist.
“It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected. We’re afraid we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best. But that robs us of the opportunity to really know and care about one another,” Phair writes in the prologue, as if to offer an explanation for the unconventional form and scope of Horror Stories. The approach seems as foundational to the book as it has been for Phair’s career, which was built on a generosity of spirit. The blunt, incisive voice that made her a movement of one when she emerged in 1993, with Exile in Guyville, wasn’t just a middle finger to literal and figurative boys clubs—it was a grounding force for young women, both at the time and now.
In the book, Phair focuses on stories from her childhood and adolescence, her launch as an indie-rock phenomenon, and her life in the subsequent decades. She writes poetically about summer days spent at her grandparents’ Illinois ranch-house, treating the mundane with the same sentimentality and power as memories of various levels of trauma. A minute-by-minute retelling of getting lost in a New York City blizzard is rendered as faithfully as a glamorous feat of luck on stage or a betrayal at the hands of a boyfriend. But at its weakest, Horror Stories is weighed down by clumsy turns of phrase and a waffling sensibility, meaning extracted for Phair but not entirely communicated to the reader. She blunders through an anecdote about a break-in at the house she lived in while attending Oberlin College, invoking race and class and gender but not quite elucidating the significance.
Given the critical re-evaluation of Phair in recent years, tied to Guyville’s 25th anniversary and the rise of an indie-rock class made at least slightly in her mold, it would have made sense (and perhaps been easier) for her to piece together a fairly straightforward autobiography. Instead she seems to be saying: Forget the glamour—the little moments are what add up to a life. (This is the first in Phair’s two-book deal with Random House, so a more music-focused project could still be forthcoming.) Though there are anecdotes about flopping on live television and scrapping a record after learning of a collaborator’s abuse, the absence of concrete stories about Exile in Guyville is palpable. And that refocusing on the rest of her life—Liz Phair beyond the album that launched her—is Horror Stories’ most compelling quality. In it, I found a rare personal reassurance: that a creative life, no matter how messy, is worth living.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork