Having just purchased her first home, the author embarks on a self-audit of the value system she has bought into. The essays in this volume offer an interrogation of work, leisure, and the lived experience of capitalism.
Bliss enlivens her own critique of capital in the 2020s by delving into the trouble we all avoid discussing — and then staying with it ... A middle-age, middle-class white American writer and professor, Biss lays bare her own privilege from the start ... Loose in its greater arc but always tethered to an awareness of the insidious influence of capitalism, each essay originates in conversation or personal observation. This allows her to explore the candid ways we reveal our own biases around money, class, wealth, property and work ... If there is not an exact category for this type of book, that’s by design. Biss’ works of nonfiction expand the definition of personal essays. She is not afraid to disclose personal details, but she isn’t writing memoir; she is illustrating points. What guides her writing is careful attention to language and behavior, cause and effect ... In both her scrutiny and her style, Biss implies that the only way to address our complicity is full transparency ... It’s not uncommon for essayists to be 'in conversation' with writers (like Didion) who came before them. But Biss takes that sense of collaboration further than most. She retains firm control over her own lines of inquiry, but — fittingly for a critique of capitalism’s warped and warping individualism — she allows others to amplify or shape her thinking...Biss drives the story forward, but she isn’t alone at the wheel ... I’d argue that Having and Being Had is a reminder that even discussing our contemporary chaos is an act of awakening and a call to action ... Ultimately, this is not a book that aims for catharsis or redemption ... Biss examines these stories of ideas in order to help us live with our fate — asking, among other questions: To what degree can we come to know our passions as something free from consumerism? How can we live a life of dignity — with flashes even of luxury and indulgence — without sacrificing ourselves through work without joy or income beyond purpose?
... enthralling ... Her allusive blend of autobiography and criticism may remind some of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, a friend whose name pops up in the text alongside those of other artists and intellectuals who have influenced her work. And yet, line for line, her epigrammatic style perhaps most recalls that of Emily Dickinson in its radical compression of images and ideas into a few chiseled lines ... Biss wears her erudition lightly ... she’s really funny, with a barbed but understated wit ... Keenly aware of her privilege as a white, well-educated woman who has benefited from a wide network of family and friends, Biss has written a book that is, in effect, the opposite of capitalism in its willingness to acknowledge that everything she’s accomplished rests on the labor of others.
There is a sense that Biss is after something specific, even if she doesn’t know what it is. Metaphors are tested, ironies pressed upon. Etymologies abound, as do precise distinctions: the difference between a privilege and a luxury, between work, labor, service and care ... Having and Being Had is meant to be the kind of book most authors have dreamed of: one that does not sacrifice any of the writer’s egalitarian, socialist principles while nevertheless earning her a hierarchical, capitalist income, which can then let her produce more books ... Opposing ideas unified in a tense symbiosis—double meanings, awkward reversals—appear often throughout the book. The idea is that Having and Being Had is hip enough to critique the conditions of its own creation. But how impressive is that, really, if Biss has set the conditions of its creation precisely to critique them? ... Some sections seem almost entirely composed of quotations and paraphrases; the contemporary scholars Lewis Hyde, Alison Light and David Graeber, among others, are cited so often that it seems part of Biss’s plan to buy time had to involve stealing it from other writers.