Tabitha Lasley's Sea State a memoir so unreliable that it appears dishonest, so thieving it has been clubbed into a series of "backdoor memoirs" traffics in the oily, sticky, mess of spillage.1 They say drunks spill secrets, but none more than the offshore workers that Lasley interviews in Aberdeen, who "drink like it's their profession."2 The work that brings in their wage happens on oil rigs, although many complain that employment is now precarious. Gig workers are crowding the rigs; despite this, oil remains one of those lucrative blue-collar industries, ninety-seven per cent male, the production process as dangerous as it is opaque.

Sea State is a text of hybrid genre commitments, involving both serious journalistic reporting and memoirist writing much in the New Journalism style of "non-fiction novels" or "creative non-fiction." The immersion of the narrator, the character-driven style, and the dramatic tension are an attempt to expose the productive site of petrocultures through personal narratives. The memoir works not only to produce the personal but also the impersonal industry of oil.

"I wanted to see what men are like when there are no women around,"3 Lasley claims, and this is the blurb that proliferates in press releases, as a traditional broadsheet exposé of an industry that has bankrupted nations and poisoned oceans through reportage. This claim of formally reporting on a particular category of persons ("men") features early in the memoir, and is immediately transgressed. "But you'll be around,"4 says a well-intentioned colleague to Lasley: her "I" will impinge upon the attempt at a straightforward, credible, and ethnographic account. The form is thus pronounced in the first chapter itself: this text has more to say about the author and narrator of the memoir than her intended subject of exposure, which is also to say that for all her intents and purposes, Lasley is an absolutely terrible worker. 

"So basically, you hang around bars all day getting on the drink, then go to strip clubs at night?"
"Pretty much," I said.
"Fuck me. If Carlsberg did jobs, like."5

Lasley gets drunk on the job, botches her interviews, flirts, and has a tempestuous affair with Caden, a married man from Stockton, the first offshore worker she interviews. The book that Lasley intended to write about petroculture is abandoned at the juncture of immersion into the field of work. The narrative instead turns to the narrator's desires and her attempt to write about and through the experience of desire, presenting the affair's gory, wrought detail as the conceit.

Sea State is a narrative unable to hide the effort of writing, namely, unable to reproduce the necessary invisibility of the productive processes that confer competency and expertise upon the author of the work. Lasley is a bad journalist, but it is also this incompetency to render the appropriate form that has made Sea State a commodity an acquisitioned, bound, saleable product worthy of the title "literary darling."6 4th Estate, the publishers who acquired the book refer to it as "the story of a journalist whose distance from her subject becomes perilously thin." Distance, then, becomes more story than the story itself.

The memoir, then, performs two betrayals. These betrayals do not happen at once, but are discursively rehearsed, repeated, and returned to within the existing libidinal economy as productive imaginaries. In the first instance, Sea State betrays the intended reader by producing a narrative contrary to its selling premise ("the oil fairy tale"7), which purports to be a narrative excavation of the workings on an oil rig. At the beginning of each of its nine chapters is a directly rendered oral narrative, straight from the oil worker's mouth, a journalistic lede used as a tongue-in-cheek cue to mine broad themes within Lasley's own life of belonging, recklessness, workplace dangers, seafaring absences, and so on. Fortunately, and perhaps through the calculation of Lasley's craft, it is this betrayal of a purposive plot that places it in the realm of autofiction (alongside Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy, Elif Bautman's The Idiot,or Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station). The betrayal of one genre produces the economy and texture of another, which is also to say that Lasley is a terrible worker on purpose, aware of the transitions she is making. And the transgression follows its commodification.

Autofiction, distinguished by critics from the categories of metafiction, autobiography, and metafictional autobiography, has been seen to exist on a plane of certain canonization and commercialization. Dan Sinykin reads it as a genre whose profitability has been enabled by the conglomeration of publishing houses since the 1960s.8 Where autofiction is more "fiction" than not,9 it is not just the indistinguishability between art and artifice that makes the "auto" (as in "automatic" as much as "autonomos" from the Greek αὐτός) label stick. The act of revealing the craft of the author is central; props are as much the story as the performance. Scholars and critics agree: Sarah Brouillette identifies this as "staging" a term common to both theatre and real estate;10 Sinykin situates the autofictional element in market practices, as does Mitch Murray, whose analysis present the artist as working within an economic and social "milieu", reproducing and representing it simultaneously in the work of art.11 Additionally, "the strangely communitarian" affect has been identified by Marta Figlerowicz and its status as a "darling" in Sarah Wasserman's critique produces the sense of a work wise to its reception.12 The work of art is disclosed as an act of labor(ing) within a historically productive moment, the disclosure of the painstaking making of art as the mark of the work's authenticity. Sea State represents its betrayal of the style and content of longform journalism as an act of revealing something even more authentic, participating in the "reality hunger" to unmask the journalist's real attachments and desires.13 Put another way, it is at the point where the author-narrator abandons her real wage labour that real storytelling, the labour of love, begins.

Nevertheless, too few can afford to abandon the wage entirely; Lasley instead participates in varied negotiations. The memoir begins at the point of crisis, inserting in quick succession certain images and events: an erotic flash from her impending affair with Caden, the memory of a deadly car crash, the burglary of her apartment where her work is stolen, and ultimately a break-up. The author narrator begins researching for the book taking the burglary "as a sign"or an opportunity to write "properly."14 She takes time off work to give herself the leisure to work solely on the book project; describing the relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Adam, a public relations worker and herself: "the gulf between his compromised ethics and my own, incorruptible art was a theme I liked to revisit."15 The author-narrator delves into herself for the project, dips into her savings and when that ends, she starts to work in a takeaway; she even begins to look the part (an older woman or a drunk) as she frequents the bars and clubs where the men come after work.

The assumption at play is that devotion to the work, the yielding of security of waged labour for the precarious, risky, labour of love of art produces a finished book. In so far as Sea State is a published work, this aspiration is made true. The revelation, perhaps, is that person of the journalist is discursively produced at the point where she abandons her work for something as nebulous as desire. Ultimately, however, Sea State is a memoir about failed premises made flesh; the persona of the journalist as a participant-observer is instead troubled.

The first epigraph of the memoir cites Janet Malcolm, revealing the genre's particular anxiety: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.16" As such, the betrayal and abandon of the form and subject of journalism reveals instead a betrayal of Lasley's initial investment in the profession, its work ethic, and its functioning identity. Distance, as a formal method, is realized as a form of non-belonging that negates and produces a self-reflexive style. This becomes a canny representation of that prized possession of "distance from the subject" put in immediate and incessant tension with "love" to claim that journalism's form is illusory. Love is great exposition; intimacy is necessary to produce a text with empathy. Isn't that how stories of great journalism are told? But if there is to be a line demarcating the object of one's study from the object of one's desire, where is it? "And what is love but a temporary cessation of critical faculties?17"

The second betrayal, to supplement the first, is betrayal of the profession and industry. Lasley stops being a full-time journalist, quits her job and rents an apartment to entertain her desires, busy with in an affair that keeps her from her work, quitting for the rituals of heterosexual monogamy. The affair, almost as a spectral event, surfaces when the author-narrator is at work and once the relationship ends, she sees Caden everywhere. Even as she learns the language to disavow her obsession, he appears as a ghostly presence around other workers she interviews and in their accented speech and anecdotes.

At the affair's zenith the author-narrator concerns herself with stealing and thievery, terms to signal anxieties about private property. The affair outside the marriage begets anxieties in the narrator about stealing not only love, but the social, legal, and political currency that couplehood confers upon those involved. The author-narrator's inability to write about oil cultures, and her constant slippage into writing about her specific object of desire (if the writing happens at all) takes her out of her own labour as a journalist and into the labour of a romantic partner. Love, for Lasley, appears when Caden cheats on his wife and she cheats on her writing. Love happens when theft occurs, but it also constantly creates new forms of labour, propriety, and property. The journalist, a figure produced at the point of distance from the subject, given names according such distance (observer, reporter, representative, participant-observer, fact-checker) collapses into the figuration of the woman (the desiring self, the "other woman", the woman from out of town, the young, the older attractive woman).

Most had been told to not talk to journalists, as children are adjured to not talk to strangers, but here was a woman, an actual woman, the first some had seen in three weeks, offering to buy them drinks in exchange for ten minutes of their time. I rarely took names. I never called myself a journalist. "Writer" sounded more neutral, less likely to get them sacked.18

These movements are registered as discursive displacements within the logic of libidinal economy. Labour in the creative industry becomes romance, parsed through the circuits of intensity of reproductive love necessary for the production of both book and heterosexuality. The betrayal of the profession also reveals a certain anxiety of productivity in the worker's psyche, and wage theft in the industry's dictum as the author-narrator pursues the leisure of the affair on the company dime. Such anxieties are particular to autofiction as novels that subvert/betray expectations of form, ultimately also putting to work ("monetizing") the self19. The good lover, in this landscape, is a good worker.

Lasley is transparent. She makes no qualms about revealing how she works the men, making Tinder into research, buying them drinks, flirting with them for access to information. The author understands, perhaps, the question that haunts work on the field whether that of a researcher, reporter, or service worker which necessitates a particular iteration of "soft skills" or performative/affective labour. The heterosexual couple form is an economic unit and the costs of maintaining it are equally registered as labour. There exists a script to follow for lovers and workers on the field alike,20 a coda of reproductive labour: bargaining for erotic exchanges, pleasures and intimacies, the accounting and transcription of accumulated material, sorting the chaff from the waste, reinscribing and circulating the form in its institutional content, whether as romance, or text, or both. 

Heterosexual romance and petroculture are both productively transformed into sites of work that require a certain script; they're both sites of labour where the fantasy of the good life can adhere.21 The author-narrator partakes of ressentiment about the good life a fantasy of capital that is decidedly erotic. She cries when made to acknowledge "how good things are for [her] sister" (married, with house, husband and a child on the way) right after her break-up; she leaves her job to pursue a relationship with a rich married man who maintained a "fifties-style setup at home" where his wife and children were given "allowances" who, despite Lasley's reluctant indignation, makes clear that she need not find a job once they set up their new home.22 Oil, too, partakes of the same ideological fantasies of money, security, and a certain infinitude with respect to ecological resources; its discoverers are heroes and winners and its workers are diversely fortunate. Stephanie LeMenager, in her book about the sensory legacies of fossil fuel production, calls these unsustainable and charismatic petrochemical sources, "destructive attachments, bad love" a descriptor that can simultaneously accommodate capital and the affair, just as it does the archetypal dream: oil.23

Historically, heterosexual coupling has always existed within a transactional logic;24 women receive access to the world in exchange for domestic, affective, sexual labour. Women, or so says contemporary feminism, are aware of the euphemism that sexual relationships are exchanged for power over the world of men; but in such a case, what of women undo their lives for pleasure, who exile themselves from the world to be attentive to their passion? It is telling that in Sea State, the sex is terrible akin to the bad sexual experiences that are churned out in contemporary novel after contemporary novel. Many of them problematize sexual desire either through adultery, ambivalent queerness, coercive triads, and masochism: consider Sally Rooney's three books, Naoise Dolan's Exciting Times, Raven Lelani's Luster, Miranda Popkey's Topics of Conversation, Lauren Oyler's Fake Accounts and so on. Plots present not the erotic acceptance of sexual desire, but failed accounts of pleasure, an object lost before it can be entirely understood.

Most such novels are also mired in concerns about the narrators' precarious labour, and while their fleeting romances seem to offer a path (or at the least, a viable distraction) out of precarity and into the financially-stable heterosexual couplehood, the terrible sex prevails, almost confirming that these options for availing security are in vain. The negative content of sex presents, almost unwittingly, a crisis of capitalism. Women have to turn to unconventional routes to secure and hold down the fantasy of the family unit; they have to work harder and hustle better. And still, the sex is so terrible that it can be read as a warning. 

The failure of these romances is inevitable, almost formulaic, and as such, action appears through the act of waiting for the dissolution of the affairs. The greater risk, however, is parcelled into the performance not only as a fear of heartbreak, but also of sexual violence. In Lasley's account, the fear of violence is rarely explicit, but the reader is made to understand that traversing this knife edge is part of her work. She plays the part of a woman out on the prowl sometimes seeking Caden's attention, an interview, and ultimately, seeking desire to make into an object. All this so she can provide a testimony of her vulnerability.

Unsurprisingly, it is also at the point of risk, transaction, and vulnerability that sex work is evoked; the prostitute appearing as the spectre25 that the author-narrator must disavow to hold on to her ambivalent position, both as an available woman and working journalist. The script is simple: the author-narrator's availability on the market and receptivity to it as a woman would be rendered void if she really were a woman selling her services in the market26.

"You shouldn't go to strip clubs" I said. "It's demeaning. As long as there are strip clubs, there will be men who think women's bodies are for sale."
"I never buy dances," said Caden. "I don't see the point. I just go there for a drink. I've never paid for anything, me."
"No." My eyes settled on his face. "I don't suppose you'd have to."
He glanced down at the table.27

While the job of inviting confidences from men often involves affective and sexual labour, Lasley participates in what Vanessa Carlisle calls a "whorearchy"28 a hierarchy of sexual labour ranked in terms of its legitimacy, level of assumed degradation and exploitation. The author-narrator, by accepting her position as a woman and therefore an object of desire, instrumentalizes it for her reporting. From the beginning, instead, we see her as ambivalent and bested by the very game she is playing she falls, sentimentally, even abjectly in love with a man. The author-narrator's explicitly defensive refusal of sex work cannily depicts journalism's gendered complicity with the form, but even in doing so, the gendered labour of romance and couplehood is denied, over and over, as if the unpaid wage could never even be immaterial value. While the object of Lasley's memoir appears to be the travails of her own desire, ultimately, it becomes a portrait of a man who is made, through love, singular even as he is like everyone else. Here is an intimate portrait of oil workers; here is the abjection of desire, it seems to say. But doing so, she also obscures the unpaid labour of seduction and emotional maintenance that is part of any job not just journalism, not just sex work, not just gendered performance.

There's not much to say to this trick for it's a common one. Part illusion, part collusion within industries that reward it, but novels about "female desire" are rarely that. They are about a commodity in fluctuation within an exploitative economy; the woman may appropriate the discourse and play the part of the sex worker but only so far as she can commodify herself as its virtuous other. Sex sells, sex circulates, and in an economy where one can only claim the abjection of heartbreak or the violence of sexual labour, narratives about desire are always already relationships of property. And narratives about work? We write them only by not writing about them.

Shinjini Dey is a writer of long-form criticism and reviews of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published in Los Angeles Review of BooksWhetstone MagazineAnalog Science Fiction and FactDecolonial HackerStrange Horizons, and others. Her fiction won the Dream Foundry Writing Contest 2021. She tweets at @shinjini_dey.


  1. The first instance of the term is Jonathan Lethem in 'The Morning News', calling it "sleight of hand pieces" that begin from a cultural object and then move into a confessional interiority ( The term has since found purchase in the books of soliciting agents. Sea State has been referred to using the term in a piece in the Atlantic by Kristen Martin.[]
  2. Tabitha Lasley, Sea State (London: 4th Estate, 2021), 17.[]
  3. Lasley, Sea State, 10.[]
  4. Lasley, Sea State, 10.[]
  5. Lasley, Sea State, 173.[]
  6. Sarah Wasserman, "Critical Darlings, Critical Dogs: Joseph O'Neill and What Contemporary Criticism Doesn't Want," American Literary History 34, no. 2 (2022): 561-585.[]
  7. Lasley, Sea State, 63.[]
  8. Dan Sinykin, "The Conglomerate Era: Publishing, Authorship, and Literary Form, 1965-2007," Contemporary Literature 58, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 474-475[]
  9. Gérard Genette, Fiction and Diction, translated by Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 1993.[]
  10. Sarah Brouillette, Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).[]
  11. Mitch Murray, "All Auto All the Time: Artwork, Art Work and the University," Keynote Address, University of Florida.[]
  12. Wasserman, "Critical Darlings."[]
  13. Mitch Murray, "All Auto All the Time: Artwork, Art Work and the University," Keynote Address, University of Florida.[]
  14. Lasley, Sea State, 10-11[]
  15. Lasley, Sea State, 12.[]
  16. Lasley, Sea State, 12.[]
  17. Lasley, Sea State, 51.[]
  18. Lasley, Sea State, 176.[]
  19. Paul Heelas, "Work Ethics, Soft Capitalism and the 'Turn to Life,"' in Cultural Economy edited by Paul du Gay and Michael Pryke (London: Sage, 2002), 78-76.[]
  20. I use the term 'narrative' and 'script' mostly interchangeably to refer to a set of embodied grammar towards a particular result. The necessity of a broad script is common to affective labour, a term coined by Arlie Russel Hoschild in The Managed Heart (1983). The term can be used where sex is both commodified and withheld as a commodity. []
  21. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).[]
  22. Lasley, Sea State, 141.[]
  23. Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (London: Oxford University Press, 2013), 11.[]
  24. Moira Weigel prefers to use the term "dating" in her book about the cultural historicization of romance and dating. Labour of Love: The Invention of Dating (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).[]
  25. Annie McClanahan and Jon-David Settell, "Service Work, Sex Work, and the 'Prostitute Imaginary,'" The South Atlantic Quarterly 120, no. 3 (Duke University Press, 2021). []
  26. "The exchange of equivalents between abstractly equal and abstractly ungendered subjects embodied in the objectivity and transferability of money between property owners must be swiftly disavowed the moment it appears." Maya Andrea Gonzalez and Cassandra Troyan, "Heart of a Heartless World," Blindfield Collective, 2016.[]
  27. Lasley, Sea State, 21.[]
  28. Vanessa Carlisle, "'Sex Work is Star Shaped': Antiwork Politics and the Value of Embodied Knowledge," The South Atlantic Quarterly 120, no. 3 (Duke University Press, 2021). []