Jia Tolentino. Photo: © Elena Mudd.
Is there any topic Jia Tolentino can’t tackle? Since becoming a staff writer for The New Yorker in 2016, she’s written features about the electronic cigarette brand Juul and the culty athleisure company Outdoor Voices; commentaries on the disastrous Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the violent rise of incels; and examinations of the “large adult son” meme and the YouTube phenomenon of remixing popular songs so they sound like they’re echoing in abandoned malls. In the early years of her professional writing career, she conducted a series of funny yet deeply sympathetic interviews with adult virgins at The Hairpin, and her work as deputy editor at Jezebel helped shape online feminist discourse as we now know it. She also has an M.F.A. in fiction, and the first short story she ever submitted won Carve magazine’s Raymond Carver Contest. “If I got fired tomorrow,” she told me, “I would probably go to the woods and try to write a novel.” Even her tweets are good; for what it’s worth, my introduction to her work came via the occasional dog photos and thoughts on music she posts, which are often the bright spots in my feed.
What unites these wildly disparate threads is Tolentino herself. Although she’s been called the voice of her generation, her writing is sharp, clear, and utterly her own. Tolentino’s first book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, vibrates with her presence. Over the course of nine long original essays, she turns inside out the fast-casual restaurants, pricey exercise classes, and dubiously simple narratives we use to propel ourselves through our overmediated lives. The result is a sort of revision of Joan Didion’s “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” for the late-capitalist horror show that is the twenty-first century.
Each of the essays is dense with references and anecdotes. I came to think of them as self-contained storm systems, clouds of controlled chaos that Tolentino was conducting from somewhere far above my head. “Reality TV Me” grapples with her time as a contestant on the forgotten television show Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico while also considering how the foundational myths she’s built from the experience are utterly false. “Pure Heroines,” one of the most finely argued cases for cultural representation I’ve ever read, charts the tragic lives of literary heroines through the ages, including Laura Ingalls, Esther Greenwood, and Anna Karenina. “Ecstasy,” the best essay in the book, situates itself at the exact intersection of religion, music, and drugs; it somehow encompasses everything from Tolentino’s evangelical upbringing to the history of MDMA to the birth of chopped and screwed, a genre of rap music characterized by its lethargic pace, frequent skips, and otherworldly menace. As a writer, Tolentino seems allergic to the easy conclusion; many of the essays end not with a perfectly tied bow but a slow, meticulous unraveling. In the introduction to the book, she writes, “It was worthwhile, I told myself, just trying to see clearly, even if it took me years to understand what I was trying to see.”
On the eve of a small tour to commemorate the book’s launch, Tolentino spoke with me over the phone about her writing process, her favorite Houston rappers, and how she maintains a healthy sense of self in the internet age.
The subtitle of the book is Reflections on Self-Delusion. It seems that, to a certain extent, self-delusion is inescapable. What amount would you say is healthy?
Oh, that’s such a good question. First of all, there’s a subtitle only because apparently you need one to show that a book isn’t a novel, which I didn’t know. I would much rather not have a subtitle. I think they’re cheesy. I think epigraphs are really cheesy, and I think subtitles are cheesy.
Identity performance itself is not something that I think is necessarily bad. I write in the book about how the internet makes us want to perform our identities in a way that’s attractive to other people. It sort of systematizes and monetizes that process. And I think that wanting to please other people and wanting other people to like you, wanting to come off well, is a natural and healthy thing—I think it’s good that I want my friends to like me. So some degree of self-delusion is inevitable, and there’s some mechanism within it that can be good.
For example, the idea that what you’re doing is worthwhile—I think it does require some self-delusion, especially now, to think anything we do matters. At the same time, what we do matters tremendously. Our mind gave us the ability for self-delusion for good reason. I mean, even to be a writer—ugh—some sort of self-delusion is completely necessary to think people need to read what I have to say. But I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s great. Because it leads to something better than what would exist otherwise.
You talk in the introduction to the book about how writing helps you sort out who you are and how you feel. I guess I’m wondering how you square that attitude with having to monetize your work. With the current internet-saturated media landscape, the lines between writers’ private personalities and their public-facing personas begin to blur. How do you maintain the boundaries there?
Asking how one handles writing when writing is monetized is sort of like asking how one handles being alive when being alive is monetized. It’s not specific to writing. That being said, I didn’t anticipate that my personality or my ability to communicate that personality online would be such a big part of my career. I’m always thinking about what that means and what incentive it’s giving me and how that might be changing me and how that might already have changed me.
Ever since I was a child, I have taken pretty seamlessly and naturally to systems of self-broadcasting. For better or worse, I already had the kind of temperament that could take to it unchanged. I have some obvious, practical, commonsense things like “don’t spend too much time on the internet” and “don’t do anything on the internet out of a sense of obligation” and “be on the internet the way that you try to be in real life,” which is just be normal and don’t be a pain in the ass and try to have fun. I think about this stuff theoretically all the time, but in practice, it seems pretty easy. Be chill. Be chill and don’t be stupid about things.
In the essay that opens the collection, “The I in the Internet,” you talk about how the internet has affected writing and discourse in general. Do you think it’s had any effect on how you write, personally, and how you arrive at conclusions?
It’s hard to say, because I started writing on the internet, so to some degree, the internet has made it possible for me to have a career, period. If the internet wasn’t the primary mechanism of discovery, I don’t think I would have a job in media. Especially postrecession, I wouldn’t have tried to move to New York and wait tables and get an internship. The whole thing was so daunting to me. The only way I was able to write was that I wrote for small blogs for free for a year. I was outside of New York and could live on this small grad-school fellowship, and I didn’t need to live anywhere near where anything was actually happening for people to read me. The sort of general democratization of voice that’s happened within the last ten years has also been a huge part of the reason I’ve been able to have a career—the fact that people are actively hungry for the perspectives of women and people of color. In terms of actually changing my style, though, I think maybe the internet has made me more flexible.
That flexibility is what I’ve liked most about the book and also your writing in general—how you’re able to apply a critical but sympathetic eye to all sorts of things, and it doesn’t feel like a high-low culture divide. It just feels like you’re chasing whatever you’re interested in.
I’ve been lucky enough to work at places where I can do that. The cutesy high-low internet thing is a mode I’m close to but have tried to avoid. There was that whole wave of, like, Here’s how Derrida and The Simpsons and whatever are related. And it’s not that cute, you know? It’s not that interesting. But not everything requires the same tone. We don’t think about climate change the way we think about a meme—or we actually do, but the tone with which these phenomena manifest in our heads is very different from thing to thing, and I think that’s one great part about the internet. At Jezebel, I could write something completely flippant, completely vulgar, totally unhinged—I remember I once did a fake David Brooks column that was written from inside his own butthole, which is the exact only way I want to think about David Brooks—but then there were things I felt very seriously about and I just couldn’t write about them in the same way.
And you’re still able to do that kind of thing at The New Yorker?
I mean, I can’t write columns about David Brooks’s butthole, per se. But yeah, totally. I love my editor there, and if I’m super interested in something, for the most part, he says yes.
How did you decide what would be a book essay and what would be a magazine essay?
None of the things I wrote for the book were things I had considered trying to write for The New Yorker because these were things that I wanted to write exactly the way I wanted. I wanted the essays to be five to seven thousand words each—they ended up being around ten thousand—but I knew I wanted to write essays that were a little too long, that were coming at things from all these different angles. And none of them would make sense at all as New Yorker pieces, really. “Ecstasy,” the excerpt they ran, was probably the closest.
I find each essay remarkable in the way it weaves together all sorts of disparate references and sources. How did you go about writing and organizing such long pieces? Did you write them straight through?
Before I sold the book, I knew the question I wanted to ask in each essay, and I knew how I would go about trying to answer it, so I had a pretty clear sense of the kind of research I’d need to do. Each one had a different shape while writing it. I think the essay on optimization, “Always Be Optimizing,” took me about four weeks to write the first section, and then once I did, I wrote the rest of it more seamlessly. Other ones I wrote all the way through or in one slow, long first draft and then did a full second pass, full third. But with every single essay I had a question, and then I read everything I possibly could to figure out how to answer that question, or if I could answer that question at all. I knew I was done with each essay when I felt like I had gotten somewhere new. I rely a lot on the feeling that something’s been shifted. Like there’s a little more air or a little more solidity or whatever, the feeling that writing has done something to the subject in my head.
That goes with what you’ve said about writing in order to understand something. You’ve pushed through it, and it’s not necessarily that you’ve reached an answer but that something has changed.
I also was curious, as I always am with collections, about sequencing. The book is structured so that each essay builds on the previous one.
I’m glad it feels like that. I had no idea how it would be structured, but I did know that the first one would probably be either “The I in Internet” or “Reality TV Me,” because I think those essays most clearly set up the issue of identity performance that cuts through the entire book. I think “Ecstasy” is the best one, so I thought about putting that first. But it’s too intense to go first, so I scrapped the idea. “I Thee Dread,” the weddings one, was the last essay I wrote. It was the one I feel most uncertain about as a subject and as an essay, and I was like, Okay, that should go last because the whole point of this book is that sometimes understanding things doesn’t mean anything. That essay ends where the intro begins in a lot of ways.
I’ve never been to Houston, but you write about it so beautifully in “Ecstasy” that I feel like I’ve already visited. Other than the rap music, which you cover in the essay, what books or movies or cultural objects could help explain Houston to someone who’s never been there?
Have you read Bryan Washington’s short story collection Lot? It’s incredible. He’s so good. But weirdly to me, it’s the definitive work of Houston fiction. It’s crazy that there hasn’t been one before this, but there really, really hasn’t. Houston has a strong literary tradition. Donald Barthelme was there for a long time, and the University of Houston has a great creative writing program. The city itself has an intense, weird, interesting feel to it. It’s like LA. It’s one of those places that’s kind of horrible to visit unless you’re embedded within one of the little pockets that make up what the city actually is. It can feel soulless. Soulless and expansive and forever. But it has this strange, dense heat to it culturally. The early 2000s was such a time in Houston—there was the rap music, of course, but coinciding with this deeply national aesthetic, post 9/11. Those things together, and my being sixteen at the time, were really intense for me.
Who’s your favorite Houston rapper?
I always have to say UGK, even though they were technically from Port Arthur. But I think the Houston sound belongs to DJ Screw. I got into this hypnotic rhythm of listening to a lot of his old mixtapes while I was writing this book, and I found it so soothing. I would just clean my house and listen.
I was pleased to see The New Yorker have to acknowledge DJ Screw.
Me, too. Also to have to acknowledge my drug use.
Who are your favorite writers? Whom do you return to often?
I have a lot of favorite writers, but I don’t do the thing where someone is a touchstone for me and then I go to them for inspiration. Plenty of the writers I most admire, I read them once, and their work leaves a stamp on me, and I never return. I reread a ton, but only for pleasure. The best writer of my/our generation—I’m presuming—is Ocean Vuong. I think he’s so fucking good. I taught a class on voice at Columbia this past semester. I assigned Ocean as well as some critics—Ellen Willis, Greg Tate. When I reread something of theirs, it jolts me in this really pleasurable way. I also like the way Zadie Smith’s and Rebecca Solnit’s minds work. When Zadie Smith published her first essay collection, I was like, Oh, here’s someone who argues, who writes very forcefully, who is completely aware of the fact that at any moment she could be completely wrong about everything she’s saying. And you could feel that in her work. I found that really refreshing. It’s the same with Rebecca Solnit—just the capaciousness within some of her work, the feeling that she’s walking through this ever-expanding field. When I love something a ton I tend not to reread it. I think Eula Biss is one of the best essayists, but On Immunity left such an intense mark on me that I’ve read it only once.
What do you think you’ll tackle next?
I was just talking to my agent about this last night. When I first moved to New York, there was some appetite for books about feminism by young women, and I was like, I absolutely don’t want to write one of these—and then I basically did. I like writing much more than I like having written. So writing a book was something I wanted to do just for the experience of it. Writing another book is not going to appeal to me until a specific idea comes. Right now, I couldn’t possibly even want to.
You have an M.F.A in fiction, and you said in a recent interview with BookPage that you might want to write a super weird novel at some point soon.
I wrote a novel before, and I shelved it. Like every journalist, I also definitely want to try to write a screenplay, because I don’t know how, and it intrigues me to learn, and also, journalism is collapsing. Just kidding! I love writing fiction. I loved it, I loved it. I never thought I was particularly good at it, but I really loved it. With my current job, I can’t come home and work on fiction. My brain just doesn’t work like that. But I don’t know … If I got fired tomorrow, I would probably go to the woods and try to write a novel.
Brian Ransom is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the assistant online editor at The Paris Review.
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