(Random House, 2019)
I first read Jia Tolentino’s funny, razor-smart work in 2015, when her incredibly thoughtful piece on the work of Canadian pop mystic Carly Rae Jepson ran on The Awl. I was new to freelancing, and was trying to read interesting content by good writers to figure out how to punch up my submissions. I wanted to write about angular ideas and make cultural arguments, but inherently lacked confidence in my ability to be able to craft a center that would hold. Reading Jia’s piece was a revelation, and her innate ability to write deft multi-perspective considerations of everything from internet sexism to active wear’s ability to signal a certain status goal is always mesmerizing. Reading her work always gives me a lot to think about, and always makes me want to push myself not just as a writer, but an empathetic person. We spoke on a breezy July Friday about craft, self-awareness, self-deception, nuance, and a dozen other things on display in her brilliant and iconoclastic first essay collection, Trick Mirror.
Eric Farwell (Rail): I wanted to start by asking about your time in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. I know you write that you were penning somber short stories, but I'm curious about who your influences were, and if you see any clear connection between the work you were doing in a fully creative medium, and your reporting?
Jia Tolentino: I went to undergrad at the University of Virginia, which also has a really good fiction program. Deborah Eisenberg was teaching there when I was there, and so was Ann Beattie, so it was really good. I would say that I might like fiction more than non-fiction. It sweeps me away more. The way that I read hasn’t changed in a long time. I read a lot of fiction, a lot of nonfiction, a little bit of poetry. So, maybe I was reading more short stories in grad school, because that was the form I was working in, but in undergrad I also took fiction writing classes every semester for fun. I really liked writing fiction, but wasn’t sure I was any good at it. Even going into the MFA, I was like, “well, applying to an MFA is one interesting way to find out if you’re any good at it.” If you get into a program that’s fully funded, then there’s no skin off your back for trying. So, when I did the Michigan program, it was with that mindset. It was like, “let’s see.” It was the clearest road in front of me for getting paid to write, which I had never been able to do in a full-time way until Michigan. My thinking was just, see where this goes; and where it went was a shelved novel that I still loved working on, and me freelancing a lot and then taking an editor job at The Hairpin. Having all that time to write, and having this baseline of support, it did point me toward what I was best at, I think, or something I could make a living at, which was, especially at the time, running a blog and working quickly. What I was reading and what I was influenced by hasn’t changed too much. It’s not like I stopped and read a ton of nonfiction before I wrote this book, or was reading mostly fiction then. What I’m reading doesn’t stylistically influence my work, for the most part.
Rail: I think the idea of the work being somber is interesting. There’s nothing you could point to that…
Tolentino: Well, it was somber because it was set in the county where I did Peace Corps. In general, the one thing I found with fiction is that—I don’t think I’m a funny writer at all, but I do think it’s obvious in my writing that my sense of humor is on the surface of who I am. But you probably would not be able to tell from reading the novel that humor was a dominant force in regard to how she operated in the world. I wonder how much of it was just being young and overserious, but my fiction never felt as natural to me as my nonfiction does and did.
Rail: After The Hairpin, you went to Jezebel. You said in an interview that Jezebel provided you a space to work out your frustration with the idea that “women’s issues" were often siloed, or perceived to be, and that the male/female readership ratio was heartening. I'm curious if you've found that you've always been naturally attuned to these particular subjects, and how the experience at Jezebel aided you in approaching ideas at New Yorker
Tolentino: I think we’ve actively been in a moment of change on this front. I think the idea that the lives of women are women’s issues only is going by the wayside, among smart people at least (laughs). I mean, to some degree MeToo is recognized as a women’s problem, but it’s also recognized that sexual assault is just a social problem. I always wrote about “women’s issues” because I write about what I’m interested in, and a lot of what I’m interested in comes from firsthand experience, because I’ve always learned about things through doing them. And I knew it wasn’t only women who were interested in what I was writing. At The New Yorker, I write about all the same stuff, but it’s not like I have a column that’s, you know, Lady Corner. We’re past that now, and it’s really nice. I don’t know if I was thinking about this before I got hired, but it’s been one of the things I’m most consciously grateful for, is that obviously I am there to provide a millennial female perspective on things, but it’s not a special-interest thing. My editors are like, “you should write this because we want to run this. We want to know what you think.” I’ll say that even talking about this is bringing up one of the things I feel most self-conscious of in my work and in my brain, is the danger of reinscribing a gender binary. Sometimes I think I’ve contributed to this in a bad way, that I haven’t figured out how to be sufficiently complex enough in writing about gender. But about the book, one of the things that was important to me while writing it, is that it would be a book mostly about “women’s issues,” but I didn’t want it to seem that way. I wanted it to be a book that was mostly about women and from an obviously feminist perspective, but that men would read pretty naturally, and would seem to just be just a book about the world. That was one of my only conscious goals going into writing this, and it has been really heartening that I think it hasn’t been scanned that way.
Rail: I'm paraphrasing here a bit, but you said on a podcast that for you, following whims was the only way to count on fulfillment. You also said that while at Gawker, you tried to write pieces that didn't arrive at a neat conclusion, but rather pulled a bunch of levers to arrive at ideas, or an idea. For you, how do these approaches or modes of thinking lend themselves to your work, particularly when you're writing about the internet or micro cultural issues that might seem hard to impact or get at?
Tolentino: I generally try to pay close attention to the chemistry I have with a subject, what my brain feels about it. Like, the color, and tone, and weight it has. Then, one of the fun things about writing, I think, is trying to match the tone of the piece to that feeling, because it allows you to write in different registers. I find that very necessary. So in terms of writing about sort of microcultural dumb internet meme stuff, I try and find the tone that’ll fit. I try and find a mode of engaging with it that feels tonally appropriate. I’m lucky in that I’m interested in most things, because I find it impossible in life to feign enthusiasm. In person, I’m extremely bad at it, because I am so interested in so many things that I haven’t learned how to socially pretend to be when I’m not. It has always seemed to me, especially because I never thought that I would end up with a full-time job in media, that the thing that you can guarantee is identifying what you are interested in, figuring out how writing can help you figure out more about it. And that’s it, you know?
Rail: Was there a particular thing that led you to going, “you know what, I’m just going to try to kind of take a really holistic, or account-for-all-angles perspective to the writing? One of the things that’s fascinating about the work is that it’s you partly, but you’re always ready to account for other perspectives.
Tolentino: Well, you said the question of, like, coming at it from as many angles as possible? I think that’s how you understand anything. It just seems like that’s the only way to understand anything: to be present as yourself, but to imagine any situation you’re looking at as a jewel you can rotate under the light many different ways. Like, I’m fully aware that this imaginary object we’re rotating under a spotlight obviously looks one way to me, and I can be really clear and forceful, maybe, about how it looks to me, but you have to rotate it eight more times to get around the whole thing. I’m so aware that my own point of view is so limited, and that the force with which I can argue that perspective is sufficient enough that I could forget that if I wasn’t careful, so I think it’s always seemed sort of obviously incumbent that, you know, you have to get around something from as many angles as you can.
Rail: You do a particularly great job of articulating both the perception of you as the writer, and the subject being covered. Mitski and The Bold Type have both been fairly recent subjects. How do you find your way into a conversation and have a substantiver angle when writing about things that might be derided to or looked over?
Tolentino: Well, I have certain chips that are missing. There are certain opinions I just don’t care about. One of the most sincere things I ever wrote was about Carly Rae Jepsen, and I meant every word of that so deeply, but it wasn’t in a sort of contrarian, I’m-going-to-bring-meaning-to-this-thing-for-young-women-that’s-overlooked perspective. I write about that stuff all the time, but it’s not from that desire. I’m aware that these things can seem insubstantial, but I’m not able to fully register that, you know? It doesn’t matter to me. Maybe the condition of seeming dismissable as a young woman has seemed so total in my lifetime that it really stopped mattering. I also think the central axis is one of pleasure. I’m interested in pleasure as a human, and I think I’m interested in understanding attraction to systems, and phenomena, and to culture. Stuff like The Bold Type or Mitski, or anything teen girls would love, that stuff is all pleasure. To me it seems to be such an obviously interesting thing to write about pleasure, and recognition, and people identifying with various things. I also think it’s our obligation to not get too fake deep on things that aren’t that deep. Like, The Bold Type doesn’t require extensive deconstruction. It’s just a fun show. That’s one thing that I find interesting as a challenge in writing is to write about something you want to write about , but not be like, “and that’s why this explains Trump’s America…” I’ve been trying to figure out how to write more lightly, like, have it not need to do too much but still be worthwhile.
Rail: Yeah. For you then, process, and figuring out how to get better at things you’re constantly recognizing, or wanting to change, has always been there, would be my guess. You’re maybe always keeping an eye on how you’re developing as a writer.
Tolentino: I think...not necessarily consciously, which is why I think that I’m not always great at articulating it, but instinctively, I’d say yes. Absolutely. It’s very instinctive, but not consciously something I’m aware of. Which I think is a theme of how I experience the world.
Rail: Well, the deeper question I have with that is that you said in an interview that you develop essays as a way of clearing thoughts, and that pieces cohere in the process, and I’m wondering if that’s still true.
Tolentino: Kind of, yeah. I mean I did with the book, especially, which was part of the reason I was so eager to write it. Basically, the nine questions I set out to try and answer, I don’t think I necessarily answered them, but I was able to put them to bed for myself to a huge degree. I was able to understand things that I was only able to understand through writing so many words about these subjects. Like, every time I would walk past any sort of scam story, I’d be like, “something’s been going on in the last decade, and there’s a throughline.” I kind of knew what it was, but I didn’t know exactly what was on it, and then I wrote the essay, and it was open and shut. In the ecstasy story, I knew that my religious upbringing was central to my attraction to drugs and music, but I didn’t understand why until I wrote that. For another example, I used to walk around New York, and every time I’d see a Lululemon, I’d be like, “this is late-capitalist fetish wear!” but didn’t understand why I thought that. So yeah, it did kind of clear my brain. I never think about weddings anymore. I needed to be able to write all of that to be able to look at what I thought, and then once I could see what I was thinking, I was done. As I’ve said in many interviews, I like to really just have a nice blank mind.
Rail: When you say that though, is it that you have a subject, and the subject is obsessing you until you kind of clear it or get it out?
Tolentino: That’s definitely part of it. When I’m thinking or writing about something, it’s just on my mind all the time. The back of my mind is always thinking about four ideas that I’m in some stage of writing about, and it’s nice to switch those things out for new things, at the very least, or ideally... I mean, this is something that I have not figured out, but I do like a sense of blankness and clarity, and maybe blankness to me is one form of clarity. I also just don’t know how to moderate. In general, I like doing way too much stuff, or doing absolutely nothing, and I’m not good at anything in between. It’s the same for the way I think. I’m not good at anything in between thinking about something all the time and not thinking about something at all. It’s just sort of a natural preset that I’m just accommodating in whatever way I can.
Rail: Well, going off of this, but one thing that’s interesting is that you also seem to have kept your journals, and continuously check them against your own memory. When you're not using "I," you're often writing with research in conversation or contradiction with itself. What informed your interest in this multiple nuanced perspective and accountability, especially in context to how you were in the past?
Tolentino: I think it’s part of the basic question of how I’m very aware, and have been aware since I was much younger, that I can be very convincing to myself. It was just very obvious to me that I can be very persuasive, and I could feel that even as a twelve or thirteen-year-old, that I could persuade myself about certain things in my friendships and relationships, my whole situation, that I could tell myself a story strong enough that I would believe it and just switch the story to that. We’re not talking about outright deception, but I’d just be like, “oh, you’re this kind of person,” and I would be consciously manufacturing that idea because it was more convenient, or whatever. This is something that I think we literally all do, too: there’s no getting around it, it’s not necessarily even bad, but I was always aware of that. I think part of the reason I wrote in journals so much was so I could have a record of both that process as it was happening, and also a safeguard against shifting the narrative even further later on. Someone recently asked me why I put myself in so much of my work, and why I’m even on Twitter, when it’s such a nightmare. It’s partly just to have a record. I know I’m not clear in the moment all the time. I know I’m probably wrong about what’s happening right now, or haven’t figured something out about it. And one way of being able to understand things that are happening later is having something to reference. For example, in my head, I’m like, “oh, I wasn’t that religious in high school,” and then I go back and find proof that when I was thirteen or fourteen, I absolutely was. I find keeping a record really important, if just to remind myself of my own capacity to bullshit.
Rail: "The 'I' in Internet" seems to be, on some level, your reckoning with a platform that's given you and just about every breakout writer a voice, while also being obnoxious, tedious, insincere, banal, and unreasonable. What's your relationship with the internet like since writing this essay, and what new concerns or heartbreaks have emerged from you regarding it since?
Tolentino: Well, as I think that essay makes pretty clear, the heartbreak of the internet is the way that it is literally breaking all sense of selfhood, and scale, and whatever else. Those are my primary structural complaints with the internet, and they still hold. My main heartbreak with the internet is also that it’s not fucking fun. The way that I interact with the internet is still to try and have fun and not be annoying, but the internet is annoying and it’s not fun. This is partly because its economic model sucks, it’s horrible, but at the same time, it should still be possible to have fun on it, and I feel like it’s kind of getting to be a lost cause. It’s like, come on, what is the use of being alive if we’re not going to make this world fun and surprising? Maybe I’m disappointed in my own failure to have as much fun on it as I used to. I’ll say that since I stopped working at Jezebel, I have tweeted much less, and been on Twitter much less. This is partly because I don’t have to be on it to assign stories anymore, but also because I no longer find any value in, for example, saying anything about Trump. I’ve got nothing to say about him. It just no longer feels like a generative space to me, and it’s partly my fault, my inability to make it so, but yeah. I think I wrote that essay partly because I was having all of these feelings, and I wanted to figure out, at a basic level: the internet used to be good, now it sucks. Why?
Rail: You're incredibly hyper-aware, measured, and exacting in these essays, and admit to having been this way your entire life. Yet, in "Reality TV Me," you write about being terrified that the show would make you too aware of yourself, and complicate your own authenticity as Jia. Even now, do you think it's strange that someone that thoughtful on their own would struggle with the idea of being influenced by a show they were cast for because they already possessed this exact sense of awareness?
Tolentino: I am, I think, very thoughtful in my writing, but in my actions, (laughs) it’s not always clear. When I was in the mall, high on twenty dollars to go Forever 21 on, I was very much like “I’m a cheerleader. I can get anything done.” I don’t think I came off as someone with an enormous amount of self-awareness. They didn’t cast me as the smart one, you know, they cast me as, like, the bossy cheerleader, which is not actually how I am. I think there’s a part of me that was like that in high school: I wasn’t cast for self-awareness necessarily. I mean, I was dumb enough to go on a reality show when I was sixteen. The reason I didn’t want to watch it was because I didn’t want to have to confront this thing that I had done. I felt like it was such a miracle that I didn’t have to watch it, that I had somehow done this incredibly embarrassing thing and had never had to face up to it. It felt like a rare occasion to escape the brutal accountability that I force onto myself at every turn. So the difficulty was me finally being like, “oh no, you gotta own up to it. You gotta look at what you did,” removing one of the very few thought-free, analysis-free zones in my life. I was like, “okay, you’re going to cede this, like everything, to your writing.” It seemed like a capitulation, like one more thing I would give up and put in public, again.
Rail: The desire to be authentic appears again in “Ecstasy,” which does a great job of correlating the desire for holiness with the ecstasy of drugs. In reading, it seems that the essay is partly about how pageantry gets in the way of the connection, and I’m curious if you feel that this essay, and maybe a lot of your work, is about combating what can get in the way of your true-self?
Tolentino: To some degree, that was the primary idea of the book, to just bullshit myself a little bit less, and to understand how certain things were shaping me, and what that meant. I think that I really hunger for just an unmediated experience in everything, you know? In experience and thought, I want the most directness I can possibly find especially when something is really important, like the idea of God or pleasure. I think in general I’m after a sense of, and interested in things, which seem to be after a sense of disintermediation.
Rail: In all of these essays, and often in your work in general, there's a juxtaposition of personal narrative and research or an extracted intellectual argument. Did the essays always start with an "I," and you worked outward, or was the difficult part figuring out where you should carve out space for yourself in these larger issues?
Tolentino: I think it varied essay to essay. “Ecstasy” started with my experience, as did the UVA essay. The heroines essay, a lot of it is about my experience, but I actually would have loved to write that essay with nothing about me in it; the problem was that it didn’t work. Same with the scamming essay, I had to string myself throughout it to get the reader through a long taxonomy. So, it differed essay to essay: in some the first person was just a tool, whereas in other things it was the center.
Rail: You come up a lot, obviously, in "I Thee Dread," where you're very careful not to make an anti-marriage argument, or put pressure on the idea that it's superfluous. It's interesting that there's almost a clear-cut avoidance of writing about recently proposed marriage contracts or polyamorous arrangements, which are easy grabs for a piece like this. What work went into sussing out the consideration of marital value with the particular lenses you decided on?
Tolentino: That essay is so specifically about heterosexual, traditional weddings, and I mean, who am I to criticize, I’ve been living with a boyfriend since I was seventeen, basically. Clearly I structure my life around this shit. (laughs) And also, I think it would be the easy thing to write the case against marriage. It’s so obvious. The starting point has to be that I had a case against marriage, and the movement of the essay had to be moving away from it, or complicating it somehow.
Rail: "The Cult of Difficult Women" reads as having a different purpose than a lot of the other essays in the book. It's not simply a piece that reveals something awful about our culture, but it seems to genuinely want change, to throttle the old guard and reclaim the narrative. It's vicious in a distinct, brilliant way. Do you feel similarly about the piece, and if so, what did you want to accomplish with writing it?
Tolentino: There’s only one piece that I’ve ever written where I’ve felt similarly about this, and it's a piece that I wrote toward the end of my time at Jezebel about people getting offended. It was sort of another very long piece about the discourse, and that can be insufferable, but I will do it if something has been bugging me every day for years, because the dissatisfaction I feel, I don’t think is only mine. I think there are probably a lot of women, and people in general, who are sick of this, like, “look at Kim Kardashian clapping back against the haters and getting her money. She stood up against nude shaming, wow.” It’s such a misuse of the freedom that’s been available to us in discourse, and as people, and as feminists. There’s this constant need to turn someone into an idol in feminism, and I am impatient in general with the idea of idols. One of the things feminism should do is make it not necessary to have ideal women, and I write about that in the optimization essay in a different way. What I wanted to accomplish, with the difficult women essay, was to just make it possible to make a joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s makeup, to not be so intent on defending a woman against sexism that you lose the entire picture of who she is.