Everything Jia Tolentino Touches Turns to the Gold Standard
The New Yorker Staff Writer’s Debut Essay Collection Will Break Your Brain (in the Most Beautiful Way)
- Interview: Haley Mlotek
- Photography: Andrew Jacobs
“It’s been awhile since I wrote something that made people mad,” Jia Tolentino told me recently. We were sitting inside her Brooklyn apartment with her beloved, terrible dog Luna—a mysterious giant breed that a DNA test once suggested is part Saint Bernard, part chihuahua (though Jia has her doubts). “I haven’t accidentally written or published something problematic in a long time,” she explained. “I’ve gotten soft. Like a person who has moved to Los Angeles, but for the internet.”
With all due respect to people who live in Los Angeles, I know what she means. (And with all due respect to people who live in Los Angeles: you know what she means). I met Jia five years ago, when we both moved to New York for overlapping jobs. That was the first time I experienced Jia’s style of conversation—cool and curious, rapid and unpredictable. I absolutely never know what she’s going to say next but I know every word will feel as true as gravity. When talking to Jia about what she thinks, whether something is good or bad is beside the point. Elucidation is what she’s after, and she gets it because she always asks: what do you mean?
Now, with the publication of her first book, Jia has asked and answered the same question for herself. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, is a collection of nine essays entirely recognizable as writing that only Jia can do about the themes that obsess her — truth and beauty, solidarity and morality, literary heroines and pop stars, spiritual and pharmaceutical forms of euphoria, her loves and her Luna.
Jia’s writing comes to her readers with a quickness. Each sentence feels, to your mind, the way it feels to pop air bubbles with your fingers. As the contributing editor of The Hairpin, Jia wrote about music, beauty, power, and pop songs; as the deputy editor of Jezebel, she wrote about adolescence and maturity, gender and femininity, transcendence and ambiguity. Currently a staff writer at the New Yorker, Jia’s territories of thought have covered everything from vaping, Shen Yun, the athleisure brand Outdoor Voices, skincare routines, the work of Ovid, the film Drop Dead Gorgeous, the music of Carly Rae Jepsen, and some truly ridiculous memes.
When I think of her writing, it’s her style as an interviewer I think of first. Jia has trained her attention on so many different people (such as third trimester abortion providers and the women who require their services, as well as a long-running “Interview With A Virgin” series; at Jezebel, she somewhat famously interviewed a man whose sexuality was “has sex with dolphins”). Jia’s interviews are pinnacles of the form, as much for the inquisitive and respectful manner she uses when talking to her subjects as for how the tiny miracles she creates when she turns their thoughts into words.
Zadie Smith, in advance praise for the book, said it filled her with hope; Patricia Lockwood said that the prose Jia uses in her writing feels like a consolation. But what will Trick Mirror make readers feel? I was surprised at the moments that moved me. I did not expect, for example, that a story about appearing on a competition-based reality tv show and participating in a hot mayonnaise eating contest would make me cry. There are ideas that, like Jia predicted, could make you angry. The economy of Jia’s thinking with the opulence of her language can, I admit, hurt your heart. That moment of recognition might be because you found an area you didn’t know could bruise, proof that you’re softer than you thought. Maybe it’ll be the change of temperature you need, to try and feel the world the same way Jia does. I don’t know. Instead, I asked her questions about subtext and scammers, writing and reading, capitalism and beauty. Throughout, Jia couldn’t help herself—she kept trying to ask me questions—and I tried my best to answer honestly, before bringing the conversation back to where we started.
There’s a backstage quality to Trick Mirror—so many of these essays cover ideas or themes that you’ve written about in the last few years. You don’t revisit the same topics, exactly, but you do re-examine some of the same concepts.
I find that when I’m writing a piece it’s about one thing, but really it’s about another, but it’s really, really about another thing. I have a fixed subset of what things are really, really about, and I keep revisiting what my writing is nominally about to get to that third level. Some of the essays started at the New Yorker. Half of that was that I was already thinking about an essay for the book, and then something would happen and I’d realize I had been thinking about this topic for six months. Everything I write about is only what I’m thinking about.
What made you decide that your first published book would be an essay collection?
I think I picked the essay form because I was worried. I’m always worried about tainting things by being conscious of them. Especially the most personal one in there, the ecstasy one. I was like: by externalizing this incredibly personal calculation I’ve been running for years about divinity and transcendence and desire, am I sullying that actual curiosity in myself? And then I wrote it and it was like: no, not at all. You aren’t even close to figuring it out. I will still be trying to figure this out forever. The book captures, I think, eighteen months of really intensely trying to seize my flow of questioning. It was a relief to realize I didn’t actually figure anything out.
I’ve been feeling a little bereft since finishing the book; not really bereft, but I don’t have an avenue for all of those thoughts I’ve been churning through. It was satisfying to feel like you’re figuring things out so intensely, and that was part of what was pleasurable and torturous to write this book.
There are just certain things I still feel very unsatisfied about in my own writing. I’m unsatisfied by the idea that there’s something to be argued into the light. There’s a whole realm of discussion that is beyond argument. That’s one of the reasons I can’t write fiction now, because my brain has gotten so good at arguing. That’s so not what fiction is for.
I guess it’s a contribution you make in the moment, and then if you’re lucky, you can return to it. When I was reading Trick Mirror, I didn’t find the essays argumentative, but they are very persuasive. There’s a philosophical quality to them.
When people ask me what I want people to “take away” from the book, I’m like: nothing. Not nothing. The way my brain works is that I was trying to self-correct against a forceful quality of argumentation that I already have.
Right, the whole point of the title is that any one reflection could hold its opposite reflection, and each reflection could be equally true.
Yeah. Something I wrote about is that I’ve always had a baseline suspicion that anything I think about myself is probably wrong. For example, I think of myself as an extremely laid-back person. That could be diametrically wrong. I don’t know.
Like I fucking spent all my time for a year and a half doing this incredibly unchill thing!
I did want to ask you if there was something that connected the essays in your collection. When I was reading, it seemed like they all circled around the idea of too much of a good thing.
Maybe. I think I am extremely attuned to pleasure, and satisfaction. In my leanings in the world, I lean towards excess.
The essays, in my reading, do all speak to each other. You go from your essay about religious euphoria and ecstasy into “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams.” There are references to people like Joan of Arc, heretics in their time but then later known as martyrs. When I was reading I wondered if the “trick mirror” of the collection was that every scammer is someone’s prophet, and every prophet is someone’s scammer.
Uh. Whoa. Uh, Haley.
Is that what you were thinking?
No, not at all. But…yeah, clearly I was, subconsciously.
You describe yourself this way in your essay about being on reality television: a guilelessness, even as you also think carefully about your narrative.
I’m lying to myself when I say I don’t think about it. But I don’t have those thoughts as ideas. Like maybe if you hadn’t said that just now, in two years, I would have realized it. I write, in part, because I think it will help me understand things later on. I’m leaving myself clues. But the reality TV essay in particular held a lot of realizations for me. I really believed that weird things just happened to me, and now it’s like, no, I actively court them, and I believe that I deserve and am worthy of a heightened, strange experience.
You’ve said that “Ecstasy” is the most personal one in the collection.
I’m a little nervous about the people I grew up with reading it. I’m always worried about being unkind. I did leave a lot out for that reason. I forget, as well, that for me to say the people I grew up with had political beliefs that can be summed up as low taxes and the unconditional righteousness of war is a devastating description, but for them that description is like, absofuckinglutely.
It’s another instance of the moral quality of language, where an accurate description seems like a judgement. But the judgement exists only in our feeling about the statement.
I’m curious, though, because to me the most personal essay is “Reality TV Me.” You write about realizing how much you believed you needed to be worthy of someone looking at you; about the Madame Bovarys of the world, women who are destroyed by what they think they want. Then there’s also the influence of Simone Weil, who believed that attention was the highest form of grace. The idea of attention as being both destructive and transcendent, all at once, seems personal, and fraught.
Maybe the poison I’m thinking of is introduced in those moments only when one pretends to be the other. Like when the need for attention disguises itself. I’ve built something in myself— not just by being a woman but by trying to be cool—trying to pretend I don’t care about attention when I clearly did and do. The Simone Weil quality of attention is different; the poison is the modernization of it. Her version of attention was unmediated, physical, person-to-person. The systems we have now are just ways to artificially multiply that. I thought about this recently when I was trying to not use social media for a month. But I realized I actually do want my attention to be divided between my work and my friends.
Trick Mirror is very much about the expectations both for reading and running a women’s publication. And in the same way you mentioned the expectation that a reader of a book has to learn something, or “take away” something from a book, I do think there’s a similar directive implied in women’s media…maybe as much from the editorial as from the readers.
There’s an editorial belief of what women’s media is or should be, and then there’s the reader’s belief. I think it’s all refracted through the systems in which women’s online media came to be, which is social media amplification. Everything goes back to this question of: am I good or am I bad? Is it feminist, or not? The phrase “trick mirror” came from a 2015 essay I wrote, about how what women want from a woman’s website is what we’ve been taught to want in regards to ourselves. The ability to see yourself as flawless, while also constantly finding fault. At the time, I hadn’t realized that that was reflecting some anxiety about what I’m also doing. I was trying to find all the flaws in my thinking in a way that would absolve myself.
In that same essay, you write about this binary—are you good or are you bad—and how what you read or who you hang out with or whatever just becomes a way to confirm that. At a certain point, the language tips over into something else, something that functions as moral justification. Like the feminist language that’s been applied to women in the Trump administration is the most extreme example; the belief that any woman in power must be good for women.
One of the best things that feminist media did was surface that when the world demonizes a woman, it’s often not because she’s doing something wrong. It’s usually because she’s trying to live as a person not bounded within the realm of the domestic or whatever. But now it’s flipped into this thing where just because a lot of the criticism is unfounded…I’m kind of nervous to say this, but it’s like it’s flipped into this thing where if you receive criticism, it’s a sign you’re automatically doing something right.
Awhile ago we talked about how the act of being thoughtless isn’t bad—it happens—it’s the rationalization that it was right to be thoughtless, or that it wasn’t bad of you to be thoughtless. Feeling hurt can be good. Not in a way where we have to assign a moral quality to every mood, necessarily. But those sore spots reveal something. What makes you nervous to talk about the flaws in feminism?
Well…I mean…you know.
Don’t you know? There are a couple of things. One of my essays, “The Cult of Difficult Women,” is about three books that were well-received for good reasons, and I don’t want to be ungenerous. I still have an awareness from editing at Jezebel of how easy it is to make mistakes, and to think in a way that’s insufficiently generous.
It’s good to feel nervous about something. It means you think it’s important. One of the things I’ve loved so much about Ellen Willis’ writing is that she was such a feminist and such a critic of feminism. I assigned one of her essays to this class I’m teaching at Columbia right now, the one where she’s confessing that the Sex Pistols turn her on, and she has this one line: “It seemed to me that too many of the women’s culture people had merely switched from trying to please men to trying to please other women.” I think that the post-Weinstein feminist discourse is basically inseparable from mainstream discourse now; it’s not, in a lot of ways, the same world my essay was about when it was written two years ago. But there is this idea that disagreement is fatal to feminism. That dissent and disagreement is seen as destructive and not constructive. But maybe that’s not true anymore.
Speaking of moral qualities: do you think money is bad?
No, it’s just how people use it. Well…what do you think?
There’s a lot in the book about how money inherently corrupts.
I think that’s true. If the question is, do I think money inherently corrupts?, then yes. I do think no one should make over a million dollars a year. Money over a certain point is always bad. But money up to a certain point is everything. It’s health, freedom, self-determination…and I do feel strongly that when those things intertwine with the market, it taints them.
Maybe money is too easy. Maybe it’s capital as a concept. There’s a certain kind of person who can, and does, make money off that capital, but so much of fame has a value outside of money. And between people, as you write in your essays about women’s media, there’s a commodification of relationships that are supposed to be given willingly. The market you’re describing turns them into something so material and transactional.
It’s always there, even in completely offline friendships. Capital flows through all relationships. It’s not like friendships wouldn’t be channels for advancement or whatever. It’s this feeling that something good is being monetized. It’s more like the obscenity thing—you can always tell, subconsciously, which one is taking priority. When someone is on social media out of a sense of obligation, or an impulse, not about the forming and keeping of relationships,you can always tell. Both things can co-exist and not necessarily taint the other but when one instinct is present the other is right there with it.
Or, possibly, it’s more related to what you’ve written about how you don’t consciously think about social media, because that contributes to madness. So what is sanity, when it comes to performing a version of yourself?
I think sanity is unconsciousness. The type of unadulterated thinking that can only come from a type of oblivion. And I’ve pursued that in a lot of ways. I was drawn to it in religion; I’ve been drawn to it through drugs; I’ve been drawn to it through exhausting my brain through writing. I’m drawn to it being fully absorbed in either solitude or with someone you love. But I think I am in really, full-throated, holistic pursuit of something harder and harder to find in the systems we exist in. My tactics get pretty close to a lot of things that are dangerous, like thoughtlessness. Maybe that’s why I’m so on guard for that. Maybe that’s why I write so much. Maybe it’s more about avoidance. What do you think sanity is?
Like what does it feel like to you, since I can’t answer what it is.
The true impulse I had was to say control.
I was going to guess it was control for you!
Yes…I, too, can tell on myself. Well, the reason I think that answer is telling on myself is that it implies I think madness, or however we agree to define madness, is always present, and sanity is about keeping it in check. When you’re writing about yourself, there’s a perception that you have some control over how you’ll be read. But that’s not how it happens. Think of how many writers reveal themselves at their worst when they think they’re presenting a defense. They tell on themselves. To say “sanity is control” speaks to an idea I clearly have about what control does for the way we perform who we are.
And to something being out of control, to having an inadequate level of perception. It’s funny, I really knew you were going to say control, for some reason. Like I’m talking about oblivion and you’re talking about control. They are the basic drives we exhibit in how we are in the world. It’s not like I’m walking about in a continual state of oblivion and you’re not walking around being hyper-controlling, but it’s sort of a deep aesthetic thing. A reaching towards both of our brains.
The closest I’ve gotten so far to deciding what my book is about is that it has an animating impulse—there’s an incentive to see ourselves, to really micro-target ourselves, and I think it has distanced us from who we really are. And how every system in the world could be isolating us in these very precise identities, making the knowledge of our identities seem so impossible. Every potential reader is impossible and false. At the same time, the desire to find them exists for a real, meaningful reason. Did you get your hair done?
I got the roots done.
Thank you, I also got it toned, so it’s very blonde. But yeah, specifically with feminist thought—so much of my political sensibilities are based in feminism, but feminism is not the driving force of my politics, if that makes sense.
Well, it was our entry point in a lot of ways, right?
And it has so many avenues to express itself in…I think a lot about wanting to recognize what’s come before me, and what will come after me.
I also have this guiding principle that no matter what I think—and certainly no matter what I think about feminism—this has already been done so many times. All of these thoughts have been expressed with more purity. In my essay about self-optimization, “Always Be Optimizing,” I’m not saying anything that isn’t in The Second Sex.
I wrote an essay in 2013 about this, and we were at a different point of the economy of self-surveillance then, but the combination of feminism’s total deference to whatever it takes to make women money combined with the now near-total ability to self-broadcast…the obvious thing would be to make beauty matter less, but we can’t, because beauty matters economically. And I can’t find it in myself to fault someone for doing something that they feel will help them navigate this terrible world. So instead of making beauty matter less we narrowed the conditions under which it was approbate. And all of those ways just happen to cost a fuck ton of money.
It’s the same kind of moral quality we were talking about with language, except your body. Good skin is no longer about what you put on it, it’s a sign that you’re good.
It’s why beauty used to be shorthand for virtue but now beauty is virtue itself. Because it’s been encoded with making health a thing of worth and value, and a vision of beauty where you are extremely well and not stressed and drink a lot of water and have perfect skin. It’s punitive. And I do think feminism, with really good intentions, created that. There was a feminism that was never able to let go of the idea that a woman should be beautiful, as long as she was beautiful in the right way.
I feel I have consciously decided to love beauty and I won’t let it go.
I do too. Look how much money we spend on our hair! And our roots are good!
Knowing how warped this belief is has not changed how committed I am to it! I don’t know if it ever will! Isn’t everybody born vain?
Some people are more vain and superficial than others. But part of it is being a cute kid. I was trained to believe that I wanted compliments, I wanted to be told I looked pretty, and I still want that. My whole book might be about this kind of knowledge: the complete insufficiency of knowledge to change faith. You can figure it all out but it doesn’t fucking matter, I’m still a monster. I talk about this all the time! I’m superficial!
Another bad belief I’ve inherited is this idea that the writers I love couldn’t help themselves; they had to write. It doesn’t do justice to how intensely they worked, or what was left out, or unpublished; it narrows the scope to the literal words on the page.
That’s a quality I see in a lot of writers I love. They share the idea that they just couldn’t help it, they had to put it in words. Especially the Joan Didion thing, where she was so tied to the concept of evoking beauty for its own sake. That’s how I think about her as a writer, but less so a writer who would say what she actually meant. In that way writing is a form of control and a form of oblivion.
Self-delusion is the book's central concern—how do you define self-delusion? And then: What would the opposite of self-delusion be, and how would you define that?
Having a deeply held idea about yourself, or your place in the world, that is meaningfully untrue. I think the opposite of self-delusion is self-interrogation, which I just realized is obviously why I wrote this book. And I would imagine that the opposite state of a self-delusional one is a state of clarity and humility and a galvanization to do justice to the basically unbelievable fact of being alive.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Haley Mlotek’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, The Globe and Mail, and Hazlitt, among others. She is currently working on a book about romance and divorce.
- Interview: Haley Mlotek
- Photography: Andrew Jacobs
- Styling: Mark Jen Hsu
- Hair and Makeup: Rei Tajima
- Date: August 7, 2019