Reality Scooped: Talking with Tony Tulathimutte

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Tony Tulathimutte’s first novel, Private Citizens, came out February 2016 from HarperCollins. Lauded as a “brilliant debut” by BuzzFeed, “terrifyingly smart” by Lit Hub, and “an eloquent social novel bristling with logic” by Nell Zink, Private Citizens was named a “best of 2016” book by the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, among others. Tulathimutte’s novel follows four recent Stanford graduates through 2007-era San Francisco, a landscape of webcams, professional handshake workshops, and parties with “twenty-somethings in slouching contrapposto, clustered like stands of thistle, always smiling with friends and unsmiling when alone.”

Tulathimutte was born in Massachusetts, but like his characters, he also went to Stanford, working a stint in Silicon Valley before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Along the way, he won an O. Henry Prize and accumulated a few MacDowell fellowships, appeared on The Late Show with Seth Myers, became one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture and Elle’s Bad Boys of 2016, and won a 2017 Whiting Award. His essays have been published in places like the New York Times, the Atlantic, VICE, the Paris Review, N+1, and Playboy.

I Skyped with Tony on a Wednesday evening in mid-March, while “a shit-ton of sleet” pounded his Brooklyn neighborhood, shrouding New York City in ice. As he ate Ritz crackers in his apartment, he confessed to a day of “logistical torpor”—full of to-dos but sagging with unproductivity—and then, with the dizzying articulation of someone who seems far, far away from torpor, he spoke with me for over an hour about pandering, procrastination, and reading for pleasure.

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The Rumpus: New York Magazine called Private Citizens the “first great millennial novel,” and then last December you wrote for the New York Times that you get “acid reflux” when anyone says you’ve written about millennials. A year out from publication, how do you see different generations receiving this book?

Tony Tulathimutte: In general, there’s less of a hurdle to clear with people my own age, to convince them that people our age deserve to be read and written about. Older people are understandably skeptical about looking at a twenty-four-year-old and saying, “Tell me how to live.” If you are approaching literature for this insight and wisdom, it can be a barrier and hurdle to assume that people who are younger than you have nothing to say to you. But tell that to Rimbaud, tell that to Keats. I’m not comparing myself to them; what I’m saying is that I don’t have to convince younger people that I’m worth listening to.

Rumpus: Are there different responses to the satirical elements of the book?

Tulamathitthe: Absolutely, to the extent that it is perceived as satire at all. The ways people judge it as either satire or realism are very telling. Most people my age understand that most of the book isn’t exaggerated much. That’s not to say that it’s not hyperbolic in some parts, but that some of the things that seem preposterous or over-plotted—the things that seem that like I am caricaturing people—would seem, if you’d spent any time in the milieu that I am writing about, entirely naturalistic and almost too easy. These days I have an informal rule to deal with preposterous stuff in nonfiction, because factuality is taken for granted there. In fiction, I often find myself having to tone things down. This is going to have to be the default mode for fiction writing in 2017, because shit is preposterous.

That said, there are older readers who were astute enough to see above all this, even though it’s not where they live. People like Nell Zink could tell it wasn’t satire; it was social fiction. I tweeted something like, “satire ≠ ‘story where people are portrayed unflatteringly.’” And she emailed me and said she hadn’t read it as satire, but as rational realism, for “people whose thinking occasionally influences their feelings and not only the other way around.”

Rumpus: That reminds me how much I loved Linda’s writer persona. She wants to write, but she feels afternoons are for torpor, evenings are for living, and mornings are for recovery. It’s this drawn-out ode to procrastination. With Seth Meyers you spoke about the can-be productivity of procrastination, and I wonder if you can talk about how that is part of your writing routine.

Tulathimutte: Yeah, I always balk at people who write about their productivity as if it was exactly the same as punching into a factory or office. It’s really disingenuous. The artistic process can be brute-forced, and you can benefit from throwing time at it, but it’s not an input-output labor scheme. On the other hand, artists sometimes justify procrastination as “process”—they’ll take a three-hour walk in the woods and say they need it to write a semicolon. They end up romanticizing or aestheticizing their process to the point that they’ve made a personal art out of being lazy. Writing is nothing like an office job and yet it requires an intense level of self-accountability to get real work done. Because it’s not pleasant, much of it. I’ve said it’s like filling a waterbed with the moisture from your sighing. It’s hard.

Rumpus: So how was this book plotted, or born?

Tulathimutte: It wasn’t plotted at all. It was written in the stupidest way possible, which was all at once. I had ideas for thoughts, characters, individual sentences, and I wrote them down in a gigantic nebula of Word files. Then I saw that some parts were getting more attention and cohering more than others, and then it became clear how they could be organized by theme and section. I had to hack through eleven hundred pages of fluff to eventually spin it down to a 900-page manuscript, which became a 380-page book. So yeah, that was the process. It involved a lot of procrastination and was really stupid. I fucked that one up so badly that I’m actually doing the same exact thing with four books at the same time right now.

Rumpus: You’re publishing a lot of essays right now, and you seem really comfortable in that essayistic voice. Is that what you’re drawn to now?

Tulathimutte: Well, there are two kinds of essays. There are the essays that I never expected to get published because they are so fucking weird, like the Bruce Lee essay for The American Reader, which I think will be the banner essay in the collection that I’m working on. That came out of procrastinating writing my novel, because publishing people will tell you “Get the novel out first,” since people don’t want to buy short stories, and certainly not longform criticism. They want to buy either memoir, novels, or personal essays. But part of why it took seven years to write this book is because I was doing this other dumb shit. Stuff I care about a lot, but is professional suicide. So that is one sort of essay that I write.

The other sort of essay is just book promotion. That is mostly what I published in 2016, except for a handful of pieces that I published in weird places, like my friend’s blog Enormous Eye or The Believer. Most of those were things that I wrote in one week but didn’t want to half-ass either. I actually tweeted about this today. When I’m writing for a magazine I’m Paper Mario, and when I’m writing for myself I’m Wario with his shirt off.

Rumpus: You’ve spoken about how reading should be “revoltingly indulgent,” not something we do to achieve “radical empathy.” I like this concept of intellectual hedonism, and that we should be reading because it’s fun, not because it’s good for us.

Tulathimutte: Fun, and also, that’s what life is, and what we’re writing about is life. Why wouldn’t there be some osmotic interplay between the two, right? In our puritanical culture, we end up with the unexamined outlook that work should be unpleasant, and that the end goal is to get into the Valhalla of literary success with some important beret-wearing novel. We are supposed to feel guilty about reading books that we enjoy, because enjoyable writing is presumed bad.

Rumpus: How has this personally influenced you in what you’re writing, or what you’re picking up and reading?

Tulathimutte: I am trying my hardest not to let my modest attention and validation in any way affect my priorities. It’s sort of like Pascal’s wager. Either you try to please people or you don’t, and readers either like it or they don’t. The absolute best position you can be in is to write a book you deeply care about, and it’s something so inventive and personal that nobody would’ve thought to ask you for it, yet nonetheless everyone finds it so great and beautiful they’re just puking money and honor on you. Like Leslie Jamison or Eleanor Catton. Who thought that a seven-million-page book about gold prospectors in 18th century New Zealand would not only win a Booker Prize, but just be so fucking fun?

But most writers don’t get this deal. Most struggle with some compromise between what they think people enjoy and what they personally care about. Those who fall on the side of excessive compromise can carve out a following and get lots of mentions and shares and faves and convince themselves at the end of the day that this is what they really want to write about. Zadie Smith wrote a great essay about this, “Fail Better,” about when writers know deep down that they’ve failed, but their good reviews convince them otherwise. That’s the phenomenon I’m talking about, where the temptation of attention or accolade just gives you an excuse not to try as hard. If you try so hard to crowd-please, to the point where you carve out a whole career with work you barely like, well, that’ll fuck you up. A writer who doesn’t try to attract an audience and then gets no audience—well, in a way that’s sad, because you want to find your readers, but you still have your book to console you. And then there’s hell, which is trying as hard as possible—to draw an audience, to write think pieces, to tweet, be relevant, make connections, get good bylines, to just completely stick to writing whatever you think will “do well”—and then failing at that, which happens all the time. And that is writer hell. So to me, if you want a shot at Nirvana, you have to reject the economy of relevance that is so incredibly tempting because its rewards are so conspicuous.

Rumpus: Then there’s that writer’s cliché of “going in the woods” to escape the din of chatter and whatnot. But you’re on Twitter, you’re writing about characters who are hyper-connected. How do you balance this?

Tulathimutte: Right, I think that’s a leftover ideal from 19th century Transcendentalism, that Walden thing. I have a lot of writing friends who find going out to Yaddo useful, but I what I’m doing isn’t any less artful just because I’m engaging—or I should say lurking—online while I’m putting in my eight to twelve hours. The real secret isn’t isolation, it’s being a dork and investing so much time and attention into your writing that there’s no way that you could fail to come up with something interesting.

Rumpus: This makes me think of your first published story, which won an O. Henry prize, and is set in Alaska. You used to write a lot of young, white, female protagonists, and now you’re writing a different sort of characters. You’ve written about how this switch is avoiding a certain kind of self-indulgence. Can you say more about this?

Tulathimutte: Absolutely. I was raised in Western Massachusetts, which was mostly white. I went to a not all-girls but mostly-girls private school for mostly middle school and high school. It was called the MacDuffie School for Girls; our mascot was a unicorn. After school my sister had figure skating practice so I’d have to hang out at the rink. None of this is to say I have any inside track on what it’s like to be a woman, or that my circumstances made me more woke or enlightened, just that when you’re young, the people you’re around impress upon you. You internalize the values and attitudes and affects of the culture you’re in, unless you happen to be exceptionally headstrong. I was not.

So when I started writing in freshman year at college, that was my material. I was reading white people, and everything I saw praised was by and about either white people or exoticized PoC, and I had no interest in my own life experience (which was basically playing video games in the basement)—it all became a perfect storm of pandering. It was almost a conscious decision. I started out by writing weird stuff—still about white people, but stuff you’d call slipstream—and I saw it didn’t get a good response. The moment I started more consciously pandering, at around nineteen years old, with realist fiction about sad white people portrayed with capital-E Empathy, I won my college’s undergraduate fiction prize, got published in Threepenny Review, and won the O. Henry Prize. That was totally impartial validation, and enormously destructive. I know I sound like an asshole for saying I regret winning an award, but it ended up reinforcing the feeling that if I gave people what they wanted, then I’d get acknowledged as a worthwhile individual in ways I never had before.

Rumpus: In Private Citizens you do this thing where Will is in some ways a sort of doppelgänger for you because he’s Asian and he’s worked in tech, but then you totally skewer him. You’ve called this “booby trapping” identity politics.

Tulathimutte: Yeah, here’s my take on this. I respect and admire any work on behalf of people who have been historically pushed to the side, or not given a voice. But because I know that readers of The Rumpus or any literary publication are already going to agree with these pieties, I don’t think it’s productive to say, “Yes, minority representation is good; here’s a positive take on us.” Instead I want to address writers and say, if you want to embrace the values of writing in your activism, it’s not enough to just use your platform to make yourself and your identity category more visible; you also have to avoid cliché. Writing is about individuality. It demands that we don’t uncritically engage with ideas or language that get used to the point of near-meaningless.

For instance, terms like “erasure” and “self-care” and “problematic,” of course they’re important intro-level concepts with sturdy critical underpinnings. They’re very important to have in our cultural vocabulary. But expressing those concepts every time with those same words risks turning them into jargon and shibboleths, which connote more than they denote, and are embraced uncritically. To me it sits uneasily with the imperative in writing to present things in defamiliarized ways that force us to reexamine them. On an almost cognitive level, this is what makes language effective. I’m always telling students that cliché extends way beyond stock phrases like “he sprang up” and “then he was off like a shot.” It goes down to the level of word frequency and usage. Whether you use vague words like “be” or “went.” Zadie Smith, again, mentioned how in each of her novels a character “rummages” through their purse. That is on the spectrum of cliché. It’s a low-grade cliché, but a cliché nonetheless. More broadly, for writers who feel invisible and want to distinguish themselves, like a lot of Asian writers I know, you’re just not going to want to sound like anyone else, even those you agree with ideologically. It’s as much as matter of style as rhetorical effectiveness.

Rumpus: A quick note on the subject of clichés: I distinctly remember a line from the book where you talk about the different flavors in smoking a cigarette.

Tulathimutte: An unlit cigarette smells like a big fat raisin; go and check, it’s true! And it makes your fingers smell like soy sauce afterward.

Anyway, I’m not trying to be an iconoclast or contrarian by going after progressive discourse, because that is its own kind of personal branding, for which I have nothing but contempt. And again, I’d never disparage people who are doing good work, even if they happen to express themselves in clichés now and then. I’m just trying to articulate an ideal of political expression for writers. I mainly criticize the tendencies I see in myself, like wanting to be recognized, to be heard and seen and say politically relevant things, but also be applauded for it. However important the work might be, it can still be vain. I’m not saying that most people do it because they are trying to make themselves look good, but virtue signaling and joinerism are always temptations.

Rumpus: When I was revisiting your book, I found myself laughing when Linda makes a list of all the famous writers who have been struck by cars. This made me think about the good amount of sickness and pain your characters experience in the book. It’s almost slapstick, but it’s also really real. It made me think of what Ottessa Moshfegh puts her characters through. I wonder if you were thinking about this while you were writing?

Tulathimutte: That’s fantastic; no one has asked me that before. People who are possibly too educated for their own good can become unable to switch out of their accustomed intellectual mode. When you mine everything for meaning, the hermeneutics overshadow the erotics, even to the point where instead of feeling your own pain, you mediate it or stack it up against the pain of historical figures. The intellect is often thought to mitigate or redeem suffering, but it can also be a way of avoiding kinds of suffering that can be necessary to just experience.

Anyway, this all has to do with empathy. When I said that empathy is sort of overrated in the literary community, I meant it. I think when people inflict suffering on their characters these days, it is less because they suffer from what John Gardner called “frigidity” and more that they’re relating to their characters so much that an entire book of sadistic suffering seems like it might have kind of deep meaning. When really it’s just an exercise. You know, I’ve said that masturbatory isn’t a bad word in art. But here it’s almost like mutual ball-stomping. Or even worse, self-mutilating in a way that you think is going to get other people off. It’s like “I have proven myself to be admirably caring in my depiction of this character’s incredible suffering, and you are going to think of yourself as a kinder, more enlightened person because you spent your time on contemplating the existence of suffering. Win-win.”

I realize that now is a weird time to say stuff like this. Where we’re at politically there is an enormous deficit of willingness to see immigrants or women as people at all. But this just goes to show you how much of a bubble the literary world is. Now more than ever, empathy is valorized in fiction, with zero fucking effect on culture at large. We cannot expect it to, because there is no replacement for direct political action, which is what we really need. Not discussing, not depicting, but doing.

Rumpus: Who or where are you turning to read in this weird time, either in books or on the Internet?

Tulathimutte: Books I like to keep private, mostly, so let’s talk about Twitter. Twitter is my joke dumpster. I offload the stuff I think about in the shower that’s so dumb that it has to be heard, and stuff that is not good enough to actually be in my books. That said, I believe in games and in play. Putting stuff out for no other reason but to amuse myself or other people is totally fine and need not be criticized. And yeah, you do need to push past a lot of personal branding and preening and pomp, but once you get comfy with the mute button, it’s a great little non-intrusive stethoscope for eavesdropping on other people. Plus I asked out my girlfriend (@deirdrekoala) over Twitter. She’s better at it than I am.

I like Sex Work Twitter and Nerd Twitter and Political Snark Twitter. We’ve gotten to the point where even some corporate Twitter accounts are worth following, like Melville House and Merriam-Webster. My favorites would probably be Merritt K, Leon, Kashana Cauley, and Weird Twitter standbys like @dril and @dasharez0ne and Megan Amram. Jarry Lee is a meme prodigy. I love that most of these people are strangers I only know from Twitter. There’s @ILLCapitano94, I think he’s like a college student somewhere. This girl @ElSangito—sharp, funny, someone with a very strong social consciousness, but is really on Twitter just for making incredibly great stupid puns.

Rumpus: I was thinking about the way that the book—which is set in 2007—sort of prefigures a lot of what we are going through right now, from conversations about political correctness and activism to these surreal “post-truths.” What would your characters be doing in 2017?

Tulathimutte: Yeah, it’s weird to be nostalgic for two wars and a recession. Cory would be doing her activism, probably with some financial underwriting from her Libertarian father, who’s probably no more happier with our heavy-handed philistine authoritarian. Linda would probably be concerned, but more concerned about the condition of her writing, because she’d believe on some deep level that art outlasts life, and so that even if we all die in a gigantic mushroom cloud, it’ll be okay if she can just find some way to get her book in hardcover. Will would not be all that concerned about politics, because he’s so pessimistic and feels so marginalized and voiceless anyway that he’d be worrying more about his dating life, post-trauma and post-breakup. Henrik is just one of these guys who is probably trying to keep his head above water no matter what’s happening politically.

Rumpus: I’m curious if what you have been working on has changed since November 8. Have your concerns changed?

Tulathimutte: I had to throw away the book that I was working on. I had been working on a novel broadly about standup comedy and video games, and the ways in which they create these realities or spaces of suspended disbelief, or of structured fantasy. But the valence of fake news and fiction has obviously shifted now. Reality scooped me on this one.

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Author photograph © Beowulf Sheehan.


Erica Berry's journalism and essays have appeared online at The Columbia Journalism Review, the Atlantic, The Morning News, and Guernica, among others. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Reach her at www.ericaberry.com or @ericajberry. More from this author →