A Sense of Scale: Talking with Jia Tolentino

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Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion begins: “In the beginning the Internet seemed good.” And after reading Jia Tolentino’s debut collection of essays, one might wonder if the Bible is indeed in need of a rewrite, to take into account the new reality of living in the age of the Internet. Tolentino’s writing is less about the topics she tackles—social media, Internet scamming, optimization, marriage—than it is about the self as it tries to see and think clearly. A venerable catalog of existence in the age of self-presentation and self-delusion, Trick Mirror is a work of high-paced cultural criticism that’s at its best when it settles into precious moments of stillness.

Among the newest, and youngest, staff writers at the New Yorker, Tolentino is making an early and deep impression on the literary establishment. While entertaining the same immemorial ideas as her colleagues, and in similarly exquisite language, she does so in a way that only a person who was molded by writing and living on the Internet can. Tolentino proceeds with a daring tone and the courage to go into niches that reputation usually prevents.

Raised in Texas, Tolentino studied at the University of Virginia before serving in Kyrgyzstan in the Peace Corps and receiving her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. She was a contributing editor at The Hairpin and the deputy editor at Jezebel, and her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Grantland, Pitchfork, and other publications. She now lives in Brooklyn.

Tolentino and I talked recently about the taxing pace of optimization, timelessness, humility, the value of the reader, and learning to take oneself seriously.

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The Rumpus: Let’s talk Trick Mirror. Just to set the scene, I live off the grid in the mountains of New Mexico.

Jia Tolentino: Really? I once volunteered with the forest service in the Gila Wilderness in Southern New Mexico. Down near the border area, it seemed so enchanted, and very remote. I loved the feeling of the ghost towns. I remember once we were in this town and the only people who lived there were loggers and ranchers and park rangers and they all seemed to be ageless, like eighty and also thirty.

Rumpus: I wonder if timelessness is just a part of the place. Since I moved here in March, I rarely look at clocks or watches and it happened without my noticing, just as a slow effect of being here. Which brings me back to my experience of reading Trick Mirror. The pace of the book was exhilarating, but I was physically affected; my heartbeat was actually changed. Is the pace of the book reflective of your frequency of life in New York?

Tolentino: I’m actively dealing with trying to discern whether I’m upset or calm, always wondering if the world gives me a feeling or if it’s my innate feeling. Generally, I always feel extremely calm, but then something will happen. Recently I wrote about E. Jean Caroll’s essay and was like, yup, just another week. And then I went into the doctor and they told me I needed to go on beta blockers immediately because my blood pressure was at an emergency level. But I felt fine. So this is the problem, and maybe this comes out in my writing, my being is able to sustain a sense of constant emergency at the same time I sustain a feeling of total calm.

But I’ve only lived in New York since 2014. Before that I lived in Michigan and I had a much calmer life, as in I drove to the farm every two weeks to get my box of vegetables and I made pizza dough and I walked around slowly in the sunshine reading one paragraph at a time. Before that I did the Peace Corps in a remote place, which is to say I gravitate towards quiet. Which presents another sort of personal problem that also comes out in my writing. I’m extremely adaptable. If I’m in any situation for forty-eight hours, I feel like I’ve been there for my whole life. I don’t know what my natural state is anymore.

When I was in grad school, in that aura of luxurious free time, I started freelancing and learned that the strongest muscle I have is more suited to a fast pace than a slow one. That was an important thing to realize about myself and one I’m trying to use productively, as I did with writing the book while also working as a staff writer at the New Yorker. But now that it’s done, I’m trying to figure out how to not work like that so much. I don’t want to always be operating at this pace.

Rumpus: That pace of efficiency is such a potent theme in your work. In your essay, “Always Be Optimizing,” you note that we’re all trying to be hyper-adaptable and productive, while recognizing its insanity. And then in “The I in the Internet” you describe the pace as “a feverish hell.” So you see what’s shaping you, but you’re also looking for something still, like a true self. Is that what you’re searching for?

Tolentino: Well, by the sense of living in hell I mean all of these systems that govern life and drive today, the movement of our economy and our culture. Maybe the tension is that I do feel like myself inside of it and I always have. I’ve always been able to find enormous amounts of pleasure in the presence of what I hate the most. Of course, I wouldn’t say that with everything, but generally.

But I wasn’t actively identifying anything that I was searching for in this book. The closest I am able to say I was looking for is, maybe, how to talk about selfhood in a culture that’s built to distort it in these certain ways. What’s it like to talk about morality in a culture that’s saturated with structural immortality?

Rumpus: There’s this one very short line in “The I In the Internet” in which you lay out these virtues, or at least I’m tempted to call them virtues. You mention culpability and inconsistency, which seem rather in vogue in writing right now, this willingness to disagree with yourself in a piece of prose. But you go on to mention insignificance, which I don’t hear a lot and is such a very profound idea for me. I’m curious where that comes from and what that looks like for you?

Tolentino: That’s such a good question. I was just thinking about it this morning because I was thinking about The Three-Body Trilogy by Cixin Liu. The best thing about those books is the expression of pure insignificance and futility. It’s so thrilling and fulfilling and alive. That value system is the opposite of what you’d find in American science fiction, which is all shoot-outs and manifest destiny versus the grand sense of humility.

So, while I haven’t spent that much time in the West, I was just out in Boulder, Utah two months ago, at the Capitol Reef National Park. I was inspired to go by reading Kathryn Schulz’s piece on the Devil’s Backbone set in Boulder, which has a population of two hundred and fifty and is two hours away from the nearest hospital. They got their mail delivered by mule train until the 1950s. The way she wrote about the neighboring landscape, I had to go. So I went and I was just, like, sobbing. My friend and I were driving through and sobbing.

We won’t even be here long enough to register as a tiny speck on this slab of rock. I won’t be here, but there will be no change in the striation of this rock in the time it takes me to live my entire life. I find that so unbelievably thrilling and comforting.

I don’t know exactly where that comes from in me, but it probably has something to do with growing up really religious. What I was repulsed by in Christianity was the idea that we were extremely special to God, that he would answer our requests like Santa Claus. But what thrilled me was the idea that we were talking to someone who made the whole universe, and that we were just insignificant little specks and maybe once in our entire life we would possibly register. I love that sense of scale. I find it so comforting in a way that nothing else is.

But as for those virtues, if you call them that, a lot of the tendencies that the Internet inspires are the same tendencies that I find in myself. These basic, narcissistic tendencies. To write, even in the sense of culpability and inconsistency, writing is trying to deny that, right? Like the act of writing is trying to find some consistency and strength and self-importance. It’s really hard to write well and clearly and forcefully without it. So part of it is me trying to balance these nearly native tendencies out, you know? To even say, “Read this thing I wrote!” is the opposite of admitting your insignificance.

Rumpus: I can’t remember what piece of yours I read this in, but somewhere you had a nugget that implied part of the expansion of the canon was getting over the idea of publication as a scarce resource, as if to say that there’s always more room at the table for more writers. So, maybe it is possible to write and be humble, to know something will be seen, but that it’s a more generous offering, because it’s one of many.

Tolentino: Totally true. That is mostly how I try to think about it. But just being alive makes you think about it, because being alive you feel like you’re at the center of the universe, right? One of my friends just had some rough stuff happen to someone she loved and we were talking over text, having a conversation, and it got me thinking about optimization on the emotional and wellness level.

It’s really easy to feel like the purpose of being on Earth is that we should be as happy as possible, or to have as good a life as possible. It’s something I feel an obvious and natural drive towards. But periodically it’s nice to remind myself those aren’t the only reasons I’m here. I don’t think I say this in the optimization essay, but obviously everything good in life is inefficient, like love, family—all the good stuff.

Rumpus: This all kind of feels like the theme at the heart of your essay, “Ecstasy.” Also, it’s admirable that you’re willing to write without knowing exactly why or what for, which resonates with how I’d talk about the tone of your work as kind of open-source and generous. Do you think writing so profusely for the Internet has given you an ability to be more experimental like that?

Tolentino: The way I write has everything to do with where I wrote and who I wrote for. I was very lucky; what I got to do is nearly impossible, if not flat out impossible, these days. I had two jobs in places where I had complete control over what I was doing and a pretty decent and encouraging audience. I mean, my editor told me I could do whatever I wanted. It’s such an incredible permission, and it’s so rare.

But a big part of it was that I got people reading me while I was writing whatever I wanted. Especially during and after an MFA when everyone is working on books that no one will ever read. Don’t get me wrong; that’s the beautiful thing about writing a book, a novel especially, but it was nice to be like, oh, you can just be natural, you can just write it exactly as it occurs to you and, if you’re smart about it, it can still be okay to read.

It’s also important to know that I was never aiming to have the jobs that I had. I feel very lucky to be at the New Yorker. Obviously, it’s a dream job, but when I graduated I didn’t know anyone who worked in media in New York, and I definitely wasn’t trying to get a good job in media. Even now I don’t know what’s gonna happen. To be doing whatever you want is incredibly freeing, and important, because the only thing you can control is how much fun you have while you’re working. The only thing you can control is how thrilled you are by what you’re doing and so you might as well just try to do that. Even from a careerist standpoint, it seems like possibly the best thing to do, it seems like the best way to make your writing better.

Rumpus: I’m curious about the transition from writing for Internet-only publications to writing for the New Yorker. When you were writing for the Internet at The Awl or The Hairpin, you were connected to your reader, like instant-feedback connected. And at the New Yorker, the distance from the reader must feel like a big change.

Tolentino: Yes, no comments! When I first started I was like whoa, no comments. I mean, at those other outlets I was an editor and so I had second-by-second data all day long on what people were reading and how many people were on the site and how long they were reading everything for. I knew all of those metrics. It was a really good education in what people were interested in and how you could keep them interested. It was very good for me to figure out how I could get someone to keep reading a six-thousand-word essay. But it was also very stressful.

At first, coming to the New Yorker, I remember feeling the loss really intensely. I felt very much locked inside my own brain, especially since I had been editing before and was always working with other people’s words. Then, all the sudden, it was just me. Just me. No commenters, no continual flow of pieces to edit. Just me, writing at home with my dog.

But now I’m like, thank god.

There’s a lot about the work I was doing that I miss. I miss the connection to the audience, and getting to work with other people’s writing, but I don’t miss managing other people. Again, it’s just this really rare privilege to get to just work with an editor you love. I feel secure. Tethered to something.

Rumpus: To bring it back to the book, I’m curious about the last essay of your book, “I Thee Dread,” which tries to understand why you and your partner don’t want to get married. The last line of the essay was a zinger: “The ‘thee’ that I dread maybe have been the ‘I’ all along.” So good, but why does your book end there? Why was that the last word?

Tolentino: Well, to be honest, Carrie Frye, who used to edit The Awl, has a freelance book editing service and I hired her to help me edit the book. In order to finish the book on time, I needed to treat the book as nine different magazine articles. I was writing it fast and still working. But that last line is one hundred percent hers. She totally served it up to me.

But I think it’s the last line in part because it’s the last essay I wrote. Tonally, I felt like it was an easier and quick de-escalation for the book, and also because it was the only way I could think to end. Oddly, it was also the essay I felt the most unsure about. It’s that feeling at the end, the more I write about it the more I was like, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m writing about.” I have no idea what good it is to try to understand any of this. That uncertainty, the absurdity of the whole pursuit, is such a strong but a very deep current in the book. And that line, which is so good, just felt like the explicit endpoint.

Rumpus: Do you know why you write?

Tolentino: Hmm. I guess I write because it’s the only thing I’m good at. It’s as easy as that. It’s a thing that consistently feels good and difficult. It’s something that absorbs me completely.

But that being said, what are we gonna be doing in twenty years? [Laughs] Like, writing captions for Google Implant?

Rumpus: Yeah, [laughs] we’ll definitely be thinking into machines.

You are at this really interesting moment, having finished your first book which is just about to come out. How do you feel? How have you changed?

Tolentino: For better certainly, but also to some dismaying effect, I have learned to take myself a little more seriously. I have gotten really lucky in my career, the way I was just constantly working to try to continue to ensure my luck. I’ve been surprised by every step along the way. So the book was the first time that I made a conscious decision to spend the next two years working toward a goal. It has changed me into somebody that is much more capable of thinking about the future. Although if you asked me what was next, I would have no idea.

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Photograph of Jia Tolentino by Elena Mudd.


Sarah Haas is a journalist, critic, essayist, columnist, and picture book author living in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Find her work at sarahrosehaas.com. Sarah is on Twitter @haassr. More from this author →