Jia Tolentino on writing through the looking glass

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 6:37pm

Elena Mudd

Elena Mudd Buy this photo
NOSELL

There are two stereotypes that routinely plague the modern writer. One is the recluse, the innocent bookworm, who recedes into the woods like Thoreau and writes about butterflies and the meaning of life for days on end. No one knows how they subsist on tea and biscuits alone. The other is, essentially, the newspaper editor from “Spider-Man.” These writers are the human equivalent of a pack of Marlboro Reds. In between yelling about the deadline and chugging acrid coffee, they stay up until 2 a.m. trying to finish a piece on what Quentin Tarantino means to them. 

I like to think of these archetypes as the bookends of the spectrum for self-branded writers. Jia Tolentino, celebrated staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the recently-released essay collection “Trick Mirror,” sits smack dab in the middle. 

Tolentino, who young writers and journalists (or at least the ones I know) have christened the second coming of Susan Sontag, is unabashedly honest in her analysis. With that honesty, and her placement as the fulcrum of a made-up personality scale, she is somehow able to write about everything with the charm and hilarity of an expert in each topic. It’s an uncanny skill, one that allows her to attack subjects like the rise of “step on my neck” fandom with the same ferocity she does when dissecting the history of Trump’s assault allegations. “There could potentially be a world in which I write about books all day,” Tolentino said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, “but it’s nice to accurately reflect literally just what’s on my mind.”

When I called Tolentino a few weeks ago for this interview, I didn’t feel the same anxiety that I typically do when on assignment. It must have been because I felt like I already knew her, the same way that I assume many of her thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers do, too. The writer has always been game to share her thoughts: “There are certain types of personalities that the internet favors, that can work well within the performative structures of the internet.” She added, “I’ve always had that kind of personality, I’ve always been extremely open.” Tolentino takes to social media with an ease often only seen in figure skaters and birds of prey swooping through the air. She knows what she’s doing, but she might as well have fun on the ride. 

Watching Tolentino’s rise through the annals of literary journalism has been exciting, to say the least. To see someone unapologetically young be so successful at not only digital media through her editorship at Jezebel, but then become a star in the crown of traditional magazine publishing, gives hope to a so-called dying industry. She has no niche, no specific beat, no borders to her sea of subjects.

“I don’t want to write about the same things all the time, and I don’t think about the same things all the time, or think at the same level of seriousness all the time,” she elaborated. “You can really throw your voice around, like at Jezebel I could write dead serious about something and then I could write something so stupid, like a meme, about a subject that I take very seriously.” In the same vein, the writer has never given up her wit and cultural precocity in lieu of her literary venue’s unspoken parameters. 

Her piece about the rise of Juuling was hilarious, yes, but it was also in the top 10 most read New Yorker articles of 2018. In my own experience, I’ve used her articles to explain things like vaping to my parents, but my friends and I also applaud her for getting the phrase “real men eat ass” into a heritage magazine. She has struck gold in a balancing act, one that is entertaining to watch her navigate in its own right.

“Trick Mirror” is no exception to the rule of her talent, instead acting as an extension of both her writing for other publications and personality alone. Tolentino is the only writer I can think of that picks apart the Book of Revelation and the history of MDMA in the same breath. It’s what makes her so refreshing to read, in a media landscape clogged with sadness and fluff. Reading her writing means laughing and learning at the same time. 

Tolentino walks the line between comedy and blinding truth carefully, successfully replicating the path that we all traverse throughout our lives in her writing. Her transparency on social media follows the same rules. “It seems like the only way of making social media bearable is literally just not thinking about what you’re doing and hope that it’s ok! Because it’s just like life, you know?” Tolentino continued, laughing, “I actively try to guard against … that sort of calcification I try to allow a lot of space for inconsistency.” I believe this avoidance of creating a “brand” is what makes the writer so approachable. She is incredibly smart, incredibly online, incredibly funny, yet Tolentino’s understanding of her own identity creates a level of comfort that serves as the foundation for that variety. 

In “Trick Mirror,” Tolentino writes about religion, scams, drugs, athleisure — everything under the sun. But it’s always obvious who’s talking the writer captures the human phenomenon of curiosity better than anyone I’ve ever read. The inconsistency she was talking about isn’t a negative trait of the modern era, as it is typically seen, but a strength. The pressures of the internet, as she speaks about in the book’s first essay, have forced many to turn themselves into a solidified brand, avoiding change at any cost. We have to remember that although it seems like self-branding is necessary, we’re not all Kardashians here.

Tolentino, however, embraces that unpredictability and runs with it. Reading her essays makes you feel like you could learn anything, because hey, Jia did. Knowing yourself is a more crucial asset than anything else these days, and allows for a bigger worldview. Tolentino’s talent is capturing this perspective in words, inspiring her readers to take the same leap. 

Beyond her raw talent for writing, Tolentino’s “it” factor, the reason “Trick Mirror” is flying off shelves and appearing every three tweets in my newsfeed, is her genuine excitement for life. The last four years have been a rollercoaster, something that Tolentino says was the impetus for her book in the first place: “I was so miserable in early 2017, and I was like, I’m going to be miserable for the next four years.” She reflected, “A book is one way to be miserable in a way that’s really productive.” Productive or not, the fruit of her misery is surprisingly optimistic. The world since 2016 has seemed like a cruel joke to many, but she sees a reason to laugh at it. To Tolentino, the urgent nature of our country’s problems are countered by brilliant art, books and cultural phenomena that make surviving the darkness worth it. 

Tolentino is fascinated by Gen Z and their relationship with the media and internet. We talked extensively about the differences in social media between those in my age group, her millennial experience and the experiences of those younger than me. She interviewed many Gen Z-ers for an upcoming piece, saying that “It’s really interesting, as someone who still interacts with the world as a young person, to be talking to these teenagers, and I’m asking them about these extremely basic facts of life, like it’s really nothing to them, and it’s very clear they feel as though they’re talking to someone that’s 70, you know?” Despite this, they would probably find Tolentino’s writing pretty interesting, maybe even let out a giggle or two. She is undeniably relevant to any age group, something that not many people can claim. 

“I feel weirdly gratified by getting, I mean, especially with feminism, an email from a 75-year-old woman, being like, ‘I really like this thing you wrote,’” Tolentino said on the subject. She has actively avoided settling into the siloed nature of modern media, instead challenging herself to get over that “internal hurdle,” “like (she’s) going to write a piece about a phenomenon that has to make sense to somebody who has no idea about anything about it.”

It’s a valiant effort, one that gives Tolentino the gusto to take on familiar territory with the perspective of a newbie. This approach keeps the writer’s work accessible, without losing any of the intellectual flourish that makes her pieces entertainingly informative. You don’t realize you’re learning so much until you finish a thousands-of-words-long essay on female optimization and realize you finally understand barre classes. 

The subtitle of “Trick Mirror” is “Reflections on Self-Delusion,” and it is quite simply, the only way I could explain the common thread of the book’s nine essays. In these essays and those Tolentino has written for other outlets, she constantly breaches the barriers we set for ourselves when it comes to identity.

She is so comfortable in her humanity, mistakes and all, that her writing pushes readers to look at themselves in the same unforgiving mirror. The fear many have to explore that reflection doesn’t apply to Tolentino. She writes through the looking glass, tearing the human condition apart until it makes sense with the insanity that surrounds us. Her writing is an excuse to look deeper into ourselves, and wonder why we are the way we are. We might not ever get an answer, but man, the journey towards it makes for some great writing.

Jia Tolentino will be reading from “Trick Mirror” at Literati Bookstore on Monday, August 26th at 7 p.m.