Jia Tolentino: What It’s Like Being the Most Talked About Millennial Writer

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Jia Tolentino
Jia TolentinoPhotography by Elena Mudd

In the midst of a whirlwind press blitz, the New Yorker staff writer and “voice of her generation” opens up about her first book Trick Mirror

In the second essay of Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino, the author and New Yorker staff writer, drops something of a bombshell: at 16 she appeared on Girls vs Boys, an early example of the reality TV genre that has come to dominate contemporary pop culture. Except that it’s not exactly a bombshell. In 1966, Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes and the potent confluence of social media and self-broadcasting seems to represent the apex of that maxim. Now here we are in the future, and whether it’s a spot on a reality TV show or just a viral tweet, all of us are conscious of the ways we present ourselves, and what happens when they get projected far beyond us.

Tolentino, who is 30, is fully aware of how much of her life she has spent broadcasting herself. The essays in Trick Mirror move through ecstasy and loss of faith to barre classes as a means of self-optimisation and the prevalence of scams in millennial culture. In each one Tolentino identifies some source of corrosion or uncertainty unique to late capitalism. She provides no solutions to the problems she identifies, instead simply cutting through the rotten parts of our culture with precision, doing so by taking a long, hard look at the culture around her and her role in it. It’s for this reason that she is often referred to as the voice of her generation, or as the Susan Sontag of our times.

But maybe that’s reductive. Tolentino’s writing has garnered praise and accolades not because of its zeitgeistiness, but because of its clarity, offering no lessons or easy takeaways. Instead of viewing her as someone who speaks for us, it’s better to view Tolentino as a kind of interpreter. In a time of deafening noise and chaos, she can single out some clear note of lucidity and reveal to us the value, if any, in listening through the din in the first place.

I spoke to Jia on her recent trip to London, in the midst of a whirlwind press blitz.

AK: So, you’re doing a lot of interviews at the moment.

JT: The interviews themselves have all been great, but I have this feeling all the time – you know when you go to a wedding, and you get kinda drunk and talk to a tonne of people and you wake up the next morning like, ‘Shit, did I horrifically embarrass myself?’ I have that feeling as a constant right now. But it has helped me think about the book – having to articulate things. I guess like with writing, having to articulate things is good for you.

AK: Is there anything you’ve learned about the book from doing all these interviews?

JT: One common question that people have asked is why are there no solutions in the book, and having to articulate the answer to that has been helpful. For me, it was this self-evident reason that I had never even articulated to myself, which is that there are individual ways that we work our way through all of these systems that are corrosive and inescapable. But if there is a solution to the system itself, it’s at a collective level. It’s the level of policy and politics, it’s not at the level of individual choice.

AK: And it’s not going to be solved in an essay. 

JT: Well, certainly! Actually, that’s what I find so funny about that question. Like: what do you mean? I’m going to propose a solution? It’s a fucking essay! [Laughs] And also, everyone just does whatever they want to do, as they should and as they will.

AK: Was it particularly exhausting to write about the parts of modern life that are exhausting?

JT: It was no more exhausting than living in these things. I think that there’s a good kind of exhausting and there’s a paralysing exhausting and just by nature, writing a book on nights and weekends was exhausting. But working my way through these conditions that are spiritually exhausting: that felt both overwhelming and enlivening. The exhaustion of inaction is much worse than the exhaustion of action. Not that I think writing a book is like this greatly meaningful action.

“That’s one of the things I find most satisfying about writing, that you remember that you’re never alone in thinking about something, you’re never alone in worrying about something” – Jia Tolentino

AK: But it’s more than sitting around.

JT: Yeah, sitting around, feeling like these things are giving me panic. 

AK: That’s a very relatable feeling.

JT: Right? I think that’s the feeling of being alive right now and we’re all trying to do something about it. And one thing that talking about the book has helped me articulate to myself is I think that so much of life is set up to make us feel like we’re toiling in individual silos and we’re seeing the large-scale effects of that. Jenny Odell’s recent book, How to Do Nothing, is good about this: [Odell explains that] we are interdependent, we depend on each other emotionally and we depend on each other in order to keep the planet alive. And one of the things that connects us is that we can feel really alone thinking about all of these things, and none of us are. 

That’s one of the things I find most satisfying about writing, that you remember that you’re never alone in thinking about something, you’re never alone in worrying about something. So if we are all interconnected in our anxieties about capitalism and the environment, systems of power, then we’re connected in a way that means we can do something too. Reaching for that sense of interdependent-ness, even if this connection begins in dread, it’s a connection.

AK: Do you consider yourself a hopeful person?

JT: It depends. I act like a hopeful person, but I think that hope is based on having zero expectations. I’ve never expected anything out of life, so I’ve never been disappointed. So I think I am hopeful, but it’s a hope that is completely dependent on my sense of at best, we’re here for the blink of an eye and then we’re dead. [Laughs] You know? I’m hopeful, in that anything is better than nothing and nothing is the default. About specific issues, am I hopeful that the US will implement universal healthcare and federally mandated family leave? Am I hopeful about the things that I want to be hopeful for? I’m not sure. Am I hopeful that we will come to some sort of massive global de-escalation of carbon output? I am not hopeful about that. But you have to keep working as if these things might happen.

AK: Was it difficult to withstand such high levels of self-observation, when writing the book and after its publication?

JT: You feel stupid talking about yourself so much. I am doing a deliberate thing, using myself as a thread that pulls people through these essays. It’s a tool that I use a lot. But also, I want to live in a way that is morally clear and is, to some degree, human and courageous, right? There’s no way to do that unless you’re willing to really examine your position and what has shaped your sense of self and why you’re here and what you want to be here for and what you think is good and why. Someone asked me last night, ‘Does it feel weird to admit that you’re complicit?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. It’s really just a background condition of life.’

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino is published by 4th Estate.