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Natasha Stagg
Natasha StaggPhotography by Chris Filippini

Fashion and Social Media: Natasha Stagg in Conversation with Lynne Tillman

Natasha Stagg and celebrated writer Lynne Tillman meet up in the East Village to discuss Stagg’s second book, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019

Lead ImageNatasha StaggPhotography by Chris Filippini

I first met Lynne Tillman when I interviewed her about her 2018 novel Men and Apparitions – her first in 12 years, other press kept insisting, although, she clarified at the time, she’d written several other novel-length and novel-like books in that time period. We met at an East Village restaurant she loved and talked about everything from politics to Semiotext(e), the publishing house we had in common. That Tillman is a prolific writer is just one of her intimidating qualifiers. In New York especially, she is an icon, part of a truly influential scene. Of course I had seen her around, but had never found the nerve to talk to her, even if I had enjoyed many of her books. One on one, though, she is disarming and refreshingly inquisitive – a quality that clearly informs her fiction and cultural criticism. In conversation, Tillman makes it known without overtly stating so that she is not clinging to some vague Manhattan heyday like so many of her peers. In fact, people of every age – and what they are up to – fascinate her. It’s something we have in common, for now. After our first meeting, I sent her my second book, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019. She read it quickly and asked if we could meet again to discuss it, at another one of her favourite East Village spots.

Lynne Tillman: It’s hard to write commentary about the time we live in. Often we’re too much in it to see it.

Natasha Stagg: I recognise something in your writing that I feel when I’m writing. It’s this curiosity that is almost held at bay by its own rationale – that, if I’m curious about something, it means I don’t have all the answers, and so, I think, why write about it? But the idea that we’re supposed to think one way about a thing and then hope to not be wrong about it is counterintuitive. I hope I am wrong about some things. I think the people I find the most insufferable hope to never be wrong.

LT: I look at my preconceived notions when I can recognise them, then doubt them. The more I write, the more I recognise a vaster array of choices about how to do it and how to think about it. My greatest fear is about my own limitations. I know I am limited, so I press against my limits. In fictions, I don’t exist – it’s the characters that do – and they can believe what I may not. That’s a freedom, at least on the page.

NS: I can see that.

LT: In Sleeveless, you write, ‘Looking at Ally was like looking at objects too expensive to buy’. I’m curious about your sense of distance from these scenes.

NS: I sort of can’t help but think about people as their object-ness or fetish value, just because it’s fascinating that we’ve ascribed that system to everyone, in a way. I mean, it’s topical – social media, the pure quantitative aspect of it – but it’s also timeless.

LT: Right.

NS: Ally is a social media star. And when we’re talking about social media, people love to make this connection to Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes quote, saying that fame is now this truly attainable thing – but fame, or a captive audience, is only measurable in relative terms. There will always be disparity. Maybe a better quote for today’s image machine is, ‘I was always big, it was the pictures that got small’.

LT: I once wrote that the American desire to be famous had to do with Calvinism, the idea that you needed to be successful in worldly terms to get into heaven. To be seen to be ‘doing good’. I don’t know that Europeans feel that kind of anxiety. You’re right: fame is relative and often short-lived. But to need it, to seek it, rather than, say, knowledge? It’s so curious, isn’t it? Insecurity is a powerful driver. But in your writing, you use a vocabulary that I don’t.

NS: Really?

LT: You have access to a particular language, which has to do with, I guess, the journalism you’ve done.

NS: I never considered it journalism because it was mostly interviewing celebrities, which is like publicity.

LT: Your vocabulary represents a different way of thinking about the cultural moment. And that fascinates me. You have a grasp on a certain kind of dynamic, for instance about celebrity.

NS: I hope that it’s more analysis than hot take.

LT: It is an analysis of the culture.

NS: Which is what you do, and which is why I respect your writing so much.

LT: You have a way of seeing fashion from this vantage point. It’s taken me a long time to believe that clothes mean anything, because I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb, where clothes meant everything, and people were shopping all the time. You had to have ‘outfits’. I just hated it. And that was not so much about fashion or design, as it was...

NS: Status. It’s hard to take those associations away from fashion. I think that’s why fashion is something that I’m constantly drawn to. Because it bothers me so much.

LT: I struggle with the question of class and status. I question brands, and branding. When people wear handbags that say Gucci, I think it’s like walking around with – instead of a scarlet letter – a scarlet dollar bill.

NS: The idea of a logo becoming a status symbol is in itself really crazy, actually. The idea of owning, basically, just the label. Maybe it’s on a keychain or a T-shirt, but it’s no longer a fashion object. It’s just the signifier. It’s a bizarre thing, but it’s also so common. Does it happen with art? I guess someone could have a little Jeff Koons dog keychain.

LT: Let’s say I had a Jeff Koons key chain. It would mean, wouldn’t it, that I like Jeff Koons’s work, right? But it wouldn’t mean that I necessarily feel identified with Jeff Koons. If I were to wear a big Gucci bag, wouldn’t it be saying that this object somehow defines me, who I am? That Gucci defines my taste, my status?

NS: Or that you have reached a certain status level. It’s either wealth, or a combination of wealth and insight. If you’re knowledgeable about fashion, you can have that emblem. Not that I don’t buy into it myself. But moving to New York made me like fashion less, in some ways.

LT: Because of the inundation of it? The way it’s used? Why?

NS: Because the people here that are really interested in fashion usually seem more desperate than the people that are into fashion somewhere else. Because they’re desperate to get inside of it.

LT: To be on the inside, part of the club. Right. And, see, I like style. I like an individuality in style, not a brand. I hope I have my own style. I guess, in some ways, writing gets just as wrapped up in vanity. The idea that I have to be in style, writing in style. Being in style, of one’s time.

NS: Absolutely.

LT: In one of the essays in your book, Confidence, you write about a young woman who keeps planting doubt in whatever the hell she is doing. She seems to have true moments of doubt about what she is doing, about herself. How did you meet her?

NS: That was a commission from Dazed, and I actually kind of knew her before that, but not well. She wasn’t written about extensively, so I had nothing to prepare me for the interview other than her social media content, but those are the best interviews, I think. Plus, she had so much to say. It’s much more fun to interview somebody who doesn’t have an agenda. She just wanted to talk about what had happened to her since she had gotten all this attention for posting artful nudes, and how it had changed her mind about so many things.

LT: In some ways, you have no agenda.

NS: I especially didn’t then, but I was definitely interested in Instagram influencers and their weird little worlds.

LT: Instagram influencers. I’ve never said or written that phrase.

NS: Oh my god, sometimes I wish I’d never said that phrase.

LT: But it is an identifier, and very specific. Certainly I know these words, but whether I will use that phrase in a story at some point remains to be seen. Maybe I will, because it’s part of the culture we have. One has to be very careful in writing fiction about what you use, though.

NS: Why? What’s the risk?

LT: The risk is that it’s a way of dating a piece. So, for instance, do you have to say, ‘I called on my cell phone’, or would you just say, ‘I called’ or ‘phoned’? Then again, in the 80s, a writer like Bret Easton Ellis would name every brand, and that worked for his novel.

NS: Because it became part of the texture of the writing. It was almost satirical.

LT: Yes, it was about consumption, vampirism as consumption. But if it was just here and there, if Bret hadn’t made it global, an aspect of the lives he was describing, it would sound dated.

NS: How old are your students? Teenagers?

LT: Most are in their early twenties, 20, 21. Undergrads.

NS: Are they worried about dating themselves, too?

LT: Not the undergraduates. It’s the graduates who are aware of that issue. I remember I wrote a story, and the editor didn’t want me to mention Nelson Mandela in it. He said, ‘You know, years from now, people won’t know who Nelson Mandela is.’ I said, ‘So, what?’ I’m just now reading A Sentimental Education. I had never read it before. In the introduction, the translator makes the point that Flaubert wanted certain historical events specified because it was a novel that was meant to have history, to exist in a historical moment. If you, the reader, didn’t know the reference, it didn’t matter to him. Maybe you would look it up. Either way, you would know that this was not the time in which you were living.

NS: There are always annotations.

LT: And now, the internet, it’s amazing. Anything can be found from a line or even two words.

NS: I was just reading this interview between two writers and they were talking about how everybody just talks about publishing now instead of about writing. And I was kind of like, well, you have to talk about publishing.

LT: Are we talking about writing? We are.

NS: We’re not talking about our processes, though.

LT: That’s always the first question. Where do you get your ideas? That, and, do you write in the morning?

NS: I was also just listening to this interview with John Waters and he was explaining that it’s the same in every field, especially if you don’t have a leg up: you learn it back to front. Art, film, books, whatever. You learn who all the studios are, who all the galleries are, who all the publishing houses are.

LT: I was backwards in learning that stuff. I imagined it was all about writing. I was naive. By the way, I did a conversation with John at the Wexner Center not too long ago. Basically, I was just laughing the whole time. There were 4,000 people in the audience, and many of them stood up when he walked in. He is beloved.

NS: He’s a really solid example of somebody who has not aged poorly, but you’d think they would. He set out to offend, and in doing that became the least offensive out of all of us.

LT: His notion of offensive was like, Divine eating dog shit. It almost seems innocent, in a way, doesn’t it?

NS: It does. By the way, I just read your novella Weird Fucks. I loved it.

LT: That book took a very long time to gain any attention at all.

NS: And now there’s an $800 copy on eBay. 

LT: Well, we, or I, won’t see any of that money. But that’s a rare copy.

NS: What was your experience with Semiotext(e)?

LT: They published The Madame Realism Complex. Chris Kraus did, on her Native Agents series. You know, Sylvere Lotringer is rightly called the man who brought French theory to America. He did. He used to wear all black leather. He used to look very fierce. At that time, Chris was a filmmaker, and we were both very good friends with a poet called David Rattray. The year that they published his book, How I Became One of the Invisible, they also published my book, and we had a book party together. It was wonderful, because David and I had had a falling out and this brought us back together. I was reluctant at first.

NS: Anyway, self-promotion is always hard.

LT: Oh, it’s awful. But it grows easier with social media.

NS: I don’t know. It just feels wrong, right?

LT: It used to feel very much more wrong.

NS: Why does it feel different now?

LT: I think because publishers don’t do much publicity anymore. There are very few reading tours, unless they have paid a lot for your book. But that’s never been my situation.

NS: I think that your legacy has something to do with the way you publish. You have a writing style but you also have a publishing style.

LT: Which, I guess, is all over the place.

NS: Someone told me once, ‘It’s cool how you just write for all these German art magazines now’, and I was like, ‘It’s not necessarily by design’. I would write for any magazine that would pay me. But she told me it looked very intentional, and I liked that.

LT: I want my work to reach other readers, new ones. Even though I once published with two larger presses, it never occurred to me to stop publishing with small presses. Small presses are a very important part of literature, like Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf’s press. I recognise the importance they play, and that their wanting to publish me is important to me. This distinction between big and little presses has nothing to do with writing.

Natasha Stagg’s new book Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 is out now.