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“I’m capitulating to everything I hate”: Jia Tolentino on growing up online

The 30-year old author, hailed the voice of the social media generation, discusses her first book Trick Mirror. 

Despite curating the parameters of what she shares online, Jia Tolentino is often asked what it’s like to “bare all” on the internet. Recently, though, the New Yorker staff writer shared a personal story she had kept secret for a long time. Aged sixteen, Tolentino – then a school cheerleader from an evangelical community in Texas – spent her summer holiday filming for a reality TV show called Girls v Boys: Puerto Rico. On the show, “the process of calibrating my external self became so instinctive, so automatic that I stopped being able to perceive it – this was a useful, if dubious preparation for a life wrapped up with the internet,” Tolentino writes in her new book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. 

Tolentino, 30, has an intimidating string of accolades; she’s been called the Joan Didion of our times; Rebecca Solnit named her “the best young essayist at work in the United States”; Kirkus Reviews called her a “key voice of her generation”. Her writing on internet culture and contemporary existence feels made for a reality where, as she writes in Trick Mirror, “the online audience never has to leave” and capitalism “has no land left to cultivate but the self”. That being online is such a relentless and exhausting process of self-identification, where our thoughts are increasingly surveilled, manipulated and commodified, is what makes Tolentino’s perspective feel particularly astute. She incisively works through why we – and she – are still compelled to log on and mould ourselves to function more efficiently within a system that is ludicrously flawed. 

The nine essays in Trick Mirror span memoir and criticism, ranging across the salubrious industry of athleisure, takeaway salads and barre, the analogous relation between drug-fuelled ecstasy and religious ceremony, and her experience of taking part in a reality TV show before Facebook was born. After attending the University of Virginia and later joining the Peace Corps, Tolentino began writing for bold, playful women's titles like The Hairpin and Jezebel, environments where writing is attuned to the demands of the attention economy and personal essays have a special currency. There is always an “I” in internet, she writes in Trick Mirror: political opinions shared on Twitter have become the end rather than the beginning of activism, and thorny subjects like identity are negotiated in front of an ever-present baying crowd – making “communication about morality very easy” but “actual moral living very hard”. 

“I think one of the reasons I write so much is because I find it hard to process things in real time… it's only retrospectively that I really bring my mind to bear,” Tolentino tells me over the phone from New York. In conversation, articulate sentences tumble from her at speed, but she hesitates with admissions of doubt. It's this deconstructive gaze – doused in ferocious humour – that has established Tolentino as an exciting, enduring voice. 

Hettie O’Brien: What was the genesis of Trick Mirror?

Jia Tolentino: It's pretty simple, all of these nine things I wrote essays about were things I felt the book was the best outlet for. I just wanted to go so long on them, for it to be completely unrestricted in the way I wrote about them. There were certain things like the essay about reality TV  that I felt, “I'm not going to write about that for anyone but myself - if I'm going to revisit my self-directed humiliation, I am going to do it for me, rather than for an outlet”. There's no publication, not even the New Yorker, that will let you write 10,000 words exactly how you want. 

It was also the sense I was miserable, and I was going to keep being miserable, and I wanted to maybe be miserable in a more useful way. I wanted to examine the condition of total uncertainty and often hopelessness I felt; to write directly into that feeling, and see if there was a way you could write about it without getting stuck in it, and write about a lack of clarity in a clear way. 

Were there any essays in particular that you found more difficult to approach?

The weddings essay was the one I was most unsure about; the use of writing it, and in general, the use of writing anything. Knowledge feels kind of useless sometimes. We can figure out a situation so clearly, like Trump's racism for example – we’ve really had that one on lock for a really long time – but understanding something super clearly doesn’t really matter as much as I would like it to. With the weddings essay, this seemed particularly the case. Understanding everything about how conventional structures of ideal womanhood are set up have not deterred me from pursuing them in so many ways. The fact I think weddings are a nightmare and heterosexuality is a nightmare and monogamy is a nightmare doesn't mean I haven't organised my life around those things and craved them in some way.

You've written that selfhood buckles under the weight of the internet’s commercial architecture. How do you square the sense that the internet encourages us to commodify ourselves while also taking part in it, contributing to it, and turning those findings into a book?

To me that seems like the generalised condition of what it is to be alive. We are irretrievably enmeshed within corrosive systems. I feel that, in the same way I also justify [continuing] to map myself onto the architecture of the internet, I build my life by using and making use of capitalism to whatever extent I am able to. I try not to do certain things, but things like the internet, capitalism, male power – these systems have deeply corroded my selfhood and my sense of integrity and morality; they have compromised me and openly changed me permanently in so many ways. 

At the same time, I'm not a separatist: I live in the world exactly as it is. I guess an irresolvable thing is: is it any good to understand what this stuff is doing to you? I'm not sure it is. I'm not sure it's done any more than allowing me to spin my wheels very precisely. But it nonetheless still feels like, if one of the only things I’m good at is making sense of systems as they relate to individual lives, then I might as well just try. 

So the answer is: I don’t really square it. I think I say this in the weddings essay, but I’ve accepted that I’m capitulating to everything I hate. And I think that's what I was trying to do with the book. I was trying to figure out if there's a way of starting from a place where I already understand how compromised I am.

In a practical sense, the way I think about it is: “given these incentives are all around you, what specific things you want to do to not be as monstrous as they want you to be?” I just try to be on the internet exactly how I am in real life – which is to say not thinking too much about it. The internet incentivises you to consciously construct, but I try to be as free in the way I relate to the internet as I try to be in real life, and accept there might be consequences from that and not care. 

This feeling of capitulation really came across in the chapter on wellness and athleisure; the female experience of going to the gym and trying to be healthy for a host of different reasons and then wondering: “why am I even doing this?”

Exactly – it's like, “I'm just doing this so I'll have more energy to do more dumb shit”.

Some writers have been criticised for internalising the rhythms of the Twitter feed in a way that’s corrosive or frustrating; others are praised for approaching the internet in a way that feels much more natural. What do you think are the biggest mistakes you see in writing about being online?

In fiction, whenever people have excerpted emails or write a sort of internet satire, it often reads a little cheesily. Fiction is so much more like magic than non-fiction; it feels truer than life. Often I think digital communication rendered in fiction feels thinner and colder and more obviously constructed than in real life. It makes the mechanisms of fiction show, and you can feel the author writing it, which is the whole thing fiction is supposed to avoid. 

With journalism about the internet, you have endless incentives to magnify your opposition. My least favourite thing are headline constructions like “such and such happened and people are freaking out” – when it’s really just ten people whose tweets are excerpted and then it becomes a Thing. There was this big wave of cultural criticism on the internet that was a high-brow / low-brow mix; taking something stupid and being like, “And here's why this explains the beauty standard, Trump's America, and Brexit”. If I'm writing about something internet-y, I try not to make it any more important than it is. 

I wanted to come back to the point you made about the pointlessness of understanding or of knowledge.

Do you feel like that when you're writing?

Yes – there's definitely sometimes a feeling of futility when figuring out what you think in a piece. But you also write about how the internet has changed the status of opinions: holding an opinion is no longer the first step towards a political action – but rather a political action, or end, in itself.  

It's this idea that deciding what to think about something is super important. And I'm not sure it is. I have never been sure it is. 

But some people definitely see being online as a political act; they’re holding power to account by making their voice heard. Do you still find this reverence for opinion frustrating?

I always think it's both. The way you see the Democratic Party moving so far to the left within the last few years, or universal healthcare finally being on the table again, a lot of that is owed to figures like AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], and how good they are at digital communication. This general upswing of left discourse has dominated the political conversation on Twitter and is filtering into the actual [democratic] race in a really amazing way. 

At the same time, I have never thought that me tweeting a goddamn thing is useful for any reason at all. You will never catch me saying that using my voice on Twitter is important. That's just not how I interact with the medium. It’s a similar dynamic with lean-in feminism: you have to be suspicious of anything being politically valued which happens to also be extremely self-serving and easy. That’s not to say tonnes of these young leftists, such as myself, don't get involved in real community organising, but I do think in general the world has conspired to make it a lot easier to communicate than to do. 

I was reading David France’s book How to Survive a Plague about 1980s AIDS activism, and I thought, there is a lot of this energy [now], but a lot of it is getting corralled online and getting contained there. I often feel guilty and wonder, “Why am I not doing what these 80s AIDS activists did?” – there has been less of an appetite for such activism in the States than there should be, and I do think the internet is a huge part of this.

You touch on the feminist scammer in your book – a version of feminism more intent on getting women into the boardroom than questioning how the corporate boardroom might itself be part of the problem. What do you think a more radical or progressive feminism might look like?

That vision of feminism isn’t wrong, it's just so incomplete, and it's so much more attractive than the fight for the minimum wage. For me it's so simple: a real feminist movement would be bottom-up, it would be about universal pay, childcare, it would be about raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour, it would be about the criminal justice system, it would be about the things that affect the vulnerable first. And of course, healthcare and childcare affect everyone, but to me the minimum wage in America is the biggest women's issue, maybe the biggest. Top down feminism isn’t wrong – it’s just so inadequate. 

Throughout Trick Mirror, and in your journalism, you draw heavily on personal experience and anecdote. What you decide to say and not say feels quite tightly constrained, though; you’re not spilling everything out.

It's funny, thank you for saying that, because I've had a lot of conversations where people ask: “what is it like to show all of yourself all of the time?” – and I'm really not. It's careful. I've learned about self-presentation: women know what they're showing and what they're not showing. Even on the internet, I'm extremely unguarded when I’m tweeting about dumb shit, but I don't actually show that much of myself online at all. 

But are there things you find more challenging to write about than others? Whether that be particular personal experiences – or writing about subjects that don’t involve a first person register?

There are certain things about my life, my family life, about being in the Peace Corps, that I can't write about for various reasons. With the Peace Corps specifically, I just haven't figured it out yet. I don't understand that experience yet so I'm not even ready to try to figure it out. But in terms of things that connect to my experience generally, so much of my worldview and my interests have been shaped so strongly by my experience that on a lot of subjects this experience feels genuinely inextricable – or a way to establish a point of view or a form of credibility I don't think I'd be able to establish otherwise. 

But with writing more generally, I do feel a little self-conscious – I would like to be able to bring the same amount of force to something I have absolutely nothing to do with. And that's something I want to try at the New Yorker soon. My muscle of using myself as a wedge into an issue has been very well-developed and I kind of want to use another one. There are certain things like climate change that don't feel impersonal but that I don't really know how to write about.

Trying to write about climate change in a way that is personal is extremely tricky to pull off – it’s rare to find writers who can make the subject feel intimate

It's so hard, I think it's the hardest thing. You do need a personal narrative. It's a challenge because the real issue is on a scale that so far beyond the personal and, arguably, a focus on the personal – individual stuff and individual changes – is sort of off the point. It's on a scale of global policy; you can only understand it that way conceptually, but narratively that's not what humans want. I’ve been thinking a lot about the coming climate apocalypse and how lucky I am right now to have AC.

Finally – who are you enjoying reading at the moment? 

This year I was really crazy about this Jenny Odell book, How To Do Nothing, and Ocean Vuong's novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I also love Ted Chiang. His new book this year Exhalation, I loved it, loved it, loved it. I guess I've been gravitating towards books about how the fact of being alive is miraculous even in compromised situations. I think there's part of me that desperately wants to believe this and needs to. That life is worth living, my fears that my generation is going to live in this fucked world: there's something about sci-fi that's been helping me say, “Yes life will be fucked and still worth living.” I don't know if that's illusory, or what. 

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is out now (4th Estate) 

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor.