Andrew Ritchie Stuff


The Cult of Jia Tolentino

31 Jan 2020

I first took a curiosity in Jia Tolentino's writing when a comedian friend of mine recommended Jia in an interview. That particular comedian always struck me as better connected to contemporary culture than me. If Amy was reading Jia, Jia then must be where the real 2000's shit is, the writing people a little less nerdy than I am keep their eyes on to gauge the pulse of Brooklyn and beyond.

It feels right to call Jia Tolentino by just her first name, Jia, as her writing is often casual and filled with a friendly charisma that makes you the reader feel like Jia's friend. All it takes is a few paragraphs to feel absolutely on a first name basis with Jia. Jia's funny and deep in the cultural moment. I discovered Jia was the author of some older blog posts I had read before and enjoyed on Gawker and the Hairpin, when I was being a lazy reader not paying enough attention to bylines. And I grew to look forward to Jia's pieces on, to hearing what she thought of vape pens and weighted blankets.

And then in 2019 Jia published a book, Trick Mirror. And what a phenomenon that book has been. Jia posted tweets with photos of long lines of Brooklynites waiting for her signature on their new hardcover copies of Trick Mirror. My own Twitter feed was filled with jokes about the ubiquity of Trick Mirror readers on the NYC subways. My friends here in Berlin, the core of which consists of creative people like myself who ran away from New York screaming in our twenties and thirties with our souls on fire, were also reading and talking about Trick Mirror.

I believe in Jia the writer, I still look forward to her work. But Trick Mirror felt more like a triumph of Jia the brand. Because now Jia is, without a doubt, a powerful brand.

Reading Trick Mirror, I felt marketed to. Jia's confessions and vulnerabilities feel calculated. She could confess to wanting to be famous, and thus participating in a reality TV show as a teen — but according to her then and now, she didn't really want to be famous for that show. Young Jia wanted to be famous for a book she writes some day (presumably the one we're reading). Jia got into Yale but she decided to attend the University of Virginia instead. Jia likes taking molly, so she's not just a good girl.

Jia the brand extends past the pages of Trick Mirror. If you read her social media and listen to her interviews, she's beloved amongst her journalist colleagues. She has a great boyfriend and a dog, she has succeeded as much, or more, as most could dream of at such a young age (she’s in her early 30’s), in the intense and competitive cauldron that is the center of American media. In one interview I listened to, the journalist interviewing Jia, clearly a personal friend of hers, managed to wedge in that teenage Jia even got a perfect 1600 score on the SAT. It is amazing that anyone could be so talented at making perfection a pillar of her brand as Jia Tolentino is. And yet, the other pillar of Jia's brand is being just a tiny bit flawed, enough to be human. She got a perfect SAT score, but she's embarrassed and modest about it, remember she turned down Yale in the end and did I mention yet she loves doing molly? She got famous for interviewing a man who had sex with a dolphin!! That's not a classic type A overachiever, that's weird!

She's not just the archetype of a driven Ivy Leaguer that we’ve seen before, a person who will do near anything for success, while being impeccable at dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” with calligraphic flourish. Jia's also a little edgy and strange. For god sakes, she likes molly (apologies if I failed to note that sooner!) and to explain Texas rap culture to the true squares who just don't know. And yet reading about it all in Trick Mirror while the book seems to be a commercial and career success and flew off bookshelves and received tremendously complimentary blurbs from famous writers... Trick Mirror ultimately feels like Jia is pulling the curtain back to show us just how carefully constructed her brand is. This leaves me to wonder: what more is there to this writer that she really, really doesn't want us to know? (This writer who again, can be incredibly thoughtful and interesting and funny but sadly, not in Trick Mirror).

In the same interview where Jia's 1600 SAT score popped up, she mentioned that with Trick Mirror, she wanted to get away from some of the ephemeral pop and contemporary culture oddities that she initially built her audience writing about. She spoke like a writer who wished to be recognized as more of an intellectual powerhouse: less lighthearted, and having ideas about more than just human/dolphin intercourse. But she also outlined the pitch process of Trick Mirror, saying she simply told her editor she wanted to write ten long essays. Jia got her yes, wrote her essays, published them, Brooklynites lined up for autographs and Jia had a moment of literary glory.

If I had to guess, I would say that pitch was where things started to go wrong. I'm guessing that pitch was when both Jia and her editor at least subconsciously realized the Jia brand was strong enough to sell a book on its own, and that this book didn't need to have the vision or vulnerability that the best type of writing tends to. Because Jia the brand could already sell and spread and grow much better and farther than most of the great writing and truly intriguing explorations of vulnerable human reality that is published today. I just wish that editor had pushed her a bit harder to have a vision beyond "ten long essays." You can’t pitch “I want to write ten long essays” and get a yes unless you are pitching your book based on the back of a sea of adoring fans. Most people want a reason to buy a book — everyone involved in Trick Mirror knew the reason it’d sell was Jia. And it feels like they settled for that.

A lot of good writers struggle with the question, “do I even have anything worthwhile to say?” It’s hard to keep going, it’s hard to feel like your voice is meaningful amongst eight billion people. So when a writer works to earn a significant platform, and then approaches that platform with, “well, now I have an audience, let’s see if they like it if I just write ten long essays that even I don’t think have a greater purpose”, it feels like a violation of trust between the writer and her readers.

I wish Jia had asked herself deeper questions than the everyday things we already hear about endlessly. Her book covers that internet discourse is bad, reality TV is about people striving to be famous, women are pressured by society to be beautiful, and molly is fun and maybe can even be meaningful and it's a shame molly being fun is not socially acceptable to talk about in every situation. (Among other topics.) And again, it’s not quite a memoir, it’s essays. In most if not all of them, the vulnerability you would see in memoir is hidden behind a writer-character similar to the house style guide of a major publication like The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Which is surprising because in the actual New Yorker, Jia tends to be the staff writer best at bending the house style guide to her will so her voice absolutely breaks through.

Jia the brand is a waste of Jia the writer.

It would also make sense at this point to ask, "hey Andrew, are you just jealous? I mean come on, you're a writer and creative person of some sort that is almost completely obscure. You've maybe done one thing, or maybe even zero things, anyone has ever cared about and you didn't turn that into more opportunities. You ran away from NYC, whereas Jia thrived in it. You're still trying to make your mark and find some recognition in your work and Jia is totally killing it. You seem like a jealous troll.”

And the answer is: of course I'm jealous. But I hope my criticism is valid beyond that. I think I can be jealous while also seeing that something doesn’t quite work in Trick Mirror, if for no other reason than this: I can think of dozens of my peers, writers and comedians and artists I met in New York who have television shows and film roles and connections and opportunities that I go to bed hoping I will eventually find for myself some day. In most cases, I'm happy for those more successful peers and acquaintances, even while I'm incredibly jealous of them. Most of the time, I'm astounded by the creativity, perspective, vulnerability and unique voices in their works. You can be jealous of a person and also know they fucking killed it.

Trick Mirror just falls short. There has to be more to Jia that she isn't telling us and I hope she shares it in her next book. Reading Trick Mirror, I feel assaulted by exactly the kinds of things we expect to hear about in contemporary upper middle class to wealthy public conversation. What I really want to hear is what keeps Jia awake at night. I somehow doubt that it's being humbly embarrassed of her 1600 SAT score, or wanting to be famous, or liking molly (which she really does, can you believe that?). I'd love to hear about the inner life that led her to craft a public persona that needs to be so perfect, but that also delights in tweeting her own negative reviews, summoning her fans like attack dogs to preemptively discredit any criticism.

Who is Jia Tolentino? The trick seems to be that the object in the mirror is further away than what appears in her essays.

One could say Trick Mirror’s nihilism perfectly encapsulates the nihilism of America in 2020. Right wing populist nihilism delivered us Trump. Conservative realpolitik nihilism gives us a right wing government which maintains itself rather than confronting an imminently immoral, impeachable and inconsistent man. Far left nihilism wants Elizabeth Warren's head on a pike for her missteps as a presidential candidate. General nihilism wants lots of people's heads on pikes for ill considered tweets.

Trick Mirror's nihilism is also specific, it is the nihilism of the upwardly mobile privileged class. I can relate to it — I'm part of that class. It's a wing of society where people are hesitant to criticize each other, or anyone at all, because it's just taboo and uncouth to say anything negative about anyone or anything. Well, it’s taboo to say anything negative about anything except for the Republican party, bigots and sexual predators. I worry about putting this essay out into the world and marking myself as someone who might, sometimes, say a piece of creative work is bad or could be better. And people in media and entertainment worry that this stigma of criticism, the stigma of maybe not always liking everything, could prevent you from being offered future opportunities.

In her internet writing, Jia is magnificent at identifying a cultural totem that needs a spotlight, casting that spotlight and saying a slew of funny and clever things. This sounds dismissive, and it's for sure reductive, but it's a real skill. It's incredibly hard to do well consistently and it's delightful to read.

And I absolutely don't want to ask her to stay in that lane. That would be disingenuous of me — I want creative people to take risks, stretch themselves and explore new things. But I wonder if Jia's existing lane and her existing audience are so comfortable for her that she fears stepping out of it by saying something that some of her audience might disagree with (weighted blankets, vapes and dolphin sex aren’t quite so polarizing as some other topics are). And that fear resulted in ten long essays of "this is how the world is today, it's what you already think it is, but I wrote it down with clarity and purpose and citations, shrug what can you do? Back to barre class and trying for that promotion." None of our initial assumptions are challenged, she gets her book, another successful bullet point on her CV, and the world keeps turning.

I listened to an interview with New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz where he cautioned against this kind of criticism of artists, criticism accusing artists of being cynical. Saltz said you should never critique work for being cynical, because even the artists who sell the most and get the most accusations of being cynical are incredibly genuine when you meet them in person. Artists like Jeff Koons. You may not like Jeff Koons, but Jerry Saltz says Jeff Koons believes in what he does and you just have different taste. But if you listen to an interview with Jia Tolentino or read her tweets, you don't get the impression she really believes in what she wrote and what she's afraid of is being caught in that. She battles against being caught by preemptively making the exact critique of cynicism and lack of viewpoint in her work herself (both in interviews and on social media). Jia mocks anyone who critiques Jia with "duh, Jia was the one who said Jia’s book is empty and bad first." In a sense, she's running a con right in front of our eyes, holding it up proudly and still simultaneously reaping all the benefits. And tearing apart her critics. Now THAT is 2020 America encapsulated.

But I’m going to listen to Jerry Saltz and say that I honestly don’t think Jia intends to run a con. It’s a ton of work to write the way she does and clearly some of the subject matter is personal to her. But she is putting up a wall that dismisses criticism of her work, as though if we even potentially disagree with her, that disagreement ruins all the things that are good about her work in the first place. She seems like the type of person whose insecurity pushes them to feel they don’t deserve to be loved unless they’re perfect. I was that kind of person once, before I spent two years in therapy. I was never good at even playing the role of perfect and the stress of it tended to make me self-sabotage rather than achieve. I’ve suffered externally from my self-sabotage, ruining or running directly away from opportunities. I wonder if Jia suffers internally from grabbing the shit out of the gold ring and worrying that keeping up the perfection she wears is the only way to keep the car running. You don’t have to be perfect to deserve to be loved, none of us are perfect, none of our books are perfect. My book isn’t even finished, please love me anyway.

It’s OK to critique and be criticized. In fact, it’s the only sane and fair way to exist in society. That said, to critique should not be an open season to tear others down in a wave of emotion or tear them down just because you see the world differently, or wish they had a different perspective. It’s OK to be flawed, and to present yourself as perfect is the only way to assure failure. We want to see the real person inside. I hope to get more of that from Jia Tolentino’s next book.