Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror” Unspools the Chaos of the Internet
From reality TV to sexual violence, the New Yorker writer decodes the sources of millennial anxiety
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Jia Tolentino’s essays are that rare thing: they maintain the clarity of critical distance while discussing the world in which the writer is immersed. The pieces in her new collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, were written during a period when, as she says in the introduction, “American identity, culture, technology, politics, and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict.”
The essays place the disciples of Lululemon in the same frame as heroines from Greek mythology. They consider the internet’s refraction of selfhood: the self as “the last natural resource of capitalism,” as something to be weaponized, as a state of constant performance. They retrace the falsified Rolling Stone story of a rape at UVA, Tolentino’s alma mater, and they revisit the author’s stint on a reality TV show as a teenager. They talk about drugs and religion and music and scamming. In short, they take the chaotic blaze that is the current era and disperse it into something illuminating.
Trick Mirror is Tolentino’s first book, but many will know her work from The Hairpin, where she got her start while still pursuing an MFA, or from Jezebel, or from the New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. All of these essays are new, though, and the writing is the kind to which you will look, and look again. On a WiFi call across an ocean and a five-hour time difference, Tolentino and I spoke about what the internet has done to writing, to identity, and to feminism.
Lucie Shelly: Before we dig into individual essays, I thought we could talk about the collection as a whole. To me, it read concentric. I felt it started with this heartbeat essay, “The I in Internet.” That brought so many of the major themes: selfhood, self-delusion versus self-actualization, and feminism—all framed by the internet era. The other essays and ideas seemed to ripple out from there. How did you conceive the arrangement?
Jia Tolentino: I tried two different arrangements. There were certain considerations, like I didn’t want all of the essays that were about women to be together. I didn’t want all the essays that are like here are all the different ways that all of these things are horrible and unbearable—the internet essay, the scams one, and the one about the UVA rape story, for instance—I didn’t want those to be too close together. It started to make sense to put the internet essay first because it introduces the central contradiction that I thought would carry through the book. The internet is the one idea that would be relevant to basically anyone reading the book. I think that the internet has become the governing structure through which you come to know yourself, but that also dilutes what you know about yourself.
LS: That makes sense. After that first piece, I started noticing so much language around identification, reflection, self-delusion. In the introduction, you announce this triangulated function of writing: for you, it’s a way to shed your self-delusions, it’s a, well, I’m going to use the word “compulsion”—
JT: I’d use the word compulsion.
LS: Okay, so there’s this idea that writing brings you away from your self-delusions, that there’s a compulsive need to get away from them. The internet is a fertile place for self-delusions, though. How do you reconcile writing to define yourself, and writing for the internet?
JT: Well, I think that there are two different ways of defining yourself—the two ways that come up in the book. The first one I talk about in the internet essay, about how the internet magnifies opposition and encourages you to define yourself and engage with a sort of designated opposition in an unhealthy way. The sort of thing we see with Bari Weiss: everyone was dunking on her on Twitter and that is making her career—the same way that me writing about her is doing the same thing. Right?
LS: Right. But I wonder how that refracts through an idea you bring up in “Pure Heroines”: entrustment. In that essay, you explain that entrustment is a principle, or rather, a mental framework of principles of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. Reading from your text, the women “recognized that the differences between their stories were central to their identities, and in doing this, they also created these identities and affirmed this difference as strength.”
JT: So I think that that’s a way of defining yourself against something or someone in a way that strengthens those things. The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, their framework of entrustment—it’s not defining yourself through opposition, it’s defining yourself through difference. Opposition hardly enters into it. That’s the crucial difference. I quote from a meeting where someone says, “We’re not all equal here.” That scene, in a way, is the beginning of whatever freedom anyone is able to obtain. It’s complicated, but it’s very important to me. I knew as soon as I read that book of theirs. I was like, “This is the framework I’ve been waiting for my whole life.” Something that always, always for them leads towards freedom and self-definition.
LS: I’m so glad you mentioned freedom. I’m Irish but I was born in the U.S. and lived there a long time. I find that with identity, the American mentality finds it very difficult to acknowledge difference without making it a problem.
JT: Right. It’s this language of performative tolerance rather than an idea that tolerance should be a precondition.
LS: Exactly, so it was such a relief when I was reading your piece on this—that difference was a freedom to these women.
JT: Yeah it’s tricky because there are plenty of cases in which your difference from someone has already been framed as a problem. I think it makes sense that identity politics in America are like this. America’s entire national identity is structured around the narrative in which we welcome difference—and the reality in which we often punish deviation from the rich white American. There are so many people for whom their difference has been made a real structural problem, but I also think that there’s a way in which—as I talked about it in the internet essay—there’s a way in which acknowledging difference has become the endpoint, rather than the beginning. And there’s a way in which there are more freedoms available to us that enter the discourse.
LS: To move direction a little, I feel like in the internet era, the contemporary essay often descends into navel-gazing even though we have so much access to so much more, if that makes sense. The self exploration that happens is entirely inward looking. Your essays, to me, did a lot of self exploration, but remained outward looking. They had such a scope of history, of literature, of feminist movements. You talk about blogging in its earliest days, and you began your career at The Hairpin and Jezebel, two venerated homes for essays on the internet. I’m curious about your thoughts on the essay in this day and age, specifically the feminist essay.
JT: I think that, in general, the climate for writing is not great. From the purely economic standpoint, the constraints are severe and so publications have a hard time breaking even and making money. Conditions are not conducive to the type of writing that people want to do or the type of writing that people want to read. When I started writing, there were a lot of places that a person who had never written anything before could try something and it would get edited pretty well and it would get read by a decent amount of people and I don’t think that there are a lot of places like that anymore.
LS: Yeah, there aren’t many. (This very website is a rare gem!) And if they do exist, survival is tricky.
JT: Before, in the days of like xoJane, you would feel like there was this glut of essay writing, especially personal essay writing—especially personal essay writing by women. But it’s not like that anymore and I think that’s kind of a pity. I wrote a piece a while back called “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over” and it got interpreted as me saying the personal essay itself is over. I was like, No. I started out writing personal essays. I still write them. I edited them nonstop for four years. I love them. But there are ways in which economic incentives complicate things. Like the fact that publications were mostly publishing women who would get paid $150 to write something really personal. That wasn’t great, but it was a system that I partook in and that I love and now there’s a lot less of it and it’s kind of sad. What I always say about essay writing on the internet is that the biggest trap is when people start and finish an essay on the same thought. That’s a thing that a writer should try to avoid. The whole point of an essay is to push yourself a little bit further than where you were when you started.
LS: I’m sure you’re doing a lot of talking about your very personal essays at the moment. Do you think that that will have an effect on how you approach your writing going forward?
JT: I don’t think so. This book is new and people who read it will know a lot about me is in here. But I have always written like this—it’s the way my personality is. The fact of being an open book is just a fact of how I live in general, so writing like that is a pre-existing tendency. That being said, that Houston essay is incredibly personal and incredibly intimate and at the same time, there is so much about that time and there’s still a lot that’s hidden. You could write really intensely about five percent of your life and it will create the illusion that you have shown 100 percent of it, but actually there’s still a lot that’s hidden and I’m conscious of trying to take advantage of that. If I’m going to write about something in my life, I’m really going to get into it. But there’s a lot that’s off-limits and always will be. Or maybe not a lot, but there are things that are never going to show up in my writing.
LS: I’m thinking of that reference you make to Rebecca Solnit about her response to the question of how to be a good woman. She says it’s not so much about how to be a good woman, but how we deal with that question, how we refuse to answer it. I wonder if there is something to be gleaned from that for writers. Like you have to be a good gatekeeper of yourself if you want to be a good essay writer. Otherwise, it can lead to over-exposure or preachy writing. You let yourself be subsumed by your reader.
JT: Right. And related to the question of essay writing on the internet is just how to be on the internet in general. “Being on the internet” implies a huge waste of time. It sort of asks people to constantly be operating on a framework of “Am I good or am I bad?” and “How good am I?” and “How bad am I?” That’s a question that you can sometimes feel people answering in their writing, but where it’s like, you don’t have to—nobody cares. I don’t need you to be good. I don’t need you to be bad. This shows up in criticism too. People are like, “Okay, just tell me is this thing good or is this bad?” That’s rarely the most interesting question and that is not a question I allow as a first principle.
LS: Right, right. I happened to be reading your collection in tandem with this book by Marguerite Duras, The Lover, and in the context of your work, this line jumped out at me: “When you’re being looked at, you can’t look. To look is to feel curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.” And I don’t really know how I feel about that, but on the internet, we’re so conscious of being looked at, of the need to self-curate, but it’s so easy to forget that everyone is curating themselves as heavily.
JT: I never forget that. People are always saying, “You gotta remember that Instagram’s not real life.” Like, obviously not. Are you kidding me? That’s never been a struggle that I’ve had, needing to remember that the internet’s not real life. It’s always been quite clear to me. At the same time, I think that I’m almost exactly the same online as I am in real life. The reason the internet is so interesting is because you can watch people. You get to watch people in this much narrower purview than in real life where it’s three-dimensional. Self-presentation is not limited to the internet. We’re doing it anytime we enact any form in real life, anytime. But on the internet, you watch people do it in these really prescribed spaces and it’s interesting. You get to watch people diluting themselves in real-time. It’s kind of amazing.
LS: I’m thinking now of your essay “Reality TV Me” about being on a reality TV show—that great line you have that when everything is framed as performance, it’s impossible to perform.
JT: Yea, yea, yea. So that’s why I like the internet—because it’s so artificial that it’s actually easier to be yourself. Like being on reality TV. I was always worried in real life in high school thinking, “Oh, why am I acting different around her than I am around him?” Then I grasped that the self is a product of the circumstances we put it in. I reference what Erving Goffman says in the internet essay—the self is an effect that comes off, it’s not this essential, fixed thing. I think that the internet is a structure that shows that over and over and over.
LS: In that same essay, you mention that your partner is one of these people that makes a real effort to exist outside of the scaffolding of the internet, thinking about #TBT as something completely wrong.
JT: Truth be told! It was so funny. He’s like an 80-year-old man, it’s incredible.
LS: So we know that we live within the system. As you write, we have these platforms that are difficult to regulate even if we try not to live on them, but what is the price of really not participating in that world? Is there a price that he feels, perhaps?
JT: Oh, not at all. He doesn’t feel a price at all. I do think that, obviously, participation in the internet depends on who you are. For example, if he were in the gig economy, which he’s not, he would need to participate in the internet. He might need to maintain an Instagram profile to show potential employers that he’s normal, or he might need to be constantly available via some internet platform, no matter what that is. There are a lot of people who do pay a price for not being comfortable with technology. The internet is the primary thing that connects to financial stability, or to the possibility of employment.
I think we’re going to see this great wave of digital detox as wellness. The real privilege will be to turn off your phone for a week. I don’t think the people who do that pay any price. Once you’re at a certain privilege level, it’s a luxury to be off the internet. The real thing is to be able to be off the internet with no adverse consequences. He’s still on his phone, he still has to be on his phone for work, but I think it’s working out great for him.
LS: It will definitely become a luxury to be off the internet. Brian Appleyard had a piece recently about how most of the bigwigs in Silicon Valley send their kids to these device-free schools.
JT: Exactly! The people who invented these devices—it’s sort of how like Juuling is banned in San Francisco where the company’s based.
LS: Can you describe how you start, how you move from idea to page? How do you know when something is finished?
JT: I research things for as long as I can get away with, and then I start when there are no more good excuses to not start. It helps to remember that the first sentence you write, the first paragraph, probably the first day’s worth of writing at a bare minimum (at least on an essay of the sort of length I was doing for the book) will almost always be discarded—it’s just there to get you closer to what will actually stick, and you can’t get there any other way. And I think I know something is finished when I’m no longer uncovering anything new at all.
LS: Maybe I’m reaching here, but in “Pure Heroines,” your essay about portrayals of female protagonists in literature, you reference De Beauvoir’s comparison of transcendence and immanence. In literature, the female protagonist is portrayed as “the long-suffering, selfless, socially embedded heroine, being moved in many directions.” Male protagonists are portrayed as “autonomous, ego-enhancing hero[s] single-handedly and single-heartedly progressing towards a goal.” I think the same could be said of women and men in relation to the internet, or certainly new media. It seems like the imminent way of living is to live within the systems of the internet.
JT: Yea, maybe. Men get to live on a plane of human existence and women are confined to live in this domestic world.