Art and Literature

Jia Tolentino on cultivating a writing practice—and the self—in a shifting media landscape

Institute Director Adrian Daub and Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino is now a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the acclaimed essay collection Trick Mirror(2019), but in 2010, sitting in an internet café in Kyrgyzstan, she almost gave up writing for good. 

Her laptop, containing five years’ worth of work on a novel (the story of four friends reuniting in New York City after college, tentatively entitled Girls), had just been stolen. “I thought, ‘I was never meant to write. The universe doesn’t want me to,’” Tolentino told an at capacity crowd in Stanford’s CEMEX auditorium on January 16. 

But Tolentino nonetheless found herself “compulsively” returning to the craft. And experiences like the complete loss of a multi-year manuscript have served as useful lessons in embracing the challenging twists and turns that a writing career can take. “If you want to be a writer, there’s so little you can control other than generating as much difficulty and fun for yourself as possible,” she said. “That’s the axis that I’ve always tried to follow. And focusing on those two things, conveniently, will also make your writing better.”

Appearing in conversation with Stanford English professor Mark Greif, Tolentino offered reflections on the art of writing, the changing media landscape, and the innumerable ways that late capitalism shapes the self. Her appearance comprised the latest event in the “What Is A Public Intellectual Today?” series coordinated by the Graduate Humanities Public Writing Project, and was cosponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Stanford Humanities Center. 

For Tolentino, the ongoing pursuit of both thrill and challenge in her craft has meant embracing unconventional forms and occasions for writing—and she encourages other young authors to do the same. “Any sort of [writing] training that’s not the most predictable version is better than the most predictable version,” she said. 

For Tolentino, the ongoing pursuit of both thrill and challenge in her craft has meant embracing unconventional forms and occasions for writing—and she encourages other young authors to do the same. “Any sort of [writing] training that’s not the most predictable version is better than the most predictable version,” she said. 

She cites her experiences penning the lost novel, writing copy for a real estate website, and publishing “stupid little book reviews for myself” on a Wordpress blog called The Best Little Bookshelf in Texas as useful exercises in approaching the written word from a variety of angles. 

Tolentino’s areas of interest are equally diverse. The essays in Trick Mirroralone range in focus from nineteenth-century literary heroines to reality television, from athleisure wear to the unexpected parallels between recreational drugs and evangelical Christianity. 

A student in attendance was curious to know how Tolentino comes up with the topics for her articles. Tolentino replied that a certain degree of “chemistry … [and] heat” with a subject in her own lived experience is a first clue.

For instance, she noticed for months that whenever she attended a Pure Barre exercise class, “there were moments when … I’d just suddenly start wildly dissociating.” She asked herself, “Why is this experience shimmering right now?” The answer to that question became the essay “Always Be Optimizing,” which frames Barre class as one of the many ways in which our culture’s obsession with productivity trains women, perversely, to desire punishing regimes of exercise, nutrition and long work hours. 

photo of Tolentino on stage
On stage at Humanities Public Writing
Project event

The uncomfortable paradoxes of our current economic system are often at the center of Tolentino’s pieces. An audience member observed that many anti-capitalist books like Trick Mirror have, ironically, become bestsellers in recent years. To this, Tolentino added with a laugh that former President Barack Obama’s list of his “Favorite Books of 2019” included several such titles, from Trick Mirror and How to Do Nothing (by Jenny Odell, a lecturer in art practice at Stanford) to Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The latter work even explicitly frames Obama’s administration as complicit in intrusive corporate data collection. 

“One thing that feels like getting spiritually clotheslined is that capitalism appropriates resistance to it instantly,” she said. Thus although her own book is deeply wary of contemporary American trends towards commodifying the self, she admits that her “selfhood has been increasingly commodified” during the process of promoting Trick Mirror. In the face of paradoxes such as this, she concluded, the public role of the writer as witness and analyst becomes more important than ever: “It’s increasingly urgent to figure out how we’re going to be clear about these contradictions, to look at them head-on.”

Tolentino made another Stanford appearance the next day, speaking at the Clayman Institute in a public discussion facilitated by Institute Director Adrian Daub. 

In response to Daub’s question regarding whether Trick Mirror is part of a feminist project, Tolentino replied that one of her aims with the collection was “to write a book that was mostly about women that wouldn’t necessarily be pegged as a book about women, but simply a book of criticism at large.” That this goal has come to fruition demonstrates, in her mind, that readers are increasingly viewing what were “previously considered fringe identity positions as central and unremarkable.”

This was not always the case, however, as Tolentino knows from first-hand experience. Even as recently as the early to mid-2010s, when she was cutting her teeth as a journalist, feminist writing still found its home largely on specialized websites such as Jezebel and the Hairpin. But by the time she left Jezebel for the New Yorker in 2016, Jezebel’s “readership was half-male, half-female; sometimes it would even slant slightly more male.” This was one indicator, in her view, that “people are often ready for more change than the media is giving them.”  

Tolentino’s days working for scrappy, understaffed feminist blogs forced her to churn out high volumes of text each day. At Jezebel, for instance, she and the other editors published blog posts every 20 minutes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. While punishing, this quick drafting pace inevitably improved her writing by leaps and bounds. “It’s like with cooking: the more you cook, the more your hands just cook for you. You know exactly how much salt is too much salt.” 

It’s only by dint of such repetition that young writers can develop their own instincts regarding the more subjective aspects of the craft, such as which tone is best suited to a topic or when a piece is done. It’s essential to “understand how long or short something should be. There are a lot of books that should’ve been essays,” Tolentino said, spurring laughter in the audience. “And there are a lot of essays that should’ve been tweets.” 

Tolentino concedes that recent developments in the media world—from readers’ shrinking attention spans to venture capital’s destruction of independent publishing platforms and journalism jobs—have made the industry more intimidating for young writers to break into than it was when she came of age. However, she encourages would-be authors not to lose hope entirely: “Thereis still a way. People do still want to read interesting things. The basic supply and demand of interesting writing remains.”

(photos by Cynthia Newberry)