didn't have to be this way: the Jia Tolentino story
This year, I shelved a novel that I had been writing since 2010. The last draft I sent to my agent had its moments, but it read inert and youthful, sort of stained with indecision; at any rate, I’d started to think it had problems that neither of us would fix.
At final count, the manuscript was three hundred and six pages and almost seventy-eight thousand words long. There were fifteen chapters, all of which I’d edited several dozen times. In retrospect, that seems sensible — what you’d want to do, when a book was concerned — and also insane, as I don’t remember any of it. Editing is a fugue state; the time self-erases. I’d have forgotten about it altogether except for the fact that the weight of the effort has lifted only gradually, and also, the fact that the evidence is two clicks away: the evolution of an idea from nothing to something to nothing again sits peacefully in a folder named “Novel!” that I dragged off my desktop early in the fall.
These words were published in 2015 in the Awl, RIP, by Jia Tolentino. The piece is well worth reading in full. It has several qualities that typify her best writing, and her best writing is excellent, timely and sharp and effortlessly compassionate. First, there’s this constant presence of self-deprecation in Tolentino’s work which is straightforwardly phony - she, the writer, and you, the reader, know precisely how estimable she is, and you both know these swipes at humility are fundamentally bogus - and yet which is charming nonetheless, which is a real accomplishment. I say that with zero cynicism, truly. False humility should be deadly for anyone, but I think there’s a certain verve in Tolentino’s best work that compels you to admire her for advancing a critical reading of herself that’s so transparently untrue. Another thing this piece does is to highlight the privilege of the truly talented, which is to pull off that which should not be pulled off. For example, I would really like to know what kind of time does not “self-erase” as described here. The tendency of time to pass is probably not worth writing about. But I nod along to this saying “yeah, yeah” nonetheless. She has that kind of ability.
I really wish she had published that novel. I like writing that’s youthful and stained with indecision, even if it’s inert, and I especially like novels that have problems no one can fix.
There is self-deprecation of the more naked and real variety in this piece, the kind that is not an artful construct through which Tolentino subtly asserts status but a quite visceral admission of genuine insecurities, however unintentional. We are to take it as given that the title of her failed novel, The Earth is a Small Place for Fugitives, is achingly pretentious, and as it’s taken from a Kyrgyz proverb, I suppose it’s cultural appropriation or whatever the fuck we’re into these days. Personally, I think it’s a lovely name for your first book. Yes, it announces ambition. But then, that was once the purpose of first novel titles, to announce something to the world that you couldn’t take back. No more. Now such titles are for ironic deflection of the embarrassing reality that the author is such a pompous creature that they would publish a first novel and take it more seriously than a TV recap. And we are also to understand that the genesis of that novel, Tolentino’s work in the Peace Corps, is self-evidently ridiculous. Why, can you imagine? Some privileged American going to a foreign country, discovering an alien culture, feeling conflicted about her place there and, if she’s being real, about the culture itself? Then, gradually, finding some sort of new understanding that is deep but ambivalent? Why, the Red Scare subreddit mockery practically writes itself. Who would be so bold as to publish something that transparently novel-y, something that takes itself, its readers, the world, and the genre of the novel seriously? Far better to retreat into something unambitious and distracted, to make your first book, your first book, something that reminds the reader at every page that the writer has a more important event to get to. Far better to publish Trick Mirror.
When I published a critical review of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, it can’t be said to have gotten much of a reaction; this is an email newsletter by a disgraced late-2000s blogger. But to the degree that it got a response that blew back to me, it seems people were pleased, because of a quiet but widespread belief that Oyler is too old to still be in the “talented brat” phase of her career which continues to this day. We’ve seen what it looks like when someone refuses to evolve from there, and it looks like Bret Easton Ellis. (Were she to ever see it, Oyler would not take any of this as a grave insult, I’m sure; she is a bona fide literary celebrity, and the reason that belief is quiet is because other writers are afraid of her.) Besides, Fake Accounts just isn’t very good, and Oyler has dined out for too long on her immense potential to get away with a first book that’s so tedious. At some point you have to produce.
But going after Tolentino’s book was another thing entirely. It’s not easy to become one of the tiny handful of writers whose massive popularity among other writers confers not just prestige and protection but a kind of saintly aura that compels people to speak about them in hushed tones. Surely Ta Nehisi Coates wears the crown in this regard. And like Coates, the primary source of Tolentino’s gravitas is her immense ability; were there no there there, no core of no-bullshit brilliant writing, neither he nor she would ever have ascended to their current station. They are impregnable first and foremost because their writing itself showcases true craft. But both also demonstrate the terrible price of modern literary canonization: their writing was eaten by their reputations. They became institutions and in so doing lost their grip on what was so essential about their work in the first place. Coates’s work at The Atlantic is, generally, really very strong; he is an impeccable prose stylist and has that invaluable talent of picking exactly the right scope for his essays. (Invaluable and rare.) But compared against his work in The Village Voice, you see what was lost - passion and bitterness and a genuinely outsider perspective. And the ironic cost of this rare form of deification is a social and professional culture in professional writing that simply will not permit calling the deified out on losing their edge. Which is a problem; trying to exempt a writer from the critical engagement of other writers is not respect but its opposite. But that’s the only kind of literary laurel we really know how to give out anymore - respectful, awed, mawkish canonization that looks like standard-issue minor celebrity in every way save for a slightly higher caliber of tabloid coverage.
But for all of Tolentino’s considerable esteem, and for all of her immense skill, the fact remains that lots of people found Trick Mirror crushingly disappointing. How could they not? A desultory collection of “hey here’s a draft of something I never finished” bangers, it’s simultaneously too of its time to endure and too unfocused to say anything meaningful about what 2019 was really like. How did no one in her life say to her, “you know, people usually want their first book to be an enduring statement of their values, and maybe stuff about Fyre Fest won’t age that great”? I can’t decide if it’s more depressing if she just didn’t realize that what she was publishing was so ephemeral and trite, or if she did, and didn’t care. Look, there are essay collections that are great, vital, even timeless. There are a couple on the horizon that I’m looking forward to. But I often wince when someone’s first book is an essay collection, because the genre as a whole is an elephant’s graveyard of tossed-off nonsense that primarily fulfills the function of being a book. Essay collections tend to happen because a writer is hot and there’s pressure to get something out in time to catch the wave. (Unfortunately publishing moves at the speed of an arthritic golfer getting dressed in the clubhouse so it’s usually too late anyway.) But Tolentino had no such pressure. She had as much runway as anyone could ask for. The book went to auction! And she took that unique moment of power and potential, and turned it into Trick Mirror, a book that would rather be a New York Times Magazine piece that becomes a teleplay that gets turned into an 8-episode Hulu series that nobody particularly likes. She was and remains capable of more. But maybe it gave her everything she wanted, I don’t know.
(Would I publish an essay collection? If the check clears, sure.)
You may think more of Trick Mirror than I do. That’s fine. But in the Awl piece Tolentino says that “I write to find the limits of my ability to understand things.” Whatever Trick Mirror is, it is not that. It’s not even trying that. I’m sure The Earth is a Small Place for Fugitives was/is flawed. Who gives a fuck? I want to read it. Let me read it. Give me the ambition of 2010 Jia Tolentino, not the sad indifference of aspiring Inside Hollywood host 2021 Jia Tolentino. For fuck’s sake, ambition in a writer is good. The pathetic literary culture we have today, with its allergy to the most basic desire to do great work and the endless ironizing of the artistic esteem that writers both desperately covet and showily reject… who is it for? What does it serve? Do you know how rarely books earn out now? Why not call your shot and swing for the fences? This endless disdain for wanting to write good and important stuff is not helping anyone. I get it, 21st century novelists: you were over this whole writer thing before you started. That is fascinating. Now, please, will someone give me a writer who fucking likes writing and wants to write something vast and good and important? Anyone? Please?
We’ll take a certain genre of contemporary literary commentary by what I hope is its nadir. I think it relates directly to this discussion. This piece was published in 2018 by GQ, a magazine mostly known for cologne ads and the kind of celebrity profile where a 55-year-old man tries to convince you that a 22-year-old actress known for having pretty tits is actually very deep. Writing for such a place must be like being a waiter in Weimar Germany, with a palpable sense of the axe not being about to swing, but already speeding merrily on its way towards your neck. There will be something called GQ in 2030, but the witty banter about $10,000 watches no single human being has ever bought will be generated by artificial intelligence, and one day the algorithms will develop emergent sentience just long enough to ask, “what the fuck is GQ?”
“21 Books You Don’t Have to Read,” is the title. April 2018. The piece has been floating around a bit lately, I think because three years is long enough for people to realize that someone called Tom Perrotta is not going to be rolling out a better novel than Blood Meridian anytime soon. Look, this shit is just red meat, right; it’s some editor in the Freedom Tower suddenly realizing that working for a men’s magazine in 2018 is like opening a Hollywood Video in 2000 and that he couldn’t really afford his Boerum Hill apartment in the first place, so he better order up some prime viral horseshit for the overeducated. The whole game is given away by the phrase “When men on dating apps list a book,” which is like a time capsule of every tired Tumblr cliché from 2008-2013 and which presupposes, as the whole piece does - as the whole culture does - that the only reason to read something is to be vaguely culturally aligned with the kind of person you assume would read it too. Even if I were to concede that any of these are bad books, have these people never met a good and attractive person who has bad taste? I promise, you can read the embarrassing books, the ones they put on these endless lists. They won’t hurt you. Put a hold on Infinite Jest at the library, go for it. You can just not tell people at parties what you’re reading. This is an option available to you, as an adult human.
I’m not a fan of Slaughterhouse Five, at all, as the narrator’s homespun style drives me up the wall. And Veronica might be a great book, although that the presence of emotions is listed as a key selling point is not encouraging. All I know is that right now some 12-year-old is curled up with one of Vonnegut’s books and encountering his aphorisms about life for the very first time, and those words will be wallpapered inside that 12-year-old’s mind for the rest of their days. If this is not part of your fundamental ambition to write, I simply don’t know why you would choose the profession. The money sucks ass to the point that when you say that you’re a writer most people assume it’s code for being unemployed. Advances have been actively shrinking for years and years. Literary “celebrity” comes in well below that of Vine stars, and the last new Vine was filmed five years ago. If not ambition to do something intrinsically valuable, then write for what? At some point whatever remains of book culture is going to have to engage with this strange communal decision to act as it its embarrassing to take books seriously. This fact seems in some circles to be regarded as vestigial and embarrassing, but I don’t think we can just wave it away: there has always been a certain sense of purpose and integrity to the project of writing, and however much pretension and folly this has produced, it has also powered the profession through lean times when it might otherwise go extinct. Absent artistic ambitions and a desire to produce something of lasting value, it’s completely unclear why so many people want to do this. If you’re contemptuous of the notion that people read and write out of artistic passions they don’t control, why not get into arbitrage or flip houses?
What I can’t wrap my mind around is what the writers who wrote these little, uh, reviews in GQ thought they were getting out of it. Where did they think this half-hearted Oedipal display was going to get them? “An appearance on a dying legacy magazine’s terrible attempt at ‘Bukowski is a red flag’-style let-me-prove-I-read-books-by-having-inane-horseshit-opinions-about-them internet ‘humor,’ the kind that was tired when Salon published it in 2004? Yes please!” For the karmic costs alone, it’s such a low-percentage move. Was it really worth the $750? You needed a Conde Nast bathroom pass that bad? Just inexplicable. Caity Weaver has the ability to write whatever she likes; she’s immensely skilled and very funny. She has chosen to devote her career to the pursuits that she has. But does she really have to underline it all by going after Mark Twain? Can someone be so terminally online as to think that, from the perspective of history, this will be a flattering comparison? Yes, current political fads are getting copies of Huck Finn pulled off of high school reading lists left and right. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be replaced by What Experiencing Kristallnacht Taught Me About Privilege in the canon too. Not in the long run. Of course you can and should criticize famous books. But if you’re going to do it, do it for real. This fake jocularity and affected disdain just further exposes the fact that these books make people mad in part because they have generated a kind of esteem we are all supposed to be too cool to covet anymore.
It’s tempting to do the old “no one will ever care enough about your books to put them on this kind of list” thing, but honestly the point is both gentler and bigger than that. What lists like this inevitably do is reveal a fundamental generational divide, not in talent or scope or project or even ambition. It’s a divide in a sense of the inherent nobility of the work of being a writer, between those who wrote before it was considered good form for writers to be embarrassed about being writers and those working after. This generational break comes as little surprise. The past 25 years or so of media and literary culture has ruthlessly undercut the idea that writers should be proud of writing, ambition equated simplistically with pretention by endless Spy magazine clones, spurred on initially by resentful younger writers watching people like Tom Wolfe getting comped at the Four Seasons while the basic economics of books and magazines crumbled. But that was a long time ago. Perhaps those who witnessed the Tina Brown excess of an earlier era can be forgiven for this visceral hatred of writerly self-importance, but I’m never sure what to think when I see it in young Millennials. There are now no big timers whose condition you should envy, not really. So why bother? Why ironize and undermine that which has already been ironized and undermined beyond rescue? It seems, at times, like the literary internet will never leave the comments section of Gawker circa 2009. Now that the lives of writers are lean and spare, by and large, I would like it if we could be permitted to publicly and unapologetically take our work seriously again. I would like it very much.
Inevitably people will think that my lamentations about Tolentino’s career path are gendered, expectations about a woman that I never would foist on a man. Honestly for me it feels like the opposite these days. I write about women’s books more than men’s simply because I don’t find much ambition at all in men’s fiction, which is mostly written by sensitive guys who have so absorbed the critique of the annoyingly literary young man that they try to eliminate anything in their personas that could fit the stereotype. The problem there is that eventually you self-defensively strip away everything that might get you made fun of (usually be people who don’t actually read anyway) and you end up with nothing else to write about, which is how we got a generation of books about annoying literary young men who are so transparently unsympathetic that it’s clear the author’s first priority is not to appear to be like their creation. Gender influences everything about publishing and literary culture, but the utter confusion and conflicting incentives of our current moment in American letters afflicts everyone. Nobody knows what the right level of ambition is. Nobody knows what mountain they’re supposed to climb.
Choire Sicha, I will perhaps permanently think, has not quite found the project. He has a perfectly enviable career - immensely beloved by people in the biz, founder of several pioneering websites, former editor of a big-deal NYT section, about as influential on contemporary internet writing style as anyone you can name. He’s pulled off the seemingly impossible task of being in internet journalism for decades and yet retaining an authentic reputation as a good person. I don’t know, I’ve never met him, but in his work I find something uncommonly humane. Humane and wise. So I want him to find that one right thing. I read Very Recent History and liked it. (Even the title!) I don’t think it represents the extent of what he’s capable of. I don’t know, maybe I’m greedy. He presided over peak Gawker and founded the Awl, which in turn gave us talents like Tolentino and Edith Zimmerman, which in and of itself is reason enough to celebrate. He has nothing to prove to me or to anyone else.
Like a lot of people, when he took over the Styles section I thought, this is it. This is the perfect marriage of editor and venue. And then it just kind of came and went. As I understand it from the press he had a hard time of it, I don’t know. It’s odd to feel passionately that a perfect stranger deserves more, especially when “deserving more” amounts to complaining that they haven’t done enough. I emailed him after he got the Times gig and congratulated him and he acted like I had kicked his dog. But most people aren’t looking to find emails from me in their inbox in general, so. I recognize that it is in the main an unfair thing to ask of anyone, to satisfy my expectations about what their talent and their temperament might produce. But I am unmoved by most people writing today and so I invest rude hopes in those I believe in.
Perhaps the Awl is the right symbol for that era, if it’s not too mean to say so. It was sharp, cutting, delicate, subtle, wise, and utterly inessential. It was a monument to an era of writers who were scared to be known as writers. So many of its pieces were sober and quiet in an era of clanging noise. There was a quality of exhaustion to that place that I found sad and comforting, an acceptance about the total pointlessness of what all of us were doing, people who were commenting on stuff for money. There was also an unashamed commitment to excellence, as much as Sicha and Alex Balk may have wanted to deny it; the Awl never employed a Neetzan Zimmerman, though they surely could have, and it’s precisely for that integrity that I must now refer to the place in the past tense. I think you can read the first paragraph of this piece and say, with confidence and admiration, that they satisfied all of those ideals. And there was also a shallow drabness to the Awl, a sad acceptance of the limitations of what can be written now. The Awl, to me, was both a respite from the snark and smarm and glurge and churn of our hellish times and also an avatar of a certain wandering cultural pointlessness that haunts our moment. When it came to publishing written commentary that was incisive and well-crafted, the Awl had a batting average as good as any. The question that I ask when I read the best of that kind of work today is, why comment at all?
Well, sometimes they reminded me. Another piece was published in the Awl in 2015, by Stassa Edwards. “Our Incorruptible Dead Girls” is the kind of essay that, to be crass about it, should result in a book that goes to auction. This is, I suppose, pitting one woman against another in a problematic way, and Edwards will gain nothing by my praise, might even be moved to repudiate it, but I can’t help it. The essay is the kind of thing I want young authors to aspire to write and Edwards’s ability is what I want young writers to covet. The essay is conspicuously modest, in a sense, but uncomplicatedly ambitious, written by someone who is unafraid of appearing to care, appearing to write something that matters, that was written to matter. It takes itself seriously and it assumes you will too. As well it should. Read it and consider what you would like to write about next.
I would like it if young writers took a page from Edwards and understood a basic fact that all of us eventually have to face, not just writers but everyone: no one else can take us seriously for us. For a couple decades now we’ve tried the thing where we laugh off the very idea that we’re worthy of being taken seriously, where we preempt other people diminishing us by nervously diminishing ourselves. Shockingly, this has not led to happiness. I will say for the thousandth time that people who maintain meticulously dry and endlessly unimpressed Twitter accounts where they drop withering one-liners that demonstrate their detachment and superiority are desperately unhappy people. The image of their lives is their own faces lit up by the sickly glow of a laptop screen. Let’s drop that, OK? Let’s try and commit to doing things because we think that they’re worth doing and to acknowledge that when we do them we would like to be recognized for doing them. I know that this will prompt accusations of wanting “the New Sincerity,” a fake thing which never existed, but I don’t think it’s wrong or pretentious to tell people that they’re sad because they’ve made haughty mockery into the centerpiece of their entire emotional lives. Is saying “care about your work and yourself” really calling for some grand new philosophy on writing and life? I would call it sensible advice. Try something else than that which has left you miserable and stuck in a toxic culture.
Every year the Pulitzer nominations come out. And every year writers don’t know how to act. They would very, very much like to be the kind of writers who don’t care about the Pulitzers. But they do care. And they are also aware that, however ironized and diminished they have become in a culture of showy disdain towards the ideals of craft and meaning, those awards move units. So we are left in a world where writers can’t resist putting “Pulitzer-prize winning” in the bios of the Twitter accounts where they then go on to mock the very values that such awards are meant to embody. In this, they mirror the world of 21st century American meritocracy writ large. Every day I read people decrying the unjust institutions that create the social ladder they recently so busily climbed. I’m afraid if you write a thinkpiece about how the SAT is racist but still keep your Stanford degree on your resume, you’re a hypocrite, and you should think about whether you’re really arguing for a better system or simply pulling up the ladder. Do you guys honestly think it’s a coincidence that the now-jaded winners of our society have started writing pieces with titles like “Is College Obsolete?” at the precise historical moment that women have taken a clear lead in higher education? That these small potatoes critiques of meritocracy emerge right when a wave of affluent white kids who expected success in that system didn’t get it? Whether it’s publishing or media or the economy writ large, I wish people would clarify their attitudes towards success and the institutions that bestow it. When you publicly complain about meritocracy and then accept the value of being celebrated by elite institutions, monetary or otherwise, are you doing so ironically? Do you want the laurels, or don’t you? If you climbed the ladder and periodically look down and point out that it’s all corrupt, but you also can’t help yourself from continuing to climb, what’s the use?
Mostly I just want you to decide if you really want to be a writer or not. I think wanting to someday be a showrunner is a perfectly noble desire. I do. I think being a podcaster is great, if that’s what you want to be. I don’t believe in some hierarchy of creative professions. And if you find contentment in life by being quoted as a Britney Spears expert on NPR, then go with God. What’s unfortunate is that for peculiar social and professional reasons many people who really want to do other things find it necessary, while they’re waiting to get there, to call themselves writers. It distorts the profession and corrupts the incentives. I understand that books are a curio and loving them the habit of a dying era, and I don’t blame people for stumbling around as they conduct the messy business of self-definition. But I am tired of getting excited by promise that goes unfulfilled not because the target of those hopes doesn’t have the talent but because they’d really rather be doing something else.
I am working on the proposal for my second book. I have no idea if it will go under contract or sell if it does get published. The first book sold, as of the 24th of June, 4188 copies. (Including six audio CDs!) It was very little reviewed, and where it was reviewed, the response was middling. But I’m proud of it and I’m proud that I wrote it and I’m proud that it’s about all of our society and its failures and what it could be instead of what it is. My second book is not about Fyre Fest, or “how people talk on the internet today,” or an unambitious but literary young man who can’t quite seem to find his calling, or how if you think about it jogging teaches us a lot about life, or a young woman struggling to balance her career ambitions with her conflicted feelings towards 21st century capitalism. My second book is about suffering. And whether I can sell it or not, I will write it, and in writing it I will come home with my shield or on it. That sentence will live on for years in screencapped glory as anonymous accounts with 400 followers and ironic avatars share it in gibbering mockery. But those are the stakes, in any era, for any of us: you either risk enough to be made fun of or you don’t.
I like big books and small ones. I like novels of towering ambition and those that are self-consciously small. I like nonfiction that seeks to explain the entirety of ages and that which wants only to look at the smallest subject from one narrow angle. I don’t think and have never thought that novels about people quietly dying inside are somehow more real or important or big than those about dragons and starships, although I like the former kind quite a bit. I don’t know what “realism” is and I can never quite figure out what James Wood is complaining about. I have no problems with the books of today in form or genre. What I am hungry for is books written by people who aren’t vaguely embarrassed to be writing books. I want books written out of plainspoken desire to capture something work capturing, and I want writers whose great ambition is to be and remain writers. Either the entire edifice of books and letters should fall, and the Big Five houses and the launch parties and the Pulitzers and the expense account lunches with it, or the people who go about living within that world should comport themselves with the unfussy business of creating words on paper for the betterment of human understanding and human charity, and they should do so with a sense of the simple integrity of the job and, when warranted, with pride.
Maybe Tolentino has already written or sold her big no-bullshit novel and she’ll very soon prove me right by proving me wrong. I would love to see it. If not, I’m sure that The Earth is a Small Place for Fugitives is still on her Macbook, whatever’s left of it, or else she’s squirreled what pages she has away on a secret flash drive she sometimes takes out and clasps delicately in her fingers, caressing it in hope that its contents will make her feel today what she felt back then. Or she has the notes. Or maybe she’s just still fundamentally the same person who wrote it the first time, and when she’s sitting in some uncomfortable chair after makeup waiting to tell Michael Strahan the latest Bachelor news, she thinks of the story she once wanted to tell. Her agents, and I am sure she employs several people who go by that title, could let the industry know that she’s ready to publish it. All five of the big houses would race to pay her six figures, a privilege she has earned. She could unleash her prior ambition on the public and she could reap the glory or take her lumps or both, and the world would know what it was that 22-year-old Jia Tolentino thought she could accomplish, what she believed she was capable of deep inside her most private and lofty spaces. She could choose to do that. Or she could not; she could, instead, very rationally decide that what she’s doing now is easier and more profitable and more fun. That is certainly her right.
The larger question, if you are unlucky enough to love books, will remain. You will forgive me if I follow the trend and quote James Baldwin: you must decide, all over again, whether you want to be famous, or whether you want to write. But you do get to choose. This is what I’m trying to tell her. It’s all in her hands. It always has been.