By Erin Woo
Jia Tolentino doesn’t like to think of herself as a public intellectual.
That said, everyone else seems to want to. David Remnick, her editor-in-chief at The New Yorker, compared her to essayist Joan Didion in an interview with Elle. Media coverage of Tolentino’s debut collection of essays, “Trick Mirror,” has called her “the voice of a generation.”
And, last Thursday, she spoke at Cemex Auditorium as part of the Humanities Public Writing Project’s speaker series, “What is a Public Intellectual Today?”
“There’s nobody better at braiding high and low culture into something that’s fun and accessible,” said Laura Goode, the director of the Humanities Public Writing Project. “She’s an authentically intellectual thinker who can write about things that matter to people right now.”
But, Tolentino said, she’s hesitant to claim a label like that for herself.
“The label of public intellectual involves almost a self-designation of being a unique authority,” she told The Daily. “I write forcefully, I’m a confident person, but it’s hard for me to claim that. I’m sure this has to do with age and gender, but I also just think it’s a little pompous of a label for me.”
Tolentino’s writing in “Trick Mirror” and as a staff writer at The New Yorker weaves, as Goode put it, high culture with low; it’s hard to be accused of pomposity when writing about “cursed times” on the internet or the phenomenon that is “Cats.” On Thursday, her conversation with Stanford English professor Mark Greif delved into themes present in Tolentino’s work and career, offering advice and warnings to an audience filled with students who will graduate into a very different media ecosystem than the one she came up in.
While pursuing a graduate degree in fiction writing at the University of Michigan, Tolentino began freelancing — largely for free — at now-shuttered blogging sites like The Toast and The Awl before becoming an editor first at The Hairpin and then Jezebel.
“It was a time on the internet where suddenly anyone could write,” she said. “There were these unique economic conditions where there were these tiny blogs run by one or two people that millions of people were reading … You could pitch your favorite places, which is not quite as possible anymore.”
Tolentino describes today’s internet as “melted into an algorithmic hell” increasingly filtered through platforms like Google or Facebook. It’s a landscape she has charted extensively as a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Animating much of her writing is an examination of the modern obsession with optimization, whether through the lens of “athleisure as late-capitalist fetish wear” or the “texting, shuffling, eyes-down snake” of customers at the fast-casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen, which she wrote “feels less like a place to eat and more like a refueling station.”
Both are topics she wrote about after feeling “a level of chemistry with the subject.”
“With barre and Sweetgreen, those were moments where I was just going about my day and I would just suddenly start, like, wildly dissociating,” Tolentino said. “After nine months of that, I was like, why? Why am I feeling both completely dissociated and meticulously attuned to details? Like, why is this shimmering right now?”
Tolentino’s work often draws on her personal experiences. In an essay from “Trick Mirror” excerpted in The New Yorker, she wrote about her childhood in a Houston evangelical megachurch and private school that “was so big we called it the Repentagon.”
Not long after she graduated, she left the church behind, taking with her an appreciation for “the feeling of total porousness, the total dissolution of self and ego” that, she says, she later found in psychedelics: “the feeling of unboundedness, of connection — psychedelics create that for you every time.”
Examinations of religion’s guiding themes — of self-improvement, of self-examination — have also resurfaced in her later work via discussions of optimization: a “dark capitalist version” of religion, Greif suggested.
“I never thought about it exactly in that way until you said it, but I think that must be the reason why I’m so bothered by and attracted to venture capitalized optimization,” Tolentino said. “I think it bothers me when incentives that are so deeply, deeply human and humanistic and productive when un-monetized are monetized into something unrecognizable.”
Since the publication of “Trick Mirror” — and the rapturous media reception that followed — Tolentino has increasingly found herself in a position where she is forced to reckon with these questions not only as an individual but as a public figure as well: Jia Tolentino as the voice of her generation, as millennial Joan Didion, as public intellectual.
“One of the biggest throughlines in the book is how commodified selfhood is spiritually destructive,” she said. “And in promoting the book, my selfhood has become commodified.”
Over the past several months, Tolentino said she has watched the internet turn her into a stand-in for a feminist millenial writer and her book into a lifestyle prop.
“My whole personality is being read back to me as strategic,” Tolentino told The Daily. “Someone asked me at a Q&A what my strategy would be for other people who are looking to cultivate a personal brand around authenticity, and that ruined me. That existentially ruined me … I refuse to be told that my personality is a brand strategy.”
In the upcoming paperback edition of “Trick Mirror,” Tolentino says, she’s changed the cover from its current bright pink and orange iteration to make it less “Instagrammable.”
As for what’s next for Tolentino herself, she’s less sure. Back in Cemex, when Greif asked her if she has any regrets, she responded, “I in general try to live in a way I won’t regret things, which means I also am somewhat stupid and don’t think about the past or the future very much.”
She laughed and continued, talking about how lucky she’s gotten, how she’s always worked hard in the hopes that luck will continue to find her, before backtracking: “But that’s kind of a bullshitty answer. There has to be something I regret.”
“No, I don’t — I once wrote a novel for five years that I never did anything with, and sometimes people ask me, ‘Don’t you regret all that wasted time?’” she said. “But don’t you understand — that was the blessing of writing, and no one read it. That’s the dream, getting to f*ck up in private and write something boring and bad in private and not have to answer to it for the rest of my life.”
That was then. Like it or not, everyone’s reading her now.