“I never have impostor syndrome,” declares Jia Tolentino. “The only times I feel like an impostor is when I actually am one. Once I told someone I was talking to at a bar that my novel—which I had worked on for five years and then shelved—was bad. They said ‘Oh, well, women of colour often doubt themselves’. I was like, ‘No, no, it’s just a bad book. This is not false modesty.’”
Tolentino had been reflecting on the success of her 2019 book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, a startlingly incisive collection of essays on modern feminism, the social Internet, and everything in between. When she says, “I don’t know why it sold as well as it did,” with a shrug, I suggest that her uncertainty on the matter may be a product of some form of impostor syndrome. Hence, her emphatic response debunking my theory.
“The traditional definition of impostor syndrome implies that the person is feeling some inaccurate dissonance and needs to gain confidence,” Tolentino explains. “I’m very naturally confident, but it is the job of a writer to be dissatisfied with everything they do. When my book first came out and it was being very, very praised, it would have been a huge mistake for me to be like, ‘Yes, that’s me. Everything everyone is saying is correct. I am actually this amazing, generation-defining voice.’”
And yet that is exactly what she is. A culture critic for The New Yorker and regularly published in numerous other eminent publications, Tolentino has a unique way of grasping the zeitgeist—particularly as it pertains to young women and the Internet-generation—in its most complex, complete form.
“As writers, it is not our job to feel good about our own work”
From her landmark essay on the material impacts of the US Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade to her prescient identification of what is now universally-dubbed as ‘Instagram face’, Tolentino’s distillation of key cultural moments has lent her a singular authority few other contemporary writers can approach. Her penetrative criticism combined with a keen sense of empathy renders her voice one of a kind. Vulture referred to her as the Joan Didion of our generation, for heaven’s sake.
For Tolentino, what this success ultimately spells is freedom. “What I have always wanted from work, is for it to get inwardly harder, but logistically easier. I do want to get paid more—but when I say I want more money, what I really mean is that I want more time. I want the opportunity to choose what I want to do, and I want the challenges I choose to get more interesting.”
After a decade or so of parsing through facts to elucidate the truth, Tolentino is venturing into a different—more fictitious—branch of her craft. “I’ve been doing some screenwriting in the last few years. I’ve been trying to explore things that are unfamiliar to me and that I don’t feel as confident with. And it’s nice to have a break from real life, once in a while.” There’s a thought for the start of the new year. Here, Tolentino ruminates on the craft of writing, modern journalism, and why she rarely minces words.
You’ve covered a great variety of genres in your career. What form of writing feels most authentic to you right now?
I actually have been trying to shift the kind of writing I’ve been doing since my book came out. I’m probably still the most comfortable with doing cultural criticism that’s deeply based in personal interest and experience, and that’s what comes out the most organically and authoritatively. But after my book came out, I felt like I had to stop doing that for a while. I didn’t expect the book to be read as widely as it was, and I felt just so self-conscious about that.
I did also think to myself that I should try something different before I pigeonhole myself into a certain kind of work where I’m bemoaning systemic crisis but also deeply entangled in the issues I’m writing about. So what I’m looking for in my writing right now is not actually the things that feel the closest. I’ve mostly been screenwriting for the last couple of years, and I’m trying to do things that are unfamiliar to me and that I don’t feel as confident with.
How’s the change of pace going?
I mean, it’s really nice. It’s great to have a break from the real world. I have a two-year-old now, and my whole life has been upended by the pandemic and the lack of childcare. It is a huge relief to not have to task myself, in every part of my work life, with making sense of something that seems incomprehensible—which is what a lot of the current culture feels like to me. I feel this desire to detach from that for a bit, and let something in me regrow before I dive into that again. It’s just nice to not have to accurately describe the current moment in my work right now.
I understand. It’s a huge task.
It really is. And we all try to do it—every journalist tries to do it. Anyone who’s writing, anyone engaged in journalism in any way is doing it in some form. It is a really dizzying moment in time right now, and I might be feeling this way because I am someone who has always relied on being physically in the world to understand what is actually happening. Now that I’m back in New York, I have more of an understanding of the current mood around me.
That sounds like a precursor to the way you write your way through key cultural moments—with an astonishing amount of clarity and detail. There is a good amount of critical writing out there, so why do you think your voice broke through?
I really don’t know. People can probably relate to the feeling of confusion that I openly have. I think we have all kind of caught onto a feeling that we are being acted on—that we are being harmed by all of these systems, which interlock in ways that are much more complicated than is easily articulable. We, as a culture, can feel that. But it is hard, particularly in relatively short writing on the Internet, to pick up those strands at the same time in a way that doesn’t make you want to die, you know? But I wanted to externalise some of the feelings I had related to this. And I did feel, during book tour events and just through meeting people, that there is a hunger for somebody who would help give a feeling of clarity and a sense of direction, while not erasing the fact that so much is still opaque and overwhelming. I don’t think of myself as a particularly cerebral person. I try my best to make sense of things, and get pretty far in some cases. I think that’s something readers appreciate.
“You have to write the story you’re hungry for. What’s the point otherwise?”
I also think that as writers, it’s not our job to feel good about our own work. I can find that sort of pleasure and clarity in plenty of other people’s work, but I can’t stand to read my own book, you know what I mean? And I think it’s supposed to be that way, because otherwise you’d never edit your own work. You need to look at your first draft and immediately be like, ‘this is horrible’.
How do you define success, then?
I think I’ve had success beyond what I had hoped for. To me, that means having the freedom to not be on Twitter. Having the freedom to detach from the many mechanisms of personality capitalism that I wrote about in the first chapter of the book. Ideally, I want my work to get harder but I want to have more time to do it, and obviously being paid more means having more time. Success is freedom. And basically being able to write what you want. What does success feel like to you? How do you define it?
Wow. I sometimes struggle with control, especially as a Singaporean journalist. I think success for me is if I manage to leverage whatever I have to produce something that’s bigger than myself. Does any part of that ring true for you?
That’s a central part of it for me too. Autonomy, self-determination. It’s another version of freedom, right? It’s completely crazy to me that I get to spend my days working on projects that I choose. It makes a huge difference when you can confidently be working on something that is your own vision.
Many of my strengths as a writer probably come from just huge black holes in my cognition. One of these holes is that I can’t help but feel like I am writing for myself or writing in a way that I would talk to a friend, instead of moderating my tone for an undefined, large audience. There’s just no time to bullshit around. What are we doing here? What is the point and why don’t we just say what we think is important?
How do you choose the stories you write now?
I’m not really writing on the Internet that much anymore. I’m working on a couple of really long pieces for The New Yorker, and I’m writing a few screenplays. When I used to be an editor, I’d ask myself if there was a specific reason why I should be writing a story, rather than the 10 writers I was working with that could do a good job with anything. Is there a depth of understanding that I have on this subject? Is there an experience I want to share?
One of the reproductive rights-related stories I have been trying to work is about the appalling over-criminalisation of pregnant women who miscarry and get charged with manslaughter because they have used drugs at some point in pregnancy. Even if they had a nonviable pregnancy or miscarried at 14 weeks, in some states, they are being charged with manslaughter, murder, child abuse, and so on. It’s completely insane. One of the reasons I wanted to write this piece is because people tend to have a strong reaction to an issue like this. How can a pregnant woman use drugs? I want to write a piece from the standpoint of: what if it was fine that they were using drugs? What if we treated these women—these poor women—the same way that we treat high-income pregnant women that take Adderall and Oxytocin for their pain? It’s the same thing, you know? I just feel like that message needs to be out there.
I always tell students or aspiring writers—you have to write the piece that you want to read, the piece that you would love if somebody just handed it to you. You have to write the story you’re hungry for. What’s the point otherwise?