Jia Tolentino, author of our January pick for the NewsHour-New York Times book club, recently answered questions submitted by readers about her essay collection, “Trick Mirror,” during an interview with PBS NewsHour Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown.
In “Trick Mirror,” she considers how the rise of social media has affected our identities, as well as many facets of our economy and society.
You’ll find a selection of her answers below. These responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Even though the book centers “self,” there are, of course, examples of community everywhere — from the church to devoted Barre class acolytes to the social circle that sent you to all those weddings. What does community mean to you? What role does it play (if any) in providing an antidote to the self-obsession your essays explore?
This is such a good question and obviously it’s one that I’ve been thinking about so much during the pandemic. Community means the entire world to me. It is the singular antidote to all of the forces of individualism that capitalism and the internet kind of structurally enforce on people. The place where you lose your sense of self, where you feel porous, where you feel open to other people, where you feel division-less — it’s in your community. It’s a church for some people. For me, it’s going out dancing. It’s engaging with your community. It’s the thing that undoes these values that I’m constantly trying to undo in myself.
And one thing that’s been particularly sharp in the pandemic is that — I was always like, “The world of the internet can be one thing to me as long as the real world, my real community, my real life is so much bigger … than this digital simulacrum of the world.”
And I’ve found that, to be honest, I can hardly think straight. I rely so much on conversations with my friends, with total strangers — learning about strangers and hearing what’s important to them just in casual, everyday life — like sitting next to someone on the train. I’ve really relied on that to give me my sense of how to write and how to think and how to consider collective moments. I rely on other people one-hundred percent and on a sense of some sort of shared experience, or shared something. And I’ve found that a lot harder to access at a time when we are all kind of confined to our particular domestic situations. That’s a long way to say I am deeply, deeply, deeply missing physical community.
Do your own feminist actions make you vulnerable to male aggression as described in your first essay, “The I in the Internet”?
I used to edit for a feminist website, Jezebel, and while I was there, I got the standard amount of hate mail and harassment. I would say on the one hand, sure, absolutely, I would get those emails when I wrote about explicitly feminist topics. But I’ll say I feel really lucky. I feel conscious of having entered media and become a writer at a time when feminism was pretty mainstream. I was hired at The New Yorker writing from a feminist perspective, but it wasn’t singled out as, “this is the feminist corner,” right?
I’ve felt really lucky to have an assurance in my point of view … that I don’t think feminist writers writing 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 20 years ago had at all.
How would you describe your process in writing this anthology?
When I started to feel that I wanted to write a book, it was explicitly because there was this set of ideas in my head that I started wanting to write so many words on — arguably too many words — that would only make sense in a book. I wanted to write things that were long enough and dense enough and kind of circuitous enough that they wouldn’t be satisfying to read scrolling on your phone or on your laptop. I wanted it to be something that would make the book reading experience worthwhile, where you’re really immersed in something and it takes you away from your present surroundings for hours at a time if you let it.
And so the topics for the essays were really things that I thought could command my own attention for two years of writing — which is kind of a high bar to clear, I think — and would also hopefully keep readers interested for an amount of time that made them feel glad they were reading a book and not scrolling on their phone.
I organized the collection kind of instinctually the way you would organize a playlist or a DJ set. The one thing that was very deliberate was that the internet essay was first, because I think that many of the issues in the essay about the internet reverberate through later ones in terms of narratives we tell ourselves … and how they kind of spiral out into different areas of our lives.
At the end of ‘The I in the Internet’, you write the only way to end our “nightmare,” basically our addiction to the drug of the internet, would be if there were antitrust cases and hard regulatory legislation to dismantle our addiction with the use of the social media. [Are recent actions by social media companies following the Jan. 6 attack] the end of the “nightmare” or do you feel this isn’t enough? Or did the pandemic, with social and economic collapse, isolation, heighten the addictive “nightmare”?
I definitely think it’s not enough.
I don’t think that censorship of heinous accounts is the only way forward at all. [But] I think that as long as the fundamental economic model of these companies is in place, there is no way they will lead to anywhere other than demagoguery and conspiratorial thinking. I think that you essentially would have to really dismantle the structure of these companies to make them teleologically lead to an ethical place.