What's worth writing about at a time in history where both everything and nothing seems worthy of our attention? Anything, argues Jia Tolentino.
Tolentino is the author of the phenomenal essay collection Trick Mirror. She rose to prominence as the deputy editor of Jezebel, a place where she helped redefine what feminist discourse looks like on the internet. Jezebel was then owned by the media group Gawker, known for a kind of gonzo journalism that, since its closure, we've seen less of as the idea of monetizing anything subversive on the internet feels increasingly impossible. In this special corner of the web, Tolentino's writing made the argument that both political transgressions and dumb memes were ripe for thoughtful—and often very fun—feminist criticism. That might mean a semi-fictional interview with the horse from a Taylor Swift music video, but it also might mean a longform work of reportage implicating herself in a story of generational class privilege.
Tolentino, at only 30 years old, is now a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she's carried over her trademark brand of freewheeling wit and intelligence. That same energy is found all over Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, a collection that feels somehow riskier than her usual output, unburdened by the demands and constraints of a big, mainstream publication.
Trick Mirror was written between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018, and finds Tolentino making her way through a time in American history that often communicates in the language of absurdity. It's a period that, writes Tolentino, taught her "to suspend ... desire for a conclusion, to assume that nothing is static and renegotiation is perpetual, to hope primarily that little truths will keep emerging in time." Tolentino finds these little truths in just about every corner of American cultural life. Her best pieces read like viral Twitter threads written by the Frankfurt School, seamlessly blending cynical humor with academic rigor.
The collection opens with "The I In The Internet," which might be the only thing you read this year that mentions both Bari Weiss and Geocities in the same space. Here, Tolentino talks about how the internet demands, reflects, and distorts our public selves in a way it didn't always do. She reminisces about the simpler days of the internet—when expressing our digital selves could almost be considered wholesome—by walking us through her Angelfire page adorned with Dawson's Creek references and Smash Mouth lyrics. That long-defunct version of the internet, she argues, has been replaced by one that thrives off our faux-outrage cycles, considers our support and dissent for others on Twitter as central to our self hood, and that feeds us news designed to "make us feel self-righteous and also mad."