Jia Tolentino is in Los Angeles for a reporting trip. Yesterday she had meetings from 8:00am to 10:00pm and today she has back-to-back interviews again. Tonight she’s going to meet up with girlfriends to go out and “probably black out” because she hasn’t caught up with her West Coast friends in a while, and it’s been a long week, and it’s summer, and anyways why does she even need an excuse?
Her readers know she’s not one to conceal her messier side. “To the very pretty girl who came up to me at the bar at Joyface last night & said you liked my writing,” she tweeted last week, “I want to apologize for being extremely deep within a ‘bit’ that involved me being a sort of ‘screaming possum.’” It goes without saying that the apology is accepted. Her blackouts, her antics—it’s all part of the bit.
On August 6, Tolentino releases her debut book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, a collection of nine original essays that fall somewhere between personal and cultural critique. In it, she monkey-bars between confession and analysis. She is wrestling with the contradictions of corporate feminism, then she’s rolling on MDMA. She is investigating the millennial forces that bred Fyre Fest, then she’s filming an audition tape for reality TV. She is identifying the unjust expectations that weigh on literary heroines like Little Women’s Jo March, then she’s humping the floor doing barre. No paradoxical, shape-shifting force—God, drugs, sex, athleisure—is spared her scrutiny, least of all her own experiences.
Many journalism 101 classes teach Gay Talese’s famous 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” It’s considered a standard bearer for a type of writing constructed around colorful anecdotes and driven by some sweeping thesis devised by a reporter who’s supposed to remain mysterious, mostly unseen. It’s journalism by Great Men™ and about Great Men™. Both the subject and the writer loom infallible and larger than life.
That’s a form that Tolentino—with her unrelenting candor, her self-deprecating humor, her commitment to even the most inconvenient truths—blows up entirely. One of my favorite Tolentino moments comes in a New Yorker essay, when she is train-bound to Boston to report on active-wear brand Outdoor Voices and abruptly confesses to the reader that she’s eating a sausage-egg-and-cheese bagel because she’s hungover. This isn’t the kind of detail she’s about to withhold. She is confident the reader can find her both relatable and intelligent. She maintains that she writes like she’s sending a text to her friends. “You’d never bullshit your friends,” she says, so why try to delude your reader?
Tolentino knows the insufficiency of cultural criticism that asks us to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” A critic who claims that sort of objectivity might assume that his viewpoint is representative of all readers—when in fact it’s just the white, male-dominated status quo. Tolentino doesn’t pretend to be outside of the stories she’s telling. It’s that willingness to place herself, unsparingly, in the center of her analysis that makes her writing a clear-eyed explainer for what can feel like an inexplicable time.
Tolentino’s raw honesty feels like a rebuke to the hand-wringing about millennial self-obsession. Everything that’s supposed to be an indictment of our generation’s intelligence—social media, drugs, cringey self-exposure—she embraces, and it makes her analyses all the more sharp. Moving from commentary on these topics to personal revelation, Trick Mirror answers to a moment when the individual and societal can’t be disentangled, both in its content and in its form.
In one essay, “I Thee Dread,” she traces decades of shifting attitudes on weddings and then in a flash of intimacy introduces her own love story. She takes us to a fraternity reunion in D.C. where she told her boyfriend that she’d maybe quit menthol cigarettes for him and professes her love for him in a hotel room using a Budweiser as a cold compress for her “tear-swollen face.” Then the essay moves back outward to the amalgam of purity, money, and status that persuades young women marriage is an end-game just as glorious as it is inevitable.
Contrary to what people say about the cheap ease of personal essays, the more intimate parts of Tolentino’s writing aren’t any simpler for her to produce. If anything, they’re tougher because they demand a willingness to let down her guard. She says she likes to pretend that she is writing for her “smartest, funniest friend,” someone she assumes is reading in good faith. But having grown up in an ultra-Christian community it’s especially difficult for her to share some of her more sensitive work with family. She worried in particular about how her parents might react to an essay in the book on the similarities between her religious upbringing and experience doing ecstasy.
“You don’t send your kid to Christian school for twelve years and hope that they’ll come out of it with a 7,000-word essay in the New Yorker about how much they love molly,” she tells me. But Tolentino knows there are cultural stories best explored through one's own brutally awkward experiences. “My parents raised me to be honest and self-searching and good, and I don’t think it’s manifested in the ways they expected, but I think they like that my writing is an outpouring of that.”
It’s helped that she’s learned where to set boundaries. “I don’t want to constantly use my life as raw material,” she says. “But you can write very vividly about small portions of your life and leave huge ones completely invisible.”
“As a society, we love to push for self-exposure from women and then punish it,” Tolentino says. “But for better or worse the things that I’m interested in are shaped by the things I’ve experienced, and often when I’m writing about the former, the latter is an avenue in.”
It often seems like Tolentino swims right toward the murkiest of grey areas. In an essay about her years at University of Virginia and response to the Rolling Stone “A Rape on Campus” controversy, she critiques the simplistic ways we construct narratives—about love, sex, violence, and the communities that shape us. She writes that every person in the Rolling Stone story including the rape survivor, the journalist, and the UVA administrators got attached to separate understandings of what happened and began to interpret their own words as universal truth. They couldn’t acknowledge how their memories and beliefs were weighing on different versions of the story.
Each time Tolentino inserts herself into the narrative, she reminds us of her faults. She shows us the limits of her vantage point as narrator. She can’t tell the definitive, god-like story of this moment—she can only tell her own. And in that process, she captures the surprising maturity of the millennial fixation on the self. No narrator is perfect, but only some will admit when they have a hangover.