Sometimes—not often—you read output from a brain that is so adept in language, so nuanced in its understanding, and so broad in its interests that it will make you feel, simultaneously, more enlightened and less smart. After all, you’ll consider so much that you hadn’t thought of before, but you’ll also understand you’re incapable of producing anything remotely as good.
World, meet Jia Tolentino; rather, meet the brain of Jia Tolentino, which, over and over at The New Yorker online, it (Tolentino’s brain) provides the experience outlined above. In Tolentino’s last four articles, she covered Amy Schumer, Carly Rae Jepsen, cyborgs, and a DJ duo called The Chainsmokers, but in doing so also demonstrated that these were merely convenient—albeit interesting—subjects from which to explore the broader social, political, cultural, racial, philosophical (etc.) context in which they reside. So, Tolentino, thanks for being the kind of writer who shows us just how much more we have to learn, and how exciting that can be.
Where do you live and how old are you? Fort Greene/Clinton Hill border, 27.
What made you first interested in your profession, and how old were you when that happened? Since I was a kid, I’ve liked writing enough to do it for fun. I was also always an obsessive and catholic reader, which I think determined something I like about editing—the ability to indulge my curiosity about how lots of things are made. But, having finished college at a peak of the recession with no connections to the media world, I didn’t think about writing as my profession until well after it actually became that.
Do you feel Brooklyn is still a viable place for a young person to build a career? It wasn’t for me until 2014. I only moved here after taking a job as features editor at Jezebel, which I had gotten in large part because not living in New York had allowed me to really enjoy and commit to (and get better through) work that was low-paying or unseen. I had previously been in Ann Arbor for a fiction MFA program, and was part-time editing the Hairpin: a perfect situation that wouldn’t have worked the same way if I were trying to pay rent in Fort Greene. New York has been so generous to me, but I’m glad I started out in different ecosystems—places where image and survival were temperate concepts, and where I could learn to take full, private pleasure in work.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? I have a hard time thinking past a few months in the future. I guess I hope, ten years from now, that I’m still attracted to difficulty and that I still like to have a good time.
Have you ever felt like leaving your career path? I assume I’ll be pressure-cooked out of media at some point due to some eventual iteration of the platform-based protection racket that will permanently devalue anything other than sponsored native video about what you should and shouldn’t say to an introvert. At that point I’ll either start a service where I give people book recommendations, which I am really good at—or devote my attention to writing movies for teens.
What’s felt like your biggest professional accomplishment? I feel accomplished whenever I can work something out in writing that had previously been unclear to me. By the time I left Jezebel, I also felt like I’d learned something about management, which is not necessarily my first professional instinct, but one I’m glad I found.
What’s some advice you’d give to people trying to get a foothold in your industry? The only things you can control are your work, and being a good and faithful person around it. Remember that you are probably not your most interesting subject. Stay away from the ideas and rhythms that feel pre-approved.
Who are your role models in your industry, and what do you hope to see happen or change in the industry in the (near-ish) future? I pay very close attention reading Ellen Willis and Rebecca Solnit, and more Rebeccas, Traister and Mead. Same with Kathryn Schulz, Michael Paterniti, Wesley Morris, Hua Hsu, Nathan Heller, Caity Weaver, Bobby Finger, Jenna Wortham, Gideon Lewis-Kraus. I admire all dogged reporters immensely and tried to osmose Anna Merlan’s drive at Jezebel. I would like to be able to edit the way Tom Scocca does, and I hope to fully reveal the depth of my attentiveness to Emma Carmichael’s professional decisions in a forthcoming novel, possibly titled The Book of Emma.
The thing I really hope for in this industry is not going to happen—that the economic infrastructure of online production, distribution and monetization (and the terrible incentives created by the current situation) would change. More achievably, I hope that more people who write about identity politics have the decency to try and grow a brain.
Who would be your pick for a 30 Under 30? Derek Davies, my dreaded best friend from college, who founded Neon Gold Records and finally got out of Soho this year.
To learn about more sub-thirty standouts, visit this year’s list of 30 Under 30.