"We tell ourselves stories in order to live"

Reflections on Jia Tolentino and the Nonfiction-industrial complex

It’s not even 10am and it looks like New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino is the main character of Twitter today!

Recently, rumors started circulating about the personal essayist’s family history, particularly her parents’ involvement in an immigration business that was indicted for several counts of immigration fraud and human trafficking — bringing Filipino teachers and nurses into the United States in exchange for upfront fees and loans to be repaid out of salaries once the immigrants received jobs.

Tolentino posted a response sharing her family’s side of the story, thus bringing this out of the realm of “weird annoying Internet Criticism” and into the realm of “weird annoying Internet Discourse.”

It’s worth saying that what’s important isn’t really adjudicating whether Jia Tolentino’s parents are good or bad people or whatever! She’s absolutely correct in this essay when she says that it’s probably not a good idea to take an indictment filed by ICE at face value. At the same time, some of the details and testimonials within the indictment itself do paint a picture of a business which was at best exploitative (as all wage labor is), including cramped living conditions and an interest scheme that added up to half of some teachers’ salaries paid back to the company.

To me, what’s worth looking at here is not whether Jia Tolentino Deserves Cancellation For Her Family’s Crimes, but rather what this episode can teach us about a particular form of writing, the class of writers who do it, and what their relationship to power is.

In her review of Tolentino’s recent book “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion”, Lauren Oyler outlines a sketch of what she sardonically calls “hysterical criticism”:

Some modern critics exploit this uncertainty, grounding their analyses in the stability of conventional moral wisdom even as they bemoan its absence. They emphasise the primacy of emotions and the importance of ‘empathy’ in order to avoid the discomfort of thought and the stakes involved in taking a position. The result is the rise of a style that I’ve taken to calling hysterical criticism – both because it represents an evolution of what James Wood termed ‘hysterical realism’ in fiction and because the word connotes anachronistic misogyny. This girl – sorry, woman – is sexist, you may have thought as soon as you saw my usage. Well, I’m not. These critics aren’t hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems, and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise.

Hysterical critics are self-centred – not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round.

For Oyler, “hysterical criticism” emerges from a particular sort of liberal feminist thought that recognizes the impact that hegemonic systems have on our lives — and might even use the word “capitalism” to describe them! — but is trapped in a discourse that is unable to truly bring them out of the realm of the way they affect us personally:

‘How is it possible that so much of contemporary life feels so arbitrary and so inescapable?’ she asks at the end of Trick Mirror. If contemporary life is dictated by the mutually agreed-on ‘systems’ Tolentino invokes repeatedly, it cannot really be ‘arbitrary’, but then the most important word in that question is ‘feels’. That is always the beginning and end of her analysis. There’s nothing wrong with feelings – I have them all the time. But they’ve always been used to trap women because of their essential trickiness: they may lead you to the truth or away from it, or they may send you running round it in a hysterical circle.

In this way, the classic aphorism that “the personal is political” is distorted. It’s used not to highlight how capitalism’s domination of the personal sphere is wrapped up in a larger project of collective alienation, but to argue that any analysis of the personal is inherently a political project. As if politics itself is simply an amalgamation of personal reflection projects which magically cohere into something larger than themselves.

It’s not difficult to understand why this type of writing would have benefits for the maintenance of the capitalist order; after all, any good Neoliberal subject should be expected to grapple thoughtfully with their position. When you get down to it, a recognition that damn, capitalism really makes things complicated, huh is in no way really all that incompatible with capitalism’s continued dominance.

Tolentino’s blog post, with a URL quirkily titled “listen-i-wanted-quar-gossip-too” and a Twitter reply stream full of blue check mark writers saying “I’m so sorry you had to write this,” is a masterful example of how this creative nonfiction milieu can be an obfuscating mechanism, hiding how power really operates.

Tolentino opens the piece with a classically self-effacing-and-yet-humblebragging anecdote, reflecting on how when her mother told her the criminal complaints were resurfacing, she had dismissed this as part of the same vain complex that name searching for compliments on Twitter reflects:

I had decided, again, that there was nothing to be gained by seeking out what people I don’t know were saying about me on the internet: it was damaging and compulsive behavior if those things were wonderful—I had searched my name on Twitter for a couple weeks when my book came out and then stopped, understanding that I had waded into narcissistic quicksand—and it was certainly damaging and compulsive behavior in this instance, too.

Tolentino goes on to tell a sanitized version of the story from her parents’ perspective, about how “the company’s open, earnest, lawful work helping fellow Filipinos move to America for good jobs in teaching had been swiftly reframed as hideous criminal activity” by the federal bureaucracy.

In one passage, Tolentino defends the practice of migration assistance companies by citing a book about the experience of 21st century migrant workers:

This is an extremely common migration pattern for Filipinos—I recommend Jason DeParle’s “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves,” on the subject!—with about eleven percent of the Philippines’ total population working overseas.

Following the pattern Oyler identified in her review of Trick Mirror, this passage does deft work at calling attention to the existence of social patterns, while still managing to bring them back to how they affect Tolentino’s immediate circumstance! Many Filipinos are indeed driven to leave their home country in order to find better opportunities as laborers that are, not so coincidentally, cheaper and easier to exploit than native workers in the countries they migrate to. But Tolentino ignores the elephant in the room that her parents are not in that group of migrating exploited laborers, but rather make their living by assisting the forces of Capital doing the driving!

The indictment is never referred to as even providing the possibility for a moment of reckoning for Tolentino about her family’s role in this process. It is rather described as an Event that Happened to her, a Trauma whose healing process is to be portioned out carefully in the pages of a future work.

In the typical emotionally resonant affect of this particular type of creative nonfiction, Tolentino says that “seeing people on the internet gleefully call my parents ‘human traffickers’ has been a reminder of the vast, brutal gap between those initial charges and the reality they purported to describe—a gap in which my parents have to live every day.” The story here is not the vast systems of capital flow that made her family’s story possible and which must be resisted if collective liberation is to be achieved, but the personal “gap” between their self-image and the way the world sees them.

And the response from many Online Media personalities in the replies to Tolentino’s tweet further exemplify this distorted lens, with countless other writers not even lauding her for a thoughtful response but actively apologizing that the criticism is Happening To Her:

It’s a particularly rich bit of irony that an author whose book is subtitled “Reflections on Self-Delusion,” an author whose work claims to be invested in the gaps between the stories we tell ourselves and how those stories reflect and refract the real nature of power, fails to take this opportunity to think critically about the stories that she has been told about her family’s role in the tragic and brutal reality of modern labor struggle.

I would hope that those who laud Tolentino’s work as an example of brave self-investigation would call her out in the moments where her work most urgently needs it and falls flat. But I guess the idea of what we want our nonfiction essayists to be is too important to sacrifice. We do, after all, tell ourselves stories in order to live.