Reality Scooped: Talking with Tony Tulathimutte

Plus I asked out my girlfriend (@deirdrekoala) over Twitter. Zadie Smith wrote a great essay about this, “Fail Better,” about when writers know deep down that they’ve failed, but their good reviews convince them otherwise. Rumpus: You’ve spoken about how reading should be “revoltingly indulgent,” not something we do to achieve “radical empathy.” I like this concept   of intellectual hedonism, and that we should be reading because it’s fun, not because it’s good for us. This made me think about the good amount of sickness and pain your characters experience in the book. ***
The Rumpus: New York Magazine called Private Citizens the “first great millennial novel,” and then last December you wrote for the   New York Times that you get “acid reflux” when anyone says you’ve written about millennials. Reach her at or @ericajberry. Anyway, this all has to do with empathy. Tulathimutte: Yeah, it’s weird to be nostalgic for two wars and a recession. Older people are understandably skeptical about looking at a twenty-four-year-old and saying, “Tell me how to live.” If you are approaching literature for this insight and wisdom, it can be a barrier and hurdle to assume that people who are younger than you have nothing to say to you. Because it’s not pleasant, much of it. I like Sex Work Twitter and Nerd Twitter and Political Snark Twitter. They want to buy either memoir, novels, or personal essays. I was reading white people, and everything I saw praised was by and about either white people or exoticized PoC, and I had no interest in my own life experience (which was basically playing video games in the basement)—it all became a perfect storm of pandering. Rumpus: In Private Citizens you do this thing where Will is in some ways a sort of doppelgänger for you because he’s Asian and he’s worked in tech, but then you totally skewer him. Tony Tulathimutte: In general, there’s less of a hurdle to clear with people my own age, to convince them that people our age deserve to be read and written about. You’ve called this “booby trapping” identity politics. The absolute best position you can be in is to write a book you deeply care about, and it’s something so inventive and personal that nobody would’ve thought to ask you for it, yet nonetheless everyone finds it so great and beautiful they’re just puking money and honor on you. So that is one sort of essay that I write. We’ve gotten to the point where even some corporate Twitter accounts are worth following, like Melville House and Merriam-Webster. That’s the phenomenon I’m talking about, where the temptation of attention or accolade just gives you an excuse not to try as hard. Linda would probably be concerned, but more concerned about the condition of her writing, because she’d believe on some deep level that art outlasts life, and so that even if we all die in a gigantic mushroom cloud, it’ll be okay if she can just find some way to get her book in hardcover. So when I started writing in freshman year at college, that was my material. A year out from publication, how do you see different generations receiving this book? After school my sister had figure skating practice so I’d have to hang out at the rink. More broadly, for writers who feel invisible and want to distinguish themselves, like a lot of Asian writers I know, you’re just not going to want to sound like anyone else, even those you agree with ideologically. I’m not comparing myself to them; what I’m saying is that I don’t have to convince younger people that I’m worth listening to. But because I know that readers of The   Rumpus or any literary publication are already going to agree with these pieties, I don’t think it’s productive to say, “Yes, minority representation is good; here’s a positive take on us.” Instead I want to address writers and say, if you want to embrace the values of writing in your activism, it’s not enough to just use your platform to make yourself and your identity category more visible; you also have to avoid cliché. I offload the stuff I think about in the shower that’s so dumb that it has to be heard, and stuff that is not good enough to actually be in my books. It was called the MacDuffie School for Girls; our mascot was a unicorn. And again, I’d never disparage people who are doing good work, even if they happen to express themselves in clichés now and then. Tulathimutte: Well, there are two kinds of essays. It’s like “I have proven myself to be admirably caring in my depiction of this character’s incredible suffering, and you are going to think of yourself as a kinder, more enlightened person because you spent your time on contemplating the existence of suffering. I Skyped with Tony on a Wednesday evening in mid-March, while “a shit-ton of sleet” pounded his Brooklyn neighborhood, shrouding New York City in ice. You used to write a lot of young, white, female protagonists, and now you’re writing a different sort of characters. They end up romanticizing or aestheticizing their process to the point that they’ve made a personal art out of being lazy. That said, there are older readers who were astute enough to see above all this, even though it’s not where they live. Henry Prize. You know, I’ve said that masturbatory isn’t a bad word in art. Henrik is just one of these guys who is probably trying to keep his head above water no matter what’s happening politically. But part of why it took seven years to write this book is because I was doing this other dumb shit. Most struggle with some compromise between what they think people enjoy and what they personally care about. But most writers don’t get this deal. Tulathimutte:   An unlit cigarette smells like a big fat raisin; go and check, it’s true! Most of those were things that I wrote in one week but didn’t want to half-ass either. Stuff I care about a lot, but is professional suicide. And that is writer hell. There are the essays that I never expected to get published because they are so fucking weird, like the Bruce Lee essay for The American Reader, which I think will be the banner essay in the collection that I’m working on. Like Leslie Jamison or Eleanor Catton. Tulathimutte: I had to throw away the book that I was working on. The real secret isn’t isolation, it’s being a dork and investing so much time and attention into your writing that there’s no way that you could fail to come up with something interesting. It’s as much as matter of style as rhetorical effectiveness. She’s better at it than I am. His essays have been published in places like the   New York Times, the   Atlantic, VICE, the   Paris Review, N+1, and Playboy. Now more than ever, empathy is valorized in fiction, with zero fucking effect on culture at large. But here it’s almost like mutual ball-stomping. I went to a not all-girls but mostly-girls private school for mostly middle school and high school. I wonder if you were thinking about this while you were writing? Tulamathitthe: Absolutely, to the extent that it is perceived as satire at all. That came out of procrastinating writing   my novel, because publishing people will tell you “Get the novel out first,” since people don’t want to buy short stories, and certainly not longform criticism. Is that what you’re drawn to now? I have a lot of writing friends who find going out to Yaddo useful, but I what I’m doing isn’t any less artful just because I’m engaging—or I should say lurking—online while I’m putting in my eight to twelve hours. Those who fall on the side of excessive compromise can carve out a following and get lots of mentions and shares and faves and convince themselves at the end of the day that this is what they really want to write about. Or even worse, self-mutilating in a way that you think is going to get other people off. And it makes your fingers smell like soy sauce afterward. Rumpus: You’re publishing a lot of essays right now, and you seem really comfortable in that essayistic voice. I love that most of these people are strangers I only know from Twitter. How do you balance this? But the valence of fake news and fiction has obviously shifted now. Tulathimutte:   Fun, and also, that’s what life is, and what we’re writing about is life. Reality Scooped: Talking with Tony Tulathimutte

By Erica Berry
June 19th, 2017

Tony Tulathimutte’s first novel, Private Citizens, came out February 2016   from HarperCollins. You internalize the values and attitudes and affects of the culture you’re in, unless you happen to be exceptionally headstrong. The moment I started more consciously pandering, at around nineteen years old, with realist fiction about sad white people portrayed with capital-E Empathy, I won my college’s undergraduate fiction prize, got published in Threepenny Review, and won the O. It’s really disingenuous. This is going to have to be the default mode for fiction writing in 2017, because shit is preposterous. I was not. Tulathimutte’s novel follows four recent Stanford graduates through 2007-era San Francisco, a landscape of webcams, professional handshake workshops, and parties with “twenty-somethings in slouching contrapposto, clustered like stands of thistle, always smiling with friends and unsmiling when alone.”
Tulathimutte was born in Massachusetts, but like his characters, he also went to Stanford, working a stint in Silicon Valley before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It made me think of what Ottessa Moshfegh puts her characters through. Cory would be doing her activism, probably with some financial underwriting from her Libertarian father, who’s probably no more happier with our heavy-handed philistine authoritarian. Jarry Lee is a meme prodigy. But tell that to Rimbaud, tell that to Keats. There’s @ILLCapitano94, I think he’s like a college student somewhere. Rumpus: I was thinking about the way that the book—which is set in 2007—sort of prefigures a lot of what we are going through right now, from conversations about political correctness and activism to these surreal “post-truths.” What would your characters be doing in 2017? When really it’s just an exercise. I started out by writing weird stuff—still about white people, but stuff you’d call slipstream—and I saw it didn’t get a good response. Either you try to please people or you don’t, and readers either like it or they don’t. Henry Prize and accumulated a few MacDowell fellowships, appeared on The Late Show with Seth Myers,   became one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture and Elle’s Bad Boys of 2016, and won a 2017 Whiting Award. We are supposed to feel guilty about reading books that we enjoy, because enjoyable writing is presumed bad. She wants to write, but she feels afternoons are for torpor, evenings are for living, and mornings are for recovery. It involved a lot of procrastination and was really stupid. That is on the spectrum of cliché. Rumpus: I’m curious if what you have been working on has changed since November 8. But this just goes to show you how much of a bubble the literary world is. People like Nell Zink could tell it wasn’t satire; it was social fiction. People who are possibly too educated for their own good can become unable to switch out of their accustomed intellectual mode. Whether you use vague words like “be” or “went.” Zadie Smith, again, mentioned how in each of her novels a character “rummages” through their purse. Writing is nothing like an office job and yet it requires an intense level of self-accountability to get real work done. I had been working on a novel broadly about standup comedy and video games, and the ways in which they create these realities or spaces of suspended disbelief, or of structured fantasy. Henry prize, and is set in Alaska. Rumpus: Who or where are you turning to read in this weird time, either in books or on the Internet? I know I sound like an asshole for saying I regret winning an award, but it ended up reinforcing the feeling that if I gave people what they wanted, then I’d get acknowledged as a worthwhile individual in ways I never had before. It demands that we don’t uncritically engage with ideas or language that get used to the point of near-meaningless. I’m not saying that most people do it because they are trying to make themselves look good, but virtue signaling and joinerism are always temptations. To me it sits uneasily with the imperative in writing to present things in defamiliarized ways that force us to reexamine them. It was written in the stupidest way possible, which was all at once. I had to hack through eleven hundred pages of fluff to eventually spin it down to a 900-page manuscript, which became a 380-page book. On an almost cognitive level, this is what makes language effective. That’s not to say that it’s not hyperbolic in some parts, but that some of the things that seem preposterous or over-plotted—the things that seem that like I am caricaturing people—would seem, if you’d spent any time in the milieu that I am writing about, entirely naturalistic and almost too easy. A writer who doesn’t try to attract an audience and then gets no audience—well, in a way that’s sad, because you want to find your readers, but you still have your book to console you. Who thought that a seven-million-page book about gold prospectors in 18th   century New Zealand would not only win a Booker Prize, but just be so fucking fun? It’s hard. Not discussing, not depicting, but doing. Win-win.”
I realize that now is a weird time to say stuff like this. So to me, if you want a shot at Nirvana, you have to reject the economy of relevance that is so incredibly tempting because its rewards are so conspicuous. When you mine everything for meaning, the hermeneutics overshadow the erotics, even to the point where instead of feeling your own pain, you mediate it or stack it up against the pain of historical figures. Rumpus: This makes me think of your first published story, which won an O. And yeah, you do need to push past a lot of personal branding and preening and pomp, but once you get comfy with the mute button, it’s a great little non-intrusive stethoscope for eavesdropping on other people. This girl @ElSangito—sharp, funny, someone with a very strong social consciousness, but is really on Twitter just for making incredibly great stupid puns. None of this is to say I have any inside track on what it’s like to be a woman, or that my circumstances made me more woke or enlightened, just that when you’re young, the people you’re around impress upon you. I tweeted something like, “satire ≠ ‘story where people are portrayed unflatteringly.’” And she emailed me and said she hadn’t read it as satire, but as rational realism, for “people whose thinking occasionally influences their feelings and not only the other way around.”
Rumpus: That reminds me how much I loved Linda’s writer persona. Tulathimutte: It wasn’t plotted at all. Tulathimutte: That’s fantastic; no one has asked me that before. Tulathimutte:   Yeah, here’s my take on this. In our puritanical culture, we end up with the unexamined outlook that work should be unpleasant, and that the end goal is to get into the Valhalla of literary success with some important beret-wearing novel. My favorites would probably be Merritt K, Leon, Kashana Cauley, and Weird Twitter standbys like @dril and @dasharez0ne and Megan Amram. I’m just trying to articulate an ideal of political expression for writers. I was raised in Western Massachusetts, which was mostly white. In fiction, I often find myself having to tone things down. But expressing those concepts every time with those same words risks turning them into jargon and shibboleths, which connote more than they denote, and are   embraced uncritically. Then I saw that some parts were getting more attention and cohering more than others, and then it became clear how they could be organized by theme and section. Rumpus: So how was this book plotted, or born? When I said that empathy is sort of overrated in the literary community, I meant it. Tulathimutte: Yeah, I always balk at people who write about their productivity as if it was exactly the same as punching into a factory or office. Rumpus: How has this personally influenced you in what you’re writing, or what you’re picking up and reading? Rumpus: Then there’s that writer’s cliché of “going in the woods” to escape the din of chatter and whatnot. With Seth Meyers you spoke about the can-be productivity of procrastination, and I wonder if you can talk about how that is part of your writing routine. You’ve written about how this switch is avoiding a certain kind of self-indulgence. Rumpus: Are there different responses to the satirical elements of the book? For instance, terms like “erasure” and “self-care” and “problematic,” of course they’re important intro-level concepts with sturdy critical underpinnings. It’s a low-grade cliché, but a cliché nonetheless. That was totally impartial validation, and enormously destructive. Putting stuff out for no other reason but to amuse myself or other people is totally fine and need not be criticized. And then there’s hell, which is trying as hard as possible—to draw an audience, to write think pieces, to tweet, be relevant, make connections, get good bylines, to just completely stick to writing whatever you think will “do well”—and then failing at that, which happens all the time. Erica Berry’s journalism and essays have appeared online at The Columbia Journalism Review, the Atlantic, The Morning News, and Guernica, among others. The artistic process can be brute-forced, and you can benefit from throwing time at it, but it’s not an input-output labor scheme. It was almost a conscious decision. Rumpus: When I was revisiting your book, I found myself laughing when Linda makes a list of all the famous writers who have been struck by cars. I fucked that one up so badly that I’m actually doing the same exact thing with four books at the same time right now. I’ve said it’s like filling a waterbed with the moisture from your sighing. It’s this drawn-out ode to procrastination. So yeah, that was the process. I’m always telling students that cliché extends way beyond stock phrases like “he sprang up” and “then he was off like a shot.” It goes down to the level of word frequency and usage. Where we’re at politically there is an enormous deficit of willingness to see immigrants or women as people at all. I actually tweeted about this today. Twitter is my joke dumpster. Writing is about individuality. Tulathimutte:   Absolutely. Tulathimutte: I am trying my hardest not to let my modest attention and validation in any way affect my priorities. It’s almost slapstick, but it’s also really real. Can you say more about this? Most people my age understand that most of the book isn’t exaggerated much. Rumpus: A quick note on the subject of clichés: I distinctly remember a line from the book where you talk about the different flavors in smoking a cigarette. They’re very important to have in our cultural vocabulary. Have your concerns changed? However important the work might be, it can still be vain. Tulathimutte:   Right, I think that’s a leftover ideal from 19th century Transcendentalism, that Walden thing. ***
Author photograph ©   Beowulf Sheehan. Anyway, I’m not trying to be an iconoclast or contrarian by going after progressive discourse, because that is its own kind of personal branding, for which I have nothing but contempt. The other sort of essay is just book promotion. I had ideas for thoughts, characters, individual sentences, and I wrote them down in a gigantic nebula of Word files. That is mostly what I published in 2016, except for a handful of pieces that I published in weird places, like my friend’s blog Enormous Eye or The   Believer. I respect and admire any work on behalf of people who have been historically pushed to the side, or not given a voice. It’s sort of like Pascal’s wager. I think when people inflict suffering on their characters these days, it is less because they suffer from what John Gardner called “frigidity” and more that they’re relating to their characters so much that an entire book of sadistic suffering seems like it might have kind of deep meaning. On the other hand, artists sometimes justify procrastination as “process”—they’ll take a three-hour walk in the woods and say they need it to write a semicolon. We cannot expect it to, because there is no replacement for direct political action, which is what we really need. But you’re on Twitter, you’re writing about characters who are hyper-connected. I mainly criticize the tendencies I see in myself, like wanting to be recognized, to be heard and seen and say politically relevant things, but also be applauded for it. More from this author → Will would not be all that concerned about politics, because he’s so pessimistic and feels so marginalized and voiceless anyway that he’d be worrying more about his dating life, post-trauma and post-breakup. If you try so hard to crowd-please, to the point where you carve out a whole career with work you barely like, well, that’ll fuck you up. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. As he ate Ritz crackers in his apartment, he confessed to a day of “logistical torpor”—full of to-dos but sagging with unproductivity—and then, with the dizzying articulation of someone who seems far, far away from torpor, he spoke with me for over an hour about pandering, procrastination, and reading for pleasure. Lauded as a “brilliant debut” by BuzzFeed, “terrifyingly smart” by Lit   Hub, and “an eloquent social novel bristling with logic” by Nell Zink, Private Citizens was named a “best of 2016” book by the   Guardian, the   New Yorker,   and the   Atlantic, among others. The intellect is often thought to mitigate or redeem suffering, but it can also be a way of avoiding kinds of suffering that can be necessary to just experience. Why wouldn’t there be some osmotic interplay between the two, right? Tulathimutte: Books I like to keep private, mostly, so let’s talk about Twitter. Along the way, he won an O. When I’m writing for a magazine I’m Paper Mario, and when I’m writing for myself I’m Wario with his shirt off. The ways people judge it as either satire or realism are very telling. That said, I believe in games and in play. These days I have an informal rule to deal with preposterous stuff in nonfiction, because factuality is taken for granted there. Reality scooped me on this one.