In the introduction to Artless: Stories 2019-2023, Natasha Stagg’s latest dispatch from a New York that perpetually oscillates between self-awareness and carelessness, the author confesses, “I write a lot of emails. I bet I have written hundreds of millions of emails. I would rather write books, but those are far less in demand.”
At the core of this statement is the tension between the relentless yet seemingly futile demand of the digital world and work that is deemed “work,” and the slower, more incalculable resting state that is writing for perpetuity. The words flick to the dual reality of Stagg’s own twin occupations—as both a copywriter and consultant and a sought-after interpreter of our fraught media landscape—and the volatile necessity of their interactions. To be a writer in 2023 is to also write emails.
It is also more than ever to be tasked with taking a stance, both personally and politically, to diagnose the pulse at which “the culture” beats. From the get-go in Artless, Stagg shirks this often reductive responsibility, invoking the unflappable iconoclast Marguerite Duras. “I don’t drag the millstone of totalitarian ie., inflexible, thought around with me,” the late French novelist wrote in her own introduction to her 1990 collection Practicalities. “That’s one plague I’ve managed to avoid.”
Stagg runs with this resistance in her latest book, in turn applying layers of bluntness and opacity. She writes not to get in trouble but to stay with the trouble, the vexing inexactness of our time. In the profiles, musings, and fictions that make up Artless’s architecture, she excavates and unravels the “authored identity” and its repercussions, leaving readers disoriented yet alert. To mark the collection’s release today, which will be echoed by screenings of Welcome to the Dollhouse and New York, New York at Metrograph this weekend, the author called CULTURED to talk writer personas, social media, and being accidentally prescient.
CULTURED: How are you feeling ahead of the book’s release?
Natasha Stagg: I don’t know what it means to have a third book out. The first book was so like, Oh my God, I'm an author for real. The second one was even more for real because it wasn’t a one time thing. Now I'm like, “Oh, is this what happens? You just keep writing books, like a job or something?”
CULTURED: This book is so much about work, writing as work, and writing about writing as work. I know you’ve done a lot of copywriting and creative consulting. Are you still doing that?
Stagg: Yeah, I mean the books don't pay for my life, not in New York. It does make me feel a little strange to even talk about my books when they are about work. Another aspect of having jobs is writing about having jobs.
CULTURED: How has writing about your jobs changed the way you think about work? Has it changed your attitude about being in those rooms? Or what jobs you take?
Stagg: It does make me a little self conscious, maybe, because I think of these things as totally separate, but then of course they're not. I've gotten hired by companies because they have read my books or because I've written an article or something. That makes me feel like people are actually paying attention to the way I feel about fashion or branding. For the longest time, I was feeling so outsider about it. Just like, “I'm a writer and this happens to be my material.” It's changed in the past few years where maybe I’m being called a cultural critic or something. I've never really considered myself that.
CULTURED: What do you see surfacing in this collection of stories, which cover the time period 2019 to 2023, that feels markedly different from Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019?
Stagg: The past few years have been extremely intense. I kind of felt like I needed to tap out, like not be so involved in cultural criticism. I don't care very much about very many things, and that might be because of an overload and it might also be because of the last book that I wrote. I was so excited to be involved, and then in the aftermath of it was [feeling] like, “Oh, is that what you guys think I'm into?”
Everybody seemed to have pigeonholed me, and they just wanted me to write about social media influencers which [is a subject] I actually don't know very intimately, I've just pontificated about it or had these broad feelings about the culture generally shifting because of that style of monetization. I guess you see too much of a certain thing or you're feeling a certain way about it for too long and then you're just like, “I need to think about other things.” So I completely got off social media. I did my own thing. I went to a writers residency last year and tried to figure out what it is that I'm closer to these days. And honestly I don't know if I have an answer.
CULTURED: What was the experience of being in a writers residency like for you?
Stagg: It was bizarre. I went to one in Peru in the Sacred Valley, and I don't have any connection to that [place]. But I really enjoyed the way I spent my time because it was winter there in our summer, so nobody was out having fun. They're working and wearing jackets—even though it was actually hot out. I guess that's what a residency is for: hibernating and then letting things congeal because you don't have any outside influences that are familiar to you. Familiarity is very dangerous when you're trying to be inspired.
CULTURED: What’s your relationship to writing in New York?
Stagg: It's really difficult, and I wish that wasn't the case because I love New York more than anywhere else I've ever been and I don't want to leave. I'm almost mad at myself for leaving to write because it's such a cliche. It's giving up on this life that I've made for myself. I live alone finally, and I really did everything I could to get there and I have this perfect place to work from home. But if your place of work is also where you do your personal stuff, writing is hard. I want to blame it on that and not New York, but that's just me being protective of New York. It is New York's fault. I'm constantly thinking, My friend lives down the street. I could just go for a walk and waste time with her instead of doing what I should be doing.
CULTURED: In the introduction to Artless, you write “It doesn’t matter what I think. Mostly, I think that I know nothing, and anyway, I will change my mind.” What’s your relationship to ambivalence and its power?
Stagg: It is a very privileged position that I'm in, that people have asked me my opinion on a thing and I'm able to say, “I don't have one,” and that's not a career ruining moment. That’s definitely where I’d like to be. There's this writer persona that probably fascinated me before I was even interested in writing or reading literature, the persona of someone who is like, “Oh, me, I'm a writer. Don't ask me, I'm doing my own thing.” That's the difference between somebody who considers themself an author and somebody who considers themselves a critic or a journalist. All those things are the same thing, but there's different personas that you can inhabit.
CULTURED: Is it that the writer has the “privilege” of being able to afford separation from society versus the critic and the journalist needing to feed off of society to be able to generate content?
Stagg: Yeah. My friend just asked me if I was gonna get back on Twitter because I have a book coming out, and I was like, “No.” One of the great things about being what I am now and what I've always wanted out of this life is not having to engage that way. Twitter is such an extreme example of it. You literally need engagement for it to exist. Not doing it is a form of ambivalence, and it's a form of power to me because why would I put myself out there like that when I don't have to? It feels so good not to.
CULTURED: How did you engage with Twitter and with Instagram when you had them?
Stagg: I felt pretty okay about what I was doing on either platform, but I was not a person who had mastered either one. I was not anywhere near as good as some of my friends or people I followed are. And I do think there was a shift. When my first two books came out, I would feel really weird about reposting press because I do think that it's not the right… When your book gets reviewed, it's not a thumbs up or down usually; it's nuanced.
When you screenshot and post that and you're like, “Thanks Bookforum,” it’s turning it into something that it's not. You're taking a review and turning it into a happy birthday post. You’re like, “I’m reposting because they gave me this.” But it’s like they didn’t give me this, they put it out into the world so other people can read it and decide whether they want to read my book or not.
CULTURED: What do you think people have gotten wrong about your writing thus far?
Stagg: With Surveys, I was just so excited for it to be published, and I was so excited that people were reading it at all. I went along with this idea that it's about the state of things, and to me it's not. I've tried to read parts of it again, and I'm like, “This is just a novel, what was everybody talking about?” Because I then went so far in this direction of being like “I do know about the world and what it's like, and I can predict the future,” but it's not exactly what I set out to do.
It's not a true story. It's a coming of age story, and it happens to be set in the time that it's set in, which was the current moment. It ended up sounding like I was making this broad statement about influencers, but that wasn't really a term yet. It was an accidentally prescient book, and I don't regret that. It's not a misread, it's just where it's taken me is very different from where I thought it would go.