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Novelist Tara Isabella Burton: “We’re suspicious of storytelling, culturally”

Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton talks sin and grifters at the launch of her debut novel.

Social Creature/Tara Isabella Burton

Social Creature, by Vox’s religion reporter Tara Isabella Burton, is one of the most darkly shimmering books I’ve read this summer. Set in a hyper-glam Manhattan, it focuses on have-not Louise as she becomes infatuated with has-plenty Lavinia and ultimately manages to con her way to the center of the New York literati.

The New York glamour of this book is of the kind that I would have dismissed as fictional before I met Tara, but since she started working at Vox last year, I’ve come to realize that it’s entirely real for her. (The number of beautiful vintage gowns that are stored in our office on the off-chance that someone wants to go to the opera after work has gone up exponentially since she got here.) So the glitz of this book feels authentic — and so do the questions of morality that Tara, who holds a PhD in theology from Oxford, delves into.

I sat down with Tara to talk about the reception of Social Creature, the glamour of New York City, and how sin functions in the world of her book. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

When you were working on this book, did you think of it as being any particular genre?

Tara Isabella Burton

No, not at all! I knew what I liked, and what I tend to enjoy is older works and classics and works that are thought of as literary but not given a particular genre, as opposed to contemporary literary fiction. So as far as I knew, I was just writing a book.

This book was originally a redraft of a redraft of various ideas. The original version was this very literary book about this group of a woman, her husband, and her husband’s ex-girlfriend. It was very Ford Madox Ford pastiche fanfic. It was not very good. And then there was another story I was thinking about writing, about the relationship between a girl and a dead girl’s sister.

So all of the mental prework that I did for the book was, I suppose, generically literary without being consciously litfic. And then I thought, “What would make the story better? How can I raise the stakes for these characters?” The murder element came from that. I was like, “Great! I want to explore impostor syndrome, and I want to explore toxic female relationships; this seems like a good way to do that.”

It was — not necessarily a bad surprise, but it took me some getting used to, as someone who had grown up with a particular sense of where I wanted my book to be on the shelf, to see my book categorized in a different way. But I think ultimately, so many of the books that I do love, including quote-unquote “classics,” are — like, I love Dostoevsky! So many of Dostoevsky’s books are crime books! I love Les Misérables! It’s a crime book!

I actually think in retrospect, a lot of the novels that I really love are books with big life-or-death stakes, and often crime is a great way of exploring evil. I’m very excited to think about my work in that wider family.

Constance Grady

Do you think of Louise as evil?

Tara Isabella Burton

No, not at all. I don’t think of anyone in the book as evil. I was actually really surprised that a couple of reviewers have talked about her as a sociopath. I can understand why they’re not the most likable characters, but I think that they have ordinary human emotions and experiences dialed up to 11. Or maybe I’m a sociopath! Maybe that’s why this disconnect is happening!

But fundamentally, my idea for both these characters is that they are an extreme version of very normal behavior. It is not uncommon to have impostor syndrome. It is not uncommon to be incredibly anxious. It is not uncommon to have a warped or lack of strong sense of self. And when those become extreme, that’s interesting to me. I think that all of them have the capacity to go to therapy and grow up and become decent people, and I think the tragedy of the book is that no one really gets to do that.

Constance Grady

The reception’s been pretty rapturous, but has it positioned the book in a different way than you imagined?

Tara Isabella Burton

One of the things I think I was initially concerned about, not really knowing the industry, is that a lot of the Instagram marketing and early taglines were focusing on the party element, or the New York glitz, Gossip Girl element. In retrospect, I actually think what’s been really amazing is that different places are covering it really differently. My team has done an incredible job of essentially marketing many different books to many different people.

I was just on NPR having a long conversation about sin and doubt and the book as an indictment of capitalism. And then Stylecaster is like, “Hey, this is a fun beach read about parties!” And that’s really cool, and I’m glad that our strategy is, we can give different books to different people.

But I will say I was a little taken aback at first — and this might be my own engrained literary snobbery — I did occasionally feel the necessity of there being marketing language. I totally understand why marketing language would want to highlight the characters dressing up in outlandish clothing. That is an exciting thing that people might want to buy. At the same time, for me, the characters’ crazy clothing choices are part of a wider program of identity formation. They’re trying on literal personae. And it felt a little reduced. I think at some point, some copy was like, “Designer clothes!” And I’m like, “That’s not even right!”

It was odd for me to see the book positioned, because of its female characters, as something that perhaps was less serious. And I think that’s a function of the fact that we talk about “beach reads”; we talk about “breezy” and “summery.” The whole language around which everyone marketing-wise talks about summer books is feminized. I understand why that language has to be there, in terms of, like, that’s the industry, you play the game, but — okay. Actually, I will tell this story.

I have a lot of lit-bro Brooklyn writer friends, and one of them was very much like, “Oh, your book! It’s fun. It’s readable.” I didn’t actually ask what he thought, so it was a little bit of unsolicited information.

There is very much a bias against robust storytelling. You see a million Twitter fights about, like, “Is litfic real? What is litfic? What is not litfic?” And the idea that literary fiction somehow values craft and sentence structure over story and plot, I think that’s bullshit. I think that ideally, great literature should be readable.

The reason it should be readable is that great literature should be about people and ideas. Once you figure out what kind of idea and what kind of person you want to explore, you want to set up a plot scenario that allows you to explore those ideas effectively, which may or may not involve murder and mayhem, which may or may not involve a mystery, which may or may not involve spaceships, I don’t know.

Fundamentally, what you want to explore determines your quote-unquote “genre,” and your characters determine your quote-unquote “genre,” and then at the language level, the way at which you tell your story on a sentence level should be appropriate for the atmosphere you want to create, right? If you’re creating the atmosphere of a hardboiled noir, that world is different from a lyrical, delicate, mannered prose, which is different from experimental prose. And all of them can be great prose, but they are only great if they fit thematically what you’re doing.

We talk as though plot-heavy fiction is somehow suspicious. We’re suspicious of storytelling, culturally, in a way that I really resist.

Constance Grady

One of the things that’s so interesting about the book is that the Manhattan in it is so Fitzgeraldy, or, like, Berlin Stories-y; very decadent, with something rotten hiding underneath it. And I know there’s been some discussion of how that Manhattan is a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, but just as an outsider observing your life, it always seems like you’re always flitting in and out of that kind of glamour, like, actually. So how much of that glamour comes from your actual experiences?

Tara Isabella Burton

One hundred percent, all of it. Nothing is made up. Everything is stylized, but nothing is made up.

There was a great review that was really positive and good, but it was like, “Oh, it’s so interesting that she sets up this New York that doesn’t exist instead of a more realistic perspective,” and I’m like, “You should come to one of my parties, bro.”

But the community that I’m in in New York, my friends, we’re just weirdos who like to dress up and who like that aesthetic. It’s not, in any sense, universal. I didn’t mean to imply that all of New York is like this, nor did I mean the book to be about a particular vintage subculture that five people in the world care about.

What I was interested in — I can’t remember if it was Buffy or Heathers, but it was one of the two, where it talked about the creation of slang: No one will believe you if you write realistic slang because it will be dated.

If you try to create a really realistic portrait of New York today, it’ll be dated in two seconds. But if you create this stylized pastiche that is a mix of Fitzgerald and Isherwood, but also quite specific things — I tried to be hyperrealistic and then dial it up. The ridiculousness of the book comes from not any one thing, but from the deadpanness of, “Oh, of course there’s a Marie Antoinette-themed bar; of course there’s a hipster sex club.”

All of these things exist; it’s just stylized. But it’s unlikely that the different social groups that I describe would actually meet there. The Upper East Side Chapin girl world is not necessarily the Brazenhead lit-bro world, which is not the vintage-kid world. The idea that all these worlds collide around Lavinia is where the intentional pastiche comes from. I wanted for it to be hyperreal and ridiculous rather than overly reflective of reality.

But yeah, it’s all true, it all happened.

Constance Grady

Grifters are all over the goddamn news this week. What do you think it is that’s making this the summer of grifters, aside from obviously stealth viral marketing for your book?

Tara Isabella Burton

Oh, it’s clearly viral marketing. [Laughs.]

I think grifters are similar to con artists, but the con artist movie, the heist movie, are slightly different. The con artist heist movie is the pleasure of seeing how clever people do clever things to earn a little slice of the pie. There’s a vicarious pleasure: “Maybe if I were clever enough, I could get this thing that privilege does not allow me to have.” It’s like a Robin Hood thrill.

The fun of the grifter story is not that the grifters are smart, it’s that, oh, my god, everyone else is so stupid. Grifter stories work because you don’t sympathize with any of the people who are getting conned. The grifter walks in and doesn’t actually do anything that smart, but just sets the table and recognizes how transactional all relationships are. It’s like a Ponzi scheme of social capital.

Anna Delvey basically sold access to herself, and her currency was falsely inflated. Ultimately the people who wanted to be near her, it wasn’t that they fell in love with her, it wasn’t that they liked her. It was just that they thought it would be just enough to be near her.

With grifters like Anna Delvey, the pleasure is in indicting the system that allowed her to flourish, rather than celebrating her as somebody who’s actually done something interesting or heroic.

Constance Grady

I wanted to circle back around to Cordelia, who is I think the only explicitly religious character in the book. Since you are a PhD in theology, and Vox’s religion writer, how do you see religion functioning in this world?

Tara Isabella Burton

I think it’s a super-religious book. It was one of those things where I totally understand why that’s not on the jacket copy, but for me, this is a book about sin. I’m Episcopalian, so my definition of sin is not quite as thou-shalt-not as other religious denominations. For me, sin is about spiritual corrosion, and the idea that when you do something wrong or bad, it’s a sickness. It eats away at you, as well as being bad to others.

I think so much of what Louise wants from life is a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose. It’s definitely what Lavinia wants. In a sense, the real punishment of Louise is not that she gets caught; it’s that she doesn’t get caught.

There’s this line right after she does something that she can’t come back from, that is very morally problematic, about halfway through the book. She thinks, “This is when God strikes me down. This is when I get my comeuppance.” And this is terrifying, but it’s also reassuring, like, “Okay, I’ve done wrong, I’ll be punished.” And when no one realizes what she’s done, she realizes she can get away with it. She realizes that no lightning bolt’s going to come from the sky and strike her down, and that’s when she realizes that that’s the more horrific punishment. She’s in this meaningless landscape where she can fake it; she can be whoever she wants.

Cordelia is religious, but I think ultimately that it is a religious book. Not religious in the sense of apologetics — I’m thinking of Muriel Spark, who is a writer who is very much informed by her faith. My writing is extremely informed by my faith. It’s just Episcopalianism, so it’s less obvious, I guess.

It’s a book about sin and God. One of the influences on it — and this is kind of an asshole thing to do, to be like, “Dostoevsky was my influence!” but I bet a lot of bros would do it, so I’ll do it too. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is the story of someone who commits a terrible crime and has to deal with, if there is no God, what does this mean? I think Social Creature’s less explicit about that, but that was the book that I wanted to write. If there is no God, what does it mean for Louise to do any of this?

So yeah, I’ll just swing my dick around and say, “Dostoevsky.”