Pop Culture

Natasha Stagg on Gatekeeping, NYC Supremacy, and the Decline of Criticism

“People used to say, ‘Everyone’s a critic.’ Now, no one’s a critic,” the writer tells GQ columnist Chris Black.

Natasha Stagg on Gatekeeping NYC Supremacy and the Decline of Criticism

This is an edition of the newsletter Pulling Weeds With Chris Black, in which the columnist weighs in on hot topics in culture. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.

Natasha Stagg’s essays, criticism, and auto-fiction are clear and direct, tackling some of my favorite subjects, including publishing, art, and fashion. Her observations cut through because they feel more honest than those of most writers; Natasha, who also writes ad copy, press releases, and magazine articles, walks the line between observer and participant. She understands, ultimately, that everything matters and nothing matters.

Natasha’s most recent book is Artless. Released by the influential independent publisher Semiotext(e), it’s a collection of essays on authenticity, celebrity, how we behave online, brands, and striving to be more careless.

I chatted with Natasha about the global cultural influence of New York City, socializing vs. observing, the state of criticism, and promoting her new book without the help of social media.

GQ: The work you do and the way you think about fashion is really interesting. I don’t care about clothes that much, but it attracts such freaks, which keeps me interested.

Natasha Stagg: Yeah. I don’t care about my clothes very much. I try not to say, “I work in fashion,” but when it comes up, the person I’m talking to will just look down at what I’m wearing, and it’s like, I’m not writing about my own clothes.

The way people get so obsessed with the garments is dorky to me. But also, at this point, I have a really tough time understanding a lot of what’s popular.

There’s a lot that goes over my head, and it makes me feel old. But I’m also inspired by a lot, like the retro version of what we were when we were kids. It’s so back right now, but it’s back in such an authentic version that it actually feels new. When we did retro stuff, we didn’t have the internet to reference. We were just looking at movies and magazines. They can look at paparazzi shots at any angle of any person wearing one specific outfit. They’re doing it perfectly.

I recently moved back to New York. Do you think it’s still the most important city?

I don’t know what else would be. It is for me.

When you go to London, Copenhagen, and Melbourne—where I’m currently visiting—you realize how much America, specifically New York, dictates what people care about.

I was on Anna Delvey’s podcast a while ago, and I asked her why she likes New York so much. If she left, she would get deported, but also she would be free. If she stays, she has to be on house arrest. She’s in a tiny apartment, but she’s like, “I would rather be here than go anywhere else,” which is the whole world. She could go live in, technically, only Europe, but her answer was cool. “Every time I’m anywhere else, I’m wondering what’s going on in New York.”

That’s a poetic answer.

That’s how I feel every time I leave, but that’s because it’s where I live. I could live somewhere else, but I don’t want to live somewhere where they don’t speak English as well as Americans do because I get frustrated with people who are not making jokes constantly. Joking is the hardest thing to do in another language, so you just become humorless if you live in Berlin or Paris, only speaking English.

I don’t like those places for other reasons, but now I can add this to the pile. Coming to Melbourne, Australia, and having somebody ask you about Dimes Square is insane.

That has happened to me, too, in Marseille and other random places. I’m like, “What are you actually asking?” because then it becomes this weird existential conversation. “But it’s not just the square,” and I’m like, “I don’t know. You probably know more than me.”

Socializing is such a big part of what you do, and it informs how you look at things. Do you feel you must give a lot when you socialize, or do you sit back and take it in?

I’m the person at the party who just sits in one seat the whole time. My legs start falling asleep, like, Oh, yeah, I should get up and walk around. It’s like I’m watching television when I’m at a party.

Have you been like that since high school, or is this something that happened in adulthood?

Definitely since high school. I remember going to house parties and being terrified, so I would stay in the corner because I was shy. Then, it developed into something else: being observant.

You found the career for that, at least, being a voyeur. You found a way to monetize it. But you’re doing whatever you want and then processing that into your work.

That’s something that I remember when I was in grad school. People would go to a thing to do research, and I was like, “What does that mean?” We’re writing fiction. I remember my teacher saying, “Well, I went to this car dealership to test drive a certain car, so when my character drives that car, I can know what it’s like and use those details.” And I’ve remembered that forever, even though I’ve never applied it. I should be doing something out of my norm to create characters who aren’t me. But so far, all my characters are me.

But you have a point of view. You and I both think, If we do this, it will be fun to talk about on the podcast.

It’s a fun way to live anyway, even if you don’t have a podcast.

It reminds me of what would happen when I used to party. You’d wake up the next day hungover, rehashing the night. That is the original version of it. I went out because I wanted to do coke, but I also got to talk about it the next day. What happened, who hooked up with whom, and whether the music was good…

That’s the best part of parties, the next-day hangover brunch.

It’s the only thing I miss about it because I can’t stay late enough now.

But you could still go to the brunch and just get the gossip.

That’s true. I could be an observer like you. Are you working on more fiction?

I’m working on a novel, and we’ll see if it ever gets finished.

How long have you been working on it?

Many years.

Has it changed shape significantly, or has it stayed the course over time?

It’s stayed the same, but it’s taking forever because I want it to be better. Every time I read it, I’m like, I don’t know if this is that good, but I don’t want to give up on it because starting a new novel sounds so crazy.

Your essays are conversational—I want to respond to you while reading them. How can you switch gears from that to your fiction, which is so character-driven?

That’s probably why I’m having a hard time with it. I don’t think I’m good at switching gears, but I do. That’s why I am trying to read all the time. I am reading Nabokov, and I’ve just read Proust. I think that’s important for me to do because otherwise, you’re just reading ad copy all day and writing ad copy. It’s probably good to inform the ad copy I write with Proust.

The writing you do is a solo pursuit. To me, that’s part of the fun and the challenge, but does it get isolating for you?

That’s why I balance it with socializing. But the funny part is people think of me as an incredibly social person if they only read my writing. They don’t think about the fact that I need to go write it down too. There’s a whole other part of my life that’s just very, very solitary.

You don’t have social media, which is aspirational in a lot of ways. I feel so tethered to it, partly because of my job and partly because I just like it, but I think the narrative about it making people feel depressed and jealous doesn’t affect me. Was leaving just a way to gain clarity and some free brain space, or were you sick of it?

I think I was sick of it. I got rid of it in 2020. Everybody was super annoying, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, This feels over. Instagram feels like Facebook; the next thing is already happening, and I don’t want to join it. TikTok, I don’t want to do that. The other aspect is that it looks cool to not be on it.

I completely agree. It’s aspirational, partly because of what it does to your time and also because it affects work, like when some musicians won’t listen to other music while making an album because they don’t want it to influence them. But it’s just cool not to do it.

That was the main reason.

How are you going to promote this book without social media?

I don’t have a plan. I did a reading with Miranda July at [the bookstore] McNally Jackson, and then I introduced two movies at Metrograph [movie theater]. And I was so surprised by how many people came, because I did nothing to promote it, obviously.

You have a following, and there are a lot of people who like your work. That following will grow organically because that’s how the world works, thank God. But it’s fascinating to watch something happen and to see it as a fan without seeing it coming from the person who created it.

I guess so. But most older writers don’t have social media.

Sure, but you’re of the generation. You’re the exact person who would thrive if you applied yourself, and it would work if you wanted to be that person.

It’s nice not to be promoting it in that way and to still see people show up.

Is it more challenging to distribute your work without social media?

If I cared more about that, it would be an issue, but I don’t. Sometimes I get nervous blasting stuff out because I think, “Who do I actually want to read this?” It makes you think about how many strangers you’re trying to reach. I’m sure you feel that way with the podcast. Ideally, don’t you only want your friends to be listening?

Friends is strong. “Like-minded” is what we’re looking for. But also reading is hard for people. Asking someone to read a book, even when it’s something like this, essays that are digestible—our attention span is gone because there’s too much stuff. We talk about this a lot, but that’s why we need gatekeeping. I don’t understand how it got such a bad rap.

I feel the same way. I’m a like-minded listener.

You’re not necessarily a critic per se, but a lot of critical talk is frowned upon now.

I’m definitely a defender of critics. We need them more than ever, and if they’re slowly being pushed out of their positions. Nobody’s replacing them. Nobody’s aspiring to be a critic. It’s not well paid, and it’s prohibitive in so many ways. When you’re a writer, like me, you try to get as many jobs as you can, so you can’t really criticize anybody because they might be the person who’s hiring you. And on top of that, you’re expected to be an influencer of some sort, like everybody. Working with brands, working with magazines, whatever it is, you just have to basically kiss everyone’s ass, every single entity out there. And that’s the opposite of criticism. Critics are not allowed to take gifts, press trips, or any of the things that I love and write about, so I’m not a critic for sure. I would never call myself that, but I really value it.

If somebody has dedicated their life to understanding music in a way I never could, I can take five minutes out of my day and read what they think about something I’m interested in. And that’s not offensive to me. If we disagree, that’s okay, but that’s not where most people’s heads are anymore.

People used to say, “Everyone’s a critic.” Now, no one’s a critic.

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