I Have to Poke Holes in Things: A Conversation with Natasha Stagg

By Sarah YanniJanuary 22, 2024

I Have to Poke Holes in Things: A Conversation with Natasha Stagg

Artless: Stories 2019–2023

ON A VERY chilly Los Angeles evening (I could see my breath and wore a scarf!) I heard Natasha Stagg read from her latest book, Artless: Stories 2019–2023 (Semiotext(e), 2023), alongside Jackie Wang and Chris Kraus at the Poetic Research Bureau in the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood. The literary trio drew a packed crowd of friends-of-friends, Semiotext(e) enthusiasts, art and lit-world It Girls, and me. Stagg’s controlled eloquence sustained both her reading and the group conversation, just like the moments in her book where she states something seemingly simple that results in a moment of profound resonance.

Artless collects stories from 2019 to 2023 focused on—put extremely generally—the art world and contemporary culture, and confesses to its gaps in knowledge: “I kind of know how that feels, but I don’t know exactly how it feels,” which is, perhaps, a statement all writers should make. By admitting her unreliability as a narrator, Stagg makes me trust her more and more. Her book collects musings, commissioned essays, autofiction, and professional dispatches, offering less of a holy fix and more of an anthropological study. But as Stagg states, “I’m listing grievances but not solutions. Why, I ask, should I know the answers?”


SARAH YANNI: Before we get into elaborate questions about your new book, I want to acknowledge the new year. What are your ins and outs for 2024?

NATASHA STAGG: Oh, I haven’t thought of them! I usually really like these lists. I don’t know … I think, I’ve been really not into fashion. For the past few years, I’ve been getting rid of everything and just being like, “This is so fashion victim that I own this.” And just in the last month, I’ve actually been buying stuff again. I feel like I had to purge and now I’m starting to be like, “Okay, I actually like fashion and I do want to buy pretty clothes.”

So, in: fashion. Out: fashion.

Yeah, in: buying new clothes. Out: all my old clothes.

Okay, we love that. Shifting to your new book Artless—in the story “Difficult,” I was really interested in this passage: “We had this conversation where I had to explain to him what I went through to get them to understand that I did not want to write a novel about my life. That was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to actually write about my life. I wanted to tell them the truth.” I read this almost as the narrator’s defense of nonfiction. And I’m wondering—where does this book fall to you? What’s your relationship to truth, especially as you classify this book as stories, not essays?

Yeah, that was in that conversation between Elizabeth Wetzel and me, and I thought it was so interesting that classifications keep shifting. It does kind of go from like fiction to nonfiction back and forth forever. Autofiction is now the “trending” thing or whatever, but what even classifies as fiction or autofiction is super loose. I think that the way I write is the way that I’ve learned to write fiction. I’ve been taking fiction classes and literature classes and workshops forever. And that’s what I was taught by professors—building narrative arcs, creating characters that have conflicts that need to be solved, blah blah blah. I didn’t get trained in the creative nonfiction way of writing. So I feel comfortable writing fiction, and I like it. But that doesn’t mean that the fiction I write is not true. I write about my life, but I write it the way one would write fiction.

I was thinking a lot about truth when reading your book, and I think one thing that’s very true about your work is this insistence on ambivalence. At the reading [in Los Angeles], you said something about how people think that you’re careless, but actually, you care a lot; if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be writing all of this. And I think we equate precision with truth, and with care. But ambivalence and imprecision can be a lot more honest and true. As you say, the definition of artless has to do with imprecision, but having a firm take on everything isn’t necessarily “better”… I guess, could you speak a bit more to this? Why don’t you think people know what to do with writing that lives in this more fluid space? Why does truth have to mean having all the answers?

I mean, I don’t know why! I’m told that my writing feels ambivalent, and even though that doesn’t feel true to me, if enough people say it, I’m going to agree and just accept that that’s maybe how I come off. I’m super fascinated by the idea that there’s some sort of a sweet spot with precision. I think when people are writing, there’s the style that tries to reach everyone. That’s maybe more the realm of genre fiction, or like mainstream airport novels—they’re not reaching a specific audience. It’s for all of us; we can all agree that love is something to aspire towards, you know what I mean? And then there’s this super-precise alt style of, like, “I worked at this store and wore these clothes” and it gets so precise that it isolates readers. People will think, Oh, well, I can’t relate because I have no idea what that person’s lifestyle is compared to mine. And then there are moments where the super precise feels universal. We watch TV shows and we see visuals and emotions that we can relate to even though the people in the show are nothing like us. So I guess it’s always a conversation around, like, where to go in-between all of those marks.

I wanted to ask you a bit about the role of artists, since this is a book that focuses somewhat on the art world. There’s one story focused on art in the 1980s and you write that “[i]t was a time when the role of artist was thrown against a wall and dared to reject the power and currency that the market could potentially provide.” I’m curious to hear how you think the role of “the artist” has changed. What is it now, or what do you think people are expecting it to be?

I mean, I’m no expert on the art world. My experience with it is mostly through just meeting artists in New York, and having these sorts of conversations with them about “the market.” And it’s so strange, because I actually grew up in this cliché of, like, artist mom, hippie parents that moved to Arizona from the East Coast to be more “out there” and New Age, to create their own art scene or whatever. And even though my mother died when I was young, I think all the time about what that type of artist would talk to me about now, because my artist friends in New York in 2023—it feels like all they talk about is money.

They’ll say things like “Figurative painting of course has to come back, it’ll always come back … you have to be rigorous and think about your practice,” and blah blah. It’s these weird conversations about what it is they are doing, which, in a way, is very honest. It’s saying, “We’re selling products.” I’m selling a product. I sell my writing. But it’s gotten to the point where your product is not just a thing that is sold at a value—it is creating its own value—by becoming a part of your series and your identity. And it’s interesting in the scheme of what all careers are maybe becoming. Everybody has to be involved in their career personality-wise, and maybe art is just at the vanguard of that.

I think that’s completely on the nose.

In your “Hollywood” essay, where you write about the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood (2019), I was really struck by how you described the film as a movie about the way we see an era from outside of it. Do you see your writing as trying to capture an era from inside of it? Is that something that consciously shapes your motivation, or urgency? You know, what is your relationship to time, to writing about “the moment”?

I struggle with that, honestly. There is a voice in my head that is constantly negating or warning me against being too era-specific, because that makes the piece into more of something that should be on a website or blog, and not a book. So I do try to make observations that are, I guess, “timeless,” if that’s even possible. I actually try not to think about it so much, or else I’ll be burdened with constantly wondering how it’s going to be read a while from now. And I can’t predict that; I can’t predict what’s going to change.

Did you have any feelings about doing “pandemic writing”? I feel like I really push it away, or even when I watch a TV show that talks about the pandemic for some reason, I’m like, “NO. We have to act like it didn’t happen.” But you write about the pandemic in what feels like a natural way. I don’t know if that was ever something you were intentionally thinking about?

Yeah, when I see it being mentioned on fictional TV shows, I’m like, “That’s too weird.” And I was really nervous about that, because when I was writing and the pandemic was “fully underway” or whatever, it felt totally normal to write about it because there was nothing else on my mind. But then looking back and compiling these pieces, I definitely was like “Ew, should I just take out that whole middle section?” But this book is kind of structured as pre-, during, and post-pandemic. So if the during part didn’t happen, it might feel like a missing gap.

Definitely, and I do feel you did it well. I want to talk to you a little about your essay “Pleasure,” which I loved. You write that “maybe the less we are aware of our selfhood, the closer we are to feeling pleasure.” And I’m thinking about Cookie Mueller, and how she, at first, is totally fine with working as a dancer except for mat work. There’s something about getting down on the mat, on the floor, that she feels against. She’s so in her head about it. But she notices that that’s how all the other women make so much money, so she finally kind of gets out of her head, shifts her thinking, and leans into it, and it’s totally fine—in fact, it’s great! She makes a lot of money. And I think your essay really gets at the boundaries between performing pleasure, experiencing pleasure, and all the weird things that get in between. All of this to say—do you think, in our “modern era,” we can still experience pleasure? Do you think it’s getting harder and harder to find? And what should we do about it?

Yeah, that piece was a commission, in a collection of essays about pleasure specifically, and those were exactly the things I was wondering about. And I really thought, what am I going to write about pleasure? Like, pleasure, in this economy? I just asked a bunch of friends that do work that involves that concept, and basically quoted them so much that they should honestly get author credit.

I’m not sure how anybody sees the systems we have set up for ourselves and views them as things that are good at generating pleasure. Which is ironic because I think a lot of the new inventions of today are based on the pleasure principle, and instant gratification. The oldest version of this idea being “sex sells,” right? Sure. Advertising should have subliminal, sexy messages, but then shopping has become more diversified, and everybody can buy any experience or thing they want at any moment of their lives. And many of these gestures—pulling something down to refresh, the little snap of gratification, the stroke of swiping—all these things are based on tactics of pleasuring.

But even with that, it’s hard to separate physical acts, personhood, shopping, advertising, the way that we pleasure ourselves or others—my silly theory is just like, pleasure is being diminished from our lives as it becomes less taboo. Some things do need to be kind of mysterious and kept in the dark, but that also feels like a slippery slope, and I’m not saying I know where to draw the line. Maybe everybody can be happy if they just don’t think too hard about it. I don’t know. People love sex, and they probably always will.

We’re simple humans, really.

I do think that, overall, things don’t change as much as we say they do.

That example of Cookie Mueller makes me think of the first time I ever saw a stripper, which was my friend in high school who became a stripper. And she said she wasn’t allowed to be on the floor. I guess she was at a “fancier” club, where you had to wear a diamond choker, and you weren’t allowed to touch the floor with your knees or hands. Like, you could get really low, but you had to come right back up.

And I wonder if in this case, and with Cookie Mueller, maybe it’s just like—it’s too real. People want to live in a fantasy where the floor doesn’t exist. And it’s also maybe about class. As if there’s a class that can buy their way out of thinking about reality, you know?

One thing Cookie Mueller talks about is the eye contact aspect. You know, when you’re standing, you don’t have to make eye contact. You’re in your own space, head, both in and out of your body. But when you’re on the floor, you’re looking at all of these men in the eyes. But then that’s how she gets good tips. I guess we want to live in a state of detachment, but only sometimes.

I wonder if there’s a difference in customer interactions and desires, now that screens are so prevalent, with OnlyFans, and cam girls—I wonder what that means for the type of customer who wants the real face-to-face experience.

I’m sure there’s some psychoanalysis to be done there.

Looking at your story on subculture, I kept thinking about how you say that “selling out” has become an obsolete concept. Do you think that it has turned into something else? Like, what is today’s version of “selling out”?

I mean, I still think there’s some concept of selling out. Maybe it’s about desperation. Because there are still conversations about what one can do to sell themselves in the right way, and like, there are all these things I’m not supposed to do as an elder millennial. You’re supposed to have some dignity.

It’s so ingrained in me that you want to keep some things to yourself. But I guess what I’m more curious about is, like, if the terms have changed, what are the things that make one look desperate? Because I do think there’s always a level, or a line, that you’re not supposed to cross. I’m not really sure what high schoolers today define as that “you’re cool, you’re not” [distinction].

Yeah, I also have no gauge of the defining categories or binaries for today’s teens, but if I find out, I’ll let you know.

Touching briefly on your work as a brand strategist—is that the right title?

Yeah, sure.

Yeah, like I’m a “development projects coordinator.” We operate in these combinations of words.

But in your essay on fashion week, I was laughing to myself when you describe this event invitation that just says, “a night where fashion and music come together […] young creatives in a series of performances as well as a fashion show … focused on sustainability, diversity, and equality in fashion … to give voice to all creators. and raise awareness.” All of these phrases are literally just buzzwords clumped together, but that’s also the business. How do you approach this when you’re doing brand work or copywriting work? What is your relationship to what you do with language, and is it different than when you are, say, writing a book like this?

Honestly, I think they end up feeding each other. Because if somebody hires me, that means they’ve probably read the things I’ve written.

And it’s interesting because one could read that section of the clumped-together buzzwords and honestly think it’s satire, but it’s not satire—that is verbatim an invitation I received to a fashion show. I’m not trying to write satire, at all. It’s more like I have to poke holes in things. That’s my favorite thing to do. And I think when somebody hires me to write for their brand, most of the time it’s because they see me as somebody who can do that.

Yeah, the fact that it’s intentionally not satire is the point.

My last question for you! In the story “Apocalypse,” you DM a designer who has decided to go volunteer for Bernie Sanders instead of showing a collection at New York Fashion Week. And the designer texts, “It’s okay to make clothes about being anxious and sad but at some point, it’s like, ‘Why am I putting my energy toward that?’ I needed to put that energy elsewhere.” So, I want to ask you—where is your energy going to these days?

My energy is honestly just like, survive.

But actually, the code-switching we were just discussing and the different modes of creativity can be really exhausting. It’s sort of like an ouroboros and not necessarily a self-sustaining terrarium. And it’s something that a lot of writers—with good reason—don’t talk about a lot, because we just want to feel like what we’re doing is this pure, perfect thing, where we wake up every day and we write and we’re working towards a goal of, like, beauty and language, but for me it’s also like, I have to make money. And what does that mean?

It’s a cycle of, like, where am I? What’s happening? So I think a lot of my energy is just defining what I want to be doing. Sometimes it’s very dizzying.


Natasha Stagg is the author of Surveys (2016), Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 (2019), and Artless: Stories 2019–2023 (2023).

LARB Contributor

Sarah Yanni is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She has been recognized as a finalist for BOMB magazine’s Poetry Contest, the Andrés Montoya Letras Latinas Poetry Prize, the Outpost Fellowship, and others, and her work can be found in outlets such as Mizna, Wildness, Full Stop, Iterant, Spectra Poets, and Autostraddle. She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.


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