Rowbottom and I first got to know each other through the Tin House Summer Workshop years ago. The last time I saw her was during a whirlwind drive from Los Angeles to her home in Malibu. What follows is a more formal conversation about these topics, conducted over email.
GENEVIEVE HUDSON: Let’s start at the beginning. I love hearing about the origin stories of books. How did you get the first ideas for Aesthetica? What was going on in your life and the world?
ALLIE ROWBOTTOM: It was late 2018 and my memoir Jell-O Girls had been out about six months. During that time, I’d been trying and failing to write another memoir, that one about the horse girl archetype and my childhood as a competitive equestrian. Looking back, writing my horse book (since adapted into a long essay in Halimah Marcus’s Horse Girls anthology) was sort of an act of self-harm. It was dark, retraumatizing, and I couldn’t find the emotional core of it anyway. (By emotional core, I mean what the book was about on an internal, spiritual level.) Finally, I drawered it and wallowed for a while in a sense of deep disappointment in the publishing industry. Jell-O Girls had been a critical success but I’d hated the way it was marketed, and after all that, it wasn’t selling well. I also felt defiant about Goodreads and what I interpreted as a wider cultural enmeshment of art and commerce, the ways in which art has become a consumer product, ratable by random people online. I thought, fuck it, let me write something sellable, then.
I had had the idea of a literary fiction about an Instagram model for a while, for the simple fact that I myself had become deeply vulnerable to the messaging of several influencers, in addition to holding a long-standing interest in plastic surgery and feminism of every wave, topics which created a deep internal conflict for me. I wanted to explore that conflict more and felt like the resultant book would be really fresh, a novel I’d not seen attempted before. So I bought [Alan Watt’s] The 90-Day Novel with every intention of churning out a book in a few months. After I had half a draft, my computer was stolen and I had to start over. Then I broke my wrist roller-skating while intoxicated. The universal message, I think now, was to slow down. Looking back on those years, I was in such a rush to do-over my complicated experience publishing Jell-O Girls. But in the end, what I needed was time to really think and write and craft the novel that Aesthetica is today. Now, when someone tells me they finished a book in six months or whatever, I privately think, well, it must not be very good. It is true that once in a great while, a book comes fast and fully formed. But more often than not, a book, if it’s a good one, is the product of many years.
I am fascinated by social media and how its far-reaching, sometimes invisible hand has managed to entirely infiltrate almost every single aspect of contemporary culture — from how we form connections with ourselves and others to the way we self-promote and brand ourselves to the impact it has on anxiety, depression, and mental health. There is no part of society that social media has not impacted in some way. And yet few novels deal with social media as their main subject. Why do you think that is? And what made you want to fill in that literary gap?
I hear a lot of writers bemoan the imperative to include social media in their fiction because it is a far-reaching invisible hand, and that’s a scary force to introduce into one’s made-up world, a force with the potential to overwhelm readers or subsume the plot entirely. I also think that writers can be resistant to social media literature because social media is a competitor. As much as we all try to deny it, the sad fact is that people scroll Instagram more than they read books. For that reason, I think a lot of writers can be like, fuck Instagram, a stance I totally support. For me, though, social media, especially image-based social platforms, feels like a glaring metaphor for other invisible forces that I am invested in prodding in my work. Adrienne Rich defined patriarchy as a power that “permeates everything, even the language in which we try to describe it. It is diffuse and concrete; symbolic and literal; universal, and expressed with local variations which obscure its universality.” That sounds a lot like social media to me.
For a time, Anna, the protagonist, wields the power that Instagram has bestowed upon her. She is an influencer. She cashes in on her beauty and self-objectifies as a way to gain fame, attention, and access. But there is a fine line between self-liberation and self-destruction. Can you talk more about this?
That fine line is one I am constantly trying to walk myself, and not always successfully. It’s all about cost-benefit analysis, I’m afraid. Put another way: Cashing in on beauty, as is the case with cashing in on any privilege, can be effective. But as my therapist loves to point out, there’s always a cost. In Aesthetica, 19-year-old Anna comes to Instagram as she comes to Los Angeles, with the naïve but not entirely incorrect idea that she can capitalize on her youth and beauty as a stepping stone to financial security. That she can outsmart the male gaze and use it for her own benefit. I don’t think it’s giving much away to say Anna suffers. But she also succeeds. In the end, it’s up to her to decide what fame and followers are worth to her, what beauty is worth, and what price she’ll pay to stay hidden or to be seen.
In preparing to write and promote this book, I found myself playing around on my own Instagram by posting bikini pictures and generally more “sexy” content alongside my normal writing posts. I wanted to perform the content of my novel to sell it, yes, but also to research and inhabit the world. What I found is that my following grew, always a good thing for a writer. But with it came the attention of haters and internet trolls who love to DM me and call me sexist names or tell me my accomplishments have nothing to do with the quality of my writing and everything to do with how I self-present — which brings us back to cost-benefit analysis.
You dive deep into the subject of plastic surgery and body modification and how they are in conversation with the ideals set by Insta-filters, photoshopped faces, and impossible beauty standards. What are your thoughts on how or if plastic surgery can be used as a tool of empowerment and/or a way for women/gender-nonconforming people to gain agency and control over their lives and their commodified bodies?
I’ve had empowering experiences with plastic surgery, and I’ve had disempowering experiences with plastic surgery. I’ve chosen plastic surgery for deeply subjective, self-affirming reasons, and I’ve chosen it to adhere to someone else’s standards. How I feel about myself, when it’s all said and done, has had everything to do with the standpoint from which I chose to alter my body. There are thinkers and theorists who say that regardless of where a woman is personally, regardless of her desire to alter her body, she is inherently acting in service of conventional beauty standards/the beauty industry/the patriarchy/the male gaze, which is bad for herself and other women. I really value that perspective, because I think sometimes that is the case and we all need to hear it. But — and this is a big but — cosmetic surgery is a vast and wide-ranging field, and the reasons people of any gender come to cosmetic procedures are as diverse and varied and personal and political as the individuals themselves. To tell anyone that altering their “natural” body is bad because of the effect it has on other people is to place a huge and unfair burden. I see this really commonly with women who choose to enhance their breasts. Breast augmentations are, more than any other procedure, considered superficial and designed to cater to the male gaze. As if all augmented breasts wind up looking a certain way, and as if cisgender straight men are the only ones who like breasts!
Aesthetica™, the high-risk, elective surgery that Anna pursues in the novel, is a chance to start over and reverse all of the plastic surgery she has undergone over the years. This is such a provocative idea — the concept of renewal, of second chances, of redemption. How did you come up with the idea for the Aesthetica™ procedure?
I came up with the Aesthetica™ procedure slowly — it was one of the last things about the book to fall into place. The most literal seed of the idea came from my experience with lip filler. I had gotten into filling my lips for a few years, but, as sometimes happens, the filler had migrated and sort of changed the shape of my smile. It was such a slow, subtle process that I didn’t really notice until I saw a photograph and thought, okay, that is not right. I no longer looked like myself. Or did I? What did I look like? I didn’t know and realized I never could. From there, I felt ashamed, vulnerable, and dysmorphic. So much effort was put into fixing a perceived flaw, only to leave me yearning to return to the lips I started with, if only because I’d know they weren’t botched. As I started reading about filler migration, I happened upon the concept of injector dysmorphia, wherein not only the patient loses the ability to see themselves clearly, but their injector does too. Which is how people end up with “filler face,” an overly puffy, pillowy quality to the skin. Or how filler, a product designed to make people look younger and more beautiful, can in fact make people look older and uncanny, as was the case with me.
So I went to this fancy surgeon in Beverly Hills to get my filler dissolved. I found it so seductive, that this man had the power to remove the burden of time with his scalpel, as he had the power to remove the burden of filler from my face. And it was thrilling to watch the instantaneous dissolution of my old filler. I got into stalking the surgeon’s Instagram account and the accounts of other surgeons like him. I saw some beautiful work. I saw work lifted from reputable surgeons’ grids, reposted to random surgeons’ accounts, and used to lure unsuspecting patients, a really dangerous issue. And, of course, I saw so many scams. For better or for worse, I realized that Instagram is the lifeblood of the plastic surgery industry — whereas in the past it was considered déclassé for plastic surgeons to advertise in newspapers and magazines, now if they don’t have an Instagram following, they’re at a disadvantage. And I noticed a lot of rhetoric about tailoring the outside to match the inside. But what happens when you’ve had every procedure and still don’t feel renewed? What happens when, no matter what you change about yourself, you don’t feel like yourself? It was a question I kept asking, and from it, Aesthetica™ was born.
You and I are part of a writing group that also includes T Kira Madden, Chelsea Bieker, and Cyrus Simonoff. We come together about once a month to read each other’s work, talk about life and artmaking, and laugh really hard. It’s become a very sacred and special place for me. Writing is an incredibly solitary act, and being part of this little community can feel like a gift. What are your thoughts on being in community with other writers?
Our group is magical. I love us. For so long, I looked for the kind of sacred space we’ve built, to no avail. It’s really hard to ask friends to read your work and hard to trust them to be honest, in my experience. But I think our group does an excellent job posing questions, which is what any good workshop should do. I don’t care much for critique, and I care even less for critique without emphasis on what works. If I hear what works, I can do more of it. If all I hear is what doesn’t work, I lose confidence and steam. What I mean is that I don’t think anyone knows better than I do when it comes to my work, and I feel the same about other writers, especially the writers in our group; I don’t know what any of us should do differently with our work, but I do know what questions come up for me as I read.
All to say, I think community is essential, but it’s also okay to be choosy about who you share your work with. This is because the writing world is a very weird place. I think to say otherwise is to delude oneself. It’s competitive. We’re all vying for a small slice of a small pie so that a very small percentage of other writers will be genuinely happy for us when we publish something or land a coveted teaching job or win an award. This makes it extra important to find your people — the writers whose work you drop everything to read as soon as it lands in your inbox, the writers who inspire you to be better, the writers you love and respect as individuals — and then do everything in your power to champion them. The funny thing is that for all the emphasis in the writing world on accomplishments and publications and status, the most rewarding element of the job is reading and supporting and being in conversation with the people you love.
Genevieve Hudson is the author of the novel Boys of Alabama and the story collection Pretend We Live Here.