Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

“I just expect more from life. Seriously, it’s like I want every day to be exciting! And scary! And a rollercoaster of creative experience, as if I’m making a new life for myself in France.” — Hannah, shortly before being fired from GQ, Girls, “I Saw You.”

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it….If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I’m an old-fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world. ” — James Baldwin, September 1979 interview with The New York Times

Richard Wright was 32 when he published Native Son. Dinaw Mengestu was 26 when he published All the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Edwidge Danticat had two novels and a short story collection under her belt before she was 30. James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain when he was 29. Publishing fiction was neither an act of vanity nor a declaration of entitlement for these formidably talented figures. Their novels were all serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul, demanding that readers pay attention and alter their reality by a bristling strand. Their stories burned from their typewriters and computers as naturally as kindling on an uncontainable fire.

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Yet an insufferable new group of mediocre writers and book boosters, armed with a 24/7 presence on social media, has emerged not only to debase literature, but to drive out vibrant, risk-taking literary lights with the advocation of childish, anglophonic, and apolitical narratives that read more like the old Sassy articles once devoured by preening teens. (Indeed, the obsession with nostalgia and adolescent mimicry is so commiserable that this group’s indefatigable flight from adulthood at such a late age is quite embarrassing when compared against the commendable industry of RookieMag‘s teen prodigy Tavi Gevinson.) To some degree, this is an offshoot of what Tom Whyman has smartly identified as “cupcake fascism,” whereby embracing empty bourgeois comfort supplants even the most half-hearted engagement. It is almost a cultural variant to Gresham’s law, with bad writers supported by vulgar and illiterate marketing people, a crass coterie of booksellers and digital evangelists who show more evidence of hoarding books than reading them, and ancillary parties tweeting wistfully about wanting more time to write or going to France or eating in French restaurants, with the reliable flow of selfies, smartphone snaps of status galleys, and Instagram photos with authors interspersed for appropriate authenticity. They aspire to see cultural metropolises much as Stefan Zweig romanticized Old Vienna in The World of Yesterday, but lack the careful grace, the painstakingly acquired erudition, and the interdisciplinary refinement to go the distance. The results are little more than slovenly self-love.

straub-emmaIf you are a dedicated reader in Brooklyn fond of sliding bills across smooth countertops in exchange for tantalizing tomes in independent bookstores, you have probably encountered the Middling Millennials. They are largely white women who are almost totally in the dark about their privilege, many bolstering a blinkered neoliberal feminism that demands a rectifying army of Mikki Kendalls and Djuna Barneses. They often confuse the act of literary engagement with coquettish pom-pom flogging. They are somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-three and are often found on Tumblr interspersing “fun facts” and JPEGs with quotes that, despite the lofty intent, are more self-help than literary. These relentlessly unchallenging digital shrines are frequently adorned with a bean-boosting “THIS” appended to the head of a calcified, well-tread, self-righteous sentiment that is reblogged — that is, if the MMs are not too busy Gchatting with others about the latest literary gossip. Some of the more pathetic specimens lean closer to forty and are often enlisted to interview esteemed authors before a small crowd under the mistaken impression that the interviewer is the center of attention. This group is not to be confused with the fine young minds and respectable hustlers who run and contribute to The New Inquiry, Open Letters Monthly, Jacobin, Hazlitt, Full Stop, HTML Giant, The American Reader, and Triple Canopy (to name but a few), who have all proven to be promising and proficient readers of a wide range open to lively and respectful challenge. To be perfectly pellucid, we are identifying disproportionate tadpoles who respond to any form of disagreement with a knee-jerk “Dead to me!” block on social media and return to their cheery consumerist chatter, blissfully unaware of greater global problems.

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The Middling Millennials are hostile to nonfiction, history, politics, and any topic that is real or remotely challenging. They have been harming the literary clime with their relentless pablum for at least a good year, actively encouraged by hoary outlets like n+1, The Awl, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Millions, all quietly hoping that this confluence of cheerleading and seductive reductionism will enlarge their cultural influence. While the actual population of Middling Millennials is difficult to measure (MFA vs. NYC, a volume published earlier this year by n+1, was allegedly substantive enough to attract the notice of The New Republic, The New York Times, and other outlets), the quality of the MM arguments are, on the whole, remarkably pauce — with thinking deracinated altogether, swapped with a fawning devotion more at home in a San Diego entrepôt.

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The Middling Millennials are never just booksellers or writers or publishers. They have not heeded the realities promulgated by Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her book Wonder Woman. They must “have it all” and announce their hyphenates, even when untrue. Thus, unremarkable people believe that they should be the center of attention, presenting themselves as superheroes committed to supererogatory tasks. Michele Filgate, a selfie enthusiast with a compulsive need for attention, begins a purportedly thoughtful article on Dave Eggers’s The Circle with “I get a sort of high [sic] when people retweet me,” and announces herself as a “writer and Community Bookstore Events Coordinator” — even as published novelists report having to endure her unspeakably boorish “Do you know who I am?” hijinks off the clock.

rachelf2Rachel Fershleiser, who once described herself as a “writer, editor, and bookseller in New York City,” has a LinkedIn profile that reveals not much more than a dumb-as-dirt, insufferable publicist who wishes to limit discourse while feigning her belief in community as she toils at Tumblr in some “Literary and Nonprofit Outreach” capacity. Note how real vocational callings (“Events Coordinator” and “bookseller in New York City”) are always placed second. When this thoroughly mediocre woman in her early thirties isn’t chirruping like a red-billed quelea who doesn’t understand that 1.5 billion other birds are twittering the same tune, she’s regressing back into adolescence with the camera as her enabling muse, uptalking her superficial platitudes through the intellectually ignoble forum of TED Talk (and employing the linguistically impecunious neologism “Bookternet”), when not dropping her dry and cavernous rictus not out of any fealty to enduring literature, but for a Veronica Mars tie-in novel written by Rob Thomas that nobody will remember in ten years. Improbably, this fatuous, tenth-rate Bernays disciple was asked to serve as judge for The Morning News‘s annual Tournament of Books, where she had to decide between Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (an ambitious and bona-fide masterpiece written by the 28-year-old Eleanor Catton that went onto win the Booker Prize) and Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. (Poor McClanahan asked to be removed from the bloodthirsty contest without success.) Fershleiser opted for the latter. The Luminaries was merely “a fussy book about men and their money and their honor and their prostitutes and their ships. Catton can and should write about whatever she likes, but I’ve read about these guys before. I want to read something new.”

“A fussy book about men and their money” is a gross mischaracterization of what Catton was up to in The Luminaries. The novel concerns itself with, among other things, Cantonese immigrants during the Otago Gold Rush, the burdens and reliance upon astrology during a time in human history before accurate measurement, a vicious trafficking system and the lack of options for women, Maori culture, and the influence of the 1865 tradeback option on New Zealand. Fershleiser’s impoverished cramming session speaks to the abysmal folly of assigning a sophisticated book to someone clearly out of her depth. One can only imagine the ample idiocy that Rachel “Seen It All Before” Fershleiser would serve up had someone deigned to anoint her judge in the 1922 Tournament of Books with Ulysses pitted against another book. To denounce a book that a writer has toiled on for years with a few carelessly expressed, willfully uncomprehending paragraphs is a very Middling Millennial quality indeed. But then Fershleiser has never been about having a constructive conversation. When Jacob Silverman wrote his essay “Against Enthusiasm,” which asked perfectly reasonable questions concerning why the literary world had “become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing,” Fershleiser preferred to troll Silverman rather than consider his dialogue:

Maybe the MMs are part of what Leslie Jamison has identified as “post-wounded women” in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Rather than weigh and confront the anguish that burns inside their hearts or consult the writing that may lead them to express their complicated feelings, they not only deny and prohibit writers who are willing to enter this realm, but openly deride them without an argument, even as they attempt to sublimate their “too cool for this” posturing into the public space of a bookstore, whose raison d’être is not to provide a forum for unconventional thought and serious discussion, but to move units to keep the place running at a tiny profit margin.

Perhaps the worst of these obnoxious crusaders is Emily Gould, a narcissist so delusional that she actually believes affixing her first name to a media unit (“books,” “magazine”) will sprout an empasmic empire. Her new novel, Friendship, not only advocates the MM way of life, but is surely the most aloofly written novel about youthful striving since Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. (As it so happens, Gould and Gessen are getting married in October. Solipsists make strange bedfellows.)

* * *

“For young people…ecstatic admiration for talent in all its forms leads them irresistibly to look at themselves, wondering whether they can perhaps detect a trace of that sublime essence in their own unexplored bodies or still partly unenlightened minds.” — Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

gould4Emily Gould was hatched in Silver Spring, Maryland on October 13, 1981: the bouncing daughter of a public relations man and a self-employed lawyer and mediator. Had social media and smartphones been around more than three decades ago, it is almost certain that her dewy newborn hands would have stretched out with hollow hunger to replace the default egg avatar on her Twitter account not long after overworked doctors snipped her umbilical cord. It did not take long for Gould to develop a worldview that placed her at the center of the universe. In her execrable autobiography And the Heart Says Whatever, Gould reports being “dagger-stared [sic] by half the people I passed” in high school. There is no worthwhile self-examination, no attempt to comprehend why other students find her mean and selfish behavior loathsome, no efforts to empathize with their feelings. But she does compare this to “bad television.” One clearly sees that, even before she poured the Internet’s water over her naked confessional form in an oddly bathetic baptism, Gould’s relationship with other people was predicated upon diminishing their perspectives and rigging the narrative so that she emerged as the coldblooded white bread winner:

Luke was cute, not handsome, but adorable, like a basset hound puppy. He had wide, pretty eyes and a long nose and a sweet, tender mouth. Even when enraged there was something about his face that was just funny. Rage looked out of place when expressed by his amiable features. He had heard what I’d done, he told me, his voice trembling, and he wanted to work past it.

texaveryLike many young ambitious types, she moved to New York, where her hostility to anyone making art ripened, even as she believed herself “extraordinary.” In Heart, Gould describes an aspiring young man who asked her to be part of an amateur movie project. She went to his apartment and read his lines before the camera in a stilted manner. The director saw that Gould was nervous and kindly offered her a beer. Gould viewed this an opportunity to “see what an adult man’s bathroom would look like.” Gould’s NSA-like instinct for seizing private information while humiliating others in incremental ways was well-formed, almost awaiting Nick Denton’s curling hand to usher her into Gawker HQ. When the young man relayed the film’s story to Gould, Gould thought it was “the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.” But the young man was at least trying to create something. What was Gould doing other than wishing to be superior or waiting to be noticed? Gould’s astonishing egocentrism unfolds further when her “slowly building suspicion that he was not going to put the moves on me finally crystallized into certain knowledge.” This preposterous a priori sexuality oozes throughout the book, pleading for the more surefire helm of a young Elizabeth Wurtzel to push Gould’s sad makeshift schooner across the ocean. In the book’s introduction, Gould describes her first job, where she reported the presence of male eyes “following the movement of my back, conscious always that I was like the books displayed in the waiting are: an ornament that demonstrated the company’s power,” as if every Manhattan man is a lascivious Tex Avery creature with an outstretched tongue.

There is incessant condescension directed at working stiffs (“I admired the Balthazar employees, the way they danced around each other with studied grace as they fulfilled their patrons’ picky requests”) and a soupçon of transphobia (“the notorious ass-cheeked ads catering to the needs of the apparently huge New York population whose back pain can only be soothed by the massaging hands of a pre-op transexual”). But Gould eventually landed a job at Hyperion Books as an editor (among her most prominent acquisitions were “a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by ‘a group of leading artists'” and “a book of political humor” from the talk show host Lionel). She co-wrote a dreadful YA novel called Hex Education. Here is a small sample of her prose at the time, culled from a 2005 story published in Girl’s Life:

“Dudes, I saw A-piss-a with her shirt off today,” he told Paul Westlay and Doug Terrien. Those chuckleheads chuckled, as they always do at their lord and master Joel’s crappy jokes, which are nearly always at someone else’s expense.

gould5It was ultimately Gould’s blog, Emily Magazine, that got her writing for Gawker, where, lacking any real talent, she quickly made a name for herself invading people’s privacy. Gawker‘s ethos, if it can be called that, relied on poring through emails sent from anonymous tipsters. Aggrieved workers in the media industry would pass along rumors, forward memos, or shoot any toxic grist into this digital bundt cake factory. “I would investigate by quoting their anonymous allegations on the site,” wrote Gould in Heart, “and asking if anyone else knew anything more.” Note Gould’s improper and irresponsible usage of “investigate.” Even the lowliest Page Six or TMZ writer attempts to confirm a piece of gossip before reporting it. But Gawker did not. This was because Gould was an easily manipulated rube fueled by the prospect of spite. It hardly mattered if the item was true. “The rules for tips,” wrote Gould, “was that if three people wrote in about the same thing, we probably ought to do a post about it, no matter how dumb it seemed.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Gould that savvy publicists may have noticed this pattern and manipulated Gawker much as they do other prominent outlets. But when a minx’s head is so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.

* * *

“I don’t even really want to be a writer,” said Gould in an October 2007 article, “but I feel like I don’t have a choice. It’s all I’ve ever known how to do.”

This cry is similar, if considerably more arrogant, to Bret Harte’s declaration, just four months before his twenty-first birthday: “I have written some poetry; passable and some prose (good) which have been published. The conclusion forced upon me by observation and not by vain enthusiasm that I am fit for nothing else — must impel me to seek distinction and fortune in literature.” Harte may have been a fop, but he had talent and paid his dues doing meaningful work. He became editor of The Overland Monthly at the age of 32 after a raucous life of dutiful journalism on the pioneering front lines, catapulted to international fame through “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” his harrowing tale of how ruthless flooding impacted California. Gould would spend the next seven years wallowing in brackish muck of celebrity culture, whether actual or self-erected, with her vanity mirror kept close.

Like many bright young things who move to New York, this dim bulb believed that she was entitled to everything. And if that meant tearing down another person to advance another rung on the ladder, then so be it. Jason Pinter, who is one of the kindest and hardest working people in publishing I have ever known, was fired from his job at Crown because Gould had reposted one of his shop talk blog entries on Gawker. Did Gould have any sympathy, any sense of the impact of her actions, or any understanding about the way the book business worked (even after her Hyperion stint)? Not at all. She was colder than the mist on a chilled champagne glass. Here is how she responded to the news of Pinter’s sacking:

But don’t feel too bad for Pinter: he’s got his career as a thriller writer to fall back on! And besides, his last few stinky acquisitions for Three Rivers — which include a gimmicky blog book by that dude who bartered a paperclip for a house, and the latest by Modern Drunkard Frank Kelly Rich — are all someone else’s problem now. So really, Pinter owes us and Galleycat a beer or something for linking to his blog and getting him fired. We’ll hold our breaths waiting for the thank you note.

Aside from the fact that Gould didn’t appear to understand how book advances, often meager, were parceled out, the astonishing and inhumane claim that Pinter in some way “owes” Gould is the baffling takeaway that could only be tendered by a callous sociopath. Despite the fact that Gould would later state that, “It’s not OK to say false things about anyone,” she would continue to post irresponsible items on Gawker without checking or corroborating with the people she reported on. (For the record, I sent Gould a list of questions by email to give her an opportunity to respond to several points raised in this essay. She did not answer.)

On April 7, 2007, Gould appeared on Larry King Live to discuss the increasing nexus between celebrity journalism and citizen journalism. Jimmy Kimmel was filling in for Larry King. Gould’s appearance was disastrous, yet particularly revealing of the flimsy and fluctuating justifications she would offer for the nasty taint that has drifted over her professional life to the present day. Here is the pertinent part of the transcript:

KIMMEL: My problem is you post things that simply aren’t true on the site and you do no checking on your stories whatsoever. I’ll give you an example. There was a story about me that popped up on my Google search. It said “Daily Gawker Stalker, when isn’t Jimmy Kimmel visibly intoxicated?” And there’s a story about me being visibly intoxicated. I know it may be funny to you but I didn’t find it that amusing.

GOULD: OK.

KIMMEL: And a matter of fact, the story that talks about me being drunk, I was coming home with my cousin’s — my cousin’s 1-year- old birthday party with my elderly aunt and uncle and my kids and my cousins and I was — I may have been loud but I was far from intoxicated and you put these things on there. I mean I know you’re an editor. What exactly are you editing from the website?

GOULD: There’s a whole other aspect of our website that doesn’t have anything to do with the Stalker Map. But what the Stalker Map is citizen journalism. People don’t read with the expectation that every word of it will be gospel. Everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all.

KIMMEL: Well…

GOULD: What they read it for is immediacy.

KIMMEL: I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

GOULD: You don’t unfilter sort of the way people that perceive celebrities in real time that you don’t get from any other media. And that’s what I think is great about it.

KIMMEL: Well, I mean you also get what is essentially slanderous statements or libelous statements put on your website. For instance, today I noticed there was something about Kevin Costner. I went on to see what was there today. It said how fat Kevin Costner was and it had a picture of Jabba the Hutt next to him. Now, I know you sell advertising. I don’t know why anybody would buy advertising on a website. But I don’t know what the point of something like that is.

BRAGMAN: There’s also a big contradiction. She said citizen journalism. She used the word “journalism” and then said, “Everybody knows not everything is true.” Most journalists at least try for the truth. It’s a goal.

GOULD: I mean do you read “US Weekly” and expect that everything in it is true or “Star.”

(CROSSTALK)

BRAGMAN: I expect that they try. I get calls from them fact checking and I don’t from your website.

GERAGOS: That’s absolutely true. “US Weekly” at least has a legal department that vets things.

KIMMEL: And our photographers at least are taking photographs of things that are happening, as opposed to — I mean I’d just want you to think about your life and…

GOULD: Wow!

KIMMEL: …weigh your options. And I mean because I would hate to see you arriving in hell and somebody sending a text message saying, “Guess who’s here?” You know what I’m saying?

GOULD: Honestly, I think that there’s a shifting definition of what is public and what is private space for everyone not just celebrities. The Internet, blogs, MySpace, no one has the reasonable expectation of being able to walk around the street and not being noticed by someone.

KIMMEL: Well, that is just a terrible thing, though, isn’t it? I mean…

GOULD: Is it really? I mean I think it’s great that we’re not putting people up on a pedestal and worshipping them anymore. I think it’s that good people are acknowledging celebrities are real people.

KIMMEL: But you’re throwing rocks at them, though. I mean it seems to me that…

GOULD: Aren’t they kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks?

KIMMEL: No, no. And by the way, not all celebrities are wealthy. I mean you know that’s a silly and stupid thing to say, you know that. Come on now, just because people have money means it’s OK to say false things about them, to tear them down?

GOULD: It’s not OK to say false things about anyone.

KIMMEL: Well, you should check your website then.

* * *

Hyacinth Bucket: Is that for me?
The Postman: It says Bucket on the envelope.
Hyacinth Bucket: It’s Bouquet. B-U-C-K-E-T, Bouquet. The accent on the second syllable.
Keeping Up Appearances

edamesI was asked to serve as an announcer in a boxing match between Jonathan Ames and Craig Davidson at Gleason’s Boxing Gym on the evening of July 24, 2007. I had just moved to Brooklyn and was one year into a relationship with another journalist. She was Jewish. I was not. Because of this, we took great pains to keep our relationship out of the public eye — as several of her more religious family members were exceptionally sensitive to this development and we needed time to ease them into this reality. (The other journalist and I are still together.)

The boxing match was a great success and was exuberantly described by Ames himself in an essay included in his book, The Double Life is Twice as Good. As the other journalist and I walked into the streets holding hands, a young woman with blonde hair — who I later learned was Emily Gould from Gawker — rushed up to us and demanded to know my name. I didn’t really read Gawker, although I had expressed my dismay in May over a a Gould piece summoning needless resentment for Meghan O’Rourke, a fine writer and, to this day, nothing less than generous whenever I run into her. I was spending my time carefully studying books, developing my writing voice, and interviewing prominent writers only after thoroughly perusing and researching their work. But I sussed out immediately that she was some type of bizarre gossip columnist. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand.

“Hey,” said Gould in a bright and invasive voice.

“Hey,” replied my girlfriend.

“What are you guys doing tonight?”

No hello. No “My name’s Emily Gould.” No small talk. Just an immediate vulturous demand from a stranger on how we were living our lives.

I politely mumbled that it was none of her business. But she didn’t seem to hear me. For whatever reason, she had deemed the other journalist and me important. She insisted on knowing who I was. She felt she had a right to know who I was fucking, when my relationship was private and founded on more heart than she would ever know. I was utterly baffled by her boorish inquisitiveness. I was just some guy who ran a literary blog, who wrote a few things for newspapers, and who talked with authors.

I told her that I was Publius, figuring that Gould would suss out my reference to the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers and be on her merry way.

“Publius?” she asked.

“Jack Publius,” I replied.

Gould still didn’t get the hint. My girlfriend picked up the reference immediately.

“It’s Italian,” said my girlfriend.

“Roman origins,” I said.

“Can you spell that?” replied Gould.

I was utterly stunned that someone who wrote for a major media site, someone who had an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, could be this ignorant. I spelled out “Publius” for Gould, pointing out that I was especially concerned whenever people mispronounced and misspelled it. She jotted this down into her little notebook, her lips rustling over the three syllables as her pen whirled. Then she left.

* * *

“One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.” — William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

gouldlaughingMonths later — on November 21, 2007 — Gould attempted to paint me as a lunatic in a Gawker post for having the temerity to ask for a check, a check that was four months late. Gould had intercepted a private email. I badly needed the money at the time. It was the only way that I could pay my rent. I had burned through the savings that I’d brought with me from San Francisco. Having little income beyond books I was able to sell to the Strand Book Store, I would often go for walks and, during an especially grim time, I overturned a cup of collected pennies onto the rickety wooden counter at a corner store to purchase the produce stacked in neat lines outside. There were a few weeks when the power went out in my apartment due to my inability to pay the electricity bill. I plucked power from the building by plugging an extension cord into the hallway outlet just outside my front door, using this to fuel my computer. I still had freelancing work. And I did, after all, have pieces to file. I am reluctant to call this poverty, because that that would be a gross insult to the estimated 1.29 billion people who live in soul-shattering squalor around the globe. But it was life more common than most writers would care to admit. I survived. Because I spent most of my time reading and writing and living and loving. And that was enough to keep me happy and alive.

Gould never once contacted me to get my side of the story, nor did she have the guts or the decency to return an email I sent her just after her hit piece ran. Having singled me out at the Ames-Davidson fight, she presumably viewed me as a “celebrity” in the form of a “famously crotchety book blogger.” Much as she defended her invasiveness to Kimmel by claiming that celebrities were “kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks,” failing to comprehend that not all public figures were cushioned by such wealth, she presumed that I was similarly buffered. So long as the story fit her nefarious thesis, her incessant need to poke her nose in business that was not hers to know, Gould could say anything she wanted.

* * *

gould3But even a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite cannot bang out twelve daily vituperative blog posts forever. On November 30, 2007, now firmly aligned with the n+1 frat club of vaguely punkish Hemingway wannabes, Gould resigned from Gawker (along with her aging co-editor Choire Sicha) in a public post. Gould claimed that Carla Blumenkranz’s article on Gawker had been one of the linchpins. Blumenkranz had nailed the cargo cult mentality of Gawker writers at the time: they believed themselves outsiders, the last humans standing in a media wasteland fighting for the remaining principles of journalism. But Gould had never represented any tenet other than the Promotion of Emily. Yet n+1 and one of its co-editors Keith Gessen represented a way out, a step towards legitimacy, the beginnings of mainstream acceptance, the furthering of autonomy.

Gessen and Gould began dating not long after.

On January 15, 2008, Gould returned to the airwaves, claiming that she had “stopped caring about the Internet” and soon began blogging again. This was all a warmup for “Exposed” — a May 25, 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story that would result in some of the most gargantuan vitriol Gould ever received. Almost setting the stage for the fallout to follow, on March 6, 2008, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton spilled the beans on Gould’s involvement with Gessen, the last in a string of careerist bedhopping (co-blogger at Gawker, dumped for Observer reporter, dumped for Gessen) that resembled Barbara Stanwyck’s upward trajectory in the 1933 film Baby Face, and her gig with the Gray Lady, speculating that Gessen had used his connections to get her through the door.

Vanity Fair‘s Jim Windolf documented the fracas in great detail. Denton’s gambit worked. The tide turned against Gould and Gessen, especially when Gould broke up with Gessen, an especially mean and public dissolution that even Gessen’s greatest detractors would find unsettling, while he was on tour in May 2008, facing merciless reviews for his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, and blogging his tour for The Stranger. As always, Gould had timed her behavior to get maximum attention.

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On May 25, “Exposed” was published in the New York Times Magazine. It was a remarkably self-absorbed essay, with one of the most pitiful displays of navel gazing ever published in a major newspaper:

In high school, I encouraged my friends to circulate a notebook in which we shared our candid thoughts about teachers, and when we got caught, I was the one who wanted to argue about the First Amendment rather than gracefully accept punishment. I walked down the hall of my high school passing out copies of a comic-book zine I drew, featuring a mock superhero called SuperEmily, who battled thinly veiled versions of my grade’s reigning mean girls. In college, I sent out an all-student e-mail message revealing that an ex-boyfriend shaved his chest hair. The big difference between these youthful indiscretions and my more recent ones is that you can Google my more recent ones.

The cover story was significantly trite for a first-class venue, especially when compared against the ones that ran during the previous two weeks (a feature on girls’ sports injuries published on May 11, 2008 and an examination of John McCain’s lonely support for the Iraq War on May 18, 2008). The blog Young Manhattanite wrote one of the more memorable takedowns, rightly calling out Gould for being in denial about her narcissism. But this was also the beginning of the “Emily Gould Reborn/Reinvented” narrative that would play out exactly the same way six years later. Gould had shifted from being some malleable tool into a figure just charismatic enough to persuade prominent outlets that she was reformed. Gould had the congregation. All she needed was a sizable chorus, a thick hymn book, and enough saps who would buy into her turnabout tale. Who knows? Perhaps her father, a public relations executive, had given her a few pointers.

Gould began playing the victimhood card, mentioning that she began experiencing panic attacks and had started to see a therapist about her “feelings of being inordinately scrutinized.” Yet the Emily Reinvented storyline could not find space for any of the potential panic attacks and therapy experienced by those she casually brutalized on Gawker. If the reader feels sorry for Gould — and one can always find a little pity for a mangy dog about to be gassed at the pound — the feeling dissolves when one ponders her perpetual devotion to betraying people while seeing herself as the target. It especially helps if you’re familiar with Nixon.

Meanwhile, Gould pretended to be a journalist. She was a bad actor stumbling through a clumsy run of a Ben Hecht play (or auditioning for some budding director with a camera whose storyline she believed was “the dumbest thing she ever heard”). If that meant writing an article for Russia! about Russian-born American writers prominently featuring her boyfriend (without disclosing the relationship or recusing herself or dropping Gessen from the article because of this conflict of interest), Gould would cross the line. Because she had no scruples. She had only a depraved appetite for more.

The “Exposed” article helped Gould land a book deal with a $200,000 advance. She confessed, as late as 2012, that it was “a lot of money.” But close to the early allocation of her windfall, she continued to bray about her enemies on her blog. She would tinker with the tale to continue the Emily Reinvented storyline, spinning her profligacy into a story of “poverty” that, when I was skipping meals and working my ass of and trying to get a break as a writer, I could only dream about.

* * *

“I was double, English and Philosophy. I don’t remember a thing.”
“Who does?”
“Seriously, though. I look at the books on my shelves and it’s clear that I read them, back then, but I can’t remember ever doing it, and I don’t have the first idea what they might be about.”
“Read them again, then?”
Danielle sighed. “Not now. Maybe someday. I look at them and wonder who I was, you know? It’s a long time ago. I’m thirty.”
— Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children

Gould’s ravenous need to tear people down didn’t end with Gawker. She still specializes in trolling and clumsy railing to this day, whether it’s calling out the “unprecedented entitled band of horrible assholes” who live in Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg right now (a perfect test case for Eric Schwitzgebel’s “theory of jerks”) or feminists who offer bold journalistic critiques of The Daily Show‘s gender problem with its staff. (Of the latter umbrage, Gould failed to note that Jezebel‘s Irin Carmon actually interviewed people — a reportorial regularity that Gould remains incapable of practicing.)

These days, Gould often snipes through the more pusillanimous form of the subtweet. Twitter remains a fairly dependable fishbowl for tweets that not only debunk the Emily Reinvented storyline, but reveal that the gormlessness and the nastiness, which once guided Gould through twelve bilious posts a day at Gawker, is alive and well.

gouldknausgaard

Gould’s flippant posturing involves dismissing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume, 3,600 page, groundbreaking autobiographical fiction with an emoticon and then offering a cutesy, anti-intellectual “i’m kind of a philistine.” It involves not letting Adelle Waldman, who wrote one of the most accomplished debut novels of 2013, have her rare moment in the sun when Lena Dunham, who raved over how marvelous The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P was — indeed, so marvelous that the writers of Girls consulted the book for inspiration during the third season, arguably the strongest run of the series — to her then 1.2 million followers. Only three minutes after Dunham’s tweet, Gould posted a derisory “no thanks.”

gouldwaldman

And these are just the tweets that remain open for public inspection. On any given long, dark early evening of the soul (with or without Keith Gessen), Gould can be found revealing her vicious nature, provided you happen to be there. On the stormy night of April 30, 2014, when five inches of rain barraged New York City over the course of a single evening, I happened to be on Twitter. Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz had recently published a very moving piece in response to the publication of MFA v. NYC, pointing to how people of color were being actively discouraged in MFA workshops. Forms of creative expression that weren’t white enough were being systematically pushed out. Promising talent was giving up. Rather than engaging with Diaz’s argument, Gould chided Diaz on Twitter for using “impacted” as a verb. Novelist Porochista Khakpour challenged Gould. Gould responded with a series of vicious tweets (all swiftly deleted). I was able to screenshot some of the conversation, which reflected the utterly superficial manner in which Gould approached an important and racially loaded subject.

gouldporochista

It was an uncomfortable repetition of an episode from And the Heart Says Whatever, when Gould described a young student reading an essay called “Memoirs of an Angry Black Woman Syndrome,” a tale of victimhood that could not have been easy to write. This was not unlike a writing student, who Diaz identified as Athena, talking “constantly about the workshop’s race problem, about the shit our peers said to us (shit like: Why is there even Spanish in this story? Or: I don’t want to write about race, I want to write about real literature.)” Athena disappeared, a casualty of a system that believes in Alice Munro but that often turns its back on Octavia Butler or Love and Rockets. It is telling that Gould doesn’t remember any details of the Angry Black Woman’s essay. Her response to the student mimics her clueless online behavior in 2014:

When it was my turn, I asked a clarification question in a way that made it unnecessarily obvious that I thought the essay was poorly written. Its author narrowed her eyes at me, then kept glaring as her mouth smiled. “I’m sure you’re just speaking from ignorance, not racism,” she said.

One has to wonder whether the Angry Black Woman used “impact” as a verb. That Gould doesn’t have the courage to reveal the full extent of her ugliness — and it’s worth pointing out that even Dave Eggers had the stones to cop to his racist fears on a beach in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — is telling of the timidity that belies Gould’s professed candor. Of course, now that Gould is a grown woman, her insensitivity can’t just be chalked up to mere ignorance. If Emily has “changed,” then why does the song remain the same? Gould’s commitment to white literary power is reflected in her curatorial instincts at her online bookstore, Emily Books. Of the thirty-two authors listed on the site, only two — Samantha Irby and Sigrid Nunez — are not white. Barbara Browning is a white woman who has written extensively about Brazil. But it’s telling that Gould’s commitment to writers of color fits in with the Middling Millennial/Jezebel hard line. Perhaps the time has come to coin a #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomenWriters hashtag to protest this atavism.

Despite being set in sections of Brooklyn substantially populated by people of color, there are no black characters in Gould’s novel, Friendship. Indeed, when Gould writes, “Bev’s shoulders were strong and white in her tank top,” one can’t help but wonder if there is the modest trace of Leni Riefenstahl purring in her Caucasians-first heart. Compare this with Adelle Waldman’s careful detail in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which also features prominent white characters: “a newish establishment that appeared to be patronized almost exclusively by the white people who’d begun to move into the historically black neighborhood in which it is located,” “a crowd of black women whose calf-length skirts clung to their legs in the breeze,” and “as the train moved deeper into Brooklyn, more and more white people got off. Eventually almost everyone who remained was black — and tired.” Even Lena Dunham responded to critics who rightly chided her for featuring too many white characters by featuring more African-American characters in Girls‘s third season. That Gould lacks the basic observational skills to notice non-white people in Brooklyn says much about her distorted reality and her ineluctable self-absorption.

Gould’s reaction to Khakpour was pure Middling Millennialism all the way: the assumption that she was always right, the indifference to history and the inflexibility to other perspectives, the failure to offer a reasonable argument, and the hostility to being challenged. While Gould went out of her way to scrub her tweets, Khakpour’s response remains a good indicator of how a clueless and privileged white woman deals with the big questions:

Gould’s spineless stratagem is not unlike the revisionism of prominent Republicans who pulled their support for a released POW not long after learning that Taliban prisoners were traded to make the deal happen. Gould, the invasive non-journalist who scoured through the bathrooms of budding directors and reveled in getting people fired, won’t hold herself accountable. There is, after all, the Emily Reinvented narrative to promote.

* * *

On February 24, 2014, Gould published an essay on Medium, which would also appear in the MFA vs. NYC anthology, in which she set forth her purported financial suffering. She wrote that the $200,000, after taxes and agent’s commission, allowed her to live alone in Brooklyn for three years in a one bedroom apartment and pay for health insurance. She did not seem to understand that not only is this an extraordinarily rare, if unrepeatable, success, but that three years is quite ample time to work out a day job/freelancing strategy that leaves enough writing time to keep the books career going. Gould squandered her time on her blog. She was very fortunate, unlike many writers, to have a boyfriend who could pay her rent and float one of her credit cards. She didn’t seem to understand that working people don’t have the luxury of blowing $1,500 for a vet or $1,700 for rent.

But let’s move away from the class argument.

A real writer sits in front of the computer and does the work. Every day. Or close to it. It does not matter if the writer is published or not. It does not matter if the audience is three, three thousand, or three million. A real writer is free and imaginative enough to take risks. A real writer writes when the chips are down. A real writer writes when she is hungry or when she is at her lowest point. A real writer doesn’t even need an Internet connection. So long as there are pens, paper, electricity somewhere, functional computers, dictionaries, and grammar books, there are no reasons other than your own laziness not to write. Fifteen minutes, twelve hours, whatever you can spare each day.

Gould was not a real writer.

She was not a real writer because she could not listen to a man who wanted to tell her his sob story after she purchased him a kebab. She was not a real writer because she could not bring herself to fully feel a musical. She was not a real writer because she fantasized more about patrician coziness than the worlds she created on the page or the joyful people and iridescent details around her or the marvel and beauty of language. She was not a real writer because she cared too much about how people perceived her, about how her books were marketed, about where she was in the pecking order. She was not a real writer because she did not have the discipline to not pay attention to the people (in this case, Lena Dunham) preventing her from doing the work, even as she had the full financial and emotional support of her lover.

Most of all, she was not a real writer because the only person she could tap was the uncreative figure staring back in the vanity mirror.

* * *

“Amy had been sitting around the creepy loft all morning in front of her laptop, headphones on to foreclose the possibility of conversation with the hippies, telling herself she was gathering her strength and was just about to go to the cafe around the corner, where she’d disable her computer’s access to the Internet and spend time revising her C.V. to reflect her newly adjusted set of goals. She wanted to position herself as someone who wasn’t a writer so much as a “content creator” or, better, a “content strategy consultant” — someone who might be able to work for brands or ad agencies, not blogs like Yidster. It was getting close to noon now, she was hungry for lunch, and her limbs twitched restlessly because they craved motion, but somehow she couldn’t stop mindlessly scrolling through Tumblr, liking photographs of food and animals. Her actual cat lay at her feet, occasionally pawing her and trying to engage her in play, but she fobbed him off with some desultory petting and then continued to ignore him in favor of the cats on the screen.” — Friendship

Gould still managed to write a novel. It isn’t a very good one, in large part because Gould has little imagination or insight. Emily became Amy. Her cat Raffles became Waffles. Keith became Sam.

Friendship tells the story of Beverly Tunney and Amy Schein, two white women both over the cusp of thirty. The book purports to be a vivid chronicle of their friendship, yet these two flat and uninteresting characters share nothing of consequence about themselves in their conversations or their experience. They do not talk about the world’s bountiful wonders or their families and friends or the thrill of being alive. Their banter is largely comprised of trash-talking people they despise. They are the creations of a desultory demimonde who does not do a lot of listening.

It is possible to write about young and self-absorbed people living in Brooklyn without coming across as a turgid typist mining familiar white-collar territory. Adelle Waldman has done this tremendously well in her novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P:

No matter how much he told himself that he had done nothing wrong with regard to her, not according to the standards that he and everyone he knew lived (if anything she was in the wrong in her clinginess and undignified hysteria, on some intuitive level, Nate began to feel culpable. A stentorian, Faulker-like voice within him insisted on seeing the relationship in stark moralistic terms. He’d been drawn — this voice intoned — to Elisa because of her beauty, because she seemed first-rate, because of her well-known father and shining pedigree, and he, nerd, loser that he’d been, had always suspected that people like her, people like Amy Perelman, with their good looks and popularity, had something he didn’t, something impenetrable by intelligence alone, a sort of magic and grace, a wordless wisdom about how to live, and a corresponding access to unknown pleasures.

Waldman’s phrases are neatly separated by commas, representing the jumbled torment of conflicting ideas colliding inside Nate’s head. We see how literary aspirations and status anxiety — the “stentorian, Faulkner-like voice” — trigger a flood of qualitative nouns (“beauty,” “looks,” “popularity,” “pedigree,” “intelligence,” “magic,” “wisdom,” and “grace”) that Nate feels entitled to possess and how this, in turn, galvanizes his interest in Elisa and Amy Perelman. And because Waldman has given us an origin point for Nate’s coveting (an inner self-reflective voice, one that could curb the selfishness and the neuroses if it didn’t transmute into a chatty tendril warped by literature and superficial judgment), we become more curious about his personality. One year after the novel’s publication, young people are calling a certain kind of a man “a total Nathaniel P.”

But when we contrast Waldman’s passage against Gould’s representations of youthful struggle, it becomes very clear who the real writer is:

Amy stared at Sam, the cigarette cherry burning dangerously close to her clenching fingertips. They’d spent so much time together, breathing the same air, sleeping in the same bed, hearing each other use the bathroom and not really caring or even thinking about it. For the past few months it had seemed as if they were in each other’s lives for real, maybe for good. But now it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake. Maybe she had assumed that what she and Sam had was veering in a permanent direction because they were at an age when people got married.

This train ride into the internal goes off the rails after four mere words, beginning with the irrelevant and awkwardly written detail of “the cigarette cherry.” Gould’s habit of imbuing meaningless objects with hollow language is a tic throughout the book, one that asphyxiates her characters before they get a chance to use their lungs, but the sheer waste here should have been caught by an editor. Where Waldman deftly deploys “had” throughout a sentence so that our attention gravitates to the chunky nouns, Gould clings to gerunds like a quavering literature student too terrified to push past the cover of a Henry Green novel. The result is banality (“not really caring or even thinking about it”), stilted greeting card copy (“they were in each other’s lives for real”), extraneous declarations (“it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake”), and, above all, an absence and avoidance of real feeling, bulldozed for vapid and generalized notions of life (“they were at an age when people got married”). It is the work of someone who rushes to words much as a sorority clamors to a kegger. It is a strong sign that fiction writing is not Gould’s true calling. Which is perfectly fine. Since Gould pines for affluence, there are more reliable modes of securing it. One does not write to become rich.

But let us give Gould’s above passage some benefit of the doubt. It is also possible to use a woman’s gaze to establish what her perspective is, even lassoing the smartly positioned adverb or two along the way, as Kate Zambreno does to great effect in Green Girl:

Her eyes feast on the rows and rows of color, like a neatly ordered painter’s palette, the pyramid of tubes of lip gloss, gilted compacts bearing a prism of tiny mirrors. Occasionally she would smooth one finger over a glittery palette of eyeshadows with enigmatic names. Types of flora and fauna. Names of movie stars, presidential wives, ordinary girls. Marilyns and Audreys and Sophias and Jackies and Julies and Kathys.

In five sentences, Zambreno unlatches the trap designed to ensnare many women, illuminating how consumerist allure forces them into an almost Ramesean ideal, converting ordinary names into monuments, with the scarring cartouches just outside the public eye. If Gould had possessed even a whit of Zambreno’s talent or awareness, she could have forged a more fluid take on how influence shapes women and how women, in turn, shape influence. But instead of letting Bev and Amy talk or act upon these feelings, they came off as passive characters who meet up in bars to deride co-workers or anyone living a happy life, watch TV, and eat constantly. This pair is so poorly realized that, aside from Bev’s “Irish tolerance” and Amy’s spendthrift ways with money, they are practically indistinguishable from each other. There’s one late point in the book when Amy transforms into a kind of chick lit Smeagol when she learns of another character’s engagement:

Amy felt a visceral, impulsive pang of desire, the kind that could make someone grab food off a stranger’s plate. She wanted the ring so badly. She thought, crazily, of stealing it. She wanted to take it off Jackie’s finger and put in her mouth.

One almost expects Amy to seethe, “My precious,” with Andy Serkis waiting in the wings to perform a cross-cutting colloquy between Amy and Bev. It’s almost as if Gould, impelled by the desire to become a “real writer,” stared hard into the mirror until it shattered in half, with the two reflections spilling onto the page twice.

Gould has one atavistic emotion to fall back on. It’s the same vicious impulse that sustained her at Gawker:

“For a moment, rage flickered through her tensed body.”

“Amy felt a stab of genuine rage.” (Later, Bev feels a “stab of terror that shot through her viscera.” It is telling that Gould’s crutch words can be traced to sharp knives.)

“a little bit of what probably sounded like anger out of her voice”

“she was so angry, suddenly, that she felt as if she might spontaneously burst into flames” (Someone alert Jarndyce and Jarndyce.)

“She had shower monologued so many scathing condemnations of his behavior and his personality so many times.”

Moreover, when Bev springs a significant life-altering surprise upon an older woman named Sally Katzen, who lives in comfortable affluence and seems to exist solely as a target for Gould’s childish jealousy (a continuation of her pointless animus towards Meghan O’Rourke?), we learn that Bev has not talked out her plan in advance with Amy, which is especially strange, given that they are supposed to be best friends. Contrary to the preposterous claim by Virginia Quarterly Review‘s S. Kirk Walsh that “the reader is presented with strong female characters in all their complexities and imperfections,” Gould’s friendship is remarkably pat and simplistic, carefully established to avoid any serious plunge into social dynamics or visceral risk:

It was weird that in their five years of best friendship, Amy and Bev had never discussed morality, or whatever you wanted to call the rules they, respectively, lived by.

That amorality also extends to Gould herself. Late in the book, Sally asks one of the two fictionalized Goulds to perform an act of mercy. When the character does not respond, Sally then offers to write a check. And the character refuses. It’s the kind of blind cruelty that makes a reader with a conscience want to write a long and detailed debunking.

Bev becomes pregnant halfway through the book. Since Gould claims to be a feminist, one would think that Bev would consider abortion not long after, especially since Bev is experiencing financial difficulties. (An abortion typically costs between $300 and $950, while an uncomplicated pregnancy is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000.) Gould, by her own admission, is terrible with money, and refuses to consider any perspective other than the privileged white woman’s. She opts for a a bizarrely reactionary twist. Abortion isn’t on the table, nor are any dimensional feelings. There are nebulous references to Bev’s religion, but because the Middling Millennials never want to think too hard about touchy subjects that affect a wide swath of people outside New York, this spirituality is never explored, just as the Jewish culture guiding the Jewcy-like Yidster (both have offices located in DUMBO) is unpursued. Gould is a juggler of generalities. She’ll never have the mettle to contend with live rotating chainsaws.

Gould is such a cowardly writer that she can’t even coax her characters to speak at the times they need to. Late in the book, there is a key moment in which Amy needs to say something serious to her boyfriend Sam (like Keith Gessen, Sam is Russian, a cultural figure, a man who married and divorced in his early twenties, and about eight years older than his girlfriend), but Gould is so inept that she offers this description instead:

She was wandering around the way you do on the phone, reaching out and plucking leaves from low branches of the saplings at the yard’s border, then crumpling them in her palm.

With Gould, there are always inconsequential objects for her characters to grab so that she can pad out her interminable 272-page novel with prolix description.

This is also bad storytelling, because Gould’s failure to get at the truth leads any vaguely sharp reader to swiftly deduce where the story is heading. And because Bev and Amy aren’t especially compelling figures, the book becomes an insufferable snoozefest. To add insult to incompetence, at novel’s end, the heart literally says whatever.

* * *

Two lengthy Gould profiles published in June — one in Elle, another in the New York Times Fashion & Style section written by Ruth La Ferla — have served as image-boosting propaganda, suggesting that Gould has changed or “reinvented” herself. But she’s still the same scabrous and manipulative opportunist that she was when she deflowered a 14-year-old boy at the age of seventeen.

emilyreborn2One of La Ferla’s many whoppers include suggesting that “Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls, Lena Dunham’s quasi-autobiographical hit on HBO.” This is not true. Dunham’s first film, Tiny Furniture, was shown at SXSW on March 15, 2010 and firmly established the voice that she would push further with Girls. And the Heart Says Whatever was published on May 4, 2010. Perhaps La Ferla shouldn’t be entirely blamed. After all, it was Gould herself who first perpetuated the Dunham parallel earlier this year, much as Gould compared herself to Chloë Sevigny in And the Heart Says Whatever. Should Dunham’s star wane, there is little doubt that Gould will find some other pop figure to blame for her indolence and inconsequential output.

La Ferla’s piece called Gould “resilient as a Slinky,” with Gould claiming, “Attention is not a commodity I’m interested in,” even as her friend notes, “The eye that she turns on the world she also turns on herself.” Gould’s determination to condemn anyone she can’t use is evident in her remarks, especially with bloggers, which she described as “that tiny subset of outliers who are live-tweeting their mammogram the next day” — a veiled anti-feminist jab at writers like Xeni Jardin and Susannah Breslin, who have both bravely responded to their diagnoses of breast cancer by documenting it online and raising awareness for a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 400,000 women in 2014. Gould, being a Middling Millennial, has no desire to comprehend that truth. This is because Gould has the valiance and the moral conscience of a small vole.

Gould claimed that she’s “mostly apologized personally to the people I’ve offended,” but her attempt to paint herself as some online twelve-step program survivor is a lie. Three victims of Gould’s shenanigans, including me, haven’t heard so much as a word from her. Clearly, this simpering sicarian is “mostly apologizing” to people who will pull her slippery limbs up from the common pit. Even after the fair-minded La Ferla profile appeared online, Gould was on Twitter, caviling over the perfectly reasonable sentence “Before long she herself become a piñata, subjected to random bashings by readers who took issue with, among other things, her perceived status-chasing and shameless self-involvement” with the kind of intuitive persecution complex eager to coil around an incoherent ideology, much like a resilient Slinky:

Hypocrisy and solipsism are not gender specific. One does not become a misogynist the minute that one begins examining a woman’s history of self-absorption. The second tweet, mentioning the Dunham comparison in the Times story, is particularly confusing. Dunham created a successful television show that has lasted for three seasons. What was it that Gould created exactly? A novel, of course. One that she worked “very hard” on, “diligence” that was talked up in risibly extravagant terms in the Elle profile:

She’s put in her time on both the California kind of work (getting to know yourself) and the East Coast variety (showing up every day to fill the blank page and generate creative projects). If carving out a fulfilling sui generis role that’s sustainable, socially 
meaningful, and more or less on our own terms is the essential fourth-wave feminist project, Gould’s okayness is a triumph.

shawshankrobbinsGould won’t be seen stretching her arms in the rain like Tim Robbins anytime soon (unless, of course, the FSG sales force determines that a stormy crucifixion motif will move a few units), but she found modest redemption working as editorial director at 29th Street Publishing, an electronic distribution outlet that includes The Awl, Harper’s, The Rumpus, ProPublica, and more that presumably precludes many movers and shakers from speaking out. But that professional relationship ended on Monday, with opaque explanation and Gould out of a job. Before this, she attempted to combine her literary connections and love for food with a web series called Cooking the Books. The results were awkward and embarrassing. Tao Lin exploited the opportunity for some hilarious performance art (“I actually just bite little pieces off into it,” muttered as Lin was “preparing” a salad) that Gould seemed utterly in the dark about. Then there was Chad Harbach’s dudebro regressivism, as he mansplained about Wisconsin and creole with a glass of wine poking from his hand like a general’s pointing stick as Gould did all the kitchen work. There is also the far less successful e-books venture, Emily Books, which boasts a mere 150 subscribers. Many Emily Books authors are worthwhile. But if Emily Books’s professed goal is to “want authors, agents and publishers to get paid so they can continue creating and curating,” the outfit is largely a bust. Still, I’m sure Sigrid Nunez appreciated the extra beer money, which has been known to keep authors “creating” — for one evening at least.

* * *

friendshipiris

Gould continues to surveil Twitter for any mention of her name, sending handwritten notes along with her galley (such as the one pictured above, tweeted by Iris Blasi) to any potential influencer. The result has been a litany of people who are all over the moon about this heap of shit, for much the same reasons that they went gaga for Keith Gessen’s mediocre book. It is an absolute replay of what Jessica Roy wrote about in 2008:

It just was all so fucking fake. These people that I had admired my entire New York existence — they all disappointed me. I don’t understand how people can exist in such a dishonest way and still call themselves writers. Isn’t it the responsibility of a writer to be honest? And why would you uphold a conversation with someone whom you’re going to talk shit on while walking back to the G train? They’re living in a box, where they only talk to others who have read Gessen’s book and think it sucks but will tell him it’s brilliant because they need his approval.

I did not move to New York to return to high school, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

Roy went on to become a senior editor at the New York Observer and the editor of Time‘s NewsFeed. Thankfully, there are still some honest writers out there who can make it.

But the “high school” that Roy described in 2008 is even more prominent among the Middling Millennials, who will defame, traduce, or block someone over a perceived sleight. They are terrified of confrontation, conflict, or engagement with the real world. And like Gould’s treatment of Pinter, they expect obeisance and a thank you note when they treat you with contempt.

This is not a healthy foundation for any cultural landscape. And if we truly had a robust and risk-taking literary culture, such gutless and treacherous yes men (and former publicists) like BuzzFeed‘s Isaac Fitzgerald would be widely reviled and laughed out of town for their “No haters” policy, a mealy-mouthed code for zero tolerance of any vibrant voice who rocks the boat. It isn’t just smarm that is to blame for these developments, although Tom Scocca was right to point to Dave Eggers as one prominent example of the kind of rampant duplicity and ladder-climbing that is killing voices courageous enough to throw giddy Molotovs at the right institutions. A true cri de coeur should come from the knowledge that irredeemable scumbags like Emily Gould are not only rewarded for pushing honest heads under the water and fucking the right people, but are lavished with the kind of media attention incommensurate with their middling abilities.

And then there’s the juvenile Middling Millennial culture. Why would anyone want to attend an overhyped event in which they are expected to become some slavish fan who didn’t really read the book but who nevertheless feels compelled to announce what a “good friend” he is by dint of spending five minutes in close proximity to the author? Having witnessed first-hand the worst impulses of science fiction fandom a few decades ago and having a good sense of the hell that authors go through, it’s distressing to see the same nasty and possessive tendencies happening on the literary scene, with authors reduced to mere projections of what childish audiences desire to see, rather than the complex and fascinating people they truly are.

I am not jealous or envious of Gould’s success. I’m simply astounded that this is the dunce now being propped up. I’m deeply appalled that I have to write such a lengthy essay because nobody else has the time to remember history or the smarts to uphold standards or the balls to call her out. The relentless distaste expressed about the Middling Millennials in private must be voiced publicly if we have any shot at curing it. And I maintain a position of principled indignation because truly original and interesting talents, many of whom I’ve featured on The Bat Segundo Show, who are incapable of playing the game or who cannot sell out are increasingly being marginalized, ignored, and stubbed out by these vicious overgrown kids, even as craven, manipulative, untalented, clueless, and ungenerous assholes announce the latest status of their novels on social media (reviewed in the NYTBR, in third printing, hit the NYT bestseller list, seen in the hands of a major figure on a subway) with the self-centered glee of a bratty suburban tot constantly shaking his rattle.

Well, enough is fucking enough.

A society that holds up Emily Gould as a charitable person, a formidable intellect, or a knowing chronicler of our age is a diseased one. And an army of Middling Millennials recoiling at any risk memorialized or imagined on the page or flinching at unsettling developments in the real world must be outed, fought, and resisted until we get some part of our collective soul back. It’s the only way we can make literature truly indispensable to the world again.

The Best Books of 2013

It is quite possible that I sacrificed some of my best reading hours in 2013 wading through anything written by or having to do with James Joyce: all part of my slow yet methodical efforts to advance behind #77 in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.* I’ve been working on Joyce since November 20, 2012. It’s a healthy relationship. He cooks dinner. I wash the dishes. On pleasant days, we go for long walks together. Sometimes, we even cuddle. Reading Finnegans Wake at a near glacial pace has forced me to revisit Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses, which has summoned Richard Ellmann, Gordon Bowker, and Homer from the stacks and Frank Delaney through the earbuds. I have looked up endless esoteric references. I have met with Joyce acolytes in secret dens. I have spent many late nights contemplating everything from Vico’s New Science to back issues of Tit-Bits published around 1904. All this will be written about in depth — hopefully sometime in 2014, when I reach the mighty “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” wending its cyclical posterior back to “riverrun.”

Despite all this, I did manage to read 125 books in 2013. The fifteen titles below all popped out like scandalous performers exploding from a giant birthday cake. I also started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a wise and breathtaking autobiographical novel that chronicles the pains and pleasures of existence. I didn’t include My Struggle on my list because, as marvelous as it is, I really need to see how it ends. (There are six volumes in total. Only the first two have been translated into English, with the third due in May.) But I am fairly certain that Knausgaard will make the cut in the future, once the extraordinarily capable Don Bartlett concludes his fine translation work on this quite important contribution to literature.

Here are my fifteen favorite books from 2013, in alphabetical order. I was able to interview many of these writers for The Bat Segundo Show and Follow Your Ears and have provided links to the shows.

mattbellMatt Bell, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: It remains my belief that bears are among the most underrated animals in fiction. Not enough novelists use them. When bears do show up in narratives, they are often found in trite poems written by addled hipsters who are more concerned with courting shallow attention than writing real literature. Bell’s debut novel not only contains a bear. It includes a whole universe of squids and “fingerlings” that could be fabulist creations or could originate from intricate grief. It uses minimalist designators (“the husband,” “the wife,” “the fingerling,” a fixed location seemingly in the middle of nowhere) to grow a maximalist universe, with endless rooms in the titular house propagating in direct proportion with complicated feelings. Language itself obscures and deepens seemingly simplistic sentiments. (It wasn’t a surprise to see the unadventurous reactionaries at the New York Times Book Review willfully misunderstand that last flourish, not kenning how Bell’s repetition and emphasis on physicality could be part of the puzzle.) After one too many wretched novels written by loathsome subjects of vapid Thought Catalog essays, it turned out that Bell’s book was the surreal corrective we needed all along. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

Eleanor CattonEleanor Catton, The Luminaries: What if you designed a 900 page novel around the dichotomy paradox, where each section was half the length of the previous section? What if you also attempted to work in the golden ratio? And just for the hell of it, what if you decided to set the action in 1865 and 1866, aligning the temperament of twelve characters to astrology? But let’s not stop there. What if you also injected this novel with slyly accurate historical detail and a shifting relationship between what is articulated to the reader and what is not? You’d have Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary second novel, which has been wrongfully trivialized in America as a mere Dickens pastiche. I’m sure that if you’re a joyless illiterate dope like Janet Maslin, this probably is a “critic’s nightmare.” But here’s the truth: I have not read a contemporary novel that has so adroitly manipulated massive strands of storytelling with an ambitious thematic structure since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is much in this great book to chew on: what we know about people through facts and gossip, how wealth becomes fluid through avarice and want. Even the way in which narrative information is conveyed and reader assumptions is skillfully challenged, forming almost an alternative astrology beneath the apparent astrological structure. Catton is a novelist of the first rank. She absolutely deserved the Booker for this. And I urge all interested parties to read this massive novel when they have the chance. (Bat Segundo interview, 71 minutes)

duplexcoverKathryn Davis, Duplex: I must confess that I have a slight prejudice against novels that go out of their way to destroy the underlying structure every other chapter. Yet it is to Davis’s tremendous credit that I was not only won over by her remarkably inventive and deeply emotional novel, but that I found myself urging strangers in bookstores to buy it. This novel, with its robots, dogs, sorcerers, outlandish suburbs, tsunamis, and rabbits, is almost impossible to describe. But it offers its own unusual argument for the promising anarchism of life. When we stick to our conclusive guns, what do we give up in knowing people? Are there indeed duplexes we will discover when we’re not looking? I found myself greatly enjoying the fluidity of Davis’s universe, in part because of the novel’s descriptive precision (“The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you come to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge.”). You may very well enjoy meticulous geography as you experience it, but Davis’s provocative question involves knowing how to survive when it disappears tomorrow. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

elliottholtElliott Holt, You Are One of Them: It’s fascinating to me that two coruscating works of art in 2013 — Elliott Holt’s debut novel and the wonderful television series, The Americans — have involved revisiting the end of the Cold War. There’s a part of me that would like to think that the artists in question were preparing themselves for Edward Snowden’s extremely disturbing revelations about our surveillance state. But exploring defection, in both cases, reveals that pivotal tie between loyalty and memory. You Are One of Them starts with the most seemingly innocuous of premises: idealistic letters sent by two schoolgirls to Premier Andropov beseeching peace. One of the sisters gets an answer and a Samantha Smith-style invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Fame follows. So does death. Or does it? Years later, Sarah Zuckerman (the other schoolgirl) takes a trip to Russia. And her journey, intermingled with such exacting details expat nightclubs in Moscow, the Russian advertising world, and American cleanliness, is a painful unveiling of how to contend with the lies and deceits of other people as an adult while holding onto your dignity. (Bat Segundo interview, 65 minutes)

kieselaymonKiese Laymon, Long Division: While other writers squandered the sad scraps of their waning talent with inane books about zombies and poker, beckoning empty nostalgic calories to fulfill a book contract, Kiese Laymon — much like James McBride and Mitchell S. Jackson — had the vivacity and the stones to explore the uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in America, specifically Mississippi, through genre’s empowering possibilities. Long Division is a bold time-traveling saga unafraid to take risks, recalling the biting ire of a young Percival Everett. It includes daring comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s one of the few novels I read this year exploring how a community survives on throwaway book culture (“the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spence”), even as it stares down the influence of viral videos, teenage sex, and celebrity. In offering two versions of a 14-year-old boy named City Coldson, one in 1985 and one in 2013, Laymon confronts how black identity remains rooted in fragmentation, what he has identified in a separate essay as “the worst of white folks.” Long Division‘s original corporate publisher was too afraid to put out this book. Fortunately, the good folks at Agate Publishing allowed Kiese to be Kiese. Let us hope that more important voices like Laymons’s are allowed to storm the gates in 2014. (Bat Segundo interview, 54 minutes)

mailerJ. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer: A Double Life: It’s easy to dog on Norman Mailer. He stabbed his second wife Adele and didn’t suffer any consequences. He helped to get Jack Henry Abbott released from prison, only to see Abbott stab a waiter to death as he was loose on the streets. He stood against women’s liberation. There is an undeniably savage quality to Mailer as a writer and Mailer as a man. Indeed, I penned a vituperative obituary not long after Mailer kicked the bucket. (I had not read The Armies of the Night, arguably a Mailer masterpiece, at the time.) Lennon’s biography does a remarkable job at getting 21st century readers to understand that there was more to Mailer than his sins would lead us to believe. Lennon doesn’t flinch from many of Mailer’s indiscretions, nor is he diffident in pointing out just how crazy some of his arguments were. This biography makes such a persuasive case for Mailer that it actually compelled me to read all of Mind of an Outlaw (a big, carefully edited essay collection released by Random House this year), as well as other Mailer books. It turns out that Mailer’s spirit is strangely inspiring amid the turmoil of today. And one comes away from this book wondering whether any talent close to Mailer could flourish in today’s atmosphere of instant digital gratification. Perhaps within Mailer’s double life are some kernels of tomorrow’s possibilities. (Bat Segundo interview, 63 minutes)

messudClaire Messud, The Woman Upstairs: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, the self-proclaimed “good girl” who narrates Messud’s latest novel, has the kind of anger that seethes just underneath the surface of American life, but that is rarely voiced in fiction and in public debate: in part because Nora is a woman and in part because she thinks and feels in ways we’re not expected to express anymore. Of course, none of these prohibitions stops Nora. As Nora tells us more about her life, we begin to wonder just how responsible she is for the place she’s in. Does cruelty from others beget more cruelty? Or are we all the victims of, quite literally, naked opportunism? Many literary tastemakers leaned toward Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which was a laudable portrait of 1970s radicalism. But, for me, Messud’s was the more slyly political and visceral novel. In an age where people are more determined to hide how they really feel, what’s more subversive than telling someone what’s really on your mind? (Bat Segundo interview, 51 minutes)

alissanuttingAlissa Nutting, Tampa: So Nutting’s controversial novel about a Florida middle-school teacher named Celeste Price who seduces and sexually abuses her students makes you uncomfortable? Cry me a fucking river. Life is uncomfortable. Like all great art, Tampa enters into dangerous territory. But it is brave, vivacious, and it has the courage to pursue its subject with a sense of humor. The people who have condemned this book have done so without actually engaging with the text. Earlier this year, at the Strand Bookstore, I observed an obnoxious and humorless freelance book critic, someone who has been published in several outlets, speak very loudly about how she couldn’t be bothered to make it past Page 50 because she was so offended by the book. She derided Tampa in the strongest possible terms, even though she had never finished it. I also got into an online argument with some illiterate nitwit who writes for Book Riot because she too had condemned the book as “unbelievable” even though she couldn’t cite a specific example when I challenged her. If you feel the need to condemn a book and you can cannot be bothered to read it or cite it, then you don’t have the right to venture an opinion. You are lazy, ignorant, and uninformed. No better than some Tea Party type holding the government hostage. More importantly, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2013. (Bat Segundo interview, 75 minutes)

bleedingedgeThomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge: Several reviewers were needlessly hostile to Pynchon’s latest volume, blaming the famous recluse for not delivering another Gravity’s Rainbow. But Bleeding Edge is not only a very funny book stacked to the nines with references (meticulously documented by the good folks at Pynchon Wiki). It’s a loving and sometimes irreverent portrait of the end of the 20th century and perhaps the end of America’s soul, reading at times like a call and response to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition with its many simulacra, its worlds within worlds, and its fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, much like Cayce Pollard, trying to make sense of some digital plot tied in with organized crime as the very real factor of family comes increasingly closer into the picture.

roxanaorbinsonRoxana Robinson, Sparta: It’s absolutely criminal that Roxana Robinson’s carefully observed study of an Iraq War veteran returning home hasn’t received wider recognition. Perhaps some readers were too busy wasting their time blasting Jonathan Franzen over his latest grumbling or writing another installment in the meaningless snark vs. smarm war. Whatever the reason, it’s a poor excuse to ignore this honed, gut-wrenching novel revealing just what happens when you cannot return to the life you gave up, along with the psychological costs of being left for dead even after you escape a mortal fate on the battlefield. Like Messud, Robinson probes with wisdom and sensitivity into every anger-inducing quality of her protagonist, Conrad Farrell, who cannot even be solaced by his classics education. As we come to realize that not even a stable family is panacea for PTSD or returning home without a clearly defined role, we begin to understand how callous this nation has been to the men we asked to do the dirty work. And if the “hard, burnished carapace” of spent men hollowed out Sparta, what is it doing to our nation today? This is a vital and needlessly ignored work of fiction. (Bat Segundo interview, 55 minutes)

nucleartestEric Schlosser, Command and Control: Thirty-three years ago, the United States came very close to a nuclear holocaust in Damascus, Arkansas. In a Titan II silo, an overworked airman dropped a socket wrench, which pierced the skin on the missile’s fuel tank, causing poisonous oxidizer to permeate through the air. The W-53 nuclear warhead mounted at the top of the missile came very close to exploding. This is all documented in Command and Control, which also covers our reckless history of avoiding safety and taking shortcuts to maintain missiles. It’s a sobering and necessary reminder on how unsafe we have been in the past and how reckless we may be operating today, as other nations develop the same nuclear capabilities (and concomitant measures) that we once had. (Bat Segundo interview, 56 minutes)

sloukacloseMark Slouka, Brewster: I’m going to confess that when I first read Mark Slouka’s novel, I was a little suspicious of its narrative swagger. Here was a book told from the story of a teenager named Jon Mosher who seemed to talk just a little too tough. But as I read on, I realized that this was the point. If you’re not part of the panorama that other people insist is the one to watch, then aren’t you going to speak a little louder? Brewster describes life in the more blue-collar area of upstate New York, portraying teenagers who didn’t have the bread to attend Woodstock and who need friendship to make it past the hidden brutality of daily life. Slouka is smart enough to reveal Brewster as a town where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. Jon Mosher, the book’s narrator, portrays Ray Cappicciano is a sleek bad boy who can skim his finger across any metal surface. But as the reader gets to know Ray Cap, we come to understand how not being known reveals hidden torrents of other people’s cruelty. (Bat Segundo interview, 61 minutes)

dukeellingtonTerry Teachout, Duke: Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington is arguably his smoothest and best-researched book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, Duke demonstrates, like the best of arts-related biographies, that it is as much about chronicling the culture that allowed Ellington to flourish as it is about revealing the niceties of this titanic jazz figure. Thanks to Teachout, I spent large chunks of a weekend listening to all sorts of music, tracing, for example, Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” to Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah work on “All Along the Watchtower” after Teachout found a fascinating connection. I was happy to fall down this YouTube rabbit hole and follow the eventful ups and downs of a man who could be found dazzling audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival one minute and appearing with Herman’s Hermits on The Ed Sullivan Show the next. (Bat Segundo interview, 50 minutes)

rosaparksJeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Released at the beginning of the year, Theoharis’s meticulously researched volume of the woman who refused to give up her seat reveals a far more sophisticated and politically active figure than the one in the history books. This is a much needed replacement for such cheap hagiographies as David Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life that reveals everything that happened after the famous day in Montgomery. It exposes the sexism of Black Power, shows how numerous statesmen attempted to co-opt Parks to gain extra footing during their careers, and illustrates the costs and personal hardships of being a revolutionary. (Follow Your Ears #5, “Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress” radio segment at 47:16)

jesmynward3Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: Jesmyn Ward remains one of our most vital chroniclers of American life. This searing yet understated memoir examines why racism continues to flourish and why so many young black men continue to die. It looks into how five needless deaths, including West’s own brother, affected and informed her own life. It’s a deeply affecting book which points out how the deck is stacked against you if you’re a young African-American living in Mississippi. But it also reveals how stories allow us to live and understand and possibly break out of some of these vicious cycles. Maybe if we focus our attention into how other people live, we may just come up with a new way of storytelling that allows us to lob some stones at the incompetent political forces that would prefer to shut down our government than address our deepest needs and our greatest ills. (Bat Segundo interview, 42 minutes)

* I also started another reading project, The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. I am presently reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance and will be writing about the volumes before this in the next few weeks.

Eleanor Catton (The Bat Segundo Show #524)

Eleanor Catton is most recently the author of The Luminaries, the winner of this year’s Booker Prize.

Author: Eleanor Catton

Play

Subjects Discussed: The rumor of John Barth writing Giles Goat-Boy from a chart with ideas taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the tasks of a hero, the benefits of an overly planned structure, astrological charts, the creative possibilities from the pressure of adhering to a pattern, characters and temperaments that align to the Zodiac and the planets, tonal restrictions vs. hard plot restrictions, deliberate choice, the planned 1865 trackback option in The Luminaries, the tension between the chapters and the chapter descriptions, whether description is enough to get inside the heads of characters, fictional characters who bash in heads, deciding what to reveal to the reader, controlling the reader’s intelligence, manipulating the reader’s desire to know, literary writers who flock to genre to attract more readers without respecting it, children as the ideal readers, Catton’s affinity for children’s literature, avoiding self-indulgent prose, style within The Rehearsal, style vs. voice, the proper ways to address social injustice through fiction, fiction as a way of animating questions in an affectionate theater, working with hard antecedents, writing a novel that is open with reader expectations, the many disgraces foisted upon Crosbie Wells’s corpse, Francis Carver’s monstrous nature, character expectations, when the reader doesn’t know how to feel about a character, fretting over structural inevitability, dastardly duos in adventure stories, the menace inside the law as reflected through Shepard, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady as inspiration for Catton, being curious about the seed of corruption within an enemy, the need for a human quality within a villain, the relative nature of happy endings, sympathizing with all characters, why much of the digging in The Luminaries is offstage, Gabriel Read and Gabriel’s Gully, avoiding historical cliches and the “greatest hits,” why reading historical newspapers may be the best form of research for a fiction writer, not respecting the Forrest Gump approach to memorializing past events, how human lives are really shaped, the real role of history upon everyday life, Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, the New York mayoral race, dashing out “damned,” how the novel’s structure allowed Catton to postpone Anna Wetherell’s fate, mid-1860s newspapers as the Internet of their day, learning how 19th century courtroom systems work exclusively from newspapers, the fluidity of money as a way to drive story, concealing gold in women’s clothing as a tax dodge, the influence of 20th century crime writing on The Luminaries, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, being very particular about characters speak, omniscient third person as a way of telling a story falling out of fashion in contemporary literature, the limitations of present tense, Catton’s fascination with adverbs, Henry James’s sentences, how adverbs expose the tension between the objective and the subjective, creative writing workshops and adverbs, Catton’s correspondence with Joan Fleming, confronting cowardice, multicultural characters in the 19th century, The Walking Dead‘s terrible use of African-American characters, Maori culture in New Zealand, New Zealand’s idea of political correctness, the Cantonese immigration during the Otago Gold Rush, the difficulties of mimicking life 150 years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act, comparing the racist histories of the U.S. and New Zealand, the relationship between capitalism and astrology, the lowest form of swindle as the only way to survive, profit vs. luck and associated assumptions about each, the strange notion of the self-made man, the seductive promise of total reinvention, mantras that belong in the civil world, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, how ideas and objects call attention to themselves in the liminal space of fiction, strange loops, Shakespeare and Joyce as the fourth horseman in Hofstadter’s equation, the beauty of closed loop systems, the golden ratio and its associations with beauty, astrology and the circle of fifths, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, philosophical efforts to understand being in love, selfhood tangled up with feelings for others and the golden ratio, the golden spiral within The Luminaries, writing chapters that are half the size as the preceding ones, and being jolted into a creative space by getting painted into a corner.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Catton: The way that it works in The Luminaries is that all of the characters are each representative of one of the figures in the Zodiac. So you’ve got twelve signs of the Zodiac, first of all. Twelve constellations. And then you’ve got seven planets. Put quote marks around planets because that includes the Sun and the Moon. It’s really the bodies that are visible to the naked eye in the sky. And the ways in which these characters — they are characters in the book — move and interact with one another and influence one another is all patterned on actual star charts. So the book begins, for example, the Sun and Capricorn. And the character who is at this point playing the archetype of the Sun is interacting in this part of the book with the character whose temperament conforms loosely to a Capricorn temperament. And so in a way I was restricted by the twelve days on which the book appears. The planetary placements were fixed for those twelve days. And I had to make the plot be interesting and meaningful around those positions.

Correspondent: You had tonal restrictions as opposed to hard plot restrictions.

Catton: Right. Oh yeah, I like that! But on the other hand, of course, I chose those days quite deliberately. And long before I’d even written anything, I’d been studying the movement of the planets across the twelve signs of the Zodiac over the course of a few years. So I kind of knew which year was going to be suitable for narrative purposes.

Correspondent: Okay. So you knew you could backtrack to 1865 if you needed to.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Or did you plan on that in advance?

Catton: I think that that was there from quite early on, that movement back. Yeah. Just because the book’s a murder mystery. It begins just after a potential murder. A possible murder. And as most murder mysteries do, it ends up going forward in order to track back to return the reader to what they really have been wanting to see from the very beginning.

Correspondent: Well, there’s also this fascinating tension near the end of the book where it flits between 1866 and 1865 and back again. And then you have this tension between the chapter descriptions and the chapters themselves. I mean, I was reading the descriptions and I was thinking, “Well, this could be pulled from some astrological newspaper column or something.” But while there are numerous questions that you answer, some such as the identity of a murderer — I’m going to do my best not to give anything away — remain very murky. There’s this sense that no amount of description at this point in the book can be adequate enough to get inside the heads of these characters. So I’m wondering, first of all, do you actually know everything that happened? And, second, did you set any priorities on what you wanted to reveal to the reader and what you didn’t out of curiosity? I mean, how much of this did you map?

Catton: That’s interesting. I’m pretty sure I know everything that happening.

Correspondent: Including the head bashing.

Catton: Yes. I think we probably couldn’t talk about that on air.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Catton: For fear of spoilers.

Correspondent: How did you decide what to reveal to the reader?

Catton: Well, I think that in writing mystery, my experience of it was almost like being the conductor of an orchestra when you’ve got everybody’s stave in front of you on this big master sheet. And I realized in the writing of the book that I needed to control the reader’s intelligence in quite a different way than as usual, I suppose.

Correspondent: Control the reader’s intelligence. How so? I mean, what are we talking here?

Catton: I suppose I’m using the word “intelligence” in the 19th century sense. In terms of just knowledge.

Correspondent: That would be quite a feat. And what do you do besides pulling rabbits out of your hat?

Catton: (laughs) If you imagine these parallel tracks of music going along, on the one hand, you’ve got what the reader knows. On the next line down, you’ve got what the reader wants to know, which you can manipulate by feeding them various teasers and coaxings and so on and so forth. Then you’ve got obviously what you know, but what the reader doesn’t yet know. And that’s shaping your narrative quite a bit as well. Because you’re putting into the narrative various foreshadowings and clues that then will be exciting on a second reading for the reader, but probably not meaningful on a first reading. And last of all, you’ve got the most exciting track, which is all of the things that the reader doesn’t yet know that they want to know, but you’re going to try to make them want to know it.

Correspondent: So how do you know what the reader wants to know? I mean, even if you are the most fluid and variegated reader on this planet, what you think the reader’s going to want to know, what is going to be of interest to you is not necessarily going to be of interest to another reader. Is there any reliable way to zero the needle for the average reader here at all? Do you have a considerable army of readers who can help you pinpoint that particular desire?

Catton: I think that mystery is actually a genre that is pretty fundamental. We all want to know solutions to things. We all want closure. We all want the answer. And what a mystery novel does is open up a whole bunch of mysteries at the very beginning in a way that is seductive, hopefully, if the book’s engaging, and then solves those mysteries in a way that comes maybe a little bit before or a little bit after what the reader is going to be guessing ahead to. So when I talk about what the reader wants to know, it has to do with engaging with the mystery. In The Luminaries, for example, when the book begins, a prostitute in the town is discovered lying drugged in the middle of the….

Correspondent: Anna Wetherell, yeah.

Catton: Right. When she wakes up in jail, she’s arrested for public insentience. And when she wakes up in jail, she discovers that an enormous fortune has been stitched into the…the…

Correspondent: The insides of her gown.

Catton: Into her clothing. Into her gown. And so that’s a mystery. And I’m just trusting as a writer that the reader will think, “Well, that’s a bit curious. That hasn’t happened to me. I wonder what the reason for that is.”

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because there has been this interesting critical tension among literary types where a lot of them have gravitated towards genre in an effort to get readers. And some genre readers get understandably huffy. Because a lot of these authors don’t have the understanding of genre. And yet at the same time, you have interesting books such as Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men and your book that toy with the notion of genre while simultaneously respecting it. And I’m wondering. Is genre for you the best way to contend with what a reader covets in terms of mystery? In terms of how you can even advance the literary form? If you have a massive framework, as you do with the astrological charts, is that enough to transcend genre and produce a completely new form of literature?

Catton: Ah! That’s an interesting thought. Well, I would really like to see a breakdown between the categories of genre and literary fiction. I think that genre fiction is nearly always lively and literary fiction at its worst is not lively at all. I mean, at its best, it’s many things that genre fiction is not or tends not to be. But I take a lot of my inspiration actually from children’s literature. I see every work of literature for children as a mystery. I think that they have much in common with all kinds of genre fiction actually, but engaging with very, very weighty philosophical issues. The problem of growing up. The problem of feeling betrayed in growing up.

Correspondent: Which children are quite receptive to as well.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: In many senses, they are the best readers.

Catton: Right. Well, I agree. And that’s the other thing that I really like about children’s literature. There’s no room for showboating or for self-indulgence on the writer’s part. Because the children will just see it coming a mile away and they won’t read the book.

Correspondent: Aha. So you are trying to get away from anything you see as self-indulgence. That any kind of “self-indulgent” impulse would be in the framework itself, in the structure. That’s where you get it out and you are able to use that to woo the reader while simultaneously avoiding the pretentious card. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think a book should be for the reader’s pleasure and pain, for the reader’s experience. And it’s not a self-aggrandizing exercise. When I read, the most powerful responses I have to works of literature are always to the characters and to the dramas that are happening within the story. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fictional experience where I’ve read a novel and thought, “Gosh, this novelist. I really want to be like this novelist.” (laughs)

Correspondent: So you don’t really see voice, at least from the author’s standpoint, as a qualifier for quality fiction? Or what? How do you respond to a voice-y writer like Will Self or Anthony Burgess or someone who you just know that it’s definitely going to be this book? Or do you feel that style needs to be shaken up with each new project? David Mitchell certainly feels that way.

Catton: I would answer differently to the style question. I’m frequently a little bit befuddled by the distinction between voice and style actually, as it’s frequently made. I don’t know. There’s something about the ventriloquism or the supposed ventriloquism of voice that bothers me in a way. I don’t know. I think there’s probably a lot of voice-driven novels that I can think of that I adore.

Correspondent: Is it parody that you find to be a cheap trick? I mean, how do you transcend that? I mean, you’re also, in this case, mimicking a Victorian novel to a large degree. Even in The Rehearsal, you’re employing stage directions to convey this very strange tension between the two schools. So style is definitely something for you. I don’t think it’s ventriloquism. But I’m wondering how is it new. How do you make it new? How do you make it new enough to satisfy not falling for the ventriloquist racket that you are identifying here?

Catton: Right. Well, I think what originality is is the bringing together of two elements that don’t belong together at the most atomic level. It’s just putting things — it’s making connections that don’t yet exist. Between words, between ideas, between approaches. And so I think that individual styles always come out of some fusion of two or more unlikely elements. Bringing things into a context where they’re not germane.

Correspondent: Conceptual blending. Endless association. I mean, what would you describe as an acceptable minimum form of association for you that would satisfy you? That would say, “Well, okay, I am doing something different. I’m venturing out into the fields and I am going to find a different caribou.”

Catton: (laughs) I don’t really know what I want to do next. It’s really important to me not to repeat myself. And so I’ve kind of sworn…

Correspondent: I’ve counted the number of “the”s you’ve used in this entire conversation. I’m keeping a running tab in my head right now.

Catton: (laughs) I’ve made myself two pacts. One is that I never want to write two books that are similar over the course of my career in the future. And the second thing is that I never want to write a novel about a writer.

Correspondent: (laughs) Or an artist. Or a musician. Or that kind of thing. The stand-in writer.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Well, you know, you came kind of close there with The Rehearsal. Because you do have a number of students who are studying acting and studying music.

Catton: That’s true.

Correspondent: I think of the sax teacher in that. And I think of some of the weird instructions. “You must go ahead and go out into the world and live and have rampant sex with people in order to actually physically understand your body.” And that notion is almost weirdly didactic. Do you think you got a lot of the explicit morality stated by characters out with that novel? And how have you avoided it since?

Catton: Well, I think yes. Because so much of The Rehearsal takes place in a stage environment or a theatrical space, I had no access to their inner lives really. Because I was wanting to play with the idea of performance and what could be seen and assumed and put on. And so what that meant was that the characters would have to speak very declaratively. They had to conjure the reality that they were going to inhabit as actors in the same way as all theater that is not reliant on a realistic looking set always does that and has done that from the very beginning. And so I think, partly for that reason, the book has a very didactic tie-in. And I think the other thing that partly explains that thread in the book is that I was much younger when I wrote it and much more agonistic, I think, in the way that I was thinking. And the injustices of the world, particularly around feminist performance theory and lesbian feminist performance theory, that was really driving my thinking at that time — the injustices were just, I was feeling them and being enraged by them in quite a different way than I feel now. I’ve matured a bit, I suppose. My thinking’s a little more meditative and a little less reactionary.

Correspondent: How do you deal with the dawning sense — especially in our present world as it continues to go interestingly into the toilet, frighteningly so — how do you deal with having to take on, I suppose, a partial responsibility to reflect the social and the political world around us? I mean, we’re trying to make sense of truth and reality through fiction. So if you got a lot of this out with the first one, as I suspect that you did, how does this trick of trying to find an original style by vivid association, multifarious association, allow you to grapple with the world? I mean, is it safe to say right now that you’re going to take this on as an additional responsibility at all? Or you’re going to try to reconcile this? Or is this just not what you think a novelist should do? I’m just curious.

Catton: Well, I think that it’s absolutely vital that a novelist believes what her novel believes. I think that fiction is curiously revealing. I’ve learned this many times over as a creative writing teacher. It’s like reading somebody’s dreams essentially. You’re really getting a window, a very clear window into all sorts of values and prejudices and biases that the writer has. Even if they’re not aware of the fact that they’re displaying them, they’re usually there to be reared. And so I think that you have to be able to stand behind the consciousness of your work and have to have grappled in some meaningful way with the ideas that are driving the work’s project, I suppose. But as to what those questions might be and what those ideas might be, I think that that’s up to anybody. There are mysteries that have defined the human condition since we were humans. And we haven’t figured out the answers to them. There’s no reason why somebody can’t today write a novel which asks the question, “What’s going to happen when we die?” Because nobody knows the answer to that question. And asking that question in the modern world is going to yield quite a different struggle than asking it thirty or forty years ago. I think that it’s really important to be an idealist as a fiction writer and to know what those ideals are and to be able to see how they are transmitted into the work. Not necessarily at all in a didactic way. Quite the opposite of that. But in an animated way, I suppose.

Correspondent: If you are an idealist, if a novel is an assay so to speak, the ideas and the consciousness that you have thought about, that you have put into place, will be strong enough to evolve to a point where it will possibly be able to inhabit some of the concerns that I have just mentioned in my last question and to simultaneously avoid the great curse of didacticism. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah. I think so, if you’re really truly struggling with something. Because you won’t be content with an answer. You’ll only be content with a question.

(Loops for this program provided by ancoral, proecliptix, deciBel, LoonyGoon1, and ebaby8119.)

(Photo: Robert Catto)

The Bat Segundo Show #524: Eleanor Catton (Download MP3)

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