'"Friendship", by Emily Gould,' A Review By Sam George-Allen

 

Emily Gould is a writer, editor, publisher and journalist from New York. She has written for the New York Times, Marie Claire, Slate, Medium, and the New Yorker, and is former co-editor of Gawker.com. She blogs and Tumbls regularly and is a veteran Twitter user. In 2010 she published a book of essays about being ‘young and literary’ in New York, called And The Heart Says Whatever. She has been the subject of dismissive reviews, live-to-air take-downs, and novella-length diatribes. She won’t stop popping up on my newsfeed. I feel like I know everything about Emily Gould.

Like many post-internet writers—including me—Gould is an obsessive self-documenter. She belongs to a generation of digitally-engaged autobiographers, which effectively means all her experiences are available online. Idle googling reveals not just Gould’s own take on her life, but her life through the lenses of her friends, enemies and ex-lovers, all of whom are as plugged in as she is, all creating a spectre of Emily Gould: writer, that makes it really hard to read her new novel, Friendship, without feeling her looming in the background.

Loom as she might, I do think that separating an author and their work is the responsibility of the reader, however googlable that author may be. It remains our job as engaged consumers to realise and remind ourselves that a protagonist is not necessarily an author’s avatar, despite what similarities we might pick up on thanks to their Tumblr. And yet—when a writer like Gould, who has chosen to make so much of her life public, writes a novel with such unavoidable parallels to that public life-documentation, it becomes increasingly difficult to tease the two apart.

Set in New York, Friendship is about the platonic relationship between Bev Tunney, a writer and transplant from the Bible belt, and Amy Schein, a gossip editor for “modern Jewish” website Yidster. They are best friends, both approaching thirty. Amy is spoilt, neurotic, an East Coast princess with a professional recklessness that is beginning to cause tangible problems; Bev is a writer struggling to sustain herself with humiliating temp jobs, who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. The novel charts their attempts to navigate these crises while still remaining friends, with the help of an older woman, Sally, who’s been trying to conceive a child of her own.

While her prose can be intimate to the point of breeding contempt—“I”-heavy, overshare-y, “raw”—it can also work beautifully.

Aside from the pregnancy, Friendship bears strong similarities to Emily Gould’s life post-2008, similarities that are impossible to ignore thanks to the above-mentioned looming. Amy and Bev meet at a publishing company – Gould worked for Hyperion before taking a job as co-editor at Gawker. Amy is dealing with the aftermath of a workplace bungle of disastrous proportions – Gould was infamously confronted by Jimmy Kimmel on live TV in 2008, an interview in which he accused her work at Gawker of, among other things, encouraging the stalking of celebrities, and which led to hate-mail, panic attacks, and her eventual resignation. Amy’s boyfriend Sam is an Eastern European artist – Gould’s partner Keith Gessen is a Russian writer. Amy’s cat is named Waffles – Gould’s cat was called Raffles.

All of this serves to tinge the reading of Friendship with the distinct sadness of what might have been. Gould’s writing is representative of those who write on the internet, of writers who have grown up documenting themselves on blog after blog after blog. While her prose can be intimate to the point of breeding contempt—“I”-heavy, overshare-y, “raw”—it can also work beautifully, as in the painful honesty of her writing about her failures here:

I’m not sure what the point of admitting all this might be, because I know that anyone who experiences a career peak in his mid-twenties will likely make the same mistakes I did, and it’s not even clear to me that they were all mistakes, unless writing a book is always a mistake, which in some sense it must be.

The tragedy of this book is that this intimacy, this to-the-bone, personal space-invading, borderline-claustrophobic internal monologue interiority, doesn’t translate to fiction and third person, both of which Friendship attempts. Sentences like, “She pointed at the manuscript he was holding, desperate to redirect the conversation and to remind him (and herself) that he’d left the literary agency for a good reason” lose their clunkiness and breathe once they become personal statements. Gould could have written “I was desperate to redirect the conversation,” and I would have believed and sympathised with her – but she didn’t, so I scoffed and fought the urge to put the book down for good. (The above excerpted sentence is on page two.)

Without the potential for that first-person spark of recognition, especially the intimate-I of Gould’s essays (music writer David Greenwald said of Gould’s Medium piece on going broke: “It felt so familiar that I read it as an alternate history of myself”), Friendship is boring. I couldn’t bring myself to care about these characters, and yet their ordinariness and garden-variety flaws, so disappointing in their fictional form, would have been almost forgivable in a non-fiction narrator (almost; the shift into non-fiction is not enough to entirely save them). Additionally, Gould’s novel is predictable—read just the blurb and the first two chapters and the plot becomes upsettingly obvious—and, at a sentence level, the writing is not very inventive, and sometimes just poor. I wanted to cross out so many explanations and justifications, my inner editor bristling with basic urges to shout: “Show, don’t tell!” Bev, knowing Amy is exhausted and alone, comes to Amy’s brand-new apartment, bearing with sushi and the kind of cigarettes Amy likes, and we’re reminded that “the Camels were another kind gesture on her part.” Later, as Amy natters and Bev listens, Gould tells us “this was how their friendship had always been,” and it’s vaguely insulting that an author of Gould’s writerly abilities has tried so little to fully illustrate their novel’s titular premise.

I saw in my unwritten book the same flaws I see in Gould’s novel: a brittle falseness that comes with trying to turn real people and real experiences into not-inessential fiction.

Friendship’s blandness irritates me on another level as well, and it has to do with the fact that Gould and I are similar in many ways. Although I’ve never publicly self-anthologised, I write personal essay and memoir almost exclusively. My subject matter is, more often than not, myself and my relationships, including my female friendships. Friendship between women is a literary topic about which I care deeply, and something that needs to be the subject of more literature. Some time ago I had grand plans for a work of fiction: like Friendship, it would be about women’s platonic love for one another. Like Friendship, it would be heavily based on the author’s own life. I abandoned it because I saw in it the same flaws I see in Gould’s novel: a brittle falseness that comes with trying to turn real people and real experiences into not-inessential fiction. I was too close to my girlfriends to effectively fictionalise them, and I couldn’t distil the messiness of life in my early twenties into a plot.

It bothers me that Gould fails, especially in an area where I want somebody to gloriously succeed: in realistically telling the story of a friendship between women, one that includes all its nuance and contradictions. Instead, I recognised nothing of myself in the friendship between Amy and Bev. Bev, the “writer”, never talks to Amy about anything she’s written, nor does she demonstrate any ambition aside from a tacked-on re-application for grad school. Amy is so one-dimensionally selfish and awful that it’s impossible to believe – when Bev gets pregnant, Amy mocks her, chastises her for not having an abortion, suggests she “sell” her baby, then throws a tantrum when Bev finds steady work but is unable to lend her money. These women are unrealised; they are caricatures. Taken with the knowledge of Friendship’s autobiographical nature and Gould’s writing history, they read as though Gould has split herself into her two defining aspects: Amy, the jealous and ungrateful product of privilege, and Bev, her hardworking and thoughtful foil. It’s hard to see what Amy and Bev see in each other, because it’s hard to make those two selves be friends with one another. If these selves are warring inside Gould, which seems to be the case, would they really be friends in a fictional world?

If Amy and Bev are warring inside Gould, which seems to be the case, would they really be friends in a fictional world?

Once again, the spectre of Emily Gould reappears, that entity that’s been casting its shadow over the novel. It’s there in the blurb quotes: Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, says that Gould “recreates with wit and insight the New York I know: a place of fame and money that’s not yours, where friends become family, and life’s big questions stay unanswered for a long time.” Tao Lin, doyen of alt-lit and author of many books, including Taipei, calls the book “a moving, focused, highly readable, very funny novel. Intimate and insightful.” But Friendship isn’t insightful or witty! However, maybe Gould herself is. The rest of her writing, all that I could find online, I’ve consumed in tandem with Friendship with the kind of late-night guilty frenzy that usually accompanies chocolate binges. This writing is sometimes intimate and insightful – often startlingly so.

Gould has made plenty of enemies during her writing career, thanks to her work commissioning and writing gossip at Gawker, thanks to her perceived narcissism and self-promotion, thanks to any number of vaguely bitter and contemptuous claims by dudes who just don’t like her. She was famously the subject of an 11,000 word diatribe by a guy called Edward Champion that went semi-viral because of its venom and thinly-veiled misogyny. But it seems that the friendships that Gould maintains (both Harbach and Lin have also appeared on her cooking YouTube web series ‘Cooking The Books’, along with fellow cover-quoter Jami Attenberg) are doing her more good than her deriders are doing her bad. When the bulk of your written output is so prominent, when entire relationships of yours are publicly documented in your own words and available for your audience to read at their leisure, when the majority of your work is good enough to supply you with steady income and the admiration of your peers, then maybe your debut novel doesn’t have to do what it says on the box. Maybe it’s enough that your friends think you’re good enough to put their name to your work. Maybe that’s really what Friendship is all about.

Sam George-Allen is a Brisbane writer, musician, and co-founding editor of online literary magazine Scum.